Five Iron Frenzy has put their time in lockdown to good use, bottom line, this is a must listen.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
Release Dates: January 14th 2021
It is true that I am very selective about what I review these days, when I was working for Altrocklive.com and even afterward I would occasionally review an album if it was sent to me or if I thought it worth while to review. One of the events in Christian Music I did cover during my time at Alt Rock Live was the return of Denver based Ska band Five Iron Frenzy after a ten-year hiatus from music. 2013’s return Engine of a Million Plots and its follow up EP Between Pavement and Stars should be hailed as two of the best comeback albums by any band in Christian Music (sorry Stryper). Now they have come back again, with their first full length album in 7 years, and it is a masterpiece. Since this is a Theological Review, I will only make brief comments on the album’s music context (how it fits with the genre, their other works, etc) though I will address those more traditional criteria. My interest here is addressing the theology of the album because that is where the albums strength lies as a critique of modern Christianity in America. It should be brought to the readers attention that I am going to quote some of these songs at quite some length and so this review will be slightly longer than most I have written in the past. Still, if you have not gone out and bought it Until this Shake Apart is worth the money and a place in your music library, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
Before we get to this album, I want to make why I chose this album to review clear. This year will be the ten-year anniversary of my summer in Denver as part of the Denver Urban Semester, a time in my life which no amount of brain scrambling will ever let me forget. That was the summer when my spiraling deconstruction found a bottom and reconstruction began. That summer living and working among the cities homeless population and taking classes on Urban Ministry, as well as with my encounter with God on the side of that Mountain in Evergreen were the catalytic events God used to make sure I would stay in the faith and teach me to love His church and His people again. During that summer I had the blessing of attending The Scum of the Earth Church which is the Church that Five Iron Frenzy founded in one of the inner-city neighborhoods of Denver. So, instead of just having a love and appreciation for their music, I have a personal connection with the band through my first real exposure to a truly multi-ethnic, organic church where the Dividing Walls of Hostility were torn down and the Gospel was preached.
The first and obvious thing the reader will notice is that this is not going to be your grandfather’s rock album. It is, from start to finish, a protest record worthy of some of the best Ska. The genre, which of course, is known for its protest anthems, even in Christian Music. To some extent, this has always been the lane which Five Iron has driven in, sharing a car with The OC Supertones, but this album goes beyond even the bands usual standards of what makes up their protests. The closest song in the Five Iron catalogue I can think of to this album is “God Hates Flags,” their devastating critique of Westboro Baptist Church on Between Pavement and Stars. Except for all but one song on this album, “Homelessly Devoted to You” the albums eighth track, this album levels a devastating critique of American Popular Christianity and the current Christian Political movement steeped in Christian Nationalism and other forms of what I have been calling Christianity+. It should be noted that there is no reason to believe that Five Iron is offering these criticisms from “the opposite side of the isle.” When I was at Scum of the Earth one thing that stood out to me was how they married “conservative” theology with a strong call for biblical justice in the public square. We should consider this a critique from the middle, another reason I am writing this review, as well as a critique from a friendly source, not a hostile one. While it is clear that Five Iron is fed up with the state of American Christianity, they are still friendly to it, as the albums concluding some reviews, but we will get there in a second.
I want to caution the reader against making foolish accusation at Five Iron of things like “Cultural Marxism.” That accusation would be as far from the truth as one can get, and it is an intellectually lazy one. To really seek to grasp the concepts in this album one must be willing to question their foundational beliefs and go through a good amount of Deconstruction. One should also familiarize themselves with the communitarian nature of Christianity that comes from the Margins. Many of the topics covered in this album will be “triggering” for conservative Evangelicals, but it should be noted that Five Iron is not advocating for a Liberal Christianity, but for a Christianity from the margins. So while they discuss gun violence, the debate over statues and confederate monuments, immigration, racism, Christian Nationalism, corporate greed and sexual immorality, they must be understood as speaking from the margins, not from the left or the right.
This critique starts from track one: “In Through the Outdoor” the title of course we recognize as a fun jab at the people at Wal-Mart who do not pay attention to the signs above the door, but the song is anything but. A critique of the restrictionist immigration policy that many Christians on the right have supported. The song begins by fleshing out how contradictory this attitude is when compared to Christian teaching: “They’re at the fences, They’re at the border, Your brand new gospel – Deny them any quarter You’ll want a blockade, You’ll draw your swords, God save your sovereignty, From syndicated crime-lords, Completely righteous, Save a little slandering, God blessed your district -, With lies and gerrymandering.” Believe it or not, this is not the strongest language in the song, the second verse takes us into Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: “To all the hungry, You locked the doors, You sunk the thirsty, Before their boats make the shores, To every stranger, You closed the gates, Your new gospel:, Spitting venom , Black with hate, You sold them out.” But they go on: “You were once a stranger on this soil, Serpents at your heart, will they now uncoil? Your brother’s at the door – bless the poor in spirit, Your sister’s in a cage – but you do not fear it.” While this may anger you reader, consider the point I heard made by Daniel Montanez of Gordon-Conwell: “A sovereign government has the right to make and enforce right and just immigration laws, it has the right to protect its borders, but it has to do it justly.” I made the point with a parishioner recently that these things are for governments to decide, but the Church, the Church is to make a place for the foreigner among us, to care for them and make sure their needs are met. That is a the proper interpretation of God’s commands concerning when foreigners come among Israel, and in the New Covenant Context, we are all resident aliens and so while we live in the confines of a sovereign nation, we are still bound by the biblical values of the Kingdom of Heaven and must show regard for the foreigner among us. Instead, as the song says, our sister is in a cage and we do not fear it. There are statistical and theological facts to back this up. According to a Pew Research study from 2017: “A majority of religious minorities entering the United States are Christians.” Further, The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell has discovered that: “The average Christian in the world today is a black or dark skinned teenage girl from the continent of Africa or South America. As for the second line, remember that Jesus tells us that how we treat the least of these is the same way we have treated him, and those who sent him away hungry, or thirsty or who rejected him, they go away into eternal punishment (Matt 25). Bottom line, the immigration policy Christians currently support on the right is a direct path to eternal punishment, not life. This may seem harsh, but it is the truth, the girl who is very likely a Christian is your sister and in her poverty is among the Least of These, Christians treatment of her is how Christ identifies their treatment of Him, that should strike fear in our hearts.
The next song I want to focus in on is the albums 5th track “Renegades” which deals with the issue of School Shootings (which they also touch on in track 3 “Bullfighting for an Empty Ring”) and the idolization of the 2nd Amendment among Evangelical Christians. As a kid growing up in the 90’s and early 2000’s, the Columbine tragedy is still etched in my mind. And since the band hails from Denver, I am sure that what has played out in this country in the last twenty years has been a source of deep pain. The songs specifically reference Sandy Hook, an event that has deeply affected people I know and love. The entire song grabs the listener by the collar but for our purposes I will highlight two portions, starting with the second verse: “The congressmen are concubines, For lobbyists who feed them their lines, Who Frankentein some pantomime, Some crying over Columbine, Yes your capital, It swarms with cannibals, When some other people’s kids are shot, They chalk it up as an afterthought, They load their guns and reminisce, And tell us it’s just business, They hope we’ll overlook, The halls at Sandy Hook.” You can hear the frustration expressed by many teachers and students who have had to go through lockdown drills while nothing changes to prevent these things from happening. The sorrow behind this song is felt in the music, the anger comes through the lyrics, especially in the final line of the bridge: “You want your ledgers black; we want our children back.” It is important to note that what is at issue here is not the owning of guns themselves, but the laissez faire attitude towards gun violence and the dismissiveness that has been prevalent among many on the right, especially lawmakers, towards guns in general. While the second amendment is enshrined in the Constitution, it is not meant to be an idol, and to many it seems to have become such. For Christians who claim a “Pro-life” ethic, we should put that into practice by working to ensure the absolute safety of our kids from these types of Mass Casualty events like Columbine and Sandy Hook. We should not be so quick to trade in conspiracy theories or brand any preventative measures taken as a “violation of second amendment rights.” Again, the Bible is our authority well over and above the Constitution, the Bill of Rights is a document of laws made by man, the Bible is the authoritative word of God. The Centrist Christian view would be to take a commonsense approach to protecting our students that may mean minor inconveniences in our ability to buy and maintain weapons. Our priority should always be the life of image bearers, rather than our rights to own and do whatever we want. We also need to repent of the fact that this issue has become so politicized when it is an issue of human life.
I wish I could review every song on this album, but that would go on forever, if you’ll allow me to review two more.
The next is the power protest song: “While Supplies Last.” The title is ironic as it is a response to the ongoing Evangelical Culture Wars, over everything, including masks. This is reflected in the songs “Stream of consciousness” style like Jars of Clays “Oh My God” but with the punch of Kids in the Ways “Burt Rutan.” Since Conservative Christians led many of the “Anti-Mask” movement in 2020 the line: “Hiding behind, hiding behind your mask” is a shot of schadenfreude for the listener, as is the rest of the song. Most of these songs, as you’ve notices, generally use irony well, a line that jives with cultural Christianity is juxtaposed with a line from Scripture or a historic Christin teaching. In this song though, the gloves come off. Consider the songs ending stream:
Save some profits for your cadre of vipers, Because your God only favors survivors, If you vote to stop abortions, Damn the pregnant girls and orphans, Blame your decline on the LGBTQ, Offer platitudes not portions, Then your rancor is your fortune, And your poison is what’s poisoning you, You said “we all deserve this”, For not forcing kids to pray-, While your party loots the earth, And you tell us “Jesus saves”, You’re ignoring half the gospel, Wearing clothing made by slaves, You never “rendered unto Caesar”, Now you, now you fear the fever, Fear the bottom dropping out of your stocks, You voted for the devil, Let that narcissist embezzle, Put the hen-house in the mouth of the FOX
These words really should break our hearts, this whole album should. What is reflected here is the idea that all our culture wars, all our attacks and waring against those who our leaders have told us to “hate” has led to our decline. That the culture is not the problem the Church has, the Church is. I have told my congregation many times that Christianity is not a: “Might makes Right” faith but is instead a place where our weakness is made perfect in our weakness. I have also told them that while we can agree that abortion is a blight on our society and affirm traditional marriage, the moment we start demonizing the girl who had the abortion or the person who struggles with same sex attraction, we are not showing them the love of Christ, we are not “living the Jesus Life in the Jesus way” to borrow Eugene Petersons phrase. The fact is, the decline of the Church in America is not because kids “can’t” pray in school, but because of our reaction to the things a secular government has done. The secular disillusionment with Christianity does not come from our failure to pass legislation, but from Christians who do not live out the way of Jesus, but in fact, do the opposite. We have in fact seen the enemy, and he is us. Christian Leadership has done everything listed above and led the people into the pews into these things which are the opposite to the way of Christ. In doing so, they have fed us to the fox, or as I have said, to the wolves and fed those who do not believe to the wolves. If Christians are the opposite of salt and light in the world, should we be surprised when the world is tasteless and dark? No, we should not be.
At this point you might wonder if Five Iron is going to offer us anyway forward at all. Once again, it is important to remember that they are speaking from the Margins and for those in the margins. It also should not be lost on us that throughout the album there are glimmers of hope, like the rock Anthem “We Will Sing” and “Like Something I Missed” both provide a glimmer of hope. But the albums closing song: “Huerfano” may provide the most hopeful tones on the album. Following the story of a teen who has struggled with being bullied by his school mates for some unspecified reason. He talks about being hung upside down in a sleeping bag, punched, kicked, stuffed in a box, having their song stolen. But then the Chorus comes in: “Now fly you orphans, Here you belong, Welcome you wayward souls, Now lift your song.” This is similar to Children 18:3’s “Come In,” the point is that mainstream Christianity is far from what Christianity should be, given the thrust of the rest of the album it is safe to assume this bullying may have happened on the playground of a Christian School. But this is not what Christianity should be, Christianity should be a place where you can come as you are, be transformed by Christ, and belong. This is the message of Christianity on the margins, come as you are, Christ will transform you, and you will have a place to belong. While this may be the most hopeful song, it may also be the most offensive for mainstream Christians who have spent years curating what they think Christianity should look like and who they think should get into the Kingdom, this song speaks directly against that sort of pharisaic sorting and curating of the Church.
Now, this album does have some serious drawbacks, there are points where this album comes across with the same kind of Pharisaic attitude they are trying to denounce. This is the struggle that any band has who tries to address issues like this and Five Iron is not immune to that pitfall. The Album will also play very, very well to a niche audience, which is why I spent so much time explaining some of these points. If you have never experienced Christianity on the Margins, then you may not understand the perspective or even the incredible hope outlined in the Album. The album also lacks a definitive Gospel Message, though the justice issues they address are all Gospel issues, they make a veiled point about Christianity being a place where they belong. One wishes these themes would have been directly tied back into Jesus as Jesus proclaims about himself in the book of Isaiah.
Regardless, this album will be a good response to bands like Seventh Day Slumber who have been actively advocating for Insurrection and the preservation of Christianity+. As Christians, we represent a Kingdom that is not of this world and by wrapping ourselves up in the things of this world we lose the Gospel. Five Iron reminds us of the dangers of wrapping ourselves up in politics and this warning needs to be heeded across the political spectrum.
- In Through the Out Door
- Lonesome for Her Heroes
- So We Sing
- Bullfighting for an Empty Ring
- Auld Lanxiety
- Homelessly Devoted to You
- One Heart Hypnosis
- While Supplies Last
- Like Something I Missed
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center