Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Metal and Christianity, Part 1

Listening to Metal Is Compatible with Christianity

The question periodically comes up: How can I, as a Christian, listen to music that is anti-Christian? Ordinarily, the question comes from a fellow Christian. Recently, I have found that it's not only Christians who see a conflict, but also non-Christian metalheads.

The thing is, I've never seen any kind of inherent conflict. I don't feel a need to justify it to anyone. But the curiosity and confusion is out there, and I've been challenged on it many times.

Basically, all of the objections can be thrown out by one observation: I listen to music. I don't care about lyrics. Anyone who's read my blog knows that, and if you've read it faithfully you know I prefer when I don't understand the words at all. But because sometimes that explanation is not enough, I will try to take up each of the common objections.

The Lyrics Are Sinful

There is no rule which states that you have to agree with your music. Nobody seems to have a problem with the Beatles' promotion of drug use, and they seem to think John Lennon's plea to "imagine there's no heaven" is somehow a good thing. Nobody questions Christian Beatles fans. And nobody questions Christians who listen to today's pop music promoting promiscuity, drug use, homosexuality (or at least lesbian behavior), and degrading not just women, but all of humankind.

You take this guy seriously?
To me, that actually seems worse. It's in a real-life context, and if you've read 7 Reasons I Listen to Metal, you know that a big part of metal is escapism. I think of it as fiction. When James Bond does every woman in sight, nobody expects people watching it to act like that. His life is so different from our own. But when real-life "role models" do it, people get concerned.

When people dress up in makeup and elaborate spiked costumes to pretend they live in the woods, or when King Diamond conjures imagined Satanic rituals, or even when Lemmy talks about his endless sexual conquests, I don't see the connection to real life--no matter how real it is to them. To me it's theater, no matter how honest or serious some of the artists are (or want you to believe they are).

But What about Music That Directly Opposes Christianity?

You may bring up the point that a lot of metal directly opposes Christianity. I think we can probably skip past Venom and Mercyful Fate, as for them it's all theater. Let's focus on the Satyricons and Marduks out there.

I struggle to put my position into words, because once again, I just don't see the problem. What they're saying still doesn't matter, because I don't really care about lyrics and it's still just theater to me. And so what if it's in direct opposition? I'm given to understand that skinheads like watching American History X, which is a film that is intended to show the futility and the consequences of racism. A little closer to home, don't you laugh at racist jokes? Even if they're about your own race?

You may argue that some of these artists truly and honestly hate Christianity, and that they believe anyone who listens to their music should agree with them. But the intent of the artist is irrelevant. The entire history of art and literary criticism shows that once art is created, it's out of the hands of the artist, and people interpret it however they want. Maybe Georgia O'Keefe just really liked flowers, but everyone who interprets it sees a bunch of vaginas. Every time an oil executive admires an Ansel Adams print, the point is proven again. Varg Vikernes, the avowed atheist/pagan/whatever white supremacist and all-around anti-Christian guy likes the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, naming his band after a word taken from those books. Tolkien wrote from a Christian perspective, and wove Christian themes into his novels. But Varg interprets it his own way, in a pagan way.

"But," you say, "this is in direct opposition to your beliefs!" It still doesn't matter. There's no logic behind treating this differently from something I simply don't agree with.

I choose to interpret the pure emotion of the music itself, just as most people interpret abstract art or instrumental music.

Even if I didn't just listen to the music, it can still be viewed in the same way I view something like Dante's Inferno, Satan's speeches in Paradise Lost, or The Screwtape Letters. These were all written by Christians to dramatize or elaborate on how evil works, and how insidious it can be. In that sense, you could find instructive benefit in Satanic music--if you were so inclined.

You're Supporting People Who Hate You

The next argument that can come up is this: By buying or writing about anti-Christian music, I am supporting someone who hates me or my religion. Why does this matter? I am supporting art that I appreciate for my own reasons. As I said before, the intent of the artist doesn't matter.

Assuming that we don't want to give money to people who do or say bad things, I don't see how you can avoid it. Every time you watch a Philadelphia Eagles game, you are supporting an illegal gambler and animal abuser. Every time you watch a Roman Polanski film, you are supporting a convicted sex offender and someone who dodges justice. Every time you watch a Mel Gibson film, you are supporting an anti-Semite. And maybe the guy who put the seats in your car beats his wife. The guy who designed a program on your cell phone could traffic in child porn. And maybe that plastic bottle from your drink was made from oil sold by a tyrannical despot who gives money to international terrorists.

OK, so maybe you don't necessarily know how you're supporting bad people, and you think I can tell the difference on this issue. It still doesn't matter, because it's not a real threat. Do you honestly think that some neo-Nazi nutjob is going to eradicate all Judeo-Christian philosophy from Norway? Or that Nergal tearing up a Bible on stage is going to--to do what, exactly? Support the Christian publishing industry?

But Kelly, Where Do You Draw the Line?

I do, in fact, draw the line somewhere. Most of that line is drawn not on any kind of a principled basis that I can lay out for you. Instead, the line is where I feel comfortable. If it makes me uncomfortable, I'd rather not deal with it. That includes staying away from bands with names that I don't even like uttering: Rotting Christ is bad, because Christ did not rot, but Impaled Nazarene would be fine because he was, in fact, impaled. I also stay away from album titles or album art that are so offensive to my faith that I can't just ignore it (these are few and far between). I'll also stay away from it if the lyrics seem too earnestly anti-Christian, and they are intelligible. These are also pretty rare.

On second thought, drawing the line where I'm comfortable does seem like a principled distinction. The potential harm of listening to music like this is that it could possibly erode your faith. If I was in danger of that, it would make me feel uncomfortable. So, if you are a Christian metalhead, I encourage you to draw the same line, exactly where you feel comfortable. I won't fault you if you decide to listen to only Christian metal, and I won't fault you if you find nothing too offensive.

Tom Araya, a Christian: "People are not in good shape to where they have to question their own belief system because of a book or a story somebody wrote, or a Slayer song."
This should not be interpreted to mean that I seek music that's safe. That's far from the truth. I seek out music that challenges me, and that challenge lies almost entirely in dealing with unusual sounds or in the way sounds are presented. Lyrically, there is one core issue that is inviolate. This is similar to how many metalheads treat racist ideas in music, although I'm much more tolerant of what I disagree with.

I do draw one final line, and that is that I won't support those who have violated the law in furtherance of their anti-Christian beliefs. In their case, they have broken our social contract. The harm of supporting them and their art is real rather than imagined. If they happened to make reparations and recant, then I might reconsider.


This post has established that metal is compatible with my faith. Metal chose me and is a part of my identity almost as much as my faith. I feel it's my duty to discuss my faith with people, as Jesus commanded, and I also feel that by being a part of the metal community I can possibly, eventually, sway at least one person somewhat. Being as much a part of the metal community as I can will help me achieve that.

In a future post, I will address the less obvious issue--how my faith is compatible with metal.


  1. Up until about three years ago I was (tried to be) a very devout mormon. Some say Mormons aren't Christian but that is beside the point. Mormons claim to love Christ and a lot of emphasis is placed upon his sacrifice as well as living your life according to His example. I struggled with my supposed love for Christ as well as my love for heavy metal. I was extremely conflicted all the time. I found that the more time I listened to metal, the less I was able to dedicate to praising Christ.

    I understand your arguments and believe me, I spent a lot of time using them to justify what I was doing. In the end, none of those arguments are satisfying if you really study the requirements of a Christian. For example, this scripture from Matthew:

    "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon."

    or this one from Revelations: "So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth."

    I finally decided that I did hate one of my two masters... that being religion. Most of the time I just willingly admitted I was sinning and that I planned to repent later. Other times I completely forsook metal and many other worldly pursuits. In the end, I discovered that I didn't believe in God. After I accepted that, I was able to make the jump back into metal.

    Metal and most worldly pursuits are incompatibel with Christianity.

    Now, Mormonism is a very "saved by works" religion so my arguments may not mean much to someone who follows a "saved by grace" sect. If that is the case, then you have nothing to worry about. You can tell God to fuck off all day as long as long you've been saved.

  2. That is an interesting comment. But it applies no more to metal than to any other worldly pursuit. It would be an extreme position indeed to assert that every waking moment must be dedicated wholly and undividedly to God, other than fulfilling one's vocation. I've always taken those verses to mean you must serve God first and foremost, but not to mean that you must abandon all other pursuits. You'd probably be hard-pressed to find a theologian to take that position. (I could be wrong on that last point, though.)

    I think you've overstated the implications of a "saved by grace" sect (to which I adhere). You will know us by our fruits.

  3. One might ask how I, as an atheist, can listen to music that has Christian lyrics. I don't actually find it that hard.

  4. I not only overstated the implications of a "saved by grace", I did it with the "saved by works" sect as well. Mormons actually believe in both. It's usually stated as "saved by grace after all we can do".

    It may seem extreme but it's not uncommon to find Mormons dedicating every waking moment to God. There's no paid ministry in the church, so a man with a large family and a full time job can be called as a Bishop or a Stake President. Both of which easily equal a full time job. Every weeknight, ever Saturday, Sundays were 16 hour ordeals. My dad was a Bishop while I was in high school. I NEVER saw him. Now, humans will always be human. Therefore, it's impossible to do this perfectly. But, Christians should aspire to the ideal. Listening to Mayhem or Kate Perry are very worldly endeavors and are simply distractions from becoming more Christlike.

    Christians are extremists... or, at least they should be. If you don't believe that, please read the two scriptures I posted again. They both are very clear that there is no middle ground. No gray area. No lukewarm. In a nation where Christianity is so ubiquitous, it pretty easy to forget that you are an extremist.

  5. unfortunately we on the hell-bound side haven't always done our best to be inclusive either. i noticed any time i did a post on christian grind band rehumanize the conversation turned more on their theology and less on how good their songs were (and i was guilty of some of that too). if i can roll my eyes are lame fake satanism i can enjoy half an hour of some dude screaming about my impending perdition.

  6. Two points to make & I'll try to be brief:

    1) as someone who was "raised" Catholic and never believed any of it, I still wonder why anybody thinks they need religion in order to be a good person.

    2) I get the impression that this post came out of (at least in part, anyway) the long discussion in that IO thread regarding Graveland. The point there wasn't that there was a disconnect between christianity and metal, but that there is a huge gap in the logic that christians (and this can be applied to believers in almost any religion) use to justify their own beliefs.
    for me a lot of this goes back to my first point: if you want to be a good person in this world, why not just be a good person and not worry about adhering to an illogical dogma whose tenets fly in the face of everything we've come to understand about the fundamental workings of the universe?
    this is anecdotal, of course, but the most thoughtful, intelligent, honest people I know are all non-believers (and predominantly flat-out atheists, as I am). the biggest liars, con-men and closed-minded judgmental assholes all have something in common: a strict religious (mostly christian) outlook.
    I'm friends with a few christians and while they're good people, they're terribly tortured because of their own belief system and I don't understand why they continue the charade.

  7. @ Miskatonic:
    To be Christian is to be extreme, in a way. There can be no giving ground on many things. But both your verses refer to the pursuit of money and material wealth, not worldly pursuits of any kind. The second one also refers to acting out your faith, rather than claiming to be of the faith.

    @ Andrew Childers
    Another interesting comment. One of the Decibel guys said if he had his way, no Christian bands would ever be covered in the magazine. I will go into that subject a bit more with the next post on this topic.

  8. @ alex c:
    Your comment showed up while I was writing the last one, so I didn't see it before.

    On your first point, you don't really need religion in order to be a "good" person, as the world sees it. However, according to Isaiah, all righteous acts are as filthy rags. Your actions don't save you.

    I don't think you can justify any kind of morality without religion. You don't need religion to have a moral code or live by one, but there's no principled basis for morality without religion. If you think there is, perhaps you should read C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity.

    On your second point, that IO post was the thing that finally spurred me to write this. I had several false starts with writing this post over the last several months, and that one gave me the final impetus to do it.

    Now, you've gotten into a question that I've run across a lot. I went to a Christian university for my undergrad--a very, very Christian school. As a result, I tend to be pretty skeptical about people who walk around with their faith on their sleeves; in that way I think I'm pretty well in line with the dogma of metal. I don't want to venture into percentages, but a large number of those people took a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, openly denying plate tectonics and evolution in the classes where those ideas were taught. I've taken what I think is the only available logical path, and that is to find the logical implications of everything I know. Many people either deny science or deny religion, and I think both paths are stupid, to be quite honest. Once upon a time it was considered heresy to say that the earth is not the center of the universe. They also believed that a feudal system of government was mandated by religion. But those ideas are the result of people taking their stupid philosophies and, by fiat, incorporating them into religion. Where are those ideas in the Bible? They're not.

    On the subject of the Bible (in particular, Genesis) supposedly conflicting with science, there are a number of ways they can be reconciled without much difficulty. One is to recognize that it says God created a man, not a baby. All things exist in process, and there is not a recognizable beginning to anything. Therefore it's logical to assume God created a world in progress, a world where these scientific ideas (of evolution and the Big Bang, etc.) are in fact true, but it was created at a point in time. Another easy way to reconcile them (and the one I often use) is to see that the book of Revelation is quite clearly intended to be metaphorical. If the story of the end is metaphor, why, then, can't the story of the beginning also be metaphorical?

    In short, there is nothing illogical about Christianity. The problem is that most people, whether religious or not, are small-minded, and don't really think for themselves all that well. They therefore take a view presented by other people in whole, whichever view seems to make the most sense to them. The small-minded Christians make the rest of us look bad (just as the small-minded atheists make the rest of the atheists look bad).

    On your anecdote, that has not been my experience. Most of the avowed atheists I've known (which is not many) have been complete tools. For the most part, they've been arrogant and self-important. At the same time, I've known a lot of Christians to be that way too. But the smartest people I've known have been Christians, as well as a few agnostics.

  9. I want to add one more thing, and that's a quote from the unlikely source of Trey Parker: "Basically ... out of all the ridiculous religion stories which are greatly, wonderfully ridiculous — the silliest one I've ever heard is, 'Yeah ... there's this big giant universe and it's expanding, it's all gonna collapse on itself and we're all just here just 'cause ... just 'cause'. That, to me, is the most ridiculous explanation ever."

  10. Arguing that "there's no principled basis for morality without religion" is laughable. I am an atheist and I have a very principled basis for morality. I don't need a supernatural myth looking over my shoulder to make me a good person.

  11. Either you misunderstand what I mean by a principled basis (I'd like to hear your reasoning) or you haven't fully understood the consequences of agreeing that there is such a thing as morality. As I said, if you don't agree, you might try reading Mere Christianity. C.S. Lewis makes the case as well as anyone. It would be good to hear the point of view of someone who was once an avowed atheist but was convinced through logic that Christianity is correct. If you are an atheist, then what is the harm in hearing the other point of view?

  12. I realized I should clarify what I meant by a principled basis for morality, because I'm guessing that's where the confusion lies. It does NOT mean that you can't come up with your own principles, or that people can't agree to principles. It means that there can be no principled basis for choosing what morality is without religion.

  13. I suppose it depends on your definition of morality. I call it ethics. I will admit that I have not read the Lewis book that you mention. However, it seems to me that your argument is that you need a supernatural being (for which there is no evidence of) to tell you what is right. Seems flawed.

  14. Ethics, morals, whatever you want to call it. How do you know what is wrong? Morals are intuitively known by all. Lewis cites Nazism as an example of something which all agree to be wrong, even atheists. So there must be a universal moral code. How can you explain such a code, if it is not on the same level as natural law? You really should read the book. It's quite short, and explains a great deal. If you like it, I would also recommend The Problem of Pain, which explains why bad things can (and in fact must) happen even though God is all-good and all-powerful.

  15. Since I don't believe in god, I can't believe in satan. If you believe in one, you have to believe in the other. And I really don't see a difference between the 2- its still religion.

    I would not listen to band who is driven only by their religious beliefs, whether they be for god or for satan.
    There's a difference between bands whose core beliefs as seen through their music is religious and bands that sign some songs either pro-god or anti-go.

    @FMA- I'm also an attorney, in Chicago. Don't see too many metal lawyers out there.

    I'm not sure about this:

    "It means that there can be no principled basis for choosing what morality is without religion."

    I am an atheist. I do not believe in God, a god or a group of gods. That does not mean that I do not have code of ethics/morals. Your questions to me may then be "upon what is that code based?" I'd have to think about that.

    Your example of the Nazi's though... weren't the Nazis christian? If so, how does that reconcile?

    Great thought provoking piece.

  16. Thanks for the comment. You seem to have an unusual position on the issue for a metalhead. No Extol or Watain?

    Not too many metal attorneys around here in Nebraska either, although there is also Metallattorney.

    I never asserted that people who are atheists have no code of morals, and if it seemed that way I must apologize. On the contrary, I think everyone has a moral code, and everyone's moral code is almost identical. But this can only be explained by religion. That's the key behind the Argument from Morality.

    The Nazi religious position was complicated, to say the least. A very brief summation from the Wikipedia article: "Although the 'National Socialist leaders and dogmas were basically, uncompromisingly antireligious', Nazi Germany usually did not directly attack the Churches, the exceptions being clerics who refused accommodation with the Nazi régime."

  17. This was a really interesting post to read. I am loosely Christian myself, so I tend to encounter the fringes of many similar debates, so I enjoyed reading your take on the issue.

    On a quizzical note, when you said "I won't support those who have violated the law in furtherance of their anti-Christian beliefs" wouldn't that apply to Norwegian black metal artists like Varg who burned churches?

  18. Yes, it would. Varg and Samoth (I wasn't aware of the Emperor/Zyklon connection to that issue previously). You'll notice most of the time when I first mention a band, the name of the band is a link. Burzum has no links from me.

  19. Nice piece. I found it fascinating, perplexing even, how you feel about Rotting christ. Don't know much about them, but aside form whether or not the members commit actual acts against chrisitanity, I don't see much difference between them and any other named BM band. I actually dig some of their material.

    To say you would not slisten to/support them just becuase of their name initially seems ignorant to me. Upon further thought however, I put the question to myself: Would I really listen to a band named "Dragging Niggers with Trucks" or "Kid Rape"? What if their music was actually good? Couldn't say for sure.

    Oh well, I guess what anyone thinks of how you feel about that name is irrelevant. People can like or dislike whatever they want, the only time it matters when those thoughts get put into direct action and begin effecting peoples lives. No one's life will change because you dislike the name Rotting Christ. All about free will right? Thanks for taking the time to expand on these thoughts. Very good to see diffrent points of view elaborated on, even if I may never fully "get it".

  20. On the Nazi note, some quick further tidbits borrowed from Wikipedia (the info can be found elsewhere too, but this is just easier:


    In 1941, Martin Bormann, a close associate of Hitler said publicly "National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable". In 1942 he also declared in a confidential memo to Gauleiters that the Christian Churches 'must absolutely and finally be broken.' Thus it is evident that he believed Nazism, based as it was on a 'scientific' world-view, to be completely incompatible with Christianity.

    Other members of the Hitler government, including Rosenberg, during the war formulated a thirty-point program for the "National Reich Church" which included:
    The National Reich Church claims exclusive right and control over all Churches.
    The National Church is determined to exterminate foreign Christian faiths imported into Germany in the ill-omened year 800.
    The National Church demands immediate cessation of the publishing and dissemination of the Bible.
    The National Church will clear away from its altars all Crucifixes, Bibles and pictures of Saints.
    On the altars there must be nothing but Mein Kampf and to the left of the altar a sword.


    From such quotes it seems pretty clear that Nazis were not Christians in anything resembling the conventional understanding of the word.

    On a personal note, I would prompt anybody who believes otherwise to ask themselves one simple question: "Would Adolf Hitler worship a Jew?" I think that one question basically covers the whole issue.