“Religion is a bunch of bullshit,” Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong said in a 2010 interview with vocal atheist Bill Maher.
If you’re not familiar with Green Day, they’re the band that taught you to stick it to the man if you came of age in the late 90s and early 2000s. In sixth grade, I was a total square until a friend burned me a CD with some Green Day songs on it, and the first time I ever said the F-word was singing along to “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”
Armstrong’s lyrics frequently evoke a post-apocalyptic America in which disaffected pop punk kids opt out of corrupt political institutions and soulless consumerist culture to find love and authenticity among the ruins. This quest is frequently couched in religious language, but the references are usually deployed ironically. In “Jesus of Suburbia,” he sets himself up as a latter-day messiah preaching an angsty gospel to rebellious, middle-class teens.
On the other hand, the very fact that Armstrong understands that this world is profoundly broken and in need of some sort of savior suggests that he may by closer to the gospel than the prosperity preachers—*cough* Joel Osteen—he so despises. Perhaps there is something to Armstrong’s assertion that “there is nothing more spiritual” than rock’n’roll.
If that’s true, then Epiphany—the Christian holiday that falls on January 6 and celebrates the Magi who followed the star of Bethlehem to visit baby Jesus—is unquestionably the most rock’n’roll season of the church year. We’re called to understand that this world isn’t everything, but that it has been penetrated and is being transformed by something new. Epiphany tells us we ought to flip the earthly system both middle fingers and leave everything behind to pursue that transcendent something, and that’s exactly the note Armstrong strikes in “Ordinary World.”
Let’s start with the first verse:
“Where can I find the city of shining lights / in an ordinary world? / How can I leave a buried treasure behind / in an ordinary world?”
Setting aside the first line’s obvious reference to heaven, leaving “a buried treasure behind” is clearly meant to evoke Christ’s parable from Matthew 13:44: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
Christ and Armstrong share the idea that the transcendent is elusive, but that when we glimpse it, we understand that it is the only thing worth having and that it cannot be ignored or forgotten. There’s no going back. Life may have been bearable before, but now, without that treasure, it becomes a daily exercise in crushing mundanity culminating in death.
In the next verse, the biblical parallels become even more obvious:
“What would you wish if you saw a shooting star / in an ordinary world? / I’d walk to the end of the earth and afar / in an ordinary world.”
Did you catch that? He didn’t answer the question. Instead of telling us what he’d wish, Armstrong told us what he’d do. He doesn’t want anything from the star. He wants the star itself and, like the Magi from the East, he understands that it’s not enough to recognize a sign. You have to uproot yourself from the comfort of your ordinary life and follow where it’s pointing.
Epiphany is a call to adventure, an exhortation to move from faith to sight, a demand that we turn our longing into action. We might not need to buy a field or trek across the desert. Perhaps our calling is to stay right where we are, working our ordinary jobs and loving our ordinary families, but to do so with an understanding that this world is not conclusion. Only with that mindset can we truly discover the holiness of the ordinary.
Armstrong ends “Ordinary World” with the lyrics, “Baby I don’t have much / but what we have is more than enough / ordinary world.” Perhaps he’s rejecting the transcendent and committing himself to enjoying life’s ordinary pleasures as ends in themselves, but I’m not sure I buy it. His need to pursue the transcendent is too strong to simply ignore.
Armstrong is caught between longing for an elusive heaven and attachment to an often mundane earth. It’s a dilemma with which every religion has struggled, but I believe that only Christianity provides a suitable answer. On Christmas Day, the day heaven and earth met, that answer was born in Bethlehem, and during the season of Epiphany we remind ourselves that, no matter how far or strenuous the journey, we must go and meet Him.