The guest post today is from FSU graduate student Charlie McCrary on the anniversary of Stryper's To Hell with the Devil, a controversial Christian metal band. Charlie's most recent post for us reflected on Ron Bell and emergent theology.
Mosh if You Love Jesus: An Introduction to Christian Metal
This October 24th marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Christian glam-metal band Stryper’s To Hell with the Devil, an album that sold over one-million copies and controversially toed the line between Jesus’ and the devil’s music. A quarter-century later, aided by the Internet and the rising popularity of heavy music, the Christian hardcore/metal scene has exploded. For young people across the United States and the world, hardcore dancing, screaming, and moshing are considered genuine forms of worship. But what does the Christian metal scene look like—and what can it tell us about American evangelical youth culture? A brief survey of today’s Christian metal scene will bring us to at least one conclusion: it’s come a long way from yellow Spandex.
Metal is intense. Nothing about the music or the environment is relaxed. Members of heavy music scenes subscribe disproportionately to extreme lifestyle choices, such as straight-edge or veganism. Oddly enough, this atmosphere of extremism is ripe for evangelical fervor. The type of Christianity preached at Christian metal shows is not of the “lukewarm” variety. Enthusiastic, emotional, radical conversions and rededications are encouraged. A “Spirit-filled” circle pit isn’t entirely unlike, say, Cane Ridge. The evangelical hotbed that is the Christian metal scene subverts some stylistic tendencies of conservative evangelicals yet zealously champions familiar theological, practical, and ideological foundations.
Militarism, violence, and apocalypticism all have their place in American evangelical communities, perhaps nowhere more so than in the Christian metal scene. While apocalyptic themes are standard fare in metal lyrics in general, many Christian metal bands practically sound the seventh trumpet before every breakdown. Along with this focus on the apocalypse—which may be emphasized for the aesthetic qualities of the violent imagery of battle—comes the urgency to repent, accept Jesus as one’s savior, and not be left behind. Thus, because the end is immanent, evangelic efforts are aggressive and exigent, and bands like For Today not only fervently seek conversions, but then also set up Bible study networks in each tour city to ensure that newly-“saved” people can maintain Christian practice and “stay strong.” This battle imagery applies not just to the end times or apocalypse
For the Christian metal scene, as for many evangelicals, the entire world is understood in dichotomous relationships—between spirit and flesh, God and the devil, the “things of God” and “the world.” Many lyrics employ the sense that life itself is a sort of battle to be won or lost. See, for example, Haste the Day’s “When Everything Falls” (“I will stand when everything falls away. I will fight this war forever or until I die”), War of Ages’ “Battle On” (“Now that our time is near we hold our own until the end/Fight with every breath without doubt and don't look back/We fight for the Truth”), or For Today’s “Infantry” (“This world will do anything to release its demons at all costs. We'll fight back with all we have, making a difference for our God”). Battles and struggles are constant within the lyrics and messages of Christian metal. Though the battles referred to are often the real, cosmic battles that will in fact take place someday at the end of the world, just as often, they are the everyday struggles commonly experienced and discussed by evangelicals. From struggles with lust (see For Today’s “Redemption”) to the difficulty of fully trusting God (see A Plea for Purging’s “The New Born Wonder”), these lyrics express common evangelical frustrations and problems with typical evangelical language.
Christian metal also falls into line with conservative evangelicalism in its biblicism. Bible verses are frequently quoted in lyrics, and biblical themes and characters are often evoked as a way of meaning-making as well as legitimizing authority. Consider a few brief, fascinating examples. For Today’s 2009 album Portraits features a “portrait” of a biblical character in each song—such as Joel (The Watchman) or Ezekiel (The Visionary)—which serves not only as a Bible lesson but as a way of connecting the evangelical goals and mission of the band with biblical justifications and/or imperatives. In this same way, the now-defunct band Blessed is He drew authority from biblical sources, explicitly making this connection in the song, whose title comes from 1 Corinthians, “I Become One to Win One” with these lyrics: “I have become all things to all people—like Paul said—that I may by all means save some.” In doing so, they relate their sense of purpose while simultaneously silencing via proof-text evangelical doubters who may consider their lifestyle or appearance incongruent with Christianity.
The experience of a Christian metal show is in many ways just like that of any other metal or hardcore show: mosh pits, hardcore dancing, stage dives, headbanging, etc. It is violent, sweaty, intense, and male-dominated, yet at the same time fosters a sense of community and trust (see this video). Metal shows encourage audience participation, so much so that the audience becomes part of the performance. This is exactly the function of many rituals in typically “religious” settings. An atmosphere of solidarity is often created, which lends itself brilliantly not only to audience participating (moshing as a form of worship) but also to receptivity to preaching. Many bands, operative as sweaty, tattooed versions of Billy Graham, devote the final minutes of their set to a passionate plea for their audience to “know Christ.” The metal stage can transform to a pulpit, providing a platform for everything from sermons on manhood to personal testimonies to calls to action to corporate prayer. Some bands even blend Contemporary Christian Music and “praise and worship” genres into their set, as demonstrated in this live performance by Sleeping Giant.
As the idea of metal and hardcore as “acceptable” styles of Christian music (or even worship) becomes more widely affirmed, the Christian metal scene will likely continue to grow. Christian metal has been successful because of its fidelity both to the metal scene and to conservative evangelical principles. In doing so, it provides an outlet for evangelical youths who are drawn to metal but seek a “positive” environment. Additionally—and, in the minds of all involved, more importantly—Christian metal functions as an evangelistic tool, an inroad into a somewhat “unreached” community and an opportunity to “shine light” into the “darkest corners” of American youth culture.