by John Ellis
My pastor, while quoting a Nirvana lyric during a sermon, accidentally got the number of years that have passed since the song’s release wrong, and then looked at me in way that even my non-Nirvana fan wife picked up on. After the service, he made a beeline to me – well, as much of a beeline to the back row a pastor can make through a sanctuary filled with people wanting to shake his hand – and confessed his mistake to me – a mistake I would’ve completely missed if he hadn’t ratted himself out, by the way. I relate that anecdote for two reasons: One, many of the people who know me assume I’m a bigger Nirvana fan than I am. Two, and more importantly, my ecclesiastical context is vastly different than that of my childhood when anti-rock music messages were delivered with much vim and vigor on a regular basis. The only time song lyrics were quoted from the pulpits of my youth, the preacher was most likely uncovering the singer’s secret prayer to Satan. But first, Nirvana.
Don’t misunderstand, I am a Nirvana fan, but if you ask me to rank the greatest grunge bands of the late 80s and early 90s, I think I’d rank a half a dozen or so bands above them. While I don’t know if they would occupy the top spot of the “greatest,” my favorite grunge band was and remains Soundgarden. And while my Soundgarden fandom may seem like somewhat of a non sequitur, it’s not. Today, while I was reading, Amazon music played “Rusty Cage,” the third single off Badmotorfinger, the band’s first legitimate hit album. While initially released in March 1992, my sophomore year of high school, I don’t remember hearing “Rusty Cage” until my senior year in 1994. But when I did finally hear it, it felt prophetic in a way it shouldn’t have thanks to the anti-rock preachers and authority figures of my desperately-trying-to-be-misspent youth.
I’m sure many of the anti-rock music preachers and authority figures from my youth were quite genuine in their belief that rock music was the devil’s music, but they had no idea what they were doing (not to mention the overt racism in the anti-rock music movement – unpacking that deserves its own article). My teenaged response to “Rusty Cage” is evidence of their inaptitude.
The Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) movement is a weird beast. It definitely was when I was trapped in it. Rules had rules. If you think dispensationalist, pretrib eschatology charts are complex and confusing (and they are), you should try to navigate the web of rules I grew up under. Movies can only be rated G, unless it stars John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart, and can only be watched inside a house or youth group room that is properly chaperoned. Certain derivative slang is okay, like “shucks” but not “heck.” It’s okay to wear a t-shirt with printing, but only if it’s *this* type of printing in *this* situation. And it can only be untucked during these moments and if *this* eventuality has or is currently happening. Girls had it worse in the dress code department. Now that I think about it, girls had (have) it much worse across the board in the IFB movement.
Rock music, though, was the key to all vice and sin. It feeds the flesh, they believed, causing listeners to lust. First came Air Supply, then came teenage sex. Not to mention, they loved to hammer home, the music’s connection to the occult and Satanism. I can’t tell you how many times I rewound and then replayed the opening and closing of Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” trying to hear if the anti-rock music preacher was right that the sinister sounding voice was saying “Jesus Christ, go to hell.” Spoiler: it’s not (which, when I think about it now, would be an odd, even pointless, thing for Def Leppard to say – and hide – in a song about unrequited love, unless, and I sure hope this doesn’t end up in some anti-rock sermon, you argue that the song is about how Jesus rejected your sinner’s prayer). Mercifully, by the time I owned Led Zepelin on vinyl, I was old enough and smart enough to not ruin the records by playing them backwards in the hopes of hearing the secret Satanic messages. In truth, and this is no hyperbole, in the minds of the IFB authority figures of my youth, listening to rock music was seen as the gateway drug to all the other serious sins and vices the world offered us. Because of this, keeping us away from rock music was paramount.
In turn, this created a hysteria around the largely forgettable (and often laughably silly) genre that gave cartoon bands like Kiss far more gravitas than Gene Simmons and company ever deserved. This gravitas flowed throughout rock music and all its subgenres. If something is made the “holy grail” of sin, that something becomes far more attractive and far more impactful than it should be. Ergo, my “earth shattering” response to “Rusty Cage.”
The song is pretty straightforward; it’s about being released from some sort of metaphorical prison. In truth, the writing of it was even more basic and mundane. Chris Cornell began penning the lyrics while stuck in a cramped van during a tour of Europe. He finished the song after they returned to Seattle, the band recorded it, and as already mentioned, it became the third single off their first hit album. And it hit my “caged” ears about two years after it was released.
Growing up in the IFB world, I longed for agency. Almost everything (and “almost” is not hyperbole) was decided for me: my clothes, my beliefs, and my future dreams and goals. I was the namesake of a man who died on the missionary field, my uncle. Uncle Johnny. For the first nine years of my life, I was called Johnny. I grew to hate it. Not the name so much, but the burden that came with being Uncle Johnny’s namesake. I wanted my own name because I wanted my own life. I didn’t want to be Uncle Johnny and I sure didn’t want to be a missionary, which I was supposed to be. So, in 1984, after my family moved to the Pensacola area, my dad’s hometown, I saw an opportunity. I asked my parents if they would tell the new school that my name was John. They did, and since 1984, everyone who has met me has known me as John. That didn’t really fix the problem, though.
By 1994, as my atheism was beginning to blossom, I openly chafed at the IFB culture I was forced to exist in. To be clear, it wasn’t merely rules and standards that I resented. All kids, because all of us are born sinners/rebels, resist being told what to do. However, the IFB movement doesn’t allow for any agency. It’s a prison, a cage. It was against the rules to not be a hypocrite. Let that sink in.
I didn’t want to be a hypocrite because I didn’t want to be a fundamentalist Christian (or any kind of Christian, for that matter), and so I was willing to violate the rule against not being a hypocrite. Rock music, as articulated by Soundgarden in “Rusty Cage,” offered a key, so to speak, out of the prison of the IFB movement. Considering that my authority figures had spent my entire life casting rock music as the antithesis of the IFB movement, my overzealous embrace of the genre should surprise no one. I’ve told this story before, so I won’t go into detail, but my desired “agency” was immediately coopted by the other (and largely wrong) side of the story fed me by anti-rock music preachers. I became the cartoon version of a non-Christian that I had been sold as reality.
I have a point in all this, and it’s about parenting. Rules and standards are good and right; I’m not claiming otherwise. Protecting our children from their undeveloped prefrontal cortex is part of our job, for sure. But in doing so, we need to also guard and protect their agency. We need to make sure that we teach them that they ultimately answer to God and not to mom, dad, youth pastor, or Christian school teacher. Engaging with them about the music, movies, books, tic tocks, etc. is important, and sometimes lines do need to be drawn and rules set. But in doing so, we need to do so honestly while allowing them to search and discover the world. Curiosity is one of God’s greatest gifts, and systems of rules that stifle curiosity (and imagination) is damaging to children. Our kids shouldn’t enter adulthood as clones of us. Our prayer should be that they enter adulthood growing in a Christlikeness that is expressed in their own personality and not ours.
Ultimately, our job isn’t as gardener of the soil of their heart. We’re not tasked with weeding the soil so that the seed isn’t choked out – which is what my IFB authority figures viewed as their job, with rock music being one of the most destructive of weeds. Our job is to plant the seed. The Holy Spirit’s job is to bring forth fruit. In doing so, we also need to communicate to our kids that they are not defined in our eyes by the music they like or the movies they watch.
Not all rock music is good. My word, it doesn’t take an IFB preacher to see that much of Motley Crue’s catalog and Warrant’s “She’s My Cherry Pie” are cartoonishly wicked (misogynistic and exploitative, to be specific). The problem created by IFB anti-rock preachers is that the wickedness found in certain songs was ironed out across the genre to the point where if you like a song like “Rusty Cage” you are automatically assigned the the exact same vile worldview of Vince Neil glorifying and objectifying strippers in “Girls, Girls, Girls.” You are not allowed any agency. You are not allowed to say, “this song speaks to me because it reminds me of my own experiences” while also saying “this other song repulses me because it denigrates women.” Also problematic, that ironed out, top-down, heavy-handed approach to rules stifles the ability to have legitimate and needed conversations about songs like “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Because what it does, this approach to rules, is that it creates a linguistic setting that almost forces the individual to whom “Rusty Cage” speaks to adopt “Girls, Girls, Girls” as part of the package.
When setting rules and expectations for our children, we need to do our best to ensure that we’re not establishing parameters for acceptance that deny agency, distort truth in the effort to make sure the “car doesn’t get too near the cliff’s edge,” and iron out the world in such a way that removes any need for prayerful discernment. Christianity is not a cage. Christ brings freedom. Let’s prayerfully do our best to make sure the Christianity we teach our kids reflects Jesus’ willingness to engage questions, doubts, and curiosities. The ways in which my IFB authority figures slammed the door completely shut on rock music communicated to me (and many of my friends) that Jesus didn’t want me and that I didn’t want him, and that there was a community outside the walls of the IFB that understood me and wanted me just as I am. Except, truth is truth, no matter if it’s accompanied by electric guitars and heavy drums. And all truth is an entrance point to talking about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Oh, how I wish that my authority figures would’ve been willing to listen to “Rusty Cage” without fear and then use the song as a spring board to a conversation about the freedom found in Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria
 I’m going to foolishly try to create this ranking with very minimal thought, and I’m going to work backwards: 7. Mudhoney 6. Pavement 5. Melvins 4. Temple of the Dog 3. Soundgarden 2. Alice in Chains 1. Dinosaur Jr … okay, I can’t lie. Some of this list is me being a contrarian so I can annoy Nirvana fans. I’m kind of cheating with Dinosaur Jr (and Temple of the Dog) and I think I’d have a hard time arguing that Mudhoney was a better band than Nirvana; I don’t know if I could even convince myself. And Green River fans would have a harder time making that argument, just to be clear. Also, now that we’re on the topic, I like Screaming Trees more than I like Nirvana, but I wouldn’t rank them higher than Nirvana on a “greatest” list. And Mother Love Bone fans? Don’t get me started. The fans who argue for Mother Love Bone were likely big Michael Bolton fans in high school and have now gone too far the other way in their attempts to prove their “coolness.” Mother Love Bone was more hair metal than grunge. There, I said it. And all you Pixie and Sonic Youth fans can continue to turn your noses up at the rest of us who entered high school after you did, because you’re not necessarily wrong.
 My dad said “shucks” as an expletive all the time, but his leather belt would’ve retattooed my butt if I had ever used “heck” in his presence.
 Much of this is steeped in racism, but unpacking that deserves its own article.
 A famous illustration by IFB preachers is of a rich person hiring a new chauffeur. Eventually, the guy who gets hired is the one who drove as far away from the edge as he could and not the ones who wanted to prove that they could safely drive close to the edge. Slippery slope fallacy, anyone?