Identity Issues in Underground Subcultures

Mark Humphries - The Source

Red Herring Cathedral

The Red Herring Cathedral was a late night coffee house in Winnipeg, MB that started in the summer of 1995. The Red Herring provided a venue for a stream of bands, DJ's and a host of other artists. It also became an ever-changing community of people who would stay up all hours of night and day sharing conversation and too much coffee. The dream itself grew out of the desire of my wife Alex and myself wanting to communicate Christ to our peers, most of whom were not Christians and who would have little to do with organized religion.

We began dreaming about a late night coffee house with the support of an elder at our church and one night we prayed together and asked God for a place to start a ministry. I really did not expect an answer so quickly but through a series of relational connections two weeks later we had the use of an empty house. I remember going with the same elder to meet the owner of the house and trying to explain to him about a whole group of people who would never fit in at a church. He had no idea of the people that would eventually use that house but he trusted that God might be giving us a vision and he offered the use of the house if we would pay the taxes.

It was an exciting time: suddenly God seemed very real and lots of things seemed possible. Even as we began to fix up the house we began to pray that God would form a community; that fringe Christians would come and get connected with each other and that we would be a voice to the alternative culture in Winnipeg. We had only a vague idea of what we were getting ourselves into but we had a lot of passion that came from wanting to share our experience.

To fast forward the story, we went through many stages of growth and change. I tended to get a sense of restlessness unless I felt we were making progress with connecting with people outside of Church culture. At one point we were drawing out many youth groups and we decided to shut the coffee house down because we did not want to become a drop in center for youth groups.

Osborne Village

We then moved into Osborne Village a more central location in the city that attracted squeegee kids and buskers and was the cool place to go for coffee on a summer evening. When we reopened our doors we took the risky step of only having bands that played in the regular music scene.

We did this because we saw that Christian bands were simply reinforcing the Christian youth ghetto. I also talked to all the key youth leaders who hung out there and asked them not to come all at once. It was during this time that we began to see the fringes of the street culture and various music cultures come into the coffee house.

At first it was a few people checking it out. One night we had a potluck and there was a lot of food left over so a couple of people went out on the street and gave some food to a group hanging out in what was called The Circle (a general hang out for drug selling/buying). After that, a few of the street youth came in and then along with them a steady stream of disaffected young adults from the various identity tribes---Goth, punk, vampire, nerd, rave and a host of other variations.

I think because of the size of Winnipeg, the identity tribes tended to overlap somewhat and since the Red Herring was the only coffee house where they could smoke cigarettes, drink bottomless coffee and hangout all night with out buying food we became the most popular hangout in Osborne village for a period of a couple of years.

During those two years was when I solidified some key insights and frustrations in why it was so difficult to see transformation take place in the lives of some of these young adults. Over the entire lifespan of the five years the Herring existed there were probably only a couple of dozen people who came forward with a recognizable conversion experience, although even today I still hear stories of different individuals who became Christians.

At the time I felt very frustrated with how slow the process was and how, when someone made a move towards Christ, we usually saw three moves backwards right away. What I see now is that we lacked the sustainable community structures to help people transition into a growing faith. Although on occasion people did make the transition it was often very difficult and the ones who tended to make it had some prior church experience or support.

The Role of Identity

There is one key insight that I saw played out over and over again in the subcultures which made sense both of how I came to understand why people are drawn to these tribes and also what will be required to move people towards Christ. The key issue I believe in working with the various subcultures is the role of identity. We are all driven to seek and maintain some form of identity, as this forms our attempts to make our way through the world. Identity always comes from a source. Another way of saying this is that identity is primarily relational.

Advertisers know this point well because they are always trying to get us to make identity connections with their products by relating our lives to some kind of ideal world. In other words, on the most simplistic level, if I drive this car I will be perceived a certain way; I am making a statement about who I am. Christians maintain that the true source of identity is God which can be summed up in a single scripture from Genesis 1:27 "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them."

In fact one can see the whole story of redemption as a story of loss and regaining of identity. God first creates humanity in his image but due to the entrance of sin, that primary connection is marred. God then develops a formal relationship to the people of Israel through the law to sustain and maintain a people that he can call His own. Finally, He sends Christ into the world to re-connect people to the original source of identity and, in a sense, remake people in the image of Christ.

The rise of youth identity cultures cannot be separated from the identity vacuum created in the wake of the rejection of church culture since the 1960's. The generations that largely make up these identity subcultures have grown up without the assumed culture that understood Genesis 1:27. The impact of this shift is that they have little assumed knowledge of God as the source of identity.

The Source of Identity

Imagine you had the money to buy a Van Gogh painting (a few million dollars). One of the reasons you would pay that much money for it is because the creator of that painting was Van Gogh himself. He was, in a sense, the source of that painting. What happens if I take that painting and mass produce it as something that sells at Wal-Mart for $19.99? The image becomes almost worthless once disconnected from the true source. I believe this is the kind of impact that forms the experience of people searching for identity in the subcultures.

One summer our family was on vacation and passing through South Dakota. As is our tradition, we were running out of money and looking for a cheap place to pitch a tent for the night. We found a little campsite in the middle of nowhere and set up our camp. At the time out daughter Cairo was less than a year old and so we laid her on a blanket while we got ready for the night.

At some point I was struck with a thought that no doubt many parents feel-perhaps even God. What would happen to Cairo if something terrible happened to Alex and myself? Cairo would be left alone in the middle of nowhere. Assuming she survived, perhaps through a kind family, she would not know who she was. She would have to make up stories of how she ended up there, perhaps abandoned, perhaps unwanted, or perhaps a terrible accident. She would never know that she was my daughter and that I loved her. She would be disconnected from the source of her identity and in that disconnection she would be forced to define who she was from the wilderness she was left in.

In a sense that is a picture of humanity without God, but it is also particular to the subcultures, in that so many of them have been abandoned by parents and also by virtue of growing up with so little connection to the true story. When we lose this primary connection to our parents and to the original parent God, then by default our identity has only has secondary sources left, namely culture, which is why people are seeking to create identity in the image of culture.

Of course we all take identity from our surrounding culture but the uniqueness of the identity of subcultures is that they also represent a rejection of mainstream images and solutions for identity. Within the Red Herring extended community you often hear the mantra, "I'm different, I'm an individual".

Typically this is defined as being unlike mainstream images of normal identity. The businessman, for example, would be an image of conformity that would represent mainstream culture and would be an undesirable role model. Often the inverse would be the driver of identity.

Expressions of Identity

I saw this in females who tried to express an identity that was the inverse of a mainstream image of a female. I remember one young woman commenting that "I don't look slutty enough, I look too cutesy". There were also underlying attitudes that being dark, angry or messed-up was cool. There were also a variety of other constructed identities that I saw people adopt for themselves.

There was one person who took on the role of a vampire, which was a common myth to draw identity from, except in this individual, due to some emotional imbalance, at times he seemed to believe he was a vampire. One time he picked a fight in the middle of the coffeehouse and started hissing at another individual and talking about how he would destroy him.

There was also an individual I spent an afternoon talking with who claimed to be an angel. This is an example of how identity needs can be reinforced by spiritual experiences. This particular individual had some profound experiences which led him to believe that he was an angel.

We began to see the identity issue as a key barrier for people asking faith questions and an even bigger barrier for someone who wants to make a public choice of faith because if one's identity is firmly tied to the group and he or she wants to make a different identity choice there is a strong pull towards conformity to the old group.

We saw this when, during the last year of the Red Herring, we started hosting Spiritual Discussion Nights every Wednesday. At first we tried to start from the bible and engage discussion but that really did not work well so we reversed our thinking and started from the culture. We discussed Satanism, drugs, suicide, anything and everything that opened up room to be real with people and also to dig into identity issues. There were often some amazing conversations and insights and I started to see that discipleship is something that begins before and after any clear choice to follow Christ.

There was one person in particular who had started to go with some of our key volunteers to a Vineyard church. Most of the time when you saw him he had a typical Goth persona with black Crow-like makeup and black ripped clothing. Sometimes he would go to the Vineyard dressed like this and he was also hanging out on Wednesday nights at Spiritual discussion night. He asked good questions and myself and others had honest dialogues with him and I noticed less and less of the external persona over time.

Then one particular discussion night he came in with the full look and I could sense something had changed. At the start of the discussion he declared to the whole group "I have made my choice I have checked out Christianity and I have decided that I am a witch". I never got to find out why the switch happened because he stopped coming around, but I would guess he encountered some identity barrier with some Christians and returned to the identity role of the Goth/Witch which brought him instant identity reinforcement.

In understanding the change an individual needs to go through, it is critical that there are some peers who can understand and, in some sense, have one foot in the world of the person who is encountering Christ.

I have seen over and over again that a person begins responding to Christ and there is a pullback because they feel they are losing themselves. They rightly feel the center of their identity switching and it can be scary. In a sense, discipleship is a process of switching the center of our identity towards Christ. For this reason, if we desire to help someone else work through an identity transformation in Christ I think we need to have some awareness of our own identity issues and needs.

I know it is common for Christians to say, "Put your identity in Christ and not in the world," but I think the truth is that, to some degree our identity is always in both. In my experience, Christians often wanting to work with subcultures tend to see the subcultures in a glamorous way.

The Importance of Communities

I believe that what is needed are church communities of people - no matter how small - who are close enough to the identity subcultures that people can connect with them and see an image of Christ being modeled before them that they can identity with.

Finally we need to dialogue with people in a way that brings them into contact with their real experience. Often identity subcultures mask or romanticize pain and difficult life experiences in a valid attempt to keep their lives together. When people are able to be real about the painful experience of being abandoned by parents or seeing a father beat their mother, then there is a pathway both to healing and honest spiritual dialogue.

Communities that encourage honest dialogue about the painful experiences that led people in a search for alternative identity will be better able to help people connect to Christ.

Let me finish with the story of John (name changed). John came to the Red Herring as an angry young man who had adopted a Goth persona. He had some Christian background through his mother but his step-father had made life very difficult for him; he had also been rejected by some Christians in an earlier youth group encounter.

John was quite intelligent and had begun to look into Buddhism as a means to help explain his world. In Buddhism he thought he had found a way to accept his pain through the path of accepting life as suffering. The problem was that it was not working and he was deeply angry at God and the world around him. He began to ask people a question based on an experience.

When he was still attending youth group a friend had become very depressed and he had prayed to God to help his friend. God did not answer and his friend committed suicide. His question was why did God allow his friend to die? The standard answer was that God gave his friend free will and unfortunately his friend used it in a negative way.

I could see this answer was not helping him and while I was trying to think of how I should answer I saw the question from a new perspective. The image that came to mind was of Christ dying on the cross and while He is dying He cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)

I began to see John's underlying question as the same as Jesus' question; God why have you forsaken me? The difference of course is that Jesus had a strong relationship with the Father, he knew who he was. He had heard the Father's voice say "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:17) Can we become the kind of church communities that help people hear that voice?

Mark Humphries

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