15 January 2011

Heavy metal theology

Okay, this post was bound to happen sooner or later. One of my best friends at Pitt describes me (in good humour) as an intriguing bundle of contrarianism and contradictions, and – let’s face it – she’s probably right. I’m a Sinophile and a democratic socialist who also nevertheless holds a deep and abiding love for England and her culture, in spite of her shameful imperial past. I’m a Christian who rejects both theological liberalism and fundamentalism, ultimately for not being existentially authentic enough. But more than that, I also happen to be a metalhead, and supposedly heavy metal and Christianity mix like oil and water. I personally think this is more than a bit simplistic, but let’s explore the issues a bit (I believe Mother Rachel made a valiant first attempt, but I think we can look a little more closely at the places where the two really may have some dissonance).

Heavy metal was, in its original formation, a musical expression of revolt against the excesses of mainstream society. It tackled philosophical, theological and political issues which were considered gauche or even taboo at the time, yet it did so not in a spirit of peevish rebellion but with an eagerness to explore those intangibles which drive people and societies into darkness. It was from the start primarily associated with the working-class youth of English industrial towns like Birmingham (the birthplace of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest), Sheffield (very near the home of Saxon) and London (Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden and Motörhead). One of the frequent targets for criticism and mockery by heavy metal artists was, indeed, Christianity – but it was the tendency of the cultural institution to keep people complacent rather than necessarily the teachings of the religion itself. In its place, heavy metal has tended to favour an ancient pagan ideal of manliness and independence (hence the focus on chivalry and heathenism by many metal bands), though there are as well some hints of existentialism in the lyrics of much early metal. (A form of music which finds something true and aesthetic appealing in the downtuned and the distorted would seem to make an existential attitude necessary…)

One highly interesting aspect of heavy metal – the thing which drew me first in that direction, actually, through symphonic and progressive metal bands like Nightwish, Edenbridge, Pagan’s Mind and Tang Dynasty – has been its near-constant flirtation with baroque and classical music. This may be reading too much into the intentions behind the music, but the rejection of the direction which pop music was taking may have led them to look to the distant, meaningful past for a more authentic form of expression, something we may have lost. Sometimes this shift of direction is very explicit. Take Saxon’s The Inner Sanctum for example: not only does the album artwork suggest in blue, sad tones the ruins of an ancient English church, but the opening number, ‘State of Grace’, starts with a monastic plainsong, after which they launch straight into a lament for the lost glory of mediaeval Europe (‘Sacred towers standing tall / Built in times of guilt and gold / Ancient knowledge lost in time / Forgotten now in hearts and minds’). This tendency is not limited to Western metal, either – Tang Dynasty’s debut album is entitled A Dream Return to the Tang Dynasty 《梦回唐朝》 and features lyrics which are just about as nostalgic as the title suggests (and to top it off, much to this Sinophile socialist’s delight, featured a metal rendition of ‘L’Internationale’; rock on! \m/).

This logic takes metal in an even more curious direction philosophically, when one thinks of it. The metal subculture generally holds that society is (along with mainstream music) basically corrupt, and that most people are held in thrall to inauthentic consumerist desires which take a hold of them before they’ve had a chance to truly question them (just look on any metal forum for a discussion on ‘poseurs’ or the phenomenon of ‘mallcore’ to get a rough idea of what I’m talking about). In short, metal essentially subscribes to a neo-Augustinian theology of fallen humanity; the artefacts of metal music and culture thus take on almost sacramental significance as liberating symbols of political and quasi-religious resistance to mainstream norms and practices! Although many metalheads would likely never acknowledge this, they are in fact working in parallel with the cultural aims of early Christianity. (Though this article is rather tongue-in-cheek, it gives a good example of the ways in which this model holds true.)

This brings us to the topic of Satan. As a Catholic Christian, I naturally identify Satan with the powers of oppression and dehumanisation that keep the world in a state of un-freedom – I could go further in the mode of CST and liberation theology and identify Satan specifically with the sinful urges underpinning unchecked capitalism and consumerism. Yet it seems that some strains of metal embrace Satan (quite ironically, to my mind) as a liberating figure, struggling against an authoritarian, oppressive God and his cowed conformist followers. I think this response is highly misguided, given my cursory analysis above of the convergence of aims between radical Christianity and the metal subculture. But over-squeamish Christian commentators do themselves an immense disservice when they criticise metal for sympathising with the fallen angel as an artistic statement; after all, one among our own number did this first, in a piece of doggerel (I say this with the greatest affection) entitled Paradise Lost.

Though I think Mother Rachel is indeed a bit quick and uncritical in her dismissal of Satanism in metal as ‘play-acting’, I think she essentially has the argument right – most metal artists (along with other cultural figures like, e.g., Jo Rowling) do get a bad rap from critics who haven’t made any attempt at independent research or critical thinking. The most famous example I can think of is when Iron Maiden was unjustly accused by Christian conservatives of Satanism for their (excellent) 1981 album The Number of the Beast. This criticism is downright bizarre in context: I guess the critics must have missed the cover art for ‘Run to the Hills’ which features their mascot Eddie in a fight against Satan, or that for the single ‘The Number of the Beast’ itself, which features Eddie holding up Satan’s decapitated head (!). They must also have missed the lyrics to the song, which describe a nightmare Steve Harris had.

It’s worth noting that Iron Maiden responded to this criticism with both barrels, putting a backmasked nonsense message from Nicko McBrain on Piece of Mind, and recording ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ on Powerslave. However, their best response to their censorious critics has probably been the album A Matter of Life and Death: the entire album (laced with more than a few shots at the foreign policies of Bush and Blair) is basically a composition meditating on questions of theodicy, on the nature of good and evil, on human self-destruction, on the nature of religion and war. I find it highly intriguing that they arrive sympathetically at the image of Jesus on the Cross at the end of ‘For the Greater Good of God’. (For an alternate interpretation of A Matter of Life and Death, this is an excellent website.)

So, yes: I am a Christian; an English Catholic, to boot. I am also a metalhead. Though in the eyes of the culture – and indeed, in many of the eyes of metal subculture – these two identities are necessarily in tension if not in outright conflict, I hope I have demonstrated a few ways in which they may be seen as working in parallel. Perhaps a Chesterton quote might not come amiss here:

Christianity came in here as before. It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another… [t]here was room for wrath and love to run wild. And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.

That’s heavy, GK; keep rocking, folks! \m/

1 comment:

  1. I like this analysis & the GK Chesterton quote :D I find with some of my favourite metal tracks and albums that they could have been taken straight out of the psalms & the prophets.