Heavy metal brings Christian light

Alex Woolnough 21 March 2024

As a genre of music, Christian heavy metal can reach radically different audiences.

For the American Christian rock band Skillet, it was pure coincidence that its Christian roots became integral to their music. The pastor at the band’s local church told them to be a worship-band, aware of their individual piety. ‘Metal is all about singing something you believe in,’ according to John Cooper, the band’s leading member. ‘And if [it] “goes against the grain”, then even better.’

It’s hard to find a band so willing to subvert contemporary perceptions about rock music and its various alternatives. In our contemporary world, metal music can be considered psychologically and socially detrimental, given its often heavy, mature content, in addition to the almost violent nature of the rhythms and the beat. But this is not always the case.

‘Many Christian heavy metal bands view the metal scene as a place in need of hope,’ according to Christian mental health organisation 412Teens, ‘but you must still be wary of the individual subgenres that purvey sin through their individual, popular lyrics’.

INTERSECTION
Conversely, Eric Strother, a lecturer at the University of Kentucky, notes that, ‘Christian metal bands create an intersection between Christianity and the heavy metal subculture . . . for the purpose of bringing the Christian message of hope and salvation’. A clear trend then emerges from the perspective of the listener: Christian metal bands either go against the grain and perpetuate messages of Biblical virtue, or they are simply yearning for the popularity that metal bands have slowly gained since the inception of rock’n’roll.

And yet, when comparing these objective viewpoints, and the views of Christian metal bands themselves, we find a dichotomy that is polarising the genre itself.

Take, for example, Stryper, a pioneering Christian metal band from the 1980s. Melodically, the band conforms to the aggressive and provocative nature of the heavy, amplified guitars, violent drum fills and harsh, volatile tones. However, it refuses to adhere to the hedonistic, almost Dionysian, lyrical quality that their contemporaries were remembered for.

In one particular song, ‘Not that kind of guy’, Stryper particularly aims to remove the sexual imagery that has largely defined the genre’s tone and cultural perceptions of metal music. Similarly, the thrash band, Vulnerable Rising, aims to describe drugs and alcohol as a dead end: ‘So you smoke another 8-ball and get deeper in debt / For debt is the road to death.’

METAL’S SURVIVAL
It’s these trends in Christian metal music that have largely changed the way we perceive the survival of metal in the musical spectrum. Metal music, while still enjoying small phases of popularity, has overarchingly waned since the 1990s. Even though the nature of metal music is inherently riotous, the growth of metal subgenres has largely forced the original heavy metal to the brink of becoming ordinary. Dani Filth of Cradle of Filth noted in 2016 that, ‘it is becoming increasingly harder to get out there and make a living’. Today, when music charts are dominated by the boppy rhythms of pop music, Christian metal, and metal music overarchingly, has gradually become irrelevant.

Has this affected the motivations of Christian metal bands? Cooper says not. He believes that the motivations of Christian metal can now adapt to our current, post-pandemic world. ‘I hope our music encourages people to defy the impulse to be afraid, and trust in God.’

During the pandemic, Stryper recorded ‘Even the devil believes’, a record that has been both critically and socially acclaimed by Christians and agnostics alike. As noted by Alex McGreevy, an Irish journalist,  ‘I am not a Christian. I am an atheist . . . [and yet] the sound will instantly transport the perceptive rock fan back to the mid-80s, when . . . Stryper sat comfortably with the likes of Motley Crue or Ratt.’

CHRIST AS A GUIDE
Michael Sweet, Stryper’s lead, says that, ‘we need Christ to guide us and help us through life, and this record is about inviting people to learn more about their faith’. Clearly, Christian metal has become its own genre, apart from the contemporary metal scene.

Motivations can always change; Underoath, a prominent Christian metal band from the 2000s, now says it is no longer Christian. The aim of Christian metal is apparent: to spread the faith while inviting listeners to reconsider their spiritual lives and aspirations, even when their preferred form of entertainment is considered unappealing by many parts of society, and is enjoyed by only a minority.

Having the courage to produce work that does not conform to the prevailing image and sentiment of most of their contemporaries allows these bands to promote a truly Christian message, both to sympathetic listeners and to many others who would not be exposed to sentiments of hope and life without this music.

Alex Woolnough is a member of the Australian Catholics young writers community.
Images: Main image: American Christian metal rock band Skillet and John Cooper, lead vocalists and bass guitarist. Above (l-r): Tim Gaines, Robert Sweet, Michael Sweet and Oz Fox of the Christian metal band Stryper.

 

REFLECTION QUESTIONS AND ACTIVITIES
Exploring the Diversity of Catholic Hymnody – questions and activities
Students explore the variety of musical styles found in Catholic hymns, from timeless classics to contemporary worship songs, understanding their role in fostering spiritual expression and community worship.