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Zane JohnsonOctober 12, 2023

I first lost my soul when I was 12 years old. Or so I feared, sitting in Fiddler’s Green Amphitheater in Centennial, Colo., with my father and a grade school friend, waiting to be spiritually and sonically pummeled by an aging but no less searing Ronnie James Dio. Only months before, I had been confirmed as a Catholic, taking the name of St. Justin Martyr. And I was already terminal: I had contracted the severest case of metal-mania.

My first metal concert was Black Sabbath, founded by Ozzy Osbourne and reunited in the mid-2000s with the band’s second singer, Mr. Dio. Not yet a teenager, I was terrified by the staticky fuzz of Tony Iommi’s doomy guitar riffs, enthused by the overwhelming force of Dio’s operatic vocals. I did not hear it at the time, but these tremendous sounds also carried an earnest reckoning with religious values on their distorted waves, which I would come to appreciate later in life.

Heavy metal has the power to name the darkness in the world—the injustice, the suffering, but also the numinous.

What captivated me then and now is heavy metal’s power to name the darkness in the world—the injustice, the suffering, but also the numinous, which is sometimes figured to be “dark” by many spiritual traditions. This is what constitutes metal’s prophetic potential and its importance for people of faith.

Growing up, I was sheltered from sociopolitical unrest and dysfunction in my middle-class suburb. But as a pre-teen with difficult emotions and a few hard life experiences already under my belt, heavy metal was a helpful resource for me to explore my inner world. Two years prior to the concert, when I was 10, I had moved states following my parents’ ugly and protracted divorce. I indulged the darkness in destructive ways as I struggled with mental illness, developed problems with drugs and alcohol by my 13th year, and began sabotaging relationships with family and peers.

But in the tumult of what was a common suburban youth for my generation, marked by a quest for mind-altering substances and promiscuous sex, I always saw heavy metal as a mooring force in my life. Indeed, my love for this music is in all likelihood bound up in an early adolescent effort at identity formation. I remember hearing the ethereal sounds of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath on classic rock radio in the early 2000s and watching sweaty, curly-haired guitar virtuosos on VH1 videos belt solos that soared above a chugging rhythm section. The music seemed to advertise the freedom and transcendence that came with being an outsider.

The imagery of heavy metal music, I think, gave me a healthy sense of empowerment and insulation against the unhappiness around me. And it gave me a healthy skepticism about the status quo. Listening to metal primed me to side with the underdog.

My love for this music continues, but it has changed. I came back to faith during graduate school, first through exploring contemplative prayer and eventually wandering back into the pews, after experimenting with popular spiritualities that too often sought a convenient escape from the material world and all its suffering (or else sought to control the material world for one’s own gratification.) Like the modernist poet T. S. Eliot, I found meaning in Christian orthodoxy’s serious reckoning with sin and death, the mortal crack in the human frame. I now see hints of that same seriousness in heavy metal’s confrontation of darkness within and without.

A Pact With the Devil

The preponderance of all things “heavy” in metal music has much to do with the genre’s origins in the blues of formerly enslaved African Americans. Along with its laments about disenfranchised lives, the blues also bore a dark and moody aesthetic, exemplified by the legend of Robert Johnson’s pact with the devil, which has become associated with heavy metal.

Johnson’s famous song “Hellhounds on My Trail,” the origin of this legend, has been interpreted as the story of a man fleeing a lynch mob through the thin allegorical veil of a sinner being chased by beasts from hell. The song is at once a witness to the horrors experienced by Black people living in the Deep South in the early 20th century and the self-conscious donning of an outsider persona.

As music genres with roots in the blues became commercially successful in the ’50s with musicians like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, white musicians began to appropriate the sounds and textures of the music. They seized in particular upon the dissonant dominant seventh chord and the “12-bar blues” song structure that characterized so much of blues music. Curiously, the dominant seventh bears within it a spooky-sounding tritone, the “devil’s interval,” the playing of which was allegedly forbidden in the Middle Ages.

The imagery of heavy metal music gave me a healthy sense of empowerment and insulation against the unhappiness around me.

The prophetic impulse of the blues would be revived at the end of the ’60s in the crumbling environment of postwar Birmingham, England, when Black Sabbath—the first heavy metal band—emerged. (The band’s name came from a song written by its bassist Geezer Butler, itself inspired by a Boris Karloff movie.) Black Sabbath even exploited the “devil’s interval” in the title track of their eponymous debut album.

Heavy metal historian Ian Christe sets the stage in his magisterial Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal:

From the start Black Sabbath voiced powerful passion from beyond the perimeters of popular opinion. They were prophets bred from the downside of English society, the unemployed—people regarded as morally suspect and of negligible social worth. The four members all were born in 1948 and 1949 in Birmingham, England, a crumbling factory town surviving an age when Europe no longer prided itself on industry....

Sabbath was born when Ozzy Osbourne, the child of a broken home and then a petty thief, who reportedly walked his “pet” shoe on a leash, posted an advertisement in a local music shop: “Ozzy Zig Needs Gig.” Guitarist Tony Iommi responded. Iommi worked in a steel mill at the time; the tips of his fingers were lopped off in an accident with a machine on his last day there—the day he committed to gigging in a rock band full time. With his mutilated fingers he had to tune down his guitar strings and wear thimbles while playing. With his guitar retuned to a lower pitch, it would be less painful to play, and thus was born the characteristic heavy, low and crunching guitar sound we have come to associate with heavy metal. Wrecked fingers led to wrecking-ball music.

“Wicked World,” from Sabbath’s debut album, for example, presents a world marked by the reign of injustice.

“Wicked World,” from Sabbath’s debut album, for example, presents a world marked by the reign of injustice, set to Iommi’s dark, droning blues, Bill Ward’s furious jazz drumming and Ozzy’s ghoulish moan: “A politician’s job they say is very high/ For he has to choose who’s got to go and die/ They can put a man on the moon quite easy/ While people here on earth are dying of all diseases.”

Heavy metal is today widely known for its more commercial spinoffs in the ’80s, with bands like Poison and Mötley Crüe, whose public personas were based around sexual excess. (Poison is to many not even legitimate heavy metal, but glam or hair metal.) But Black Sabbath is where metal’s theology is anchored. Almost mind-bogglingly, Black Sabbath is credited as the first band to pen a Christian rock song, “After Forever,” appearing on their third studio album “Master of Reality.”As the title suggests, the song is an earnest appeal to the reality of life after death:

Could it be you’re afraid of what your friends might say

If they knew you believe in God above?

They should realize before they criticize

That God is the only way to love.

Geezer Butler later reported that the song arose from his frustration with the ongoing violence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland at the time: “We all believed in Jesus—and yet people were killing each other over it. To me it was just ridiculous. I thought that if God could see us killing each other in his name, he’d be disgusted.”

Still, Black Sabbath was content to name the problem and withhold solutions other than “love thy neighbor,” in the words of Ian Christe.

A New Kind of Protest

By the mid-1980s, longing for a return to its original prophetic message and form against glam acts like Poison, the aggressive thrash metal scene rose up. Bands spoke plainly about their concerns over the hawkish neoconservatism of the Reagan era. They chose to forgo the Christian allegory of their predecessors in favor of direct protest.

Metallica’s magnum opus “Master of Puppets,” whose cover displays an invisible hand orchestrating terror above a field of white crosses, for instance, features songs about the physical and mental devastation wrought upon veterans.

By the late ’80s, metal reached its most extreme point with the emergence of death metal, black metal and grindcore. With its over-the-top violence, aesthetic Satanism and atonal distortions of beauty as we know it, it seems nearly impossible to extract any theological wisdom from these forms of metal: they employed extremity for extremity’s sake, apparently shorn of value of any kind, spiritual or artistic.

A closer look reveals an earnest engagement with religious values and experiences even at metal’s fringes.

And yet, a closer look often reveals an earnest engagement with religious values and experiences even at metal’s fringes: mourning God’s perceived absence in the modern world in a way that mirrors biblical lament; calling out religious hypocrisy; and creating new avenues for experiences of transcendence for those who might feel alienated by traditional religion.

Much heavy metal, both traditional and extreme, presents an anti-Christian image, it is true; and yet there is hardly a form of popular music that more explicitly appropriates traditional religious language and imagery. Through a close reading of heavy metal lyrics and aesthetics, I believe we can discern beneath the rough exterior—and genuine anger—a thirst for righteousness. Heavy metal, even its extreme forms, evokes Psalm 72: “My he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.”

While metal bands often cry out against social injustice, they also demonstrate a genuine hunger for the transcendence and empowerment that religious experience offers. The scholar Niall Scott has described metal shows as “apophatic liturgies,” in which “the enveloping noise of heavy metal refers to silence…,” to non-being and the dissolution of the personality that is characteristic of so much mystical literature. The darkness of the human experience, especially seen through the eyes of the outsider perspective that heavy metal adopts, intuitively gives way to the darkness of spiritual experience.

There is room in Christianity for this darkness. Take the apophatic mysticism of the early fathers of the church, who speculated on the divine darkness of God—a product of his blinding brightness but also indicative of his fecundity and unspeakable awesomeness. The sixth-century theologian Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, for example, sought to discern beneath nameable attributes of God “that superessential gloom which is hidden by all the light in existing things.”

Wolves in the Throne Room, an American black metal band known for their deep ecological influences, is an interesting example: Their album “Diadem of 12 Stars,”a reference to the book of Revelation, depicts a misty Cascadian forest, a “wild” but contemplative scene. The album begins:

You are a daughter of heaven

12 stars circle your brow

But you do not see them and the rain pours down

Our time in this garden is past

The sourcing of Christian material in this album is probably atypical of “spiritual” heavy metal. But I think its use here reflects a genuine mourning of the loss of our prelapsarian state.

In reflecting on my own complicated love of metal, I have found it worthwhile to reflect on the vocation of my patron, St. Justin Martyr. As a Platonic philosopher before his conversion, Justin sought the incarnate logos that lies in waiting beneath the imperfect philosophies and thoughtforms of his day. Similarly, I see in metal a confrontation with religious hypocrisy that would be familiar to the Gospel writers. Metal embraced nonconformity with the oppressive systems that the church has named the World, the Flesh and the Devil. It embodies a yearning for transcendence. All of this is life-affirming.

This is an entryway to ministry. With its festival cycles like the Maryland DeathFest or the Milwaukee Speed Metal Festival and its participatory live performances, replete with stage dives and incantatory call-and-response dialogues with the audience, heavy metal provides a parallel liturgical practice. It is a practice that is sometimes averse to Christianity but nevertheless attempts to speak to the ethical and spiritual yearning of our day.

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