Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
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):
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.
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