Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

We played a flute for you, you did not dance. We sang a dirge, you did not mourn.


It can be easier to learn, to retain information in cadence. Rhythms offer repetition. A kind of re-membering, reattaching significance to each other and to ourselves. Gilgamesh, Iliad, Odyssey, Job, Aeneid, Metamorphoses. These are all poems, all ancient stories. These are also all religious poems. Gods are everywhere. And they interact with humans. There is a transcendence, sometimes a seemingly too easy transcendence.

And there are the Psalms and Lamentations, where there is no transcendence, not like the older poems, where God and Man crossed paths, where Iliad‘s Diomedes strikes Aphrodite and cuts her arm. Here there is a sadness not unlike Job, but God does not say, “Who is this?” Lamentations is the limits of transcendence, when everything becomes human, all too human. There is no resolution, but a hope for resolution. One day. A hope for hope. One day. One day.

Poems, psalms, songs, rhythm is repetition. Consider Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus: Sisyphus pushes his rock up his hill over and over and over. There is repetition. It take only one time for there to be repetition. And Camus writes that instead choosing suicide, we must “get into our rock” as the Nietzschean scholar, Robert Solomon, once said. We must get into the nooks and crannies and understand ourselves in our rock. We must engage Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence. Sometimes, we do this in music. The hope is to get out of it. But with music, we use repetition as a course, as a groove.

Musical and poetic expression is often a result of theology; the construction of expression of the reflection upon the encounter of the divine. But it’s reversed in bleak theology. Music and its lyrics, (or more broadly, the arts), serves as a theological aesthetic for bleak theology. A part of bleak theology is elicited from the encounter with the arts and a particular kind of arts, too.

Theological aesthetics provides a translation of the social and existential locus and detachment from society and self. This way, the post-punk movement, in its reaction to the cultural hegemony, offers a framework and aesthetic for the possibility of the contemplation of the encounter with the Other, as well as the reflection upon the nature of the self, which I would say is best exemplified in Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety and The Sickness Unto Death.

What to do about all of this? Jesus compares his generation to “children in the marketplace calling to one another.” No one is satisfied. And that is part of post-punk. There is a deep disatisfaction with everything. Nothing is enough, but nothing could ever be enough. “Whatever I do is never enough,” laments Robert Smith in The Cure’s song, “Never Enough”.

Post-punk is the realization that the creative destruction and upheaval of punk leaves nothing. Post-punk realizes that the offerings of punk are untenable. They are not lies. They’re just idealisms. Post-punk has lost its faith in idealisms. And God as an ideal, Platonic or otherwise is untenable. But there is still desire. The question is the desire for what. And we ruminated on this, we repeat, and repetition causes a kind of anxiety, as does recollection. In Repetition, Kierkegaard writes,

“Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward. Repetition, therefore, if it is possible, makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy – assuming, of course, that he gives himself time to live and does not promptly at birth find an excuse to sneak out of life again, for example, that he has forgotten something.”

Recollection, re-memberance, is trauma. Repetition, routine, is comfort. But we are unsatisfied. Neither dirge nor song will satisfy us. We call to each other in the marketplace. This is our generation. We don’t know what we want. And yet we want both. Yet, both fail to satisfy. How shall we then live? This is our dialectic, our paradox: the possibility of song.

Post-punk finds the salve of happiness in the repetition upon trauma’s recollection. This is not unlike the Romantic poets like Keats, Byron, and Shelley, who inspire The Smiths‘ Morrissey. In both movements there are the reaction and reflection upon the industrialization and post-industrialization of the day. The Romantics appealed to the Spirit and sublime. We would like to do that, too, but we’re suspicious. We are wary skeptics. We hope for hope. We desire.

Punk offered so much, a great resistance against the powers that be, and never looked back. Post-punk looks back at what pre-punk and punk has and has not accomplished, sees what it’s lost, and laments over and over. It is, by its own nature, uncomfortable with itself. And bleak theology recollects Christendom and mourns. Christendom, by its intrinsic nature, fails. And bleak theology knows this, re-members its human, hegemonic institution that birthed it. It does not let Christendom escape its past by allowing it to forget it. It holds it to account. The problem is that bleak theology knows that any standard to which it holds is subjective through the experiences of the individual or socio-cultural context of the community. Bleak theology understands that justice is elusive, making an indictment of Christendom seemingly impossible. And so everything slips through our fingers. The cathedral is charred and we stand in ash. We leave our footprints in the sooty breath of burnt church.

And aesthetics is a method of appropriation of experience mediated through artful encounter. Theological aesthetics adds the divine to all of this. Theological aesthetics is intrinsic to bleak theology. It is our song and dirge. We will dance and mourn, often at the same time. Bleak theology is not a mannerism or a theological style, but it has such an mournful aesthetic component that can make it appear more posturing than anything else. But if this is mere posturing, then what is The Book of Lamentations but a posture of a people recollecting the trauma of exile and repeating their relationship with God to serve as a salve about a God that they hope will take care of them in light and in spite of everything. This is where bleak theology finds its identity: in lamentation. And lamentation requires both recollection and repetition. Bleak theology just has better songs we can dance to. And we can dance. Dance, dance, dance to the radio.


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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.


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