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What the Church Can Learn From Heavy Metal

With America still reeling from the recent Isla Vista killings, the blogosphere has since exploded with a smorgasbord of theories about what led to the carnage. I certainly do not wish to opine any further on this matter, however, one of the responses to that event – “We Created Elliot Rogers” posted at Ethika Politika – does offer a pertinent example for what I do want to discuss here.[1]

The article’s author, Elisabeth Cervantes, moves away from the oft-repeated tropes of gun control, mental illness, and misogyny and examines another set – isolation, rejection, and “coolness.” Citing Rogers’ memoir, Cervantes notes that he seems to have suffered from a significant amount of bullying and had difficulty making friends which led to an extreme sense of isolation. Rogers would often go to public places, such as bookstores, hoping for someone to reach out to him, yet, as Cervantes points out, no one ever did.

This is not to suggest that society is fully to blame or that Rogers is not responsible for his own actions. That’s a debate for another day. What is important here is his intense feeling of rejection and his fascination with being “cool” as defined by our clique society. Being “cool” among school-aged kids is defined by wearing chic expensive clothing. It is defined by the current hip-hop/pop music which overemphasizes materialism and sexual promiscuity as central values. Being “cool” means the number of friends you have is more important than the quality of your friends. It means being more familiar with Jay-Z and Beyoncé than the current New York Times bestseller list. These pop culture values distorted Rogers’ view of society and his place in it.

This is precisely why I refuse to let my daughter watch The Disney Channel. A network that once aired family-friendly cartoons has become a “How To” guide for being “cool” in American culture. I noticed a significant change in my 10-year daughter’s behavior after only a few months of watching Disney’s plethora of “teeny bopper” shows. She started worrying more about the clothes she was wearing and began to worry about getting “made fun of” or bullied.  “Fitting in” and being “cool” are not values I want instilled in my children.

Now back to the title of this post.

Since my first metal concert (Ozzfest ’98), I’ve been a die-hard fan of heavy metal music. It is difficult to understand the appeal without actual going to a show and seeing the atmosphere first-hand.

A friend of mine, and fellow metal enthusiast, shared a meme on Facebook the other day which read:

“There are some things that normal people don’t understand about the beauty with this music and lifestyle…it is something indescribable that is felt deep within our hearts, it’s a fire burning deep within us. Metal helps us to not be afraid of being ourselves, it teaches us to overcome difficulties…Metal will always be right by our side, comforting us and helping us live through every day.”

Another friend of mine, a conservative evangelical, commented that the word “metal” should be replaced by “Jesus.” Of course, I agree wholeheartedly. My interpretation of metal is similar to my understanding of the gospel. Many of my favorite bands represent the same anti-materialist counterculture message of self-empowerment that one finds in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, many times our churches only serve to reinforce the value of “coolness,” albeit in a different manner. Our churches too often create new cliques instead of breaking them down.

I’ve been to many metal shows and I’ve been to many churches. It is a sad reality that I’ve often felt more welcome at metal concerts than at church. I’ve been to some very welcoming churches, but unfortunately, I’ve also been to quite a few that were not. I’ve attended some churches that felt more like social clubs where everyone dressed a certain way and belonged to the same social class and/or ethnic group. Some of the churches I’ve been to have felt more like holiness competitions where everyone tried to outdo the other when waving during praise music. At these churches, Christianity seemed more like a brand or something that I needed to conform to than a message of salvation.

I’ve never felt the need to “fit in” at a metal show. I’ve never worried about what to wear or how I looked. I’ve never felt pressured to wave or sing along. People always talk to you and give you a sense of belonging. The crowds at metal shows are radically diverse – from shaggy to clean-cut, tattooed or not, gothic to active-duty military, young to old, poor to upper middle class.

Metal offers something to those that society has written off. Those who grew up in broken homes or suffered from mental, physical, or sexual abuse often find therapy in metal. Those angry at society’s definition of “beauty” or seeking to rebel against fundamentalist-exclusivist religion find refuge in metal. Songs by bands like Shadows Fall, Hatebreed, and Killswitch Engage, far from the “Satanist” stereotypes, focus on self-empowerment. Korn frontman Jonathan Davis’ tortured childhood has been the main inspiration for the band’s music and his rage has helped millions of kids struggling with similar experiences.

Jesus’ ministry also offered something to those that society had written off – the lepers, the poor, the hungry, the prostitutes, Samaritans, and all of those who were marginalized. The early Christians succeeded in spreading the new faith in Jesus Christ by establishing health care facilities, opening soup kitchens, and performing other acts of charity.[2] The early Christians took Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 very seriously by setting everyone as equals and being radically inclusive.

Today’s churches could learn a great deal from what makes metal appealing to those often considered “losers” or “degenerates.” Instead of perpetuating the culture of “coolness” and trying to make the church relevant by the standards of American pop culture, the church should become radically inclusive again. The church should return to its counterculture roots.

Christianity should act as a movement for change, not a social club.

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Chris Smith

Chris Smith

Chris is currently employed as a library specialist for Middle Eastern language materials at Duke University. Prior to that he spent two years as a teaching assistant and Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He holds a M.A. in Religion from Wake Forest and a B.A. in Global Studies and Religious Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill. Chris has two daughters and currently resides in Chapel Hill, NC.

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