Beside Metallic Waters

My brother recently pointed out the story of Rev. John Van Sloten, a Canadian pastor who has written a book about how he’s come to see the gospel in the songs of Metallica. Yes, Metallica. Even the members of the 1980’s hard rock band found the association a little surprising. It all came about, it seems, through an open mind. The story is narrated in basic form on the Gibson guitar website. Young parishioners at Van Sloten’s church suggested he should listen to Metallica. Perhaps aware of the principally negative conservative Christian reaction to rock in general and hard rock in particular, the pastor says he ignored the advice. Then the minister was presented with Metallica tickets. A divine mix was in the works.

At the concert the pastor had a revelation: the issues wailed against by the band resonate well with the concerns of Christianity. In fact, some of the band’s concerns sound downright prophetic. The concept of prophecy today often revolves around a prediction of future events (à la Harry Potter). Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible far more often concerns social justice, speaking out against the oppressor. Metal bands, from their inception, were vehicles for protest. Disillusionment against a system that perpetuates unfairness either at a governmental or a cosmic level. When I sat down to listen to the lyrics of Black Sabbath for the first time, I was surprised how biblical many of them were (don’t tell Ozzy).

Many religious folks prejudge heavy metal as “satanic” and evil without even listening to it. I have always been struck by how much these groups frequently draw on bleak biblical images. Today we treat biblical characters as paragons of emulation. The Bible does many of its characters no such disservice. Prophets are to be heard, not emulated. We think of Isaiahs or Jeremiahs as pleasant supper guests who happen to have a divine word inside. In the Bible their actions often lead to recriminations, but their uncomfortable message is sound. I grew up in a tradition that discouraged heavy metal, as if something in the music were inherently evil. I applaud Rev. Van Sloten for approaching one of the formative bands of the genre with an open mind. Truth may be found in some very unlikely places.

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