Why Christians can listen to metal
This is a silly topic. Or, it’s a silly angle on an interesting enough topic. There’s obviously no form of music that Christians should have to defend listening to. If a Christian enjoys a certain form of music, he or she should feel free to listen to it.
But it is a fact that with the possible exception of gangster rap, metal is and historically has been the form of modern music that has received most resistance and condemnation from Christians. As a lifelong metal fan I know something of this resistance and condemnation, even if it takes the more benign form of semi-amused incredulity these days. But occasionally, I’ll run into someone who insists that metal is Satanic somehow and is therefore inappropriate for a Christian like myself.
This post is partly a response to those kinds of people, partly a help to other, perhaps younger metal-loving Christians confronted by those kinds of people, and just a lighthearted exercise in theological reflection on culture and art.
Metal isn’t serious about evil
Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut is usually designated the first real metal album. Listen to that title track. Even 40 years later, the evil drips of that diminished chord progression. And the lyrics are about human sacrifice at some sort of black mass. There’s no denying that metal loves evil. From lyrics, to album art, to band names, to t-shirt designs, to music videos, to, a certain extent, the sound itself and even to the personal views of some metal musicians, evil is written into the DNA of metal.
But how serious are metal musicians about their evil? Not very, I would argue.
The Satanic imagery of Black Sabbath, for example, is much better explained by a working class rebellion against the easy, flower power optimism of the music that was popular at the time than by literal colluding with Satan himself (even if Sabbath continued the antipathy towards organised religion so prevalent at the time). There’s more factory floor and smog in Black Sabbath’s music than hellfire and brimstone. Socio-economic factors played an important role in the shaping of metal music and its imagery. From the start, metal has shone an indirect light on the more difficult and dark bits of the human condition and via its diabolical themes provided a catharsis for those struggling with those bits. There’s a certain form of escapism in the heart of metal, perhaps taken to its purest form when Dio started incorporating straight up fantasy into it.
That’s where the evil comes from. It’s not real evil, but the imagery and symbolism of evil. It’s not intended, for the most part at least, to refer directly to and endorse actual evil. Rather, by using extreme and fantastic portrayals of the diabolical, metal musicians past and present indirectly deal with the darkness that lies at the heart of human existence.
And so, evil became part of the grammar of metal. It’s part of what makes metal metal, just like distorted guitars and black t-shirts. Even Christian metal bands, who obviously have a more, shall we say, strained relationship to evil imagery, cannot escape that grammar. So one band call themselves Demon Hunter and another sings about “Satan’s Doom” – to name only two examples from the top of my head.
Metal’s evil is a stand-in for frustrations, with difficult socio-economic situations in particular and the darkness of the human condition in general. Which is why I don’t think metal is that serious about evil. Or, it probably isn’t fair to say that metal isn’t serious about evil. It is, just not in the way some Christians think it is. And therefore, metal’s evil is nothing to be afraid of.
Metal is serious about evil
On the other hand, it would be slightly dishonest to deny a connection between the evil imagery and symbolism so widely used in metal and some form of anti-religion, in general, and anti-Christianity, in particular. Because metal is quite anti-religion and anti-Christian. If you took a survey, I’m quite certain that you would find a higher proportion explicitly anti-religious and anti-Christian opinions among metal musicians than among musicians in most other genres. I’m also sure that most metal musicians, like most people, have a live-and-let-live attitude about the whole thing, saying something to the effect of, “If you don’t push it down people’s throat, I’m fine with you believing whatever the hell you believe!” But I believe that anti-religious and anti-Christian sentiment is more widely represented among metal musicians than most – and that goes a long way, together with the factors mentioned above, in explaining the presence of evil imagery in metal.
And that’s a good thing, in my opinion.
Take a look at most popular music today and you’ll have a difficult time finding any mention of religion. But religion is all over metal. Indeed, religion lies at the heart of metal. Yes, it’s a negative view of religion and, especially, a subversion of its symbolism. But it’s still religion!
It’s a bit like horror films. In most other film genres, life is portrayed basically atheistically. People go about their daily lives without any heed whatsoever paid to religion. Not so in horror films. There, people require exorcisms, crucifixes melt vampires, demons walk the earth, people go to hell, churches are the backdrop to epic showdowns between good and evil, and so on. Horror films pay religion the compliment of taking it seriously enough to subvert it.
The same goes for metal. It might be subversive in its treatment of religion and the anti-religious spirit of that subversion might offend some believers, but at least it takes religion seriously. Antipathy is far more preferable, I think, than apathy. In a cultural landscape religiously decimated, metal should be an oasis of intrigue and, perhaps, hope.
Or, at least some ass kicking music.
(If you find this topic interesting, you might want to read this post over at the excellent Heavy Blog… Is Heavy.)