Showbread and the Abiding Faith of Raw Rock
Showbread and the Abiding Faith of Raw Rock
by Frank EnYart
October marks the 15-year anniversary of No Sir, Nihilism is not Practical, the first release by hardcore band Showbread. There's a real chance that many readers have never heard of them, which though unsurprising, should be rectified immediately. Showbread came up in the flurry of hardcore bands in the early 2000s—more specifically, the boom in Christian hardcore—and like the other bands of this era, left an indelible mark on the music scene and quickly became a polarizing force in Christianity.
I want to start with how I first heard them: In the early 2000's, BEC and Tooth and Nail, a prominent group of Christian record labels, released sampler albums—think the NOW series, but Christian rock—and every year for about 5 years I bought these compilations, hoping to find some new artists to get excited about. With a few of the CDs came DVDs of music videos, and on the first one I ever bought—2004—along with a few pretty life-changing videos and songs (Reinventing your Exit by Underoath, The Spy Hunter by Project 86, etc) there was one by a band I had never heard of: Mouth like a Magazine by Showbread. I sat down, pressed play, and was greeted with images I never had imagined would be acceptable in Christian music—skin tight pants, long, straight-ironed hair, men in black and red nail polish, purposeful makeup, ashamedly the first African-American male I had seen in Christian rock music, shaking his hips to tinny, minimal screamo. I felt paralyzed by it, the dichotomy. I lived in rural Ohio, I was watching this on the TV in our home, with no air conditioning in the blazing humidity of the summer, thinking that whatever I had just watched was wrong, too effeminate, somehow sinful or pornographic. More than that though, there was nothing about Jesus or Christianity in the contents of the song. In many ways I felt betrayed or lied to—the Christianity I knew was not reflected in the way these men dressed, danced, sang or didn't sing, or what they sang about; I felt like if this could be accepted as Christian music, what else might be acceptable? I shut off the TV, angry, confused, and a bit shaken.
Looking back, now in my mid 20's, a little more liberal, a little more accepting, I can see where this anger might've had its roots: I was raised in a very conservative church, one where men were expected to be men, and women, women, and the two paths should never cross. This gender binary in Christianity, like all binaries in Christianity, keeps things tidy—it keeps things simple and easily digestible for those who choose to believe it. It lays the foundation for simple answers to questions about heaven and hell, good and bad, godly or ungodly—and according to the binary I was afforded, what I had seen on the screen that day was bad, ungodly, and wrong. Worse than just being wrong, it was deceitful—ungodly and effeminate men pretending to be Christians, making money off people like me who hoped to find good music that shared the faith they did.
As much as I tried to shake that image and the draw the music had for me, I couldn't—there was something intoxicating about it. It felt like a small rebellion. It felt like a safe, sanitary escape from what I had always been shown—sure, it still felt wrong, and it made me uneasy, but I could at least say that what I was listening to was considered Christian or religious and no one could really argue it with me. At its core, this music was energized, pulsing with anger, frustration, and humanity—something that most of the music I was allowed before was lacking. The thing about most Christian music was that it was almost always a copy of what was happening in secular culture, just a worse version of it. Contemporary Christian Music often took tropes from pop music, tried to add some religious themes, and throw it back on the airwaves. Ultimately the result would be an overly sanitized, emotionally vacant song, obviously created with the intent to hit ears and get stuck there the same way pop music did. What these songs lacked was the passion and vigor that ought to accompany music about someone's life-devotion. About life and death, and eternity.
Ultimately, Christianity is not conducive to a bubblegum-pop sensibility—going back to the beginnings of sacred music, there's a certain sadness, sense of despair, and heft to the content. Even in it's sparse happy moments, sacred music centers on the bittersweet and saccharine, a longing to be away from the world, a reverence for something bigger than one's self, and a devotion to the betterment of the world; how can that be boiled down to a three minute song? How can that be molded into an easily digestible, just-vague-enough-to-be-universal pop song? What hardcore music afforded that pop music could not was the ability to be specific—specifically hopeless, specifically anxious, specifically reverent, without pressure to appeal to a crowd that was interested in listening, but not hearing. At the center of Christianity is a death, a sacrifice, a resurrection, and a hope for the future, nothing that lends itself to catchiness—this is heavy stuff, hard work, not conducive to pop. What was a disservice to pop music and faith was a gift to hardcore music and faith—those looking to be gratified in their anger, frustration, or anxiety found a place to do so. Sure, the people making this music wouldn't belong in the churches many of those of us who sought refuge attended, but they often started there. Showbread, Emery, Anberlin, Underoath, Zao, Blindside, and the countless number of other hardcore, faith-based acts started like us—Christian kids in small towns, looking for their own small rebellions. And when they couldn't find a place for their feelings, they made one, lucky for us.
15 years removed from the moment that changed the way I viewed Christian music, and Christians, a lot has changed for me and Showbread—firstly, they're not a band anymore, and their last album came out in 2016, sadly called Showbread is Showdead, and my faith is almost unrecognizable compared to what it was in 2004, thankfully. With all the tumult and changes though, there are a few things that have remained constant: sometimes I still listen to that album from 2004, and I still dance. I still go back and watch that music video, and try to time travel back to that time and think what I would've been thinking when I was 9, letting it transform me. I don't know what many of the members of Showbread are up to now, save for Josh Porter (Josh Dies,) the lead vocalist—he's a pastor of a church in Vancouver, Washington. He's a pacifist, a spiritual leader, an author, a movie buff, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, a contrarian and a weirdo. Who would've thought that 15 years later, the man with tight jeans, red and black fingernail polish, flat ironed hair, who scared pastors and parents, would be one of the most outspoken spiritual leaders that emerged from that moment in music? It makes sense, really: a band on the outskirts of two different sectors of music, committed to themselves and their beliefs without worry of fitting in or conforming, were able to hold to their faith the tightest. Perhaps the most heartbreaking and religious song on No Sir is "Mathias Replaces Judas," a song referencing the disciple replacing Judas after his suicide (see what I mean about Christianity being mostly dark?)—it's slow, minimal in instrumentation, and sparse. It's deeply poetic and beautiful. It's a plea for salvation, a lament of hopelessness, a reverent piece about Jesus and his death, and so archetypal of emo music. Here are a taste of the lyrics:
It is so that my transgressions have born a withered fruit.
The sun has scorched the rising plains; alas they have no root.
The bleached bones of animals bound by leather strips dance through the air with laughter as I wield this wicked whip.
As you did warn me carpenter, this world has weakened my heart;
so easily I disparage, self-seeking the work of my art.
And there you have come to me at the moment I bathe in my sorrow,
so in love with myself, sought after avoiding tomorrow.
Where do you find the love to offer he who betrays you,
and offer to wash my feet as I offer to disobey you?
Your beauty does bereave me, and how my words do fail,
so faithfully and dutifully I award you with betrayal.
It's impossible to imagine this being played in a church, because what it does more than worship music is expose what is at the heart of Christianity, so much so that it's not easy to absorb Sunday after Sunday: the central idea of the faith that permeates our culture is that someone had to sacrifice themselves because humanity is depraved and hopeless without that sacrifice, and every day we do something else depraved, something that seems to prove that we don't care about each other, or the person who sacrificed himself. It's dark, it's scary, it illuminates how deeply selfish humans can be, and it's also deeply spiritual. A group of 20-something year old men in jeans tighter than anyone else's, who played Christian festivals in rubber boots and short shorts, who pretended other bands were government conspiracies, who poked fun at the sanitization of Christian culture and understood their place in it, wrote that song, which ends with:
Jesus, my heart is all I have to give to you.
So weak and so unworthy; this simply will not do.
No alabaster jar,
no diamond in the rough;
for your body that was broken,
how can this be enough?
By me you were abandoned,
by me you were betrayed,
yet in your arms and in your heart forever I have stayed
Your glory illuminates my life, and no darkness will descend,
for you have loved me forever, and your love will never end.
I'm not saying one needs to agree with these premises, or that Christianity is all true or the only way—in fact, that's the opposite of what I'm saying, and I think Showbread would cringe at the idea of me suggesting anyone should blindly accept or agree with anyone about anything in a piece about their impact on my faith. What they did teach me, however, is that the core of one's faith can't and shouldn't be conformity. A genuine, heartfelt faith in anything has to be taken in, thought about, meditated over, and manifested in a way that is true to one's self and reflective of the heart of the message—not what a culture suggests it ought to be. In the United States specifically, Christianity is tied up in messy and complicated business, with hoards of people following ideas and people who they would be better off abandoning, but the inertia of conformity and the safety of tradition trumps everything else. If for no other reason than them showing me that faith can be complicated and look different, I'm glad Showbread existed. I’m sad with the way Christianity often looks in the United States, but a part of me is optimistic that if or when things get too bad, another Showbread will come—thinking differently, sounding different, and looking to shake things up.