Kurt Cobain (centre) with Nirvana band members Krist Novoselic (left) and Dave Grohl (right) in a fabulously 90's-styled photograph
Last week was the 20th anniversary of Nirvana‘s Nevermind album, an album (and a time) that had a profound effect on my generation and culture – a middle-class Generation Xer who was just entering high school when the whole ‘grunge’ music scene broke in America. This little write-up is my way of commemorating the album.
I watched a documentary on the making of the Nevermind album with my dad on Saturday and walked away with a buzz of thoughts in my head. The question of what made Kurt Cobain (the lead singer of Nirvana) so influential and moving was on the mind. I then delved on the thought of how people called Cobain ‘messianic’ in a way and began to wonder about this phrase and think of how Jesus and Cobain could possibly be similar.
The crunch is an interesting one. The thing about Cobain is that he was aregular guy getting on with the struggles common to his generation and he sang about these. That was the instant connection many had with him. In a world that was, prior to the grunge revolution, dominated by glam, fashion, corporate perfectionism, Christian religious conservatism, and a myriad of other voices telling us how to live, act, and be; a lone voice singing about how things really were and how we really felt – alienated, different, misunderstood – was a welcome change. Even though many times no one really understood what he was singing about (he would regularly say that people got it wrong) there was some understanding that he was singing about something you knew all too well.
Cobain’s struggles and the struggles of my generation, in retrospect, were actually not that unique. Many people trumped the whole thing up to teen angst, but the reality is those feelings of alienation and frustration with this world are not unique to teens. As adults we might have learned to handle those things in various areas in various ways, or we might have just given up and gone with it, or learned to hide our feelings better etc. but the simple truth is that most common people, like me (and probably you reading this) are still, quite truly, powerless in this world and frustrated with its voices and the pressure it puts on us to be what it wants us to be.
Cobain might have been a kind of messianic figure in that he resonated with the common person (and this is an interesting point which I’ll delve into below) but the problem is that I think he both didn’t really know his enemies – he was almost boxing the air, rebelling against a system but not knowing exactly how to do that – and he provided no actual salvation out of the situation.
Now we look at Jesus and we see some connections here. Jesus was also a revolutionary, a rebel, but he wasn’t boxing the air. He knew who the enemies of mankind actually were, and these are precisely the things he rebelled against.
When you look at Cobain’s music you see these enemies pop up but he doesn’t know how to deal with them and in many ways he actually just accepts that he’ll need to live with some of his demons – indeed, just do what those demons tell him to do. I’m using the word ‘demons’ first metaphorically but I’m going to come at it a different angle later.
One of the three enemies we see Jesus rebel against is the system of the world. And this is precisely where, I think, many Christians have misunderstood and have actually lost their ability to be relevant. Cobain was relevant because he rebelled against an oppressive society (that’s what the Bible refers to when it talks about ‘the world’). Jesus was relevant because he did as well.
In the society of Jesus there was the religious society which hated him, because he rebelled against their oppression. Religious society was intrinsically linked to politics and Jesus rebelled against this whole idea as well. Now, in our days, we see this all too often (especially in America) – religious ideas are tied into political ideas and vice versa. The result is an oppressive system that tells you how you ought to look, what you should eat, how you should talk, what kind of music you should listen to, who you should vote for, what you should vote for, and so on. It tries to control every area of your life – your private and your public – and sets itself up to be God.
God is very interested in every area of our lives but not in the same way. The life of Jesus shows how God is interested – he wants to bring healing, restoration, joy and life into every area of our lives. Rather than tell us what to wear, he wants us to be ourselves. Jesus is not that concerned over who you vote for, but there is a reality that the Kingdom of God is about seeing society transformed from an oppressive society to a free society. A society where my freedoms actually don’t encroach on yours, either. (This requires more explanation and I don’t have the space.)
Jesus also understood the powerlessness of the ordinary man, mainly because he lived like an ordinary person. He wasn’t even some rich king who give up his goods to live amongst the ‘common people’ but was a common person from birth – the son of a carpenter, living in dusty desert towns.
In those days, much like these, if you didn’t have a lot of money, weren’t of noble background, or were in the wrong place at the wrong time you were powerless. Consider today, how common people like you and I are powerless in the face of corporations, governments, banks, and even religious institutions. Cobain often sang of this powerlessness as a young man starts realising that, quite honestly, all the dreams of his childhood are crushed by real living. It’s not because real life sucks, it’s because the system of the world sucks life out of you, oppresses you, ensures you’re powerless and that all the money and power goes into the hands of the elite which we must serve with our hearts and lives.
I realise this might be a melodramatic picture but it’s not too far away from my reality as a middle-class white guy living in South Africa. If I’m not careful the banks, as an example, will own me for the rest of my life. If I don’t know how to discern religion from what the Bible calls ‘true’ religion, I will be driven by a religious organisation that wants to control my life. If I don’t know how to separate my political opinions correctly, politics will dictate to me for the rest of my life. If I don’t keep my wits about me, corporations will tell me what to buy and why I’m not a success if I don’t buy their car, product etc. and consumerism will start consuming me. The system of the world oppresses us on every corner.
If Christians, like me, want to be relevant we better know how to relate to the common person. In many ways, I think God doesn’t take us out of tough situations sometimes so that we know how to relate to the common person. If I didn’t experience the oppression of the world in my own life in some way, then I would never understand just how the world oppresses the common person and I would be irrelevant to the common person. Rebels are relevant because they’re really the common person who understands the common struggle. Jesus is relevant today because he not only knew the struggle, he experienced it himself – eventually experiencing the ultimate injustice as the systems of the world put him onto a cross when he was the least deserving of such a death.
There are two other enemies which haunted Cobain and which Jesus understood and looked to defeat through his life, death and (yes) resurrection. These other two are sin and Satan. These two are difficult for people who hold different beliefs to me to really take seriously (indeed, sometimes I struggle to as well because of our culture) but they’re worth bringing up.
We see Cobain struggles with his own sins regularly – it seems to me they troubled him and he was frustrated because the world and not even religious institutions had any grace. This is true – there is no grace in the world system. If you’re not on the top of the game (and even if you are) you are vulnerable and, if you make one mistake, you can pay with it for the rest of your life (think of debt and so on). Religious systems are the same in their own way. It’s unfortunate that, from a spiritual perspective, Cobain turned towards more religion (Buddhism) as an answer. Buddhism doesn’t really have any grace but, as far as I’m concerned, ties you into an oppressive system of karma that insists you will pay, if not in this life, in the next for everything you’ve done wrong and the only way of changing that is to do right. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to indicate just how much you need to do right before you’ve satisfied Karma – and besides, even sometimes we do the right thing and people still get hurt.
Jesus attacked the enemy of sin and how our sins haunt us through grace. That’s what his death is all about – he paid the price of sin so that we don’t need to. God has come to heal, not condemn. He gives us His spirit if we trust in Him so we can change and sin can rule over us less and less (sometimes even instantly with certain sins) but we now sit under a system of grace, not oppression, of acceptance not performance. Again, this can be explored in many books but I think the basic point here is made clear.
The last one, Satan – the spiritual evil of this world that tempts, deceives, and so on. People believe that they’re doing the right thing by oppressing others because they’re deceived into thinking that. People think their sins can save them because they’ve been deceived into thinking so.
I don’t believe there’s a little red man sitting on our shoulders telling us what to do, but I do believe that demonic oppression is very real and we see Jesus dealt with that thing over and again in people’s lives and, ultimately, by defeating Satan on the cross and being raised up to life on the third day. Satan’s deception into bringing us all into sin has brought death into this world. Jesus conquered death and promises all those who believe in Him that they will too.
The reality is while there isn’t a little red man sitting on our shoulder there is certainly a world system that truly looks like it’s influenced by some sort of spiritual evil. You don’t look at the Nazi ideology and think that humans came up with it all themselves. There’s always this underlying Madness, this strange Insanity, a dark spiritual evil that looks to influence in various ways.
I realise this may come across to some as superstitious but it requires some thought and also a clearing away of cartoonic ideas of a man with a forked tail and a pitchfork. Jesus knew that his enemy was not people but the spiritual evil influencing those people and that’s precisely what he targeted. Cobain, unfortunately, fell into the trappings of such spiritual evils and as a result couldn’t love himself, with the end result seeing him dead on the 8th of April 1994. (And, then, unfortunately pop and rubbish music went back to being the mainstream. Man, I miss those days in music!)
Jesus has defeated this spiritual evil and will one day bring His final justice on it by throwing Satan and his demons into the place reserved for them (not reserved for humans) – the lake of fire. I’m not keen to get into a discussion about hell here but if you struggle with God as a judge, read the Gospels and see that Jesus’ heart is not to judge mankind but to judge Satan and his demons, sin and the oppressive systems of this world. (Unfortunately, though, some humans have decided that Satan, the world and sin are all pretty good ideas, and they will be judged appropriately.)
Cobain was a legend in his own way and it’s a huge pity that his life was ended by the very enemies he tried to rebel against, but this is the way it goes when you don’t fight with the right weapons. I don’t believe we can rebel against the unholy trinity of the world, sin and Satan without the power of God – which God gives us through his Holy Spirit when we decide to put our trust in Him and not in ourselves or the unholy trinity. Cobain is an example of how we are unable to save ourselves.
I don’t mean to set up the sad death of someone as some sort of moral example, trivialising the sadness of his death, but in a way it is also honouring to him (I believe) to learn from his life.
Nirvana were never a technically good band in terms of music but I have to say that I miss that whole time of music when the scene wasn’t dominated by fashion and glam and image and, frankly, stupidity like we have to be subjected to today with Lady Gaga and the like. The record industry did, admittedly, make a fashion out of non-fashion (as true Capitalists would) and make a trend out of rebellion against the trends, but heck it was still a lot more real than Lady Gaga who thinks that being bisexual makes you relevant. I don’t think it does. (Yes, I know Cobain once said he might be bisexual too, but anyway.) It just means you’re a part of this oppressive system that hates us. It doesn’t make you a rebel it makes you a conformer.
I, for one, refuse to conform to any of it. That’s why I follow Jesus.