Jason Lief's "Leave Metallica Alone! Why Metallica Coming to Church Is a Bad Idea," from the February 2012 issue of Perspectives, is a refreshing commentary on the evangelical compulsion to co-opt and baptize popular culture. Lief, a professor of religion and a fan of heavy metal music, writes a brief defense of why he is not interested in reading John Van Sloten's Bringing Metallica to Church: Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything. On one hand, Lief is concerned to say that we should leave heavy metal alone. He rightfully explains that the church's posture toward society at large should be outwardly focused, willing to respect our neighbors and take them seriously in their own homes or concert venues, as it were, "on their own terms." Yet, on the other hand, Lief does not leave Metallica alone. He insightfully offers a brief theology of culture, how heavy metal can form a particular kind of community. It is in the venue of that community, through people, that God can speak to us. Lief's application of this heavy-metal-ascommunity is demonstrated in his personal anecdote of connecting with a young person in south Minneapolis through their shared affection for the musical genre.
If I read between the lines of Lief's essay, I suspect that Lief might share my own concern about a Christian engagement with popular culture, namely, that the church tends to feign a trendy or "edgy" posture to earn sufficient street credibility, all in the name of being relevant. Indeed, the North American brand of evangelicalism is awfully self-conscious and accordingly strives to attain the stature of "the cool." Yet, as we learned in high school, if you work too hard to be cool, you will likely end up being just a poser. This is James K. A. Smith's point in "Poser Christianity" (www.theotherjournal.com, October 4, 2010), a review of Brett McCracken's Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Smith observes that while McCracken goes to great lengths to identify how the church has acquiesced to popular culture and its hipster trappings, he fails to identify anything redemptive about "the cool." Smith argues that perhaps there are people who shop at thrift stores mainly to subvert the systematic injustice of the massmarket clothing industry. Such a disheveled, hipster appearance might be merely accidental to deeper convictions. Perhaps there is something to learn from a bohemian's response to the square banality of our postindustrial society.
Lief argues that there is something similar to be learned from heavy metal as it was formed in the economically depressed industrial areas of England in the late 1960s and early '70s. This is something that John Van Sloten would very much agree with. When reflecting on seeing Metallica in concert, Van Sloten reports, "In song after song, Metallica denounced injustice and hypocrisy. They exposed and derided the manipulative milieu of our consumer-driven world. Like Jesus in the temple, they angrily flipped over the tables of our ever-consuming and commodifying way of life." In Bringing Metallica to Church, Van Sloten moves from the "serendipitous" events surrounding his church's brush with the famous band to an exegesis of Van Gogh, including an explanation of what he calls "coillumination," where "the truth contained in the Bible brings truth and light to the truth contained in broader creation and culture, and the converse." He glosses Calvin's concept of sensus divinitatis, unpacking the theological takeaway from films like Crash and even the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men. Among other things, Van Sloten addresses critical responses, considers childlike wonder, and finishes with an eschatology that borrows heavily from Richard Mouw's When the Kings Come Marching In.
What Van Sloten has done with his book seems nearly impossible—or at least rare. When the discourse on theology of culture has been largely contained within the halls of academia, Bringing Metallica to Church offers the average parishioner a relatively interesting and accessible instruction on common grace. Yet, how anemic and poor is our theology of culture that we should require the edgy, cool, hip, and unlikely close proximity of Metallica in order to teach a doctrine as basic to our faith as common grace? It is hard not to conclude that Bringing Metallica to Church is guilty of name-dropping and pop culture poser-ing. Likewise, it is also hard not to worry the book will be read mostly by posers, this being Smith's most biting indictment of McCracken's Hipster Christianity.
What I find most interesting about Lief's essay is a question on which he equivocates: "Does God speak through popular music? I'm not so sure." Perhaps the reason why much of the discussion on common grace has largely remained within academia is that it is so easy to get it wrong. I assume this explains Lief's reticence. It is one thing to discuss revelation through the cosmic, created order; it is another thing to consider how God might be revealed through popular culture.
While I sympathize with Lief's concern to leave Metallica alone, it is likely that such a reaction to Van Sloten's book might also be prone to a posturing of "the cool." Here is another lesson from high school: the truly cool kids must work hard to distance themselves from the posers. The evangelical impulse to co-opt and compete with popular culture can be awkward and embarrassing, but we cannot correct it without engaging books like Van Sloten's. We need all the John Van Slotens and Brett McCrackens we can get. Lief would find much to be admired in Bringing Metallica to Church. The prickly pear is not Van Sloten's enthusiasm for common grace; it is his application: his missiology and his ecclesiology. The difficulty lies in how he applies his redemptive approach to popular culture to his local church ministry: "preaching from" the variety of chapters from the book of creation like Metallica, U2, or Arcade Fire, or even chapters on architecture, physics, medicine, science, and the psychology of travel. Yes, this kind of cultural exegesis requires a whole other essay.
A band named Waterdeep was a regular staple at the venue I used to oversee years ago. While I've been a fan, one song has always troubled me. "If You Want to Get Free" sports the opening line, "In the gas station bathroom next to the condom machine, I heard the word of the Lord." This jives with the mantra of Lief's "Kuyperian academic institution," Dordt College, that God is revealed in "every square inch" of creation. (Incidentally, Square Inch is the publisher of Bringing Metallica to Church.) The question is not whether God can reveal himself through popular music or speak to us in a gas station bathroom standing next to a condom machine. If God can speak through Balaam's ass, conceivably he can communicate through a variety of things that might offend our sensibilities. Yet, while God might be able to speak to us through a variety of agencies, does he always have to? Does he always need to? Should we not prefer to hear the Word of the Lord in the many other richer, more direct resources of Christianity within the church and let bathrooms be bathrooms and let heavy metal be a lamentation of the unchurched that vents the angst of adolescent alienation?
Perhaps not so ironically, through Facebook, a student recently shared a video of a worship chorus by a Christian heavy metal group. The song is titled "Tithemi," the Greek word meaning "to bend down."
All fear, all pain, all hurt, all grief, all lies, must bow to Jesus' name.
All kings, all thrones, everything that breathes life, must bow to Jesus' name.
The earth, the sea, the sun, the stars, the sky, must bow to Jesus' name.
Kings, crowns, thrones . . . bow down.
Fall face down . . . bow down.
Kiss the ground . . . bow down.
Jesus, you hold the crown . . . bow down.
I do not usually find worship videos compelling. The sweeping crane shots of most pop, arena-rock worship leans toward the sensational and distracting, but watching a live experience of this song—the jumping, sweating, long-hair tossing, and moshing—helped me appreciate the song's meaning. I don't understand the culture of a hardcore worship scene any better than I understand the underground church in China, and I will also never lead this song in the context of my campus ministry. I was surprised to discover this metal worship was more an expression of celebration than lamentation. Despite my typical cynicism toward these things, I found myself moved.
It seems that the differences between those who want to bring Metallica to church and those who want to leave them alone might have less to do with theological convictions and more to do with cultural allegiances. The work ahead of us is less prescriptive—less "yes" or "no" to Metallica in church—and more descriptive and formational, biblically and theologically. Cultural discernment is core to Christian discipleship. It should not be a novel or new idea for us. We will continue to be tossed around by the whims of marketing firms until we get this established.
As Lief points out, the great value of music is largely communal. We use the arts for many reasons, but, at their best, the arts are a venue, a medium through which we share our affections. The arts tend to reveal more about us than they do about God. We put music on like clothes. We wear it and it becomes a part of us. In some senses, if Jason Lief has been a fan of Metallica, he has already been taking them to church—even before Van Sloten's book was published. What we must ask ourselves in bringing popular culture to church is ultimately a liturgical question: do the art forms that we bring, whether intentionally or not, effectively form Christian disciples?
Joshua Banner is minister of music and art at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and is a contributor to For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker Books).