Wednesday, December 23, 2009
The Gospel According to Metallica
(The conclusion of a 4-part series)
Many communities have some kind of small, classifieds-only newspaper designed to offer want ads or job postings to people in their city. For a long time one such paper in the Los Angeles area has been the Recycler. In early 1981 a teen named Lars Ulrich posted an ad in the Recycler looking for other musicians who were interested in jamming with him. Guitarist James Hetfield and another musician responded to the ad, and that first jam session eventually resulted in the group we know as Metallica.
By the mid-eighties Lars and James, along with Kirk Hammett and Cliff Burton had helped create a new genre of rock music known as “thrash metal”. In the eyes (and ears) of many, thrash metal offered a refreshing alternative to the spandex-makeup-and-big-hair that had begun to define mainstream rock. Thrash metal artists like Metallica played louder, faster and with a sharper sense of defiance than most artists dared portray. Their combination of tremendous technical skill and raw fury touched something inside listeners that groups like Kiss or Aerosmith could never reach. Metallica brought rage into the world of popular music industry.
Why would a Christian listen to Metallica?
Many Christians tend to shy away from artists like Metallica. We assume that anyone venting that much rage couldn’t possibly have much to offer towards a biblical worldview. A few years ago a pastor friend of mine, John Van Sloten, presented a sermon on the gospel according to Metallica, which began to tip my worldview in this area.
I’m finding that taking artists like Metallica seriously can help us dig more deeply into some easily overlooked themes in the scriptures. You might be surprised what we can discover in the Gospel when it’s refracted through Metallica.
Typically we tend to shy away from some of the more gruesome parts of the Bible, hoping to sanitize it into a form more appropriate for religious greeting cards. A God who would release deadly plagues on the nation of Egypt, arbitrarily killing a nation’s generation of first-born children, seems shockingly out of place in most bible story books. But somehow that vindictive rage shown by God seems a little less fundamentalist when described by Metallica: “Die by my hand, I creep across the land, killing first-born man. Die by my hand…” (from Creeping Death).
But why would someone want to revel in that kind of ugliness? Sure these scenes are in the Bible, but what’s the benefit in dwelling on them?
Artists like Metallica can help us come to terms with the fact that some things in life just aren’t right. We live in a world that’s not like it’s supposed to be.
We were told this, to be fair. Way back in the Garden of Eden God warned us that if we rejected him life in our world would begin to unravel, and we’ve been dealing with this twistedness ever since. In our world if you’re born poor or with the “wrong” skin color you’ll find that you’ve drawn “The Shortest Straw”. You don’t have to get very far into “And Justice For All” to pick up Metallica’s protest to the blatant unfairness that has soaked into our way of life. “Justice is raped…”
And God looks down from heaven and says…YES!
While we stare at him in disbelief He immediately points us to the Minor Prophets where He’s been unsuccessfully to get his people to protest like that for years.
“For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts.” (Amos 5:12)
No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments and speak lies. They conceive trouble and give birth to evil. (Isaiah 59:3-4)
There is a conspiracy of her princes within her like a roaring lion Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey; they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain. The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice. (Ezekiel 22:25, 27, 29)
“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like an never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24)
But the suffering in scripture isn’t limited to the impersonal pain of far-off victims. The Bible is filled with the stories of real people experiencing real pain—the same kinds of pain we experience. The members of Metallica are no different than us in that regard. In interviews the various band members tells stories of a father who never came back from a business trip, of a mother who died young of a preventable cause, of parents whose marriage was scarred by a father’s abuse. The entire band reeled from the death of Cliff Burton, their first bassist, whose death threw the rest of the band off-balance for more than a decade.
Life is painful: not just for the anonymous people behind the headlines, but for people like us. That’s what led the prophet Jeremiah to burst out:
“Curse the day I was born! The day my mother bore me, a curse on it, I say! And curse the man who delivered the news to my father: "You've got a new baby--a boy baby!" (How happy it made him.) Let that birth notice be blacked out, deleted from the records, And the man who brought it haunted to his death with the bad news he brought. He should have killed me before I was born, with that womb as my tomb, My mother pregnant for the rest of her life with a baby dead in her womb. Why, oh why, did I ever leave that womb? Life's been nothing but trouble and tears, and what's coming is more of the same.” (Jeremiah 20:14-18, The Message).
In their song Fixxer, the band throws out the same complaint:
But tell me
Can you heal what father’s done?
Or fix this hole in mother’s son?
Can you heal the broken worlds within?
Can you strip away so we may start again?
That’s anger. Anger for a reason.
But you can’t hold anger forever. Eventually something’s got to give: your health, your relationships, your sanity. Sooner or later it seems that the irresistible force of anger ultimately crumbles every immovable object we might place in its path. You can hear that in Metallica’s music. It’s hard to imagine anyone putting more raw passion into any one song. Eventually something’s got to give.
And finally it did. Suddenly the scene switches to a hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is ripped from his Father by the force of a wrath that we’d never even imagined before. If you’ve seen the movie “The Passion of the Christ” you can probably form a picture of the scene. What you’re seeing is the wrath of God coming down like a city bus on an unsuspecting pedestrian.
You can sense that tragedy on Golgotha in The God That Failed :
I see faith in your eyes
Never you hear the discouraging lies
I hear faith in your cries
Broken is the promise, betrayal
The healing hand held back by the deepened nail
Follow the god that failed…
Trust you gave, a child to save
Left you cold and him in grave…
But wait a minute—was that scene really a failure? We sometimes twist this story into a narrow, judgmental caricature of a God who doesn’t like to be crossed. But if you look at how God presents this event you find something surprising: an anger even greater than that of Metallica. Not simply the anger of irritation or wounded pride. Not even the anger of injustice or abuse. This is the anger of a Creator who knows better than any of us just how right this world was created to be, and just how wrong it has now become since Genesis 3 spoiled everything.
Yes, eventually something has to give.
But suddenly the scene switches again. Now we see the risen Jesus Christ appearing in John’s vision in Revelation 21. Surveying the final arrival of his Kingdom He states it simply: I am making everything new (Rev. 21:5). God says HERE is where you can point your anger. Let your anger surface, grieve mourn and wail as it ripens into a longing for the world that we were made for, the one we ache for in our bones.
Sounds like gospel to me.
Yes, strangely enough, Metallica leads me to Jesus. Not that the band members themselves have discovered that yet. It appears that they haven’t, at least so far. But here’s what I’m learning: readers of the Bible need to understand voices like Metallica’s to read the Bible more vividly, just as listeners of Metallica need to turn to the Bible to find somewhere they can go with their rage. Each side needs the other.
If you’ve stuck with me all the way to the end of this blog post, chances are that you can feel some of what Metallica voices so powerfully. You get it. Maybe you have lived with some of the same kinds of pain that members of the band have experienced.
But then let me ask you: where do you go with your anger, with whatever particular cocktail of hurt and brokenness life has mixed in your heart? Do you shake your fist at Heaven, giving voice to your frustration? Or do you try your best to give God the silent treatment? (not a small feat, given His omniscience). And how do you picture God responding? Maybe, like many, you sense God wrinkling His nose in irritation at your bitterness. Maybe you wonder if He even notices at all.
If God were oblivious to our suffering, then it would seem that He has wasted a lot of valuable space in the Bible to include all those laments and protests that he packed into there. Why in the world would He include all that ugly stuff if He only wanted us to make nice? On the contrary, God goads us on in our protests, even giving us some good lines to throw back at Him.
God is serious about our protests, because the more we feel just how wrong life still is, the more we begin to realize just how right his redemption will be. If your world only needs a little tweaking to make it right, you’ll only look for a little help from God. But when we discover a little more of just how twisted God’s creations has become we’re able to make room for a much bigger, deeper, more powerful kind of redemption. The kind that doesn’t simply make things a little better, but makes things new.
Chances are God has raised the stakes for you, forcing you to look for a redemption that’s real enough to change a world like yours. He’s goading you on, looking to finally do some business with you as you creep towards redemption.
What are you waiting for?