Metal Missionaries: Conversations With Christian Music’s Most Extreme Artists (A Documentary)

You ever been chillin’ at a really cool metal show or party, the vibe is killin’ it, maybe you went with your friends and rocked some pre game brews at the local dive bar where the cute tattooed waitress/waiter works and they gave you a wink instead of a disgusted “sir/madam, you have had enough for the night” talk..  You know, you’re feelin’ good, you’re on your game, maybe it was just pay day so you’ve got some money to burn until you realize you didn’t pay your phone bill and then you’re all “oh fuck my life”…  Come on now, you *know* this feeling.  The music is right, the opening bands didn’t suck, the venue wasn’t full of dudebro lookie loos, maybe someone was passing around a joint or five.  And then you hear it..  someone starts talking about Jesus.  And not just in a “Jesus Is A Cunt”, hilarious and ironic way, but someone starts talking real weird religious stuff, and you realize that you are about to be bamboozled.  You know how you feel the technicolor of all the goodness slip away and be replaced by grayscale?  Creativity painted over in the orders of the Party, the status of women dropping, the LGBTQ community being reduced to being called “the gays”…(they hate that)…

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Okay maybe I’m exaggerating a TEENSY bit, but I’ve legitimately been in many situations where people have started to talk about Jesus and it makes me feel super uncomfortable, especially in places where Jesus shouldn’t be – parties, frat houses, illegal underground raves, back alley drug deals, and I could just go on and on.  Religion has a way of finding it’s way in through the cracks, following the path of least resistance and someone entwining itself into every conversation and every discussion.  A famous saying goes that it’s never acceptable to discuss religion or politics in polite company, but I suppose, in metal, polite company is hard to find.

For some background –  I was brought up in a household where religion (specifically Christianity) was considered not just wrong, but abhorrent, and I was unsurprisingly raised to be a godless heathen.  My family and friends have been and continue to be hurt by the actions of the Christian faith – from the residential schools to gay marriage, to having to cross abortion clinic picket lines.  I grew up in a neighbourhood where some of the people living near us were devout Catholics who were radicalized after going to Ireland in the 1990s.  I grew up in a province where a school counsellor hated gay people so much he tried to take his bigotry to the Supreme Court so he wouldn’t have to offer counselling services to LGBTQ students (he lost, and now he drives a bus, so miracles do happen).  A close friend in high school hung herself after her religious family found out about her being a lesbian.  I’ve been followed to my home and videotaped by anti-abortion activists after participating in pro-choice demonstrations.  I’ve been called a “witch”.  My close friends who are gay were not able to get married in America until very recently.  My family was imprisoned in the residential school system and those who made it out alive still struggle with the pain of being told you are less than human for years.  There is no love in my heart for Jesus Christ or his fan club. And yet, I remain conflicted. As much as I remain godless, I would never deny someone else the access to their faith. I understand that faith means more than simply attending a church service every week, and that it’s a decidedly unique experience for everyone. I think what makes me uncomfortable is that someone practicing their faith always ends up telling me about how I need to practice their faith too, otherwise I’m less than. But there’s the rub, isn’t it? Proselytizing. It’s all part of it, the sinner must spread the good word. That important commandment a la George Carlin is always forgotten – “thou shalt keep thy religion to thyself”.

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“to take the indian out of the child”

With this context in mind, consider my surprise when I was sent a screener for a review oppurtunity for documentary about Christian metal.  Now, unlike many before me, I’m fairly well versed in how Christianity works, and am fascinated with it’s trappings.  It’s interesting to me how people can easily denounce the cult of Scientology but speak out rarely about crazed protestors outside abortion clinics, or young girls marrying their fathers in absurd promise ring Purity Balls – seriously, click the link.  People react viscerally to women in burqas and hijabs but think nothing of seeing Mennonites in their Little House on the Prairie garb with six or seven children in tow.

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gimme that old time religion

For those unfamiliar, I grew up in the 1990s/2000s, I remember bands like Funeral For A Friend, Norma Jean, The Juliana Theory, mxpx, Comeback Kid, As I Lay Dying, Hopesfall, He Is Legend..  and I could go on like this.  It wasn’t entirely unheard of to see skinny ass emo ass haircut banana stripe looking ass motherfuckers with their too tight American Apparel cardigans worn over any one of these band shirts on their way to youth group or praying loudly in the college cafeteria over shitty tuna melts while the rest of us were trying to read our goddamn women’s lit.

And yeah, some of those people praying over the mystery meat were my friends.  I grew up in a small town and all the freaks kinda stuck together.  That included the Jesus Freaks.

Maybe it’s because I grew up with kids who were into alternative and punk music and who also attended church that the concept of a Christian metalhead isn’t really so absurd to me.  Maybe it’s all that Wovenhand I listen to, a band who have become alternative and untimely metal scene darlings for some weird fucking reason, and who are intensely Christian, led by the vocal powerhouse cum madman David Eugene Edwards.  Before I sat down to watch Metal Missionaries, I took stock of what I knew about Christian metal and alternative music…  I’m not ignorant enough to assume that all Christians are represented by prairie dress wearing abortion clinic protestors who hate “the gays”.  Nor are they represented by the people who knock on doors at 6am.  I know there are people who have found faith in dark places, people who have experienced war, ugliness, addiction, and crime.  Faith keeps some people afloat while simultaneously crushing others and is an entirely subjective experience.  Logic told me that Christian metalheads makes sense in a really weird sort of way.  Think about the Bible.  Blood, sex, revenge, loss, redemption, pain and punishment.  Sounds pretty metal to me.  Anyone who has read the epic boasts of Milton’s Satan in “Paradise Lost” knows all too well how metal the stories of the Bible can be.

I went in to Metal Missionaries with as open of a mind as I could get, my eyes only occaisionally darting to the threatening letters I have received from anti abortion activists that I have spitefully hung on the wall as a reminder that hatred is alive and well in 2017.

The documentary itself is fairly well made – someone put a little money and some serious love into crafting it, but almost right from the get go, it attempts to create a status of victim around Christians within the metal scene and rather than be sympathetic as one outsider to another, I was simply annoyed, and this above all was the emotion that I carried with me through the film.  Looking back, I realize that this annoyance comes from people attempting to take up space that isn’t necessarily theirs, space that is not owed to them.  Hear me out.  Metal is the outsider’s genre.  The people who gravitate towards metal often find it through places of loss, anger, frustration, and ultimately longing.  Metal is honest.  Metal is safe (and I don’t mean safe spaces, before you start blogging).  Metal is a space that I entered when I desired more from my music than programmed pop songs.  Metal was a party that I was always invited to.  Metal is and was ugly.  Ugly music for ugly people.  I guess my issue is that the Christian metalheads attempt to take up space as outsiders in the outsider’s genre, forgetting of course that the reason many outsiders are even existing within metal can be due to rejection of the Christian faith.

I remember it so clearly.  Shortly before my neighborhood friend and her family were radicalized by Catholicism in Ireland, she was one of the few friends I had.  During a friendly sleep over, I found myself hauled off in a car to a Catholic church service and to Sunday school.  It was revealed that I was not of their kind, and the pressure was put on me to get my parents to take me to church and catechism and to liberate me from my life of sin.  I came home in tears and in a frenzy, demanding to know why my parents would consent to my damnation.  It was a few days before I calmed down enough to sit and have a conversation with my grandfather.  His children and family had been taken by the residential school system, the lines of trauma still etched in his face.  He assured me that I wasn’t going to hell and he gently explained religion as beliefs, people creating answers to the question that pervades existence – why are we here, what is the meaning of it all?  He said that for some people it’s easier to make up answers than to accept chilling silence.  Gothic bands like VNV Nation wrestled with concepts like this when I was still in high school.  I remember anger and embarrassment.  I remember the blood hot in my face.  I asked my grandfather why people would make things up like this, and he simply said that fear makes people easy to control, people fall in line a little better.  He said that of all the things I do, I should never stop asking questions, never fall into line too easily, and always always inquire as to more.

The narrator of Metal Missionaries talks about individuals who, much like my friends in high school, are drawn to the themes of heavy metal but do not find themselves represented within the “Satanic” themes of the music as believers in Christ.  Several of the people interviewed talk about living in small insular echo chambers of small towns and isolated communities, believing erroneously that everyone in the big wide world grows up as they do – believing.  The young male in the Wolves in the Throne Room shirt (irony?) who speaks this, simultaneously broke my heart and confirmed one of my longest running theories, that Christianity works as a form of brainwashing.  Most Christians are not tolerant of the beliefs of others, though they are quick to demand tolerance from others of their beliefs (which include oppressing others through all the aforementioned means I listed above).  As a whole, few Christians will listen to the arguments and experiences of others, and thus exist within an echo chamber, hearing only the same ideas barked back to them over and over until it is all they know.  I’ve known more than a few who only watch certain TV shows or films, consume certain music or products based wholly on their Christian faith.  As such, these people often rarely encounter things that would challenge their belief system or faith – this is one of the reasons Scientologists are not to associate with those who have been critical of the Church – the fear that something a critic says might start making sense.  With this in mind, of course Christian metal makes sense – people trying to make space for themselves within the concept and scene of metal.  It’s both admirable and detestable.  A friend of mine works with a girl who’s entire life is church, that’s all she does.  She never experiences anything outside of this.  Someone saying “hell” at work is enough to send her into paroxysms, and unfortunately, there’s a lot of people like this out there, she is far from an anomaly.  This poor kid in the documentary was so flabbergasted that people didn’t share his specific beliefs and more than anything, I just felt sad for him.

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Now, as pure and good as this moment was, it was sad more than anything.  How fucked up must that feeling be to realize that?  I’m so glad, every time I hear things like that, that I was not raised within a religious realm of thought, constantly hearing only the same belief echoing back on me, never being challenged.  The sheer amount of things that would test your faith constantly would have to be so entirely overwhelming, and I used to watch people die for a living.  Anyways – as these kids in Metal Missionaries talk about what led them to find bands like Stryper and realize that like pizza and pineapple, metal does go with Christianity, I found myself curious as to why Alice Cooper was never mentioned.  Ozzy was only briefly mentioned  and he is somewhat of the penultimate king.  I mean, hell, I don’t even listen to Christian metal and I just listed you a shitload of alternative and heavy acts a few paragraphs above.  This part also seemed to become quite lost for me because the adoption of victim status also came along with seemingly oppressed martyr status, like the guys in the documentary were somehow revolutionary for being Christian alternative types.  But the thing was and is that this isn’t true.  They’re hardly alone and yet, none of the bands or acts even similar to the ones I’ve listed were spoken of or interviewed.  I mean yes, that may be impossible given some of those bands exist only as distant memories on faded shirts, but still.  And is it possible for one who exists as oppressor to carry the mantle of one who is also oppressed?

What I appreciated about this documentary was that, as tough as it may have been, the makers did speak to those on the Opposition, the Satanists, the black metal purists, an just your average metalhead, including Ben from Goatwhore.

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He’s one of the more recognizable faces in the documentary and he voiced confusion more than opposition.  Some of the people interviewed, sitting amongst their Satanic bric a brac were down right offended even at the concept of Christian metal and in some ways, I get it.  Christian black metal?  Black metal was born out of hatred for the very soul of Christianity, and I don’t know that the raw hate that is present in so much of it could ever be given over to redemption.  But I mean, I guess singing about Hell isn’t so different than singing about going to Hell, but somehow the ring isn’t as true, at least not for me.

In truth, this documentary really doesn’t ever tell me much about Christian metal that I didn’t already know or hadn’t already made an educated guess about.  Just like any fringe subgenre, it exists within it’s niche for a reason – to offer a piece of the metal pie to those who like their metal unconventional.  And here again is where I wrestle with taking up space.  One of the bands interviewed is talking about being made fun of for being Christian and on the road with other non Christian bands, and I didn’t much care for that return to create the status of victim and martyr.  Similarly so to the reverse racism argument – you can’t be racist against white people.  Racism is constructed based on power and privilege and those who hold the power cannot be used as racialized targets.  Sorry, not sorry.  We don’t have straight pride parades because straight people have never been killed for being straight.  While I will not say that Christians have not been persecuted for their beliefs, Christianity is one of the largest mainstream religions, and this can be evidenced by even a cursory drive through small town America where churches are only outnumbered by Wal-Marts.  So, to these Christian acts who are attempting to play the victim – I ask – do you understand that you are attempting to take space and voices from those who are oppressed?  Did you ever think that perhaps the piece of the pie you are trying to carve out isn’t for you and that’s why you aren’t really represented there?  Sometimes, space for us doesn’t always exist, and even when space is made for us, we are not to go taking over that space, using it for our own means, and in this case proselytizing.  See for example straight people in gay bars.  While you are welcome to be there, it’s considered bad form for you to start giving lectures to men who are cruising, especially after your presence has been tolerated as a straight person in a gay space.  Metal shows are inherently pagan.  If you’re given space at one, why attempt to turn that around and spit in the faces of those who would have you by handing out pamphlets and telling people about going to hell?  I don’t know about the rest of my readers, but the moment someone would come into the space of a metal show where I do both my work and my play and interrupt it with religion, I would be angry.  I would probably give you a real talking to, a verbal dressing down, or barring my extreme whiskey consumption, a physical dressing down as well.  Somehow a pit doesn’t seem like a pit if I’m having to tread over crumpled beer soaked tracts and rosary beads.

Where the documentary really lost me and travelled into straight up stupid territory, was when the longhair with the Blasphemy glasses started talking about a “friend” of his who was a youth pastor or something, who prepped his sermons to Christian metal and ended up converting a “Satanist” who had entered the “church” to “encourage the path of Satan from the inside”.

Okay.

First of all.  This story isn’t true.  And even if aspects of it are, it’s been exaggerated to seem interesting when it isn’t.  And here’s how I know …  you ready for this science I’m about to drop on you..

Satanists aren’t real.  

At least not in this concept.  Robe wearing incense swinging goat blood spilling Satanists are largely a work of fiction created by the Satanic Panic of the 1980s/1990s encouraged of course by the LaVeyan branch of Satanism.  Most Satanists now are similar to the Satanic Temple – political activists opposing Christianity through policy and performance art.  I’ve studied Satanism at great length and the centrals tenets of it encourage belief in the self rather than belief in any type of deity, red skinned or otherwise.  The so called “war” against the tyrannical policies of Christianity are now fought in court rooms rather than in Machiavellian Da Vinci Code esque fictions like the one told in this film.  Further to all this, you’re expecting me to believe that a Satanist who heard your ghetto blaster playing Christian metal through a door all of a sudden saw the light?  Fantasy.  Pure fantasy.

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fuck doubt, i straight up accuse of lying

These stories reek of that all too present Christian conversion miracle story.  Go attend a pro-choice rally and listen afterwards for all the stories of ALL THE WOMEN AND THE BABBYS who have been SAVED BY THE LIGHT OF OUR LORD JEE-ZUS AYYMEEEN.  Even the bigot bus driver from my province used it as part of his defense in court in that apparently he showed gay students the light of the lord and they were saved from a life of being gay.  It’s all about miracles, right?  Gotta show someone something and then they believe.  But I’m not so easily swayed, and I smell untruth all over it.  If buddy in the glasses had not been wearing them, I bet his eyes would have given away many things.  Everyone has a tell.

What is dangerous about Satanism, is that it requires no miracles, no servitude.

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven?  Hard to say for sure.  I prefer to live my life as I currently am, doing neither.  It’s somehow more frightening to live your life knowing there is no purpose, that this is all just an accident and that at any moment it could all end, the whole works.  It makes life more precious, somehow, makes the moments we have more meaningful.  But even then, if we weren’t alive – so what?  Something else would be.  And if nothing was..  so what?

Further points in this documentary were immensely confusing – bands talking about their followers taking them in while on tour, due to the light of the lord.  I hate to break it to you guys once more, but good people do good things, regardless of belief.  I’ve had many a sleepy metalhead pass out face down ass up on my couch, and I didn’t have to burn in Hell for a month of Sundays in order to offer him a place to sleep.  I didn’t like that only Christians seemed to be painted as good people with big hearts within the metal scene (or elsewhere).  Newsflash – for all your posturing and preening and assertions that you and only you believers are able to do good, I recall only one legitimately kind Christian woman that I have met in my whole life, and even then, she did an awful lot of Jesus talk that was wholly inappropriate within the workplace.  You know, the type of stuff where you’d decide to have your lunch outside in a blizzard just so you wouldn’t have to listen to it.

Good people are good people.  Period.  End of story.

If these bands believe that they are helping others who are like them, then fine.  I accept that.  Demanding victimhood status and claiming to be the only good people left in metal is where I get seriously turned off.  You wanna do your own thing, then cool.  Do it.  Not my business to tell you who gets to take what from their metal.  But the level of ego present in much of Metal Missionaries is difficult to stomach.  You can’t walk into a genre built on “fuck yous” and start ordering people around, and if you do, be prepared for the “fuck yous” to be turned in your direction.

So, while I did end up enjoying Metal Missionaries, as the credits rolled, I was confused.  I didn’t really understand what it was trying to say or really who the target audience was.  What was the message?  That Christian metal is a thing?  That’s old news.  And who was it for?  Metalheads probably won’t watch it, and even if they do it would likely only be for cursory “look at this freakshow” type of interest.  It didn’t teach me anything that I didn’t already know – Christian metal groups exist, this isn’t news.  I can’t imagine this film would get put on parties –  It’s a bit of a bring down, and it’s extremely self righteous.  Beyond this being played by a cool Christian pastor at his youth group in order to show disaffected teenagers drawn to dark music that metal can be godly, I failed to see the point of this documentary.  But I mean, nothing like getting in bed with the devil to spread the word of the lord, I suppose.  Christianity is slowly dying.  More and more youth have moved away to non religious status in the past five years than ever before, and more and more people people view religion as inherently harmful.

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However, this documentary wasn’t made for or directed at me.  Not all art is.  I’ve said it many times, and since it bears repeating, I will say it again.  I’m not going to “get” everything.  I don’t “get” a lot of things.  So while I didn’t “get” this, and am a far breath from being saved, maybe someone else would come along who needs this piece of film, needs to know that believing and being a metalhead are not two separate opposing forces.  I appreciated the craftsmanship of this film and that someone found their way to a genre of music that has spoken to them and was brave enough to speak about their journey.  I suppose that’s all we can ask for.

In all, I found this documentary to be short on the metal and big on propaganda, and it just didn’t end up adding anything to the discussion about faith based metal that I actually am interested to hear.  I like hearing about how people make their way into outsider culture and what it means for them, and how they make it their own, and I honestly wish the film makers would have spent more time with this and less time with creating this perceived image of victims around the believers.

For those who have lost out big time because of the Christian faith, it’s a little bit of a spit in the face.

With that in mind, I think it’s great that this documentary was made and that it show cased some of the bands who are creating with this subgenre.  For those who create – I salute to you.

You can check out the good word of the Metal Missionaries on facebook and peep the trailer below.

You can find Robin on twitter looking for an old priest and a young priest.

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