A Terribly Shallow, Silly, Weak-Willed Culture

Everyone has their reasons for getting involved with metal music. To me, it was the rebellious spirit, attitude, and life philosophy of this music. Being Christian in this genre just seems against that. There are religious people in metal that we deal with. That’s fucked up and crazy to me. But I’m sure when you talk to Dave Mustaine, he’ll give you the opposite angle of the situation. – Behemoth Lead Singer Nergal, quoted in Jason Roche, “Behemoth Frontman: Metal And Christianity Are Incompatible”, LA Weekly, April 25, 2012

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“The music’s willingness to deal with nihilistic and, on occasion, extremely unpleasant subjects seems to offer its fans a space to accept others in a way that shames many Christians.

“Metal’s refusal to repress the bleak and violent truths of human nature liberates its fans to be more relaxed and fun people”. – Church of England priest Rev. Rachel Mann, quoted in Martin Beckford, “Christians could learn A Lot About Life From Heavy Metal, Cleric Says”, UK Telegraph, July 10, 2015

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Arch Enemy in Concert. The brutality of the music, dark themes from death to the wickedness of organized religion, are a potent brew, making Death Metal both popular and scorned.

Arch Enemy in Concert. The brutality of the music, dark themes from death to the wickedness of organized religion, are a potent brew, making Death Metal both popular and scorned.

So rather than wonder if or when I would ever write some of the things I really wanted to write, the other day I started . . . well, not really writing so much as word-vomiting some things I wanted to say. I mean, I wrote something I consider an “Introduction”, and started something I consider a first chapter; I have a general idea of the shape and flow; I certainly know what I want to say, at least in outline. Right now, I’m more concerned with getting stuff out on screen and saved to a hard drive than I am with prettiness or neatness of presentation.

I even have two possible working titles, both in part taken from Slayer songs: either South Of Heaven: A Christian Interpretation Of Death Metal or I Never Wanted To Be God’s Disciple: Death Metal And The Challenge To Christian Faith. Pretty pretentious, yeah. But then, you should read the Introduction I wrote. Talk about pretentious . . .

I’m happy to have started something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I’m glad I have a whole bunch of theoretical stuff read and available for reference. There is so much music out there, waiting to be mined, interpreted, challenged, and – perhaps? – offered an opportunity to be more than just a noisy soundtrack for rebellion.

I don’t want to rehearse what I’m doing elsewhere. I do, however, want to offer something here I adamantly refuse to offer in my larger text: a defense of a mutual encounter between Death Metal and the Christian faith. As the Anglican priest quoted above says, Metal music often begins where the Christian faith ends as it examines our world. In its rejection of bourgeois politesse, a confrontational stance toward our too-comfortable, too-smug worldly powers, and the brutal honesty of its lyrical stance regarding violence, religion, death, and our collective failure to address these realities in any constructive, substantive way, Death Metal in particular offers its listeners the opportunity to vent their rage at their invisibility, the silence imposed upon them, and the simple joy of physical catharsis. Yes, as Nergal says, Death Metal offers freedom and is life-affirming in a world that is far too constricting and life-negating. It is, however, a particular type of freedom; it is the freedom to become comfortable outside the mainstream; the freedom to try on a variety of social and cultural personas and personaes; and the freedom to work out rage and frustration in healthy ways, both through listening to the music and, of more importance, on the concert floor, with its physically exertive, quasi-liturgical demands upon the listener.

When I say Death Metal begins where the Christian faith ends, I’m referring to the general run of Christian proclamation, particularly both in mainstream and evangelical Christian churches. We are often at pains to reassure ourselves not only of our holiness and righteousness, but that maintaining a particular emotional equilibrium is part and parcel of being a Christian. That the demands of the Gospel often call for something far different either from acquiescence or simple sadness seems too often lost on our comfortable suburbanized churches. Conformity rather than confrontation, as insidious as it is contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, is so entrenched anything that offends or offers a radical alternative – be it hip-hop, death metal, or even some strands of country music – are looked upon, at the very least, with scorn. Too often, not just rejection but outright demands that such musics have nothing to do with the Christian faith resound from pulpits around the country.

Hip-hop has received not only a stirring, ringing defense, but been offered up as a serious theological alternative hermeneutic to life in far too many of our urban neighborhoods. Death Metal is long past due for a similar treatment.

I will not shy away from the excesses – musical, lyrical, performative – nor will I make apologies for them. Death Metal exists as it does precisely because it offers a particular group of people something beyond simple aesthetic pleasure. That it often offers messages that should resound from Christian pulpits of many faith traditions is a judgment upon our too-many failures, not the least of which is contributing to the widespread mediocrity of white middle-class society, its overwhelming pressure to conform, and its silence on matters of social and cultural justice. Make no mistake: In its sometimes comical, over-the-top presentation, Death Metal very often is offering precisely the kind of social criticism our churches should be proclaiming but refuse to do. There are some folks out there who seem to believe that hell-fire-and-brimstone is no longer fashionable; I think that’s both true and untrue. It is certainly untrue in our mainline churches, where niceness and reassurance seem to rule our sermonizing. On the other hand, Death Metal is precisely hell-fire-and-brimstone preaching. Does it sometimes celebrate hellfire? Sure, if for no other reason than too often our churchly affirmation of tolerance and agape rings both shallow, and too often false. Better, after all, to live on ones’ feet than die on one’s knees.

My hope is to challenge too-facile understandings – and misunderstandings – of a music that offers so much to so many; to make clear it is a music of social and cultural protest that says and enacts much that should be coming from our churches; and to offer serious theological reflection upon music that protests its relationship to the Church even while very often saying what preachers refuse to say. It isn’t pretty, by any means. It certainly isn’t nice. And, yes, I recognize it isn’t for everyone. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important. It is precisely its marginal status that makes it critical that we in the Church hear it, listen to it,  allow ourselves to be convicted of the judgment, and offer a hermeneutic that brings together what humans have torn asunder.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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