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Salute the delights of darkness

25 August 2010

Christians can learn about openness and joy from heavy-metal music, argues Rachel Mann

AS DARKNESS falls, we wait like supplicants, expecting the manifesta­tion of a god. Ripples of applause break out, but how can 60,000 people be so quiet? And then it begins — a single note rising through the still summer air: a note followed by a roar, the roar of 60,000 throats full of joy and delight.

This is no religious ceremony, at least not in the conventional sense. This is Sonisphere, a festival of one of Britain’s most despised popular music tribes: the heavy-metal fan (News, 13 August). Instead of a god, we wait for those kings of the metal stratosphere: Iron Maiden.

Of the main music genres, heavy metal is perhaps the most maligned. Since Black Sabbath effectively cre­ated it in 1969 by using the dissonant sound of the medieval “Devil’s chord”, heavy metal has been cast as dumb, crass, and, on occasions, satan­ic; music hardly fit for intelligent de­bate, let alone theological reflect­ion. And yet, as both priest and metal musician and fan, it strikes me that the Church, especially at this agonised time, has a serious gospel lesson to learn from this darkest and heaviest music.

Although it has many variations, metal is characterised by a distorted, heavy guitar sound, with intense beats and muscular vocals. Songs cover any theme, but are unafraid to deal with death, violence, and de­struc­tion, often in the first person. Lyrics such as Metallica’s “Our brains are on fire with the feeling to kill” are widespread.

Metal fans are predominantly male and white, and, as Sonisphere demonstrates, generally like tattoos and piercings, and sport T-shirts featuring bands such as Lamb of God and Apocalyptica.

Many bands adopt an anti-Christian stance. Slayer’s “I laugh at the abortion known as Christianity, I’ve seen the ways of God, I’ll take the devil any day, Hail Satan” is typical. This is not promising material for a lesson in the gospel.

YET metal culture demonstrates the power of human honesty to liberate us. As a metal fan for 25 years, I’ve found “metal-heads” graceful, wel­com­ing, and gentle. The music’s wil­ling­ness to deal with nihilistic and, on occasion, extremely unpleasant sub­jects seems to offer its fans a space to accept others in a way that shames many Christians.

Metal’s refusal to repress the bleak and violent truths of human nature liberates its fans to be more relaxed and fun people.

Sadly, by contrast, some readings of Christian faith — with their overemphasis on personal holiness — so easily crumble into stifling nice­ness and smiling humourlessness. It is such Christianity that the likes of Slayer are repelled by.

Metal has no fear of human darkness. It calls the Church to dis­cover a liberative theology of darkness: darkness not understood as negative, but as a place of possibility. The poet Henry Vaughan famously suggests that in God there is “a deep but dazzling darkness”.

Clearly there are some Christians who are unafraid of the dark, but many are yet to discover its potential as a place of integration. Metal has long understood that without the dark we can never be truly whole.

Many Christians will be concerned about the satanic dimension of metal. Clearly, as a priest, I do not think that Christianity is “an abortion”, even if I am extremely critical of it.

Distinctions need to be drawn: much of metal’s fascination with Satan or evil is play-acting, driven by a desire to shock; some of it is story-telling, vocalising evil in the way Milton did in Paradise Lost (though without his genius); and some of the recent “black metal” bands have consciously cultivated satanic images. But these ultra-heavy, growling groups do not especially trouble me. Their avowed views are simply this generation’s attempt to go to the most shocking place possible.

METAL invites Christianity to be less afraid of wildness and the ridiculous. It is clear to me that, subconsciously, festivals such as Sonisphere demon­strate a healthy understanding of the medieval concept of the Feast of Fools. This festival temporarily al­lowed the world and its comfortable values to be inverted by excess and licensed anarchy. Young people typically took the central parts, and would choose their own mock bishop or leader to act as Lord of Misrule.

Such revelling and parody never sat comfortably with church power, and was ultimately crushed. Yet fest­ivals such as Sonisphere recover the spirit of the Feast of Fools; for the human spirit will always need to rebel against ordinariness. Thus, there needs to be licence to dress and be­have ridiculously, over-indulge, and ridicule sacred cows. Metal fans, like most people, generally lead ordinary lives, and, in an ever-more-regulated culture, a Feast of Fools is essential to human flourishing.

I worry that, as we Anglicans live out our Christian sincerity, we have perhaps too much of what Nietzsche called Apollonian religion rather than Dionysian. We can make our faith too reasonable and ordered rather than allowing it to flow with passion and foolishness.

I am not suggesting that as Chris­tians we have all had a humour bypass, but we are inclined to take ourselves too seriously, even when we are having fun. One might respond that, unlike metal-heads, this is because Christians are involved in a genuinely serious activity. But, if that is the case, surely that is only more of a reason to rediscover the liberating quality of foolishness in our gospel living. The fullness of human living surely demands it.

The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, Manchester, poet-in-residence at Manchester Cathedral, and a member of the metal band Kingdom of the Blind.

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