Gospel Moshing: Adventures at Metal Shows with a Spooky Friend

Maybe we, why don’t we Sit right here for half an hour? We’ll speak of […]

Zack Verham / 10.5.17

Maybe we, why don’t we
Sit right here for half an hour?
We’ll speak of what a waste I am
And how we missed your beat again

I swear we need to find some comfort in this run down place
To bridge the gap of this conscious state that we live in
And I’m short on time

– “Writing on the Walls,” Underoath

Nearly all of my best memories from college center on my close-yet-mysterious best friend named Tyler, who became mythical in our friend group because of his penchant for mischief and his unerring tendency to seek out and bask in all of the absurd things of life. If all of my stories about Tyler were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written, but my most vivid memories with this absolute enigma of a man find us traveling together to some small shady concert venue in the heart of Richmond or Norfolk, VA (one time we found ourselves in a shopping center in NoVa) to enjoy an evening of ear-splitting-scream-in-your-face-punch-a-wall metal shows together.

Yes, every chance we had, we would go listen to some good ol’ metalcore—a genre so soaked with irony and faux-edginess that it has itself probably become a meme at this point. I’m fully aware that my love for the genre is probably fully playing into the irony of the whole thing, but I’m honest when I say that I don’t think I’ve seen a clearer presentation of the Gospel than when I’m at these shows with mystery-man Tyler, watching moshers throw down from the back of the venue while somehow being targeted by a full glass of beer that inevitably gets knocked off an upper balcony ledge (I kid you not—this happens to me every show. There’s some sort of curse on my head, both metaphorically and literally).

The sequence of events at these concerts is nearly always the same: after passing the big bouncer guy with a nice denim vest (covered in similarly nice patches), we get close enough to the door to hear the muffled cacophony ricocheting around the room inside. As soon as the door opens, we’re immediately pummeled with blast beats and stale, smoky, sweaty, beer-stained air, watching the crowd undulate like a stormy sea in time with a never-ending onslaught of breakdowns and bass drops. Inevitably, the openers are almost always the same, often playing into nearly every cliché you can think of regarding metal bands—frantically angry and anti-everything, but in particular, extremely anti-religious. Like, the sort of stuff you wouldn’t ever let your grandmother hear anti-religious. Like, the sort of stuff that makes me (as the completely non-edgy dungeons-and-dragons-playing Christian kid in the back of the venue) really uncomfortable anti-religious. These shows draw in individuals who would probably never come close to a church on Sunday, and honestly, with good reason—I shudder to think of how most churches would treat the sub-world of metal concertgoers if they were to show up at the sanctuary doors before Sunday services. The metal underground can be a rough place, seemingly without much of an interest in Jesus or the people who follow him.

But then, the openers finish up, and the headliners—the really big bands with followings that pack out these little venues—take the stage. The crowd surges up to the front, and mysterious Tyler and I are packed in like sardines alongside the majestically sweaty, long-haired, sleeveless, heavily tattooed metalheads who showed up for the main performance. These dudes are usually pretty beefy, so I have to peek around them to see the band as the lights dim and the fog machines kick into full gear. As soon as the first beat hits, the crowd is going wild and throwing down, and the vocalist throaty-yells lyrics like:

How must a broken man fix his brokenness if he’s not the answer?
I can’t do this on my own, on my own
I need you here, I need you here, I need you here
Each and every day that passes leaves me worse off than before
Many times I’ve sworn
I wouldn’t look back, never look back
Instead of fighting to be a man I just want to know who I am
Fighting with my fists leaves me bloody and broken almost every single time, So I’m going at it with your strength instead of mine
Please be my strength
So I’m going at it with your strength instead of mine
Please be my strength
I’ve carried this burden long enough
With a heart of conviction, I’ve betrayed us both
I have to forfeit
The shame is too much to take
Take the lead and reign over me
Reign reign reign over me
Reign reign reign over me

– “Count it All as Lost,” August Burns Red

Wait, what?

Yes—in a shocking number of instances, the top-performing bands on the metal scene profess to follow Jesus in no unclear terms. Bands like August Burns Red, The Devil Wears Prada, Underoath, For Today, Extol, Norma Jean, Zao, Silent Planet (who take their name from the phenomenal C.S. Lewis trilogy), and P.O.D clearly proclaim the name of Jesus in what can conventionally be a very dark musical scene. Tyler and I even went to a For Today show that stopped partway through and opened up into a spoken presentation of the Gospel. Church is being held in the swanky metal venues across America where these bands tour, with or without our churches as we conventionally think of them.

Within this phenomenon is a kernel which is fundamentally incarnational. In his treatise On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius writes:

“For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes into our realm, although he was not formerly distant. For no part of creation is left void of him; while abiding with his own Father, he has filled all things in every place.” (On the Incarnation, 56-57)

If we take seriously the notion that “no part of creation is left void of” the Word of God, metal concerts most certainly reside under God’s dominion—and as Tyler and I have observed, God’s presence has been tangible in these very dark places, where metalheads shout alongside the bands onstage about how messed up we all are and that we need Jesus.

It’s honestly kind of weird. But more importantly, it makes it painfully obvious that God’s Spirit is present in the most curious and unconventional of places—even in the musty air that swirls around a mosh pit.

Athanasius later writes:

“So, rightly wishing to help human beings, he sojourned as a human being, taking to himself a body like theirs and from below—I mean through the works of the body—that those not wishing to know him from his providence and governance of the universe, from the works done through the body might known (sic) the Word of God in the body, and through him the Father.” (On the Incarnation, 64)

Through these bands, enabled by the Holy Spirit, the Word of God takes on a “body like theirs” yet again, and presents itself (Himself) in a form which fulfills God’s overarching goal to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). There is no difference between the Word as it is heard in the pews on Sunday and as it is screamed by a beefy tattooed man at headbangers in a back-bar in Richmond, aside from the fact that the Gospel shouted is perhaps more comprehendible, and even palatable, for the headbangers than it would be if it were spoken or read. Through these bands, the Word of God incarnationally enters dark places and proclaims life and resurrection to lost souls much more clearly than would be possible in a church service.

Of course, it is important to ask the question: why don’t the concertgoers just empty out of the venue as soon as the annoying Christian bands take the stage? On some level, I think that the fact that the Word is being presented through metal music recaptures both the intensity and the audacity of the Gospel, which is compelling for individuals who might be burnt out and disaffected with conventional notions of “church.” Dorothy Sayers states:

“The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mile,’ and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”

If we are honest, the Jesus presented in church can be pretty boring. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t totally zone out during sermons sometimes (or a lot of times). If I, a practicing Christian, get bored during the presentation of the Gospel, why would anyone who is already averse to the church step inside to hear the same message? At these concerts, the Lion of Judah lets out His claws again, and truth is shouted, not whispered.

Secondly, I think that, because the genre constraints of CCM are lifted, and because these bands don’t ever have to worry about their songs being bootstrapped into contemporary worship services, they can be more honest and self-critical of the Pharisaical practices we all see in ourselves but never want to acknowledge. Take these lyrics from “Dying in Circles” by Silent Planet for example:

Beside the shadow of a frozen chapel, under the marriage of the cross and crown, outside the privilege of the “chosen ones,” the Image of God is sleeping on the ground

Spires pierce the sky like steel through your hands,
Planks from our eyes plunged in your side
Water poured out but we want wine
You said, “Take and remember,” but we always forget.

In another song by the same band (“firstwake”), the lyrics are similarly honest:

We traded water for salt
Something whole for something equally as broken as us

Now dying of thirst
We’ll write this out in blood and shut you in a stone cold time
Where the air rots out, leaving us alone
We chose to be alone
I was given to cup to quench parched tongues
But I became drunk
And lust lynched my lungs

Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do
Mother, receive me, because I’m coming home to you
Does this cup run dry?

Silent Planet and their fellow metal musicians don’t shy away from the hypocrisy the rest of the world sees but the Church rarely recognizes. They offer a valuable voice of righteous prophetic critique which rails against the Church’s self-imposed divide between itself and the members of the metal community, with whom these bands break bread and live alongside. They speak both from and towards real anger, hurt, and confusion, with a level of candor and honestly that builds bridges and mends wounds within the metal community. As these lyrics are proclaimed to disaffected individuals who identified with and showed up to listen to the openers, resurrection is literally taking place, and Jesus’ Gospel is taking root in ever-novel ways.

I write all of this with some level of trepidation. I’m only an outside observer at these shows with crazy, spooky Tyler. I don’t pretend to be a part of that community, and I don’t assume that I ever will be. I can only speak as the timid guy at the back of the room who mainly comes for the music and would get pummeled in a mosh pit. But, as that guy, I can say that there is something divine about seeing truth and hope and love shouted from the stage, and to see the same anthem picked up and shouted back by a crowd which was listening to opening bands which would never have anything to do with Jesus. To me, this seems to be good news which could only be driven by the gracious Spirit of God who always actively redeems and restores, and makes the Godhead comprehensible for all of mankind.