First time feature filmmaker Justin Ludwig is no stranger to punk rock. The front man for Regina based group Kleins96 has been a part of the city’s scene for quite some time now. He is, however, somewhat of a stranger to religion.
Although raised somewhat Catholic by his family, Ludwig went on to become a devout atheist who was appalled by the concept of so-called Christian hardcore bands reappropriating his beloved musical genre to spread the gospel. Even going as far at one point to pen a song titled “Fuck Christian Hardcore,” it was safe to say that Ludwig wasn’t that much of a fan.
Yet Ludwig had a desire to further a dialogue and learn more about why this seemingly contradictory sub-genre existed. With the film ChristCORE (opening this weekend at The Royal in Toronto with Ludwig performing Q&As for several screenings), he followed two bands in particular – Dallas based thrashers Messengers and Salt Lake City/Redwood, CA hardcore outfit Sleeping Giants – and watched the similarities and differences between this strange style of faith based preaching (still seen as Satanic by some religious purists) and he was shocked to see that their beliefs actually matched up on a lot of issues. He’s still clearly not a convert, but it’s a film about fostering understanding and clearing up misconceptions on both sides of the issue.
Dork Shelf chatted with Ludwig about the constantly changing punk scene and where Christian based music enters into the equation, his shock at the similarities and differences between the bands he chronicled, the mainstream crossover success of some bands, and a tip on how to run Chik-Fil-A for all they’re worth.
Dork Shelf: The punk rock scene has been sort of fractured for decades now, with a lot of it lapsing over into pop, metal, and other various genres. How do you think that Christian hardcore sort of came about?
Justin Ludwig: I think it came about largely in response to the scene that already existed. Early bands were led by people that had to reconcile the fact that they loved hardcore but they also loved Jesus, in the same way bands do now. In the 90’s, as the Christian media market really took off it was common to see the “Christian version of ___“ tacked onto CD’s, which created a template that allowed bands of all different genres to release music and find a market. I’m sure there’s some bands that got into heavy Christian music to take advantage of the market, but I think most of the pioneering bands had the same brazen sense of purpose as early straight-edge bands, vegan bands, Krishna-core bands, etc. Punk and hardcore came into their lives and they identified with it, so it only made sense to devote that sound to their overarching faith in Jesus.
DS: You talk about how you felt when you immediately heard about Christian hardcore and the reaction you had to it as an atheist. Do you have a similar reaction as a punk fan to other various subgenres like emo and metalcore, or was there always a clear distinction between these separate entities or was there something that made the Christian offshoots of these subgenres worse than what they already were?
JL: I think my disdain for other “punk” genres is a matter of taste and old-punk-guy elitism, but perhaps not as inflammatory as my initial reaction to Christian hardcore because these other bands don’t necessarily represent the antithesis of my value system. I guess it would have been similar when I first saw punk bands that I thought were driven my money, because that again was in contrast to what I believed the music itself stood for. My not liking metalcore is somewhat generational too – I’m sure punks from the youth-crew late-80’s probably hated the skate punk that I first fell in love with in the mid-90’s.
DS: Richard Dawkins once said that in order for any real dialogue to take place on the discussion of organized religion that one can’t hold a conversation with a fundamentalist. Was that a similar kind of mindset that you took when embarking on the project and choosing the bands that you followed?
JL: Sleeping Giant surprised me in many ways because our values were actually parallel on many issues. As Tommy explains in the film, he found punk rock before he found Jesus, and was drawn to the ethos, which he’s now reaffirmed in Jesus. And one of the most surprising things I learned is that many in that scene loathe the exact same things about religion that I loathe. A popular T-shirt slogan at Cornerstone was “Religion Kills, Jesus Saves.” Tommy even wrote a book called Religiocide. Of course, they take issue with structured religion for a different reason than me, because it gets in the way of pure relationship with Jesus, but regardless they often rejected a lot of fundamentalist church rules and beliefs.
I would have challenging discussions about faith and the Bible with all sorts of people during the course of filming, but it’s really difficult because a believer always has a trump card when backed into a corner – faith. There’s no “winning” the argument. If I questioned the logic of some of their beliefs, or stories from the Old Testament they believe to be historical fact, they can always reply that God is mysterious and all-powerful and does everything for a reason, and that they just have to believe. But I never set out to make that sort of confrontational film anyway. I wasn’t down there to be the punk Bill Maher and make everyone feel stupid for believing in God. This is was about opening up a world that I found fascinating.
As for picking the bands, we chose Sleeping Giant because I had seen them live during early development in 2008 and thought Tommy was so incredibly dynamic and charismatic that they would make great subjects for the film. The fact that they and Messengers were both so decent and full of integrity shaped the tone of the film. Had I been traveling with For Today and some young abstinence-core swoopy-hair band it would have been a completely different movie.
DS: As someone who had been on the road before, were you kind of taken aback by how similar of a life it was with several sweaty dudes in a van that keeps breaking down? Side question: Did the crowd reactions surprise you at all since a lot of the things going on at these shows seem pretty in line with a regular punk or metal show?
JL: Well a tour for my band is like an endurance test in binge alcoholism, so it was very different to be in a tour van full of the straight-edge kids in Messengers. They even had a swear jar on the second tour I followed them on, and did Bible study on the road. As for many of their shows, you couldn’t tell them apart from a “normal” hardcore show – most of the young Christian bands don’t wear their faith on their sleeve. Sleeping Giant shows were different because Jesus is so front-and-center. But yeah, the moshing was just as rough as a secular show for sure.
DS: You seemed to have more of a natural rapport with the guys in Messengers than you did with the guys in Sleeping Giants. Was that true, and how much did the faith healing aspect of what Sleeping Giants seems to do on a regular basis affect how you felt about them when you were finally putting the film together? (That’s not meant to be a leading question in any way since I think you’re incredibly fair to both groups)
JL: I think time had a lot to do with the rapport with each band – I only got to spend a couple weeks with Sleeping Giant as opposed to a several weeks off-and-on with Messengers. I wish I’d had more time with Sleeping Giant but it came down to a financing issue. It was also a bit easier with Messengers because they were very young and enthusiastic and open. It was their first tour, so the fact that they had this crew from Canada following them around was a real novelty and they opened right up to us. Sleeping Giant was a bit more guarded at first. They’re open about their faith, but more experienced with media coverage and keenly aware of the negative approach I COULD have taken. Tommy also had a bad experience as a teenager being the subject of a news documentary that painted the SLC straight-edge scene as a gang of violent hoodlums, so he certainly wanted to ensure that we weren’t there to attack them. But I get along really great with Sleeping Giant and when I saw them a few weeks ago in Seattle to show them the movie it really was like old friends catching up.
I definitely expected Sleeping Giant to be much more contentious subjects than Messengers just because of how extreme their presentation is and how central faith healing is to their ministry. I don’t know how conscious I was of it in terms of our personal relationship while editing though.
DS: Are you surprised at how much bands like The Chariot, Norma Jean, and Underoath were able to cross over into being somewhat successful or at least notable bands with a bit of mainstream success outside of the Christian rock banner?
JL: Well, The Chariot is just really incredible so it’s no surprise that they’ve found an audience. There are also degrees to which Jesus plays a role in different bands; The Chariot primarily tours on secular packages, and if I bought their CD at a show and read all their lyrics, I’d have a tough time being able to tell the band is Christian. Sleeping Giant is in a whole other world. They’d still like to try to find as broad a mainstream audience as possible, but it’s difficult for many to get past the faith. Their hope is that secular audiences are still drawn to their passion, as they come from the generation of hardcore where an audience could get behind a strongly vegan band even if they aren’t vegan, like Propagandhi for example. But of course people feel very differently about religion and Jesus than they do animal rights or other similar political issues.
DS: Did some of the band’s beliefs take you off guard once you started talking to them and did you expect them to take a harder line?
JL: Yeah, I think homosexuality and gay marriage are subjects that many young Christians are trying to understand and reconcile. In the case of Sleeping Giant, they believe in an all-inclusive, all-loving god, while Messengers are fairly politically liberal on a number of issues, including gay marriage. It was important for me to include that in the film, because it really does contradict the stereotype many in the secular world hold about Christians being unanimously homophobic.
A lot of these political issues are generational, and it’s no different in Christian communities. Again, the fact that the bands I happened to tour with had these attitudes shaped the film and my own attitudes and relationships with them. I’m sure there are MANY Christian bands with hardline attitudes about things like homosexuality and we probably wouldn’t have gotten along so well.
DS: Was it surprising to see that several guys in the bands that you profiled had a previous history of substance abuse problems?
JL: No because I think that’s a fairly common narrative for Christians. People often find Jesus at their darkest hour, and some could argue that many Christians simply replace one dependency with another.
DS: What do you think the difference is between a band going out and getting money on the road while spreading the gospel and a church simply asking for money? Is there a difference or is it all in the way it’s handled?
JL: Yeah, I think it’s different. I mean, the band on the road is earning money the way any band earns money. I really don’t believe there’s a real financial impetus to what the bands are doing – even the more successful Sleeping Giant doesn’t make a living off of the music. Tommy’s family survives off of his and his wife Kristi’s ministry and donations from their congregation. Whether or not you find that ethically right or wrong is personal, but these people aren’t rich.
DS: I assume you filmed this before everything happened in the States with Chik-Fil-A, so did you find it funny that this crazed right wing chain would just give food away to those they deem worthy? Also, would you ever consider doing that yourself just to fuck with them the next time you’re on the road?
JL: (laughs) You know, that’s the moment that makes the jaw drop of any touring musician watching the film, and every time they say “I’m totally gonna do that next time I’m on tour!” I don’t know if anyone has, and I certainly haven’t. Free Chik-Fil-A is only slightly more appealing than starving. I do wonder if this movie will cause a spike in “Christian” bands going for free food. I hope it does!