One of the questions I gave my high school students on their Rhetoric Final Exam was “Can Hardcore Music be Christian?” It was a popular choice. A third of the class weighed in. Their responses were thoughtful, articulate, and to the person, supportive of Christian heavy metal music—groups such as Spoken, Living Sacrifice, P.O.D., and Project 86.
What makes music or musical entertainment “Christian?” These are questions being raised within Christian entertainment itself and not simply by confused teachers and parents of adolescents. Earlier this year, WORLD magazine discussed the tensions within contemporary Christian music (CCM). Lying behind the marketplace constraints of the music industry are a host of deeper questions that serve to frame our understanding of what it means to be an apprentice of Jesus. Discernment requires our reflection. At the heart of the argument is what it means to be “in” the world, but not “of” it. What it means to be “like Jesus” in the midst of our postmodern, post-Christian culture. To what extent are we to be the same as contemporary culture—read “relevant?” To what extent are we to be different (read: irrelevant)?
Let’s back the discussion up from the emotionally charged issues of whether one likes or approves of the music to the more foundational questions about entertainment, beauty, and apologetics. The measure of a successful conversation with a young adult on these issues is whether one can engage the topic honestly without resorting to judgmental language, sweeping generalizations, and flippant put-downs. As a rule of thumb, if the young adult is put on the defensive, some invisible line of practical love has been crossed. In the end, we may or may not agree, but by God’s grace, one would hope that we could agree on the substantive questions that shape our shared desire to become like Jesus and to live under his authority. Real disagreement on things that matter is an accomplishment. Too often, disagreement is simply a product of not listening.
It is helpful to acknowledge the reason why music is such an emotionally charged topic when discussed with an adolescent. Music in youth culture serves a role larger than music. It’s an identity trademark. To criticize a person’s music is in effect to criticize the person—and all their closest friends. It’s a criticism that cuts deep. It’s the severest “diss.” In youth culture, identity politics has a musical address. Thus, parents, teachers, and youth leaders must learn to tread lightly and treat the topic itself with great respect. Here we will seek to establish common ground on foundational issues. We will approach the question, “Would Jesus mosh?” obliquely.
Is entertainment spiritually neutral? We live in an entertainment-saturated culture and an entertainment-centered economy. Think for a moment of the economic impact of entertainment—television, film, music, videos, computer games, sports, and amusement parks, to name but a few. It’s our nation’s largest export. More to the point, entertainment is not something we do in our leisure. It is fast becoming who we are in our life. Reality-TV is hot simply because reality is TV. Entertainment has metastasized into life. Social critic Neal Grabler warns, “We now inhabit a world in which Plato’s worst nightmare has come to pass: the triumph of the senses over the mind, of emotion over reason, of chaos over order, of the id over the superego, of Dionysian abandon over Apollonian harmony. In that world entertainment—fun, effortless, sensational, mindless, formulaic, predictable, and subversive—is at the center of everything.” Consultants and futurists point out that business no longer sells service or information, but experiences and dreams.
If it’s entertaining, we’re not supposed to think too seriously about it. We watch TV to “veg out.” We put on the headphones to get in the “zone.” We don’t discuss movies or music concerts; we simply go to be entertained. We mosh and rave when the music takes hold of us in a kind of unreflective trance. Entertainment is not only pervasive in culture; its values are corrosive to discernment.
Does it really matter what we see, listen to, or think? Yes, it does. Age makes no difference in these choices. Spirituality does. Does age have any relevance to whether a PG-13 or an NC-17 rated movie is appropriate? Isn’t the core question about our entertainment choices really a question of whether it assists one in becoming more like Jesus? Proverbs warns, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (4:23). The writer goes on to discuss what “guarding” entails: what we say (“corrupt talk”), what we look at (“fix your gaze”), and where we go (“make level paths”). We tend to be woefully naïve about the damage our entertainment choices make to our hearts. Our greatest fear is boredom. Bring on the fun.
The danger is twofold. First, entertainment dulls our spiritual senses. Sloth is the spiritual epidemic of the modern world—not laziness, but spiritual indifference. Philosopher Peter Kreeft writes, “Diversion’s greatest danger is that it acts like a sedative. It keeps us just content enough so that we don’t make waves and seek a real cure. It deadens our spiritual nerves, it muffles our alarm system.” A lifestyle of entertainment makes the spiritual conditions necessary for self-reflection impossible. It makes it hard to maintain cognitive distance from the taken-for-granted cultural patterns of worldliness. Second, entertainment twists our priorities. In the light of eternity, does it really matter who wins the Super Bowl? Or who wins a million dollars on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Or who survives “Survivor?” We invest enormous amounts of time, energy, and money into that which will not last. Our lives become centered on wood, hay, and stubble. And yet, we are charged by our Savior to bear fruit that will last (John 15:16).
When we are uncritical about our entertainment choices, we are playing with our spiritual default. What do we think about most of the time? When nothing else is pressing in on our attention, to what does our mind shift? The answer to these questions provides an accurate read on the state of our heart. So what are we to think about, if our minds are “in Christ Jesus?” The Bible is clear: “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8). Our minds matter, because our beliefs matter. They are the rails on which our lives run. Thus, we cannot be cavalier about our entertainment choices. An engaged mind, with a discerning biblical world view, and a spiritual concern to guard one’s heart will have to be especially present when one goes to movies or concerts. Entertainment is not spiritually neutral. “It sounds like school,” one may lament. But such a reaction is only an indicator of the extent to which one has become prey to the ethics of entertainment—turn one’s mind off and “veg out.” It is the Devil’s ploy. Such an uncritical attitude does not help one follow Jesus or develop the mind of Christ.
Objective Standards for Beauty
So if one desires to be self-reflective and biblically self-critical about one’s entertainment choices how does this relate to Christian heavy metal music? My students argued that the lyrics and lifestyle of the artist make the music distinctively Christian. “For hard rock to be Christian, the members of the band must have a personal relationship with Christ,” wrote one student. “The audience must know that the band is Christian,” wrote another. “Sure Living Sacrifice writes hard instrumental music lines, but their lyrics are pure. Their message is untainted and not filled with profanity. They praise God, not the Devil. Their words might be hard to understand and their music might be considered noise by some, but it is uplifting,” wrote a seventeen-year-old junior. “Do you really believe that a particular sound or genre of music can be morally right or wrong?” wrote another student, who is a serious follower of Jesus and a member of a heavy metal band.
What constitutes “Christian” lyrics has been a conundrum for the Gospel Music Association (GMA) that gives out Dove Awards, CCM’s version of the Grammy’s. In their definition of Christian music, “Lyrics have to be substantially based upon historical orthodox Christian truth contained in or derived from the Holy Bible, or an expression of worship of God or praise for His works or testimony of a relationship with God through Christ or obviously prompted and informed by a Christian world view.” Such an emphasis on the content of lyrics has allowed CCM to promote a wide diversity of musical formats. The GMA’s Dove Award nominations include categories such as Pop/Contemporary, Praise & Worship, Rap/Hip Hop/Dance, Rock, Hard Music, Inspirational, and Country. It appears that every possible musical format has found its Christian voice. With this proliferation of musical tastes, it seems particularly intolerant to question a particular musical form, if its lyrics have a modicum of Christian content and its performers a pretense of Christian conviction. And why single out Christian heavy metal? If questions are going to be raised, shouldn’t they be raised about the adultery of Gospel Music superstar Sandi Patti or the divorces of contemporary Christian stars Amy Grant and Susan Ashton? These are legitimate concerns, but let’s try to focus this discussion on the substantive underlying questions. Are Christian lyrics enough? Or does a biblical world view speak to the deeper question of musical quality and form?
Historically, truth, morality, and beauty were all considered objectively knowable. C.S. Lewis states, “Until modern times no thinker of the first rank ever doubted that our judgements of value were rational judgements or that what they discovered was objective.” While truth, morality, and beauty are not all known in the same way, there are objective standards that apply to each area. In contemporary society, a belief in objective standards sounds ominously totalitarian. Philosophical nihilism, moral relativity, social multiculturalism, nongender sexuality, and expressive individualism are taken-for-granted assumptions in much of American society. Here truth, morality, and beauty are all matters of personal taste and opinion. Who’s to say what is true or false, good or evil, beautiful or ugly? This is the Nietzschean ethic, which ends in the abrogation of all standards, a view found most commonly in university lectures and pop lyrics. Peter Kreeft warns, “The master heresy is subjectivism. It is the parent of all the others, for only after the objective truth is denied are we ‘free’ to recreate new ‘truth’ in the image of our own desires. Only when we fall asleep to the real world are we ‘free’ to dream nightmare worlds into being.”
Christians, including my students, usually stop short of such consistent subjectivism. But it’s in the air we breathe. Few are even aware that both Christian and nonChristian would have considered such views unthinkable as recently as a century ago. Certainly there were disagreements about what constituted truth—or even what constituted art—but they would have never thought for a moment that such fundamental matters were merely a matter of opinion. It was this view that was challenged at the famous New York Armory show in 1912. What was scandalous then, even in secular art circles, are normative assumptions within many Christian circles today. My students hold to objective standards in the area of truth and morality, but not music. Recently the directors of the most prestigious art museums in America were asked by a national newsmagazine, “What is art?” None were able to give an answer. In the end, art is what sells. Market values have trumped aesthetic values. Standards of beauty have been drowned in the universal solvent of kitsch and consumerism. And market values reinforce the subjective values of the masses. Not surprisingly, in high culture as well as low culture, tastes are nose-diving to the lowest common denominator in order to find the largest market share. Pick your context. Andrew Serrano’s crucifixes in jars of urine or MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch—it’s a matter of taste. Or is it?
World views dictate music as well as art. The music of Igor Stravinsky and John Cage differed from Johann Bach and George Handel because of what they believed about fundamental reality: chaos vs. order, love vs. anger, God vs. self. A similar musical difference is seen in the contrast between heavy metal and jazz—two contemporary musical genres. The music itself says something about reality. Nine-Inch-Nail’s Trent Reznor’s ode to suicide in his CD, The Fragile, is an illustration of the point. His music is appropriate to his point of view. Thinking “world-viewishly” about music means that one must think beyond the lyrics to the music itself. Christian music need not be “traditional” or “classical,” but it must reflect both in its musical composition and presentation a godly view of reality.
The context of Christian lyrics matters. A Scripture verse written in feces on the wall of a public restroom may constitute evangelism, but one wonders if the context and presentation do not change the message. Holding a Sunday worship service in the atrium of the Mall of America may reach a new audience, but one wonders whether the gospel has simply become another consumer product. Context matters. Jesus became furious over the presence of the money changers’ encroachment into the temple courtyard. The convenience which enabled distant worshippers to purchase their sacrifices more easily was lost on Jesus. “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a ‘den of robbers’” (Matthew 21:13). Jesus believed in sacred space. Worship space was different from the marketplace. Right worship demands a right context.
So what of heavy metal? Heavy metal scholar Robert Walser in Running with the Devil writes, “Heavy metal is, as much as anything else, an arena of gender, where spectacular gladiators compete to register and affect ideas of masculinity, sexuality, and gender.” There is a reason for the overlap between this musical genre and professional wrestling and “Beavis and Butthead.” The musical emphasis is on volume, power, and intensity. Melody and harmony are virtually absent. It’s a cacophony of rhythm, screaming electric guitars and angry voices. Vulgarity is made public and is celebrated. It is a defiant rejection of all moral demands. “The belief system that underlies heavy metal songs has its roots in American individualism. In heavy metal songs, the right of the individual to do whatever he or she pleases is enshrined among the highest values. Self-fulfillment and self-expression are held high whereas self-restraint and self-denial are scorned as the values of the timid, the dull, and the humorless,” writes sociologist Jeffrey Arnett in Metalheads: Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Alienation.
No longer an outlawed musical subculture, metal is now discussed favorably in the mainstream press. USA Today recently ran a feature on Ozzy Osborne, who sponsors the traveling summer metal concert series, Ozzfest. This year Ozzfest is headlining groups such as Pantera, Godsmack, Static X, Incubus, and Methods of Mayhem. The article sets Osborne in the context of family life. He is pictured as a loving father with his wife and children. At Ozzfest, he is quoted in the article, “[My children] can watch the chicks flash their boobies.”
With the recent musical fusion of rap and metal—rap’n’roll—sexual aggression and adolescent anger are reaching full voice. The culture is male and misogynist. Eminem’s hit record, Slim Shady LP, promotes a message, “Life’s a bitch, who needs to die now?” Spin’s journalist observes, “Limp Bizkit, Insane Clown Posse, the frightfully articulate Eminem are becoming time bombs of unchecked anger.” The events surrounding Woodstock ‘99 (a.k.a. “Nudestock” or “Rapestock”) are described by secular music critics as “historically appalling.” Rage Against the Machine’s singer Morello described the looting, raping, and burning at Woodstock, as “an outburst of pagan glee.” This is the musical context in which we must understand and discuss Christian Heavy Metal. This musical genre has a social context.
One of my students wrote of attending a Christian hardcore concert by Mindrage. He writes, “After playing a song with the most incredible bassist I have ever heard, they started witnessing to the audience. Some of the crowd started shouting Scripture out. It was awesome.” Followers of heavy metal need Christ. These kids will never set foot within a church. Church music—much less J.S. Bach —leaves them cold. Music is at the heart of their culture. To reach them, one must engage in cross-cultural ministry. One must proclaim the gospel in the parlance of the people. The stated mission of Christian heavy metal bands—apart from fame and fortune—is to reach these needy young adults. Another student wrote, “This is the greatest sign to me that a band is Christian. If they stop their songs and just start witnessing to the audience.” Relevance, contact, and conversion are the foundational rationale for Christian heavy metal. Good intentions aside, is this enough? Or more to the point, how far can one go to accommodate the culture in order to reach the culture without becoming like the culture? There are no easy answers. But it is clearly the question that must be asked.
Take for example the Dove Award winning heavy metal group, P.O.D. (Payable On Death). Family Christian Store’s music magazine, All Access, writes, “Currently seen everywhere from CCM Magazine to Rolling Stone, on television from Bill Mahr’s Politically Incorrect to MTV’s 120 minutes, on the Howard Stern show, and climbing up the Billboard Top 200, P.O.D. is making an impact. Multiethnic California hard rockers with musical ties to Korn and the Beastie Boys, Fundamental Elements of Southtown, delivers a fresh, edgy style with a focused Christian message.”
The P.O.D. web page compares their music to Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit. In their opening cut, P.O.D. exposes the allure of the Hollywood life. “Sold your soul for the roll, now you gots to pay, forfeit integrity, overnight celebrity, settle for selfish gain rather than dignity, another sucka, why did you trust a playa like me fool, Eternal hustler I’m taking everything and now you know I hate to tell you but I told you so.” In their song, “Set Your Eyes to Zion,” they ask, “How do you get to heaven? Do you have an answer? Hey, Mr. Deadman, I’ll tell you if you want to know.” P.O.D. is hard rock with elements of rap included in the mix. The rhythm dominates and the lyrics are spoken with rap-like influence.
P.O.D. is a worthy case study because of their award-winning status within the Christian music world and their growing crossover acceptance with secular audiences. They are presently on tour, opening for Korn. Without questioning their personal intentions or spiritual integrity, one must ask two basic questions. From what world view does their heavy metal music arise? How do they justify opening for Korn? The language, message, world view, and lifestyle of Korn surely overshadow any intended Christian witness. How does one hang with a group that has songs with unrepeatable lyrics that are full of sexist hatred of women? I showed the lyrics to their song, “Kunt,” to my wife. She said it was the most offensive verbal pornography she had ever read. When does the scriptural admonition not to ‘walk in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers’ apply? Opening for Korn intentionally validates Korn and unintentionally devalues the name of Jesus. Is P.O.D. influencing Korn’s audience or is Korn’s audience enhancing P.O.D.’s crossover success? When is it irrelevant to be relevant?
Would Jesus mosh? Mosh pits are de rigueur at metal concerts. Pits are areas in front of the concert stage about twenty-five feet in diameter where concert-goers “slamdance,” their bodies deliberately crashing into one another in ritualized frenzied violence. Frequently bodies collide with such force that they end up on the floor. Concert-goers venture on stage where they dive into the crowd and when caught are passed overhead “body surfing.” Raw physicality and self-inflicted pain are dominate themes. The testosterone level is palpable. It’s choreographed antisocial aggressive behavior. There are good reasons why heavy metal concerts have been called the “sensory equivalent to war.” Bruised and bloodied bodies leave concerts high on animal carnality and social disregard. Would we find Jesus at a heavy metal concert? Perhaps. But his face would be strewn with tears.