METALLUM MEDICUS (Case#1) - The Virtues of Christian Metal
The Case For Christian Metal
2016 marks the relaunch of Heaven's Metal Magazine. For the most part, this has been a rolling process which began with Heaven’s Metal Radio earlier this year and more recently the creation and updating of the website. As word continues to spread via social media (the Facebook page has never been inactive) our karew continues to push forward with new radio shows, reviews and coverage as time allows. So in lieu of the relaunch, I thought it might be interesting to revisit our motivations for covering the Christian metal scene. In preparation for starting this blog I went through some back issues of the 'zine itself and also looked at some of the online interviews in reference to Heaven's Metal over the past few years. Interestingly, I came upon this interview at freethunk.net, entitled An Atheist Interview with Heaven’s Metal Editor Doug Van Pelt which obviously caught my eye! It's a good read and Doug did a great job handling the questions. Several points in that discussion prompted me to pull out an unpublished article that I had put together in 2008 entitled, The Virtues of Christian Metal. Because we were limited (at that time) on space for the printed fanzine (and didn't have a webpage back then) editorial type pieces were lower priority than features and reviews. As I recall, the focus of the original “case” was an “apologetic” approach to Christian metal, which may seem like a pointless endeavor in this day and age, but I also remember having fun comparing the various qualities of elemental metals to those of the music so many of us enjoy on a near daily basis. Keep in mind that the material is a little dated so won't include any of the newer bands. Still, I think the piece makes some good points on the qualities of heavy metal in general, and more specifically, on the merits of Christ-centric metal. I think these observations are still highly relevant to the world we live in today. Granted, I realize that many of the bands in our scene nowadays are less evangelical and have moved their art into more contemporary or mainstream circles. Nowadays, many of us (I am definitely in this camp) gravitate toward metal that is relevant to living life as a Christian in this world, rather than exclusively “evangelical” or “Christian” – labeled music. Still, l think this discussion is healthy and serves as a reminder as to where we have been and why we are still burning the metal torch here at Heaven’s Metal.
The Virtues of Christian Metal
Jonathan “Doc” Swank
According to “thefreedictionary.com,” metal can be literally defined as “any of a category of electropositive elements that usually have a shiny surface, are generally good conductors of heat and electricity, and can be melted or fused, hammered into thin sheets, or drawn into wires.” However, they also recognize the figurative definition (i.e. mettle) “the stuff one is made of or one’s character.” Read on to discover what makes metal so metal and what makes Christian metal such a strong “conductor” for delivering the message of the Gospel and for edifying the body of believers.
Metal Is What Metal Does – Virtues of Metal
Heavy metal music, hereafter referred to as metal, shares many of its attributes with its literal “elemental” origins:
1. It is certainly both electrically charged and heated, literally and figuratively, as most headbangers will affirm. A song like “Battery” by Metallica really “charges-up” the cerebral cortex.
Circle of destruction, hammer comes crushing
Powerhouse of energy
Whipping up a furry, dominating flurry
We create the battery
2. From a mechanical standpoint, metal flexes (a sign of strength) and is malleable (is susceptible to creativity) but it rarely breaks. While the core composition of metal music is driving, rhythmic guitars and bass, thundering, often fast-paced drums and soaring melodic or harsh vocals, these basic elements are often “fused” or “melted” into different forms (i.e. melodic, power, progressive or extreme) and the sounds then bent (made malleable) by further alteration of that sub-genre (i.e. death or black). But ultimately, the basic elements are preserved, the metal remaining essentially (as Scorpions might say) “unbreakable.”
3. Metal is certainly loud and lustrous – akin to thunder and lightning – which has the combined effect of shock and surprise. For this reason, it simply can’t be ignored – it both demands and elicits a response from the listener. How often do you hear a metal tune and say, “Uh, its okay, I guess?” More like, “Dude, this rules!” or if you hate it, “This sucks, man!”
Sound of the drums Beating in my heart The thunder of guns Tore me apart You've been Thunderstruck
4. Heavy metal – just like gold and silver – is also universal, found in virtually all societies; it is revered by all kinds of people, regardless of socioeconomic class, ethnicity, gender or age.
United, united, united we stand
United we never shall fall
United, united, united we stand
United we stand one and all
Metal’s Polarizing Mettle
However, while all of the above virtues of metal derive nicely from the literal definition of the word, it is the figurative aspect of metal, or metal’s “mettle,” so to speak, that best defines the uniqueness of the musical genre. In other words, while the abrasiveness of the sound gives metal its edge, the attitude and content of the music give metal its character.
As previously noted, the extremity of the sound invariably elicits an extreme physical response, but it is, perhaps, the polarizing lyrical content of metal music that makes us “love it or hate it” in the end. The aggressive tone of the music – which demands the listener’s attention – provides the perfect milieu for political, emotional and even spiritual exegeses. In essence, the artist has open license to tackle difficult and often controversial issues, and in doing so isn’t restrained by the usual “unspoken” rules of communication. Political “incorrectness” becomes the new norm, so to speak, and the more extreme the music, often the more extreme the message. This “no holds barred” approach of metal lets the artist say what he/she really feels – what often really needs to be said – and not just what pop culture thinks he/she should say. The strength of the music, in turn, supports the strength of the message. Megadeth “hits the nail on the head” with their scathing “Peace Sells.”
What do you mean, "I hurt your feelings?" I didn't know you had any feelings. What do you mean, "I ain't kind?" I'm just not your kind. What do you mean, "I couldn't be President of the United States of America?" Tell me something, it's still "We the people," right? If there's a new way I'll be the first in line But, it better work this time. Can you put a price on peace? Peace sells Peace sells ... but who's buying?
Because metal is an extreme form of music, and because it is often very passionate in its confrontations, this music can be an intense comfort to us in times of deepest emotional need. Most metalheads will admit that when life becomes overwhelming or when tragedy strikes that they will often “plug-in” to their favorite shred. Because the blunt lyrical content cuts (or “bleeds”) us viscerally, it can provide a panacea of sorts when we are down – in some ways like a good non-judgmental friend. The Galactic Cowboys have this to say in “Just Like Me.”
He’s just a regular guy, tells the occasional lie
He’s got something to hide, but then so do I
With a checkered past, he cuts me slack
He can feel my pain, like a long lost friend
I want someone who will be just like me
I want someone who can be just like me
Sensual Metal – Friend or Foe?
Finally, metal’s “mettle” or character is inexorably linked to its sheer power, inherently rhythmic and tribal in quality, which ultimately connects with (that electrical theme again) the listener’s soul through the senses. It is, perhaps, this final attribute of metal – the ability to connect with the soul through the senses – that has generated so much controversy in both secular and Christian circles because many believe that most of the “bad” behavior associated with the genre stems from this “sensory” input gone wild.
While it would be foolish to argue that metal music doesn’t have a dark side or doesn’t, at times, incite violence or other negative actions, it would be equally foolish to blame metal for our culture’s moral depravity. We have previously argued in these pages (see Can You Find God in Classic Rock? Heaven’s Metal Fanzine #67) that it is not the music itself or the instruments of metal that are evil. Instead, it is the mindset of the lyricist that can have either a negative or positive impact on the listener.
Therefore, in lieu of the preceding discussion regarding the virtues and qualities of metal, it is certain that Christian metal, equipped with its own unique set of virtues, has a positive impact on the world where we live. Barren Cross’s anti-suicide “In the Eye of the Fire” beautifully illustrates this kind of hope and encouragement.
There is no easy way out
Of the problems you face no doubt
But one thing I know, you don’t have to go
Over the edge, there’s a lot you don’t know, Jesus knows
Don’t make His dream, the Satanic scheme
Wait out your life, but don’t take your life
Or, when death seems imminent, with dark forces at play … the progressive death metal of Extol’s Undeceived – one of the most technically brilliant and lyrically riveting releases in the history of Christian metal – shines forth on the title track.
She lies in her bed staring into nowhere
Tears running down her face
An open wound bleeding
Her body turns pale…
The shadow encircles her, pale of fear
Slowly draining the last drops of life
Her last strength she forces through
And cries out to the Lord she used to know
Overwhelming light annihilates the dark
Immediate rest fills her heart
My dear child, come to Me
I will restore you and embrace you with My love
Christian Metal – What’s The (Melting) Point?
Christian metal (here defined as metal written by believers in Christ for the purpose of edifying the body of Christ and/or delivering the message of the Gospel to the unsaved) shares many of its “literal” strengths with secular metal (i.e. the heat, the power, the strength, the luster, the shock value) rendering the music virtually indistinguishable to even the most discerning ear. However, it is the more “figurative,” character-based quality of metal that allows Christian artists to both distinguish themselves from their secular peers and make a more positive, yet equally credible, impact with their listeners.
For example, the extreme metal catharsis of early Mortification musically rivaled their “darker” contemporaries, yet their words – albeit still graphically visceral – clearly set them apart … “Terminate Damnation” just one such example.
Heed the words that terminate damnation…
Escape from torment is discovered
Through blood from veins ripped open
By warriors under a governor’s hand
Unaware while tearing Satan’s heart
One thing remains for mankind
To be spared from eternal darkness
Become mortified to ways unclean
And please the will of His Holiness
Subsequently, lyrics that are Christ-centric or derived from Bible truths have both an edifying and challenging effect on believers and non-believers alike. Metal’s polarizing nature provides the perfect environment for the confrontational nature of the Gospel message. Deliverance’s tandem of “If You Will”/“The Call” is probably one of the most iconic examples in all of Christian metal.
Whether you know or don’t know
The Word of God is true
It’s as a double edged sword
Ripping the heart in two
The day to choose is near at hand
Your ending is drawing near
It will either be the King Jesus
Or the defeated one Satan
(from “If You Will”)
My friend you know the answer
But will you heed the call
I know you want to reach out and touch Him
But He can’t answer if you don’t ask at all
Do you hear Him?
He’s calling out to you
Do you hear Jesus calling?
He’s calling out to you
(from “The Call”)
Not surprisingly, metal’s extreme quality also resonates deeply with one of the most graphic, disturbing and violent moments in all of history – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, God’s son.
Deity’s blood, spilled for you
For indeed Christ was our Passover
Hanging on a bloodied cross
A bloodied cross
Additionally, because metal is “politically incorrect,” like the Gospel itself, the Christian lyricist is able to expose difficult issues within culture and even the church – like child abuse, substance abuse, abortion, gluttony, etc. – that the Sunday preacher or street evangelist may be unable OR unwilling to address (Wicked Generation by Sacred Warrior is a great example). These difficult and depressing issues once again resonate with metal’s darker side, more so than they would with pop’s lighter, less confrontational side. Hear the words of Sacred Warrior from “Minister by Night.”
We’re out on the front lines
Surrounded by fruits of sin
That consume your daughter or son
We go in after them
They’re in our sights
But that’s our gift
In the darkness we’ll shed the light
We minister by night
In a heavenly show
Taking the Word to places
Places that you would not go
Finally, it is precisely because metal is universal – it crosses many cultural and socioeconomic barriers – that it is such a strong vehicle for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In today’s culture there are many people that may never enter a church, but some of these same folks may love listening to metal, perusing the lyrics with intensity, searching for something or someone to “connect” with, to either comfort them or help them find meaning in life. Once again, the poetry of the Galactic Cowboys comes to mind…
I made it through another year
Drove away another tear
Pondering the endless questions of life
I made it through another year, crying yet another tear
Pondering the things I dream in the night
You know just what to say
Speak to me
Nothings ever quite the same after You speak to me
Speak to me
Metal Refinery of Souls
Similar to the process whereby metal is refined from raw, useless elements into something of great utility and value, God refines men. Malachi 3:2 – 3 says, “But who can endure the day of His coming? Who can stand when He appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness.” Zechariah 13:9 suggests that men will be similarly “refined by fire” on the Day of the Lord. Likewise, God – through Christian artists – refines the music of metal into something more pure, more useful. As Messiah Prophet so powerfully shouts,
He’s the Master
The Master of the Metal
Christ, my Lord, my King
He’s the Master of the Metal
Noble Metal – Be Purified
Although many passages in the Bible regarding precious metals (gold and silver) refer to idol worship or greed, it is the exhortational passage in 2 Timothy which suggests that metals possess desirable qualities that make them useful for “noble” purposes. “In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” (2 Tim 2:20 – 21, NIV) In other words, if we allow ourselves to be purified (or cleansed) and be like noble (gold and silver) vessels rather than like ordinary or unrefined (wood or clay) vessels then we will be useful to God for doing good works. Obviously, Paul is using metaphors here, but the point is that metal is assigned a higher value because it is not only more coveted, but it is more refined and more useful for noble purposes. “Somnambulism” from Tourniquet states,
Blessed is the man
Who dwells in the unapproachable light
It will open a window
That empties the darkness of your soul
If we walk in the light
As He is in the light
He will purify us
Similarly, heavy metal music possesses both negative, covetous qualities (because like gold and silver, it appeals so much to the senses) and the positive, more noble qualities which have been discussed above. While most secular artists exploit the negative/ignoble aspects of metal (violence, hatred, sexual promiscuity, rebellion, over-indulgence, etc.), Christian artists have the power from God to exploit metal for noble causes, such as reaching out to and lifting up those living in desperation or by sharing the message of hope and salvation though extreme music. Demon Hunter’s words from “Undying” reflect nobly,
Tearing through these days I find the tolerance to strive and push on
I know what lies beyond this life for me is already won
No one can take away the blood that covers over my fall
Without the blood of perfect life I know I’m nothing at all
So now I reign forever hallowed in eternity’s hand
No man can shake me from the everlasting ground that I stand
And Theocracy similarly exhorts us to noble actions by putting Christ, and others, above our own desires on the often misunderstood title track from their debut.
Father, use me to be Your hands down here
A mirror to reflect Your glory into hurting eyes
And let me see the world with vision clear
And not through selfishness and lies…
As all around me I see bleeding souls
Please give me strength to never pass them idly by
And as the angry stormclouds start to roll
May they see comfort in my eyes
For just as You are full of mercy and love
The same to others You have called me to be
And by the covenant of grace above and below
Within our souls: theocracy…
Compelling Positive Movement – From Death to Life
In conclusion, it is ludicrous to presume that metal can only induce “bad” behavior. Surely, if metal possesses such a polarizing nature (which most won’t deny) then it can certainly compel movement in either a negative or a positive direction. The direction of this “movement” will be determined by the content of the message (the lyricist’s bent) and by the spiritual inclination of the listener. While only God can ultimately determine the outcome, it is apparent that metal’s greatest virtue – its ability to compel behavior – becomes Christian metal’s greatest strength. By providing a “lamp unto thy feet and a light unto thy path" (my paraphrase), Christian metal artists can be “noble” vessels in God’s house/kingdom and they will undoubtedly point believers and non-believers alike toward a life of hope and peace with the King. Selah.
The time has come
Arise from death
Victory is close at hand
Take up the sword and follow me
Out of nothing into new creation
“Ex Nihilo” – Becoming the Archetype
[Author’s Note: This is by no means an exhaustive apologetic on Christian metal, but rather a quick summary of the attributes and qualities of metal and how those qualities (or virtues) can be used for “spreading the Word” and “edifying” the body. While I tried to pick material that would be familiar to most, some bands, such as the Galactic Cowboys, were included because their lyrics are so universal – so impactful – and their music transcends secular/Christian stereotyping. Keep in mind though that these examples represent only a small fraction of the plethora of other gifted musicians out there (past and present) whose art is both evangelical and/or edifying in nature.]