Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
It seems like yesterday, but in reality it was over a decade ago. I was a college freshman at a Bible institute in Florida and I was driving with the windows down, blasting As I Lay Dying’s Frail Words Collapse. Later that year I would see them at Cornerstone Florida along with several other Christian metal bands that I liked. The following summer, my workout soundtrack was Shadows Are Security, and their 2007 album An Ocean Between Us was the backdrop for many late night drives in downtown Dallas. I’ve since moved on to other metal bands, Christian and otherwise, but As I Lay Dying was one my earliest favorites.
Like many other fans, I was disheartened to say the least when I heard that As I Lay Dying’s lead singer Tim Lambesis had been arrested for hiring a hitman to kill his estranged wife.Like many other fans, I was disheartened to say the least when I heard that As I Lay Dying’s lead singer Tim Lambesis had been arrested for hiring a hitman to kill his estranged wife. At the time of the news, a friend of mine, who is way more into metal than I am, asked me how someone who loved Jesus could do something like this. To which I replied, “He couldn’t.”
I went on to explain that doing this is pretty clear proof that someone doesn’t love Jesus. Jesus said you will know people by their fruit (Matthew 7:20). Healthy trees don’t bear bad fruit (7:18), which is another way of saying that guys who love Jesus don’t hire people to kill their wives.
A recently published interview with Lambesis confirms this. Lambesis had gradually become an atheist, which, if you go back and read the lyrics from As I Lay Dying’s last few albums, is not really that surprising. Though maybe not explicit at the time of their release, in retrospect, the lyrics can be read as the ruminations of someone struggling with their faith. I remember reading once that Lambesis’ favorite book of the Bible was Ecclesiastes, and that existential angst is more of a hallmark of his lyrics than anything. This isn’t to suggest that a Christian band needs to frequently sing explicitly about God or Christian doctrine to be “true Christians.” Reflections in the vein of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes are not less Christian than singing more explicitly about Jesus or the cross. Rather, it’s just to point out that as far as lyrics go (which might not be far), As I Lay Dying wasn’t exactly cranking out praise hymns set to metal music.
After his spiritual turn, Lambesis began, as he put it, treating his marriage like a piece of paper. Events spiraled downhill from there. For many like my friend, Lambesis was a role model. They looked up to him since, after all, he was the lead singer (screamer) of a Christian metal band. For young teenage and twenty-something guys into metal music, it is incredibly easy to look up to the guy fronting your favorite band, especially when you’re a Christian and he claims to be one, too.
But there’s a problem with this. Most “Christian” bands that were in the scene during my high school and college days were singing songs with vaguely Christian lyrics at best. They were claiming the title, but in many cases, the evidence wasn’t particularly convincing that they were anything other than nominal (in name only) Christians.
Certainly there’s nothing wrong with listening to bands who claim to be Christians but have vague lyrics. Most metal bands have vague lyrics, and it doesn’t really matter because they’re being screamed at you anyway (though you’d be surprised how much you can understand after you get an ear for it). I didn’t get into metal because the lyrics were compelling. I wanted my face melted off, and as a classically trained musician, I appreciated the technicality of the compositions.
But thinking back to when I was younger, I certainly wanted to think of the guys in these bands as people to look up to spiritually. At one point, I was even trying to start a video production company that would allow us to interview bands (so I’d get to meet them!) and offer them an opportunity to talk about their testimony and Christian walk in a bolder way than they might be capable of in their lyrics (which I assumed were vague so they could be more missional).
The project was eventually abandoned, which was OK because the interviews we did do were mostly worthless. I was surprised at the time that the guys we interviewed didn’t really have anything compelling to say about spiritual things. The general sense I got was that they were Christians, but being in a band wasn’t a mission, it was just something they loved to do. At the time, this was disappointing, but in retrospect, it was not unlike why I was in a band in high school.
I was a Christian, and I loved to make music. I looked at it as the pursuit of a craft and creating quality art. I was doing it as a Christian, and so were these guys. Though I wasn’t trying to be in a band to be on a mission in a Christian outreach sense, I tended to assume that the guys in bands I loved were, even if there was very little evidence that was their objective. When I dug a little deeper, the truth was many guys in Christian bands aren’t really spiritual leaders for our generation. It’s not that they weren’t really Christians. Rather, I had overestimated how seriously they took their faith and how it actually related to what they were doing in a band.
The lesson I learned was important and unfortunately, it’s been reinforced in a more brutal way by Lambesis’ downfall. It is a mistake to assume that just because someone is in a band that claims the “Christian” label, they are a rock star sonically and spiritually. They may be. When I saw For Today in Dallas, the lead singer opened up their set with a thoroughly Trinitarian prayer, and one of their songs features The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-6) in the breakdown. You could tell by this, as well as his off-stage actions, that the lead singer was serious about his faith. (The other band members may be as well, but since the lead singer was the one holding the microphone and most of the charisma, his faith was the most obvious.)
If that one band you like is supposedly Christian and makes great music, then by all means enjoy it to the glory of God. But just remember that making awesome music is not the same as bearing spiritual fruit. If their lyrics are vague and they don’t really give you much indication of the band members’ spiritual health, it’s best to not infer a depth of faith that might not be there. You can look up to them as musicians without also looking up to them as Christian leaders. They may be, but unless they give concrete evidence for it, you know where assuming gets you.
Thankfully, there is hope and meaning in this tragedy. According to an official announcement from the band (now on hiatus), Lambesis has been “reevaluating what originally convinced him to abandon belief in God” and “after much brokenness and repentance he sees things differently, considers himself a follower of Jesus.” As Lambesis rediscovers his faith, I hope it will carry him through the dark nights ahead. Then maybe he can truly say that “only through struggle” has he found rest. And if so, then he really could become the Christian role model that many thought him to be before he was exposed. But for today, he has the ability to be an example through his brokenness. It not might be very “metal” but in the long run, it could very well have a more lasting impact.
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