I came of age in the ‘90s, so my early high school years coincided with the boom of CCM bands. I learned to play drums to the Newsboys and guitar to Audio Adrenaline. Ska was also big at the time; the Supertones were one of my first actual concerts. They lead me to punk, also big at the time. Shortly after, emo became a thing and next thing you know, there’s screamo. This progression continued to the natural extension: heavier genres like hardcore, metal, and eventually metalcore. My early favorite was Living Sacrifice, but pretty much any band on Solid State Records was fair game. The screaming vocals took a bit to get used to, but since I was primarily interested in the music’s timbre and the musicianship involved, it wasn’t that big of an adjustment.

It’s hard to discern a given musician’s motives, but from my own experience, trying to be rebellious just because isn’t often in my musical reasoning.

Over time, my taste for metal hasn’t really mellowed. It’s continued to expand and grow more progressive. And while I haven’t been overly analytical of my musical tastes, I have reflected on them here and there, and in one particular instance, found myself interacting with a series of videos from Pastor Doug Wilson.

I don’t remember how I stumbled across the series’ first video, but it was Wilson responding to this question: “When young people in a church are death metal fans, what are the operating principles for discussion with them on this topic?” Without really defining the genre, Wilson argued that some musical genres are essentially rebellious by nature and that’s kind of the point. Additionally, he seemed to argue that if you actually sat down and explained what the lyrics were about, it would answer the question of whether or not a Christian kid should be listening to it.

This wasn’t particularly satisfying. On the one hand, some musical genres are rebelling against Western tonal musical standards, but I’m not sure that makes them rebellious in the sense that it’s sinful to listen to them. That seems to be treating the two rebellions as equal, which assumes that Western tonal music is the God-given standard for music (i.e., the correct way to compose and play music). Certainly I can compose music that rejects current social conventions, but metal in general, and death metal in particular, aren’t really doing that. The lyrics may reject conventions, but the music is still mainly in the Western tonal tradition.

Not surprisingly, this video generated a second video. The main objection to the first video was that Wilson should’ve treated the subject as a wisdom issue (i.e., an issue that Christians are free to disagree about because it might be wise for one person but not another). Wilson agreed, but noted that’s not a license to listen to whatever. This is a better point, and as he continued to explain, saying it’s a wisdom issue means you need to sit down and think through and examine the music and then make a decision. You cannot just say “It’s a wisdom issue” as a way of avoiding any analysis. Certainly some people use it that way, but Wilson points to what saying it’s a wisdom issue should entail.

At this point, I asked a question that prompted a third video. If it’s a wisdom issue, what do we do about Christian death metal? Since a lot of the objections to death metal seem to return to lyrical content, I asked, “If the lyrics are orthodox, how can you object to the music?” Here, Wilson suggests that the music itself communicates and that there should be a fittingness between music and lyrics. In this case, setting the lyrics of a hymn to death metal music would be inappropriate. This seemed to paint the genre itself into a lose-lose scenario. On the one hand, if it has negative lyrics, you shouldn’t listen to it. On the other hand, if it has hymn-like lyrics, you still shouldn’t listen to it since they don’t fit the music. This seemed to again imply that the genre itself was inappropriate.

This all took place roughly five years ago. I’ve been thinking about the issue off and on since then, and in revisiting it recently, noticed a fourth video in which Wilson actually listens to Becoming the Archetype, a band I was listening to a lot at that time. In beginning his analysis, he notes that the musicianship is high caliber and they appear to love Jesus (based on lyrical content). Wilson then centers his objection on timbre, which is the type of sound the music has. Timbre is the difference between the sound of C on a piano compared to the sound of that same pitch on a trumpet. While the pitch may be identical, the “color” an instrument gives it is unique. (As a side note, it’s harder to distinguish if you don’t hear the initial “attack” or striking of the note.) Ultimately, timbre is the color each genre of music and its composite instrumentation have that, to a certain extent, separates them out.

Wilson recalls reading in This Is Your Brain on Music that rock music is almost entirely a matter of timbre (according to one analyst). He then suggests that metal like Becoming the Archetype is one timbre all the time. (I would qualify this as “most of the time,” but his point stands.) Part of my attraction to it is the timbre of it all, and I knew that back in high school. Wilson suggests a fittingness between timbre and occasion and notes that death metal’s timbre only seems to fit one occasion, tongue-in-cheek suggesting it involves Vikings getting ready for war (fair enough). In the end, his argument seems to be that you should only listen to this type of music when the setting fits, and those settings are few and far between for most people.

I relay all of this because it brings up a host of questions regarding music that’s on the fringes. “Edgy” music can cause us to pause and think through what’s acceptable for Christians to listen to and enjoy. While I don’t agree completely with Wilson’s analysis, I think he brings up several issues worth exploring further.

The first concerns lyrics. Can lyrics disqualify a Christian’s ability to listen to certain music? I think this is true to an extent, and I tend to draw the line when the lyrics are explicitly anti-Christian. Most metal lyrics are, from my point of view, both overly artsy (read: nonsensical) and because of the vocal delivery, not entirely decipherable most of the time. True, there are death metal lyrics that focus on, well, death, destruction, and dismemberment. There are certain bands that I think I might enjoy but choose not to listen to because such material is a predominant element in their lyrics.

In some respects, though, the lyrics are the least important part of the song when I am listening. I don’t look to these artists for their insights, and in many cases they don’t have any to begin with. Because the lyrics are not overly prominent in metal like they are in pop songs, I don’t know how important the analysis of their content is. I would guess that Wilson might suggest there’s a problem with intentionally nonsensical lyrics, but it’s hard to gauge whether these artists are doing that, or just generally don’t think clearly. At the end of the day, it would seem in most metal that I find myself listening to, lyrics are not really prominent or significant (or decipherable).

Given that, there are still some musical considerations, and another question: Is it required that music and lyrics have fittingness to them? Is there room for noticeable juxtaposition as part of the art? I think there is, though certainly it could be abused, or used as juxtaposition just because. Wilson seems to be most concerned with juxtaposition stemming from a motive of rebellion. Lyrically, sometimes a point is trying to be made by juxtaposing lyrics that don’t seem to fit the music. Musically, defying conventions in the course of composition is a kind of rebellion, but to another extent, creativity often involves this kind of defiance. It’s hard to discern a given musician’s motives, but from my own experience, trying to be rebellious just because isn’t often in my musical reasoning.

Lastly, I wonder if there’s a need to pursue a fittedness between the timbre of our musical choices and the moments we enjoy them. With many of the metal bands that I listen to, especially those on Facedown Records, there’s an inspirational quality to their music and lyrics that seems fitting. It’s fast-paced and intense but also God-centered in many cases, and given some of the descriptions of God in the Psalms and the Prophets, fitting. I often listen to them when I’m working out, or as background music when I need extra adrenaline to get work done. In those cases, it seems fitting to be listening to the type of music I chose, though I don’t blast it in our living room or listen to it as I’m going to bed (unless I want to dream about Vikings).

Ultimately, I appreciate Wilson’s willingness to interact with death metal through his videos. Though I don’t fully agree with where he lands, he starts a good conversation, brings up points worth considering, and offers a framework for further evaluation. The biggest takeaway from Wilson’s analysis is that when we recognize the music we listen to is a wisdom issue, do we act accordingly? One way to do that would be to use Brett McCracken’s discerning questions from his book Grey Matters (105-106):

  1. Does it point me toward God?
  2. Would Jesus listen to it?
  3. What would my community say?
  4. Is it of good quality?
  5. Is it edifying?

Interestingly, only question 4 is an objective consideration. Question 2 is probably hard to answer in many cases, though certainly some clear-cut cases exist. The others are all subjective and person-dependent, which means each of us needs to think through them for ourselves. Wilson has a good point when he says that saying it’s a wisdom issue means you need to actually apply some wisdom to the issue. Hopefully, what I’ve been thinking and writing has worked in that direction, but there’s certainly more thought to be done. For me, that meant cranking up some progressive instrumental metal and writing this article.

1 Comment

  1. Nate,

    As you go about answering the questions you’ve raised, may I encourage you by suggesting that you start from a position that looks at the Bible in such a way that you look for overarching and all-encompassing themes for how to live life? This seems to be one important aspect for what it means to be wise. Otherwise, we end up straining gnats and swallowing camels.

    As I scour the Bible trying to hear what it says is important to get right, I hear things like:

    Luke 10-26-28: “and He said to him,“What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” And he answered, “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND; AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” And He said to him,“You have answered correctly; DO THIS AND YOU WILL LIVE.”

    1 Cor. 10:31: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

    Rom 12:1-2: “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

    Exodus 20:3-4: “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.”

    I hope you would agree that these statements are overarching and all-encompassing themes found throughout all the Bible. But precisely because they are so general, when each one is given, one can also find an exposition of what each one means throughout the Bible. (For example, some have suggested that Deut 6:1 – 26:19 is an exposition of the 10 commandments.)

    In other words, you and I do NOT have the luxury of defining what it means to love God: God is very concerned that you worship Him the way He wants to be worshipped. In other words, what warmth we may feel in our hearts toward God can NOT overrule our actions if our actions are detestable to God.

    I would like to show you how this works out in two events recorded for us in God’s word:

    a. The Golden Calf incident, cf Ex 32:4-5. “He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.”

    Now, that feast quickly turned into an orgy, cf. Ex. 32:6 , and as a result, God called them “obstinate”, Ex. 32:9 .

    (I understand the word for “play” in Hebrew can refer to sexual fornication as well as some form of revelry falling short of an orgy. At the very least, they were dishonoring God because of their playing around, because they had assumed that God had no gravitas worthy of worshipping.

    As for the word “obstinate”, this is a way of saying that they are argumentative towards, opposed to, contradicting what God says. In short, they are rebellious in a bull-headed sort of way.)

    b. The Strange Fire incident, Lev 10:1-4: Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the LORD spoke, saying,

    ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy,
    And before all the people I will be honored.’”

    Reading a little further in Lev. 10, it appears that Nadab and Abihu had no conscious intention of dishonoring God: it appears that they were drunk when they performed their priestly duties (cf. Lev. 10:8-11). In other words, though they did not mean to dishonor the Lord, they did not mean to honor Him either. (cf. Ex. 19:22)

    One of the truths that I’ve taught my children about the various arts is that they are vehicles that allows us to see the world as the artist sees it. Now the artist is not just communicating to us his worldview, he’s also trying to convince us that this is the way the world is. So the arts are not just communicating a vision of the world, the artist(s) who created this art are trying to persuade you that this is the way the world is. He wants you to join him!

    But as Christians we’ve been called for other purposes, namely to help others see the world the way God sees it:

    Eph. 2:10: For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

    2 Cor. 5:15: and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.

    Matt. 5:16: Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

    2 Cor. 9:13: Because of the proof given by this ministry, they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all,

    So, knowing that what you draw people with is what you draw them to, you might ask questions like:

    Am I drawing people (or am I drawn) to the God who has revealed Himself fully and sufficiently in His word by this (genre of) music? Or am I drawing them (or am I drawn) to a god of my imagination, of my own invention, cf. Is. 29:13, Matt. 15:9, Col 2:22-23?

    Is there a “sensuality” (in the broadest sense) that this (genre of) music draws people (or that I’m drawn) to that encourages them (me) to malign the truth in God’s word, cf. 2 Pet 2:2, 2 Thess. 2:8-12?

    There are many more questions that Wisdom calls us to find answers to. I leave you with a few verses that the Holy Spirit may use to endow you with wisdom.

    2 Tim4: 3-4: For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.

    1 Tim 4:16: Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.

    Titus 2:11-14: For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.

    Looking forward to the day when I’m presented blameless and with great joy before God’s Glorious Presence because of Christ’s Great Work.

    Under His Mercy,
    Mark Mars

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