Christianity And Heavy Metal As Impure Sacred Within Secular West: Transgressing The Sacred by Jason Lief

Rather than a stereotypical understanding of heavy metal as an oppositional form of cultural discourse, the subversive function of metal is deeply connected with a subversive interpretation of the Christ event. This is not the pure sacred that appeals to a transcendent divine power as the guarantee of the status quo, and it is also no a religious attempt to escape from material existence into some higher, abstract, spiritual world. Instead. heavy metal is related to an interpretation of the death and resurrection of Christ that sees the crucifixion and resurrection as a social and political rupture stemming from te inbreaking of an “event” – a manifestation of an unnamable and unmappable force that relativizes every social, institutional, and cultural form of ideology. This interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a supernatural guarantee of a particular way of life, it is primarily an event that both demythologizes and remythologizes, rupturing the status quo to make possible a new way of being in the world. – Jason Lief, Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within The Secular West: Trangressing The Sacred, p.73

We walked away from Eden
Put Heaven in the sky
Put angels on the houses
That the devil lives inside – “In A Garden Made Of Stones”, Dead Soul Tribe, lyrics by Devon Graves

Polish Black Metal band Behemoth in concert. As I told my daughter when she told me they’re scary, “They’re supposed to be.”

Every once in a while, when on Amazon, I will type the words “heavy metal” and “Christianity” into the Books search bar. Up until a few weeks ago, all I saw were the usual, nonsensical “evangelical” books talking about how evil heavy metal is. What happened a few weeks ago was this book. I was shocked. Could it be someone had written the book I keep telling myself I’m going to write someday, a book that explores the complex, ambiguous, and contradictory relationship between heavy metal and Christianity, a book that takes both metal and Christianity seriously?

After hemming and hawing over the price – it was listed at $90, not unusual for an academic monograph on a specialized topic from a small publisher – I ordered it. Ironically, it arrived on Easter Sunday. I must admit I was excited to read this book.

Rarely have I read a book so poorly written, even more poorly printed (my copy is so filled with errata it became frustrating at  times to read), that said so little about something that deserves a far better treatment than it received here. While I applaud Jason Lief for the attempt, the execution was awful. It needed to go through at least one more rewrite with a polishing of proofs, judging just by the run-on sentences alone. This isn’t nitpicking. You’re supposed to be an academic. The least you can do is write like someone with an education.

Now, these are just the physical flaws in the presentation. It might have been rescued had Lief not said so little, said it over and over again, until I found myself having to wait a day or two between chapters. It is that bad.

First of all, if you’re going to write about the relationship between heavy metal and Christianity, you should be able to talk about the music qua music. It isn’t enough to point out that heavy metal represents more than just music, but a set of social and cultural practices. If you find yourself noting only, and often, that heavy metal music is loud, its lyric content often dealing in profane and even blasphemous subjects, you might want to stop and do research on the music itself. Not just the volume, but the mixture of timbres – heavily distorted guitars often tuned down, an emphasis on rhythm that pushes both the bass guitar and drums further up in the mix, vocal styles that range from operatic through nearly unintelligible grunting to heavily distorted screaming – the musical choices of modes and harmonic structures that rely on dissonance, all go to make up heavy metal’s appeal. The communities around metal form in response to the musical experience, then spreading out as other aspects, from the concert experience, serious discussion of lyrical content and choices, and setting the music in historic and social context. A serious discussion of heavy metal as a musical form (or forms, since there are varieties of heavy metal) is important if we are to understand how the music operates as what Lief calls “the impure sacred”.

Second, if you’re going to write about heavy metal and Christianity from the perspective both of a fan of the genre and a practicing, professing Christian, it might be a good idea to offer a clear theological framework at the beginning of your work, rather than relying on secular philosophers who, while certainly important for setting cultural and social questions in a larger context, are no substitute for a theologian or theologians whose confessional stance offers readers the opportunity to think differently about both heavy metal and Christianity. While I like the choice of Jurgen Moltmann as a theological guide, he is the only true theologian offered, and he makes a very late appearance at that. We are offered Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Bataille,Taylor, Bordieu, Zizek, and other social and cultural theorists long before we encounter an actual professing theologian. Again, this is not nit-picking. The title has Christianity as its first topic. It might be nice to have a serious discussion of the necessarily ambiguous nature of confessional theology when dealing with any cultural form. It might also be important to discuss, rather than just mention, how the profanity and blasphemy of some heavy metal operates; how it functions both as music and as cultural product; and the varieties of profanity and blasphemy on offer, from band names through stage presentation to the interactions of fans with fans as well as with the band on matters of religion and its symbolic place within heavy metal.

Furthermore, with regard to the matter of “Christianity”, please please please offer very clear definitions and distinctions. Early in the work, Lief attempts to separate “Christianity” from “the Christ event”, the latter being somehow separate from any theological or doctrinal impurities, as if speaking about “the Christ event” isn’t already offering a confessional and theological stance that needs to be fleshed out rather than merely stated. If, however, this is a distinction you wish to keep throughout the work, it would probably be a good idea not to use the terms interchangeably. Quite apart from the naive understanding of the use of the words “Christ event”, offering “Christianity” as a synonym even though you’ve already drawn in important distinction between the two terms was frustrating, to say the least.

The most frustrating thing, the thing that made me want to bang my head against a wall, was the repetition of the following phrase or its variant throughout the work: Heavy metal/the Christ event as impure sacred creates an abrupt break with the status quo, offering the possibility for genuine community and new forms of political activity. This sentence occurs so often, sometimes in the same run-on sentence, my eyes blurred when I saw it. My problem, however, is not the phrase itself; it is, rather, there is no discussion of how this happens or, except in a very brief discussion of Pauline theology, what constitutes these communities as distinct from the larger culture. Asserting over and over again that it happens isn’t enough. How it occurs, how these occurrences work themselves out in and through the various communities mentioned (but never defined) are all necessary if your goal is to show the similarities between heavy metal as socio-cultural practice and Christianity as more than simple confessional stance regarding the relationship between the created order and divinity.

I finished this book feeling taken advantage of. I spent a whole lot of money on a work that seemed to promise a thoughtful discussion of the complex and multifaceted relationship between Christianity and heavy metal. What I received was, for all intents and purposes, a poorly written first-draft of an undergraduate thesis that did little justice either to heavy metal both as a musical form and as cultural practice or Christianity both as confession and faithful practice.

I think it’s time I tried my hand at this.