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Heavy Metal and Christianity

All human social groups share certain characteristics – on a micro level (individual interactions) and on a macro level (large-scale group dynamics). For the purposes of this article, I could choose any large social group in the world – religious or otherwise. I chose to use Christianity for two reasons.

First, the rather tenuous relationship between Metal Culture and Christianity since February 13th, 1970, when Black Sabbath released their first album.

Second – heavy metal collectively has the largest and most loyal global fanbase of any style of music (at least according to statistics released by music streaming service Spotify). Considering Christianity has the largest following of any religion on earth, they’re probably the best point of comparison (i.e. the largest faith based and entertainment based communities in the world). And you might be shocked at the number of similarities between the two.

Please keep in mind this is an observational piece, and is by no means all-encompassing. On to the discussion.

Similarities:

Both are large-scale global “bricolage” cultures

Metal and Christianity are global phenomenons, with legions of dedicated fans/followers on every populated continent. Christianity and Heavy Metal transcend language and culture, as well as economic barriers.

Christianity broke off/fractured from it’s parent culture (Judaism) when the population base reached a critical mass. It later fractured into distinct branches (Orthodox, Catholic, then Protestant with Martin Luther), which have continued to splinter into smaller sub-groups. The sheer number of different denominations is staggering, but all of them fall under the larger umbrella term of Christianity.

Metal broke off/fractured from it’s parent culture (Rock and Roll) when the fan base reached a similar critical mass. It later fractured into two distinct branches (Mainstream and Underground/Extreme), which have continued to splinter into smaller sub-genres. The sheer number of different sub-genres is staggering, but all of them fall under the larger umbrella term of Heavy Metal.

Both Share Similar Spectrums of Adherence

In both Christian and Metal cultural groups there are spectrums of adherence that range from exclusive to inclusive (and everything inbetween). This is a natural occurrence – because as the population of a group increases, so does the number of different opinions within that group.

A good example would be the “real” or “true” member debates. Within Christianity, there is an ongoing discussion in terms of what constitutes a “real” or “true” Christian. A parallel can be seen in the whole “real” or “true” metalheads v.s. posers discussion. in other words, both cultures have their fair share of “infighting” over multiple definitions of adherence.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Why do we need all these subgenres? Why can’t we just call it all metal like we used to?” or something similar? Spend enough time on metal forums, Facebook groups, or with metalheads in general and you might notice it’s a rather common topic of discussion.

Interestingly enough, when discussing the relative diversity of Christianity with Christians I’ve heard similar sentiments (We don’t need all these different denominations/I don’t know why we can’t just call it all Christianity).

There is some merit to these arguments, because all sub-genres and scenes fall under the greater spectrum of Heavy Metal just like all protestant and catholic denominations fall under the greater spectrum of Christianity. So, they’re accurate – just not very specific.

Both are Historically Male-Dominated Cultures

Considering both Christian and Heavy Metal culture are derivatives of Western Culture (which is mostly male dominated) this shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

There is a major difference here though – Christianity was systematically set up to exclude women from positions of power pretty much since it’s inception. A good example of that would be the taboo against female priests/pastors. Metal, however, is masculinist (as opposed to patriarchal).

So, while both social systems formed with predominantly male influence – in this instance the difference is a huge one. Within the church’s social structure – rules have to be changed to allow women to serve the culture in major roles such as a priest or pastor.

Heavy metal has no such restrictions. A women entering the metal scene simply has to navigate social norms that are traditionally considered to be masculine (I’m talking about the scene here, not the industry. All Western industry is patriarchal). The proof is in the pudding here, while the two systems may seem comparable, the end result(s) of the respective social structures for different genders can clearly be seen and differentiated.

Both Christianity and Heavy Metal Have Radical “Fringe Groups”

Both Christianity and Metal Culture have a few skeletons in the closet. Heavy Metal has such gems as National Socialist Black Metal and Hatecore (technically punk, like all of the “-core” derivations, but included here because of hardcore’s association with metal), while Christianity boasts the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations and other Christian Identity groups.

“Fringe” hate groups in Metal

“Fringe” hate groups in Christianity

These fringe groups aren’t just about racism, anti-abortion violence in the United States and abroad generally has Christian undertones. And Heavy Metal has it’s own share of isolated, hate-filled violence. From the infamous church burnings and murders to instances of torture, it’s safe to say there are a few very seriously disturbed individuals on the fringes of the scene.

In both instances, the major block of the respective cultures renounce the violence of the fringe groups – but these events are so violent and atrocious it’s hard to separate them completely.

Both Have a “Ritual” Component

Sociologically speaking, a metal concert could be considered a ritual experience. Rituals aren’t limited to religious expression – for instance, shaking a person’s hand as a greeting is a common social ritual.

The metal concert is a ritual of heavy metal culture worldwide. Individual customs may vary based on location, for instance in the United States it’s generally considered taboo to wear the shirt of the band you’re going to see at a show (unless it’s a tour shirt purchased at the concert). However, in other areas of the globe this isn’t necessarily the case. Also, someone not familiar with the incredible variance of metal culture might not recognize that a Black Sabbath show and a Cannibal Corpse show are both considered to fall in the general realm of metal shows.

Likewise, a church sermon is a ritual of Christian culture worldwide. Traditions in American churches might seem foreign to those in Europe or elsewhere. Snake-handling is a tradition of some churches in the southern United States, while the custom wouldn’t be recognized anywhere else in the world. Someone not familiar with the relative diversity of Christianity might not recognize that a Russian Orthodox service and a Southern Baptist service both fall in the general realm of Christian ritual.

And in both cases, the end result of a successful “ritual” is the same – they solidify social bonds between participants.

Both Utilize an Atmosphere of Persecution to Solidify Their Respective Bases

This one’s kind of interesting – as both Heavy Metal and Christianity have a history of persecution. In fact, considering the universal symbol of Christianity is an instrument of torture used against the founder (the cross), one could argue that Christianity is based on a mindset of persecution. Likewise, the founder of heavy metal (Ozzy, through Black Sabbath) was publicly persecuted (granted, he wasn’t tortured and killed – once of the nice things about 2,000 years of cultural advancements, as an accusation of blasphemy has certainly led to public execution historically), most notably in his Suicide Solution trial in the 80’s.

Funny thing about a culture of persecution – it tends to solidify social bonds of the persecuted group and lend a universal sense of purpose through opposition of the invisible “other”. Metal bands and Priests/Pastors alike take advantage of this social mechanism rather liberally. I’m not saying it isn’t for good reason, in certain parts of the world Christians and Metalheads certainly are persecuted – and generally for the same reason. Because they both represent the spread of Western Culture in an area. Bearing this in mind, the tension between metal and christian cultures can be viewed in a different light.

Now, by definition these two groups aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be a christian (or a member of any other faith) and still be a metalhead. So, why is it that so many christian groups are against heavy metal? And why are so many metal artists and fans so vehemently against the christian church?

Short answer – on a macro level they’re after the same thing… membership. They might phrase it differently – Christianity generally says it’s around to “save people’s eternal souls”, while metal is generally there to “free people’s minds” and “promote individual thought”. But at the end of the day, the results are the same. A church saving a person’s soul generally implies participation in christian culture, and by inference the spread of that culture. Likewise, heavy metal grabbing a person’s attention and getting them to think for themselves usually includes participation and perpetuation of metal culture.

They Both Utilize Horror Themes

At first glance, this might seem ridiculous. But if you really break down the components of “Hellfire Preaching” and compare them to death metal lyrics, you’re likely to find a common denominator in horror themes.

In both instances, this is a manifestation of a culture catering to the morbid interests of their bases. Because at the end of the day, there isn’t that much difference between talking about people being tortured eternally in hell and singing about torture in any other medium. In this light heavy metal and hellfire sermons can both be viewed as extensions of horror themed entertainment. Because let’s face it, people like to be scared.

Also, there’s this.

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Cellphone Use at Metal Shows is an Abuse of Privilege – Quit Ruining the Show for Everyone Else

First off, I’m not saying cellphones should be banned from metal shows. That would be ridiculous. There’s always going to be a situation where someone might need to leave their phone on (emergencies, etc).

Secondly, I’m not saying people shouldn’t be allowed to snap a few pictures or record a song or two. That’s an awesome keepsake – and every time you watch it, it’ll bring you back to the experience.

But I am saying that cellphone use during concerts is a privilege – not a right. I get it, you paid for your ticket. You know who else did? Everyone else at the show. Meaning you’re on the same playing field as everyone else.

For anyone whining that people on cellphones at a concert are probably in the middle of an emergency – both you and I know that’s a load of shit. If it’s enough of an emergency that you need to use your cellphone, it’s enough of an emergency to give up your spot in the front row at a concert. 99% of people on cellphones at shows are texting or doing shit on Facebook.

And using the possibility of an emergency to justify texting a buddy during the middle of a song while you’re in the front row is an abuse of privilege. You can’t use cellphones at pretty much any other public entertainment venue (well, maybe a circus) – you’ll get banned.

This sort of abuse of privilege is why companies like apple are developing technology to stop cellphone use at events altogether.  And frankly, the only people who are to blame for this are the entitled shitheads who feel it is their god-given right to do whatever they want at a show because they paid good money.

If you drink too much at a show, you’ll get kicked out. If you start a fight at a show, you’ll get kicked out. If you get caught doing illegal drugs at a show, you’ll get kicked out. In general, if you’re disruptive and cause others to lose out on the concert experience you’ll get kicked out. So no, you don’t get to do whatever you want at a metal show.

As a matter of fact, that’s the attitude that’s literally going to ruin it for everyone who uses their phones courteously. If you care so much about the right to use a phone during an emergency, don’t act like a twat and make it so that people can’t use their phones at all.

And don’t ruin it for the people standing behind you – nobody who paid the same amount for concert tickets as you should be forced to watch the show through your fucking cellphone. How about the artists? Since people started downloading music, live shows are a big part of the reason they can stay in the music business. If you’re broadcasting the show, people have even less reason to go to the concert themselves. They paid for all the lighting and special effects, not to mention the wages of the roads crew and whatever other expenses go into making a show. Show a little fucking respect.

Corey Taylor (Slipknot) and David Draiman (Disturbed) were exactly right to call people out on using cellphones during their shows. I’ll take this one further – they are exactly the right people in the metal community to be doing this. Bands like Slipknot, Disturbed, 5 finger Death Punch, and the like are what I like to refer to as “starter metal bands.”

Nobody starts off listening to Second Wave Black Metal or Technical Brutal Slamming Death Metal – they start off listening to metal that’s easily accessible. Mainstream metal, if you will. Eventually, that isn’t heavy enough for them anymore, so they move on to the heavier “underground” stuff. This makes the “start metal bands” the perfect people to instruct people on how to act – like when Ivan Moody from 5 Finger Death Punch stopped his entire show in Albany to call out someone who was being a deuchbag in the pit. That way, when people start going to more underground style shows, they already know how to act.

And there are always exceptions to the rules – if you’re filming a set for a local band, this obviously doesn’t apply to you.

Does Metal have unwritten rules?

Short answer – yes.

Well, sort of. More like communally agreed to conventions of behavior that have developed over decades. These aren’t ironclad rules (well, mosh-pit etiquette certainly is), there’s no police force that’s going to enforce it. These are things that metalheads recognize as common cultural norms, and choose to practice as a way to show solidarity within and to the culture.

The unwritten rules are codes of conduct to observe during a show/festival. And a lot of them are just common sense, and apply to any live show you go to. But some of them are pretty specific to metal, and if you don’t know them you might get a few funny looks when you go to a show.

This list has been a little while in the making. A big shout out to the members of Metalheads United Interactive, Metalhead Alliance, my own group Metal Stuff. And a big thanks to my buddy Raven at The Vault of Metal for getting the conversation going over a year ago, and then inviting me onto his radio show to discuss it on-air.

Rules for everyone; 

Shows-

  1. Wear black. At least a black shirt. And if you have the option, wear a band shirt. They’re generally black, and the reason this rule exists.
  2. Don’t wear a shirt from the band you’re going to see, including the concert shirt you just purchased. This is huge – and a lot of people seem confused about it when they first hear it. It’s a logical thing to assume that wearing this shows support for the band – but stop and think about it for a second. You already paid for a ticket, and are in the presence of a group of people who are doing the same. You obviously support the band. All this does is make you look like a fan boy/girl, and nobody likes a fan boy/girl. Don’t be “that guy.” Wait till after the show to throw on your concert shirt, or put it on underneath what you’re wearing if you don’t feel like holding on to it. (exceptions: if it’s Iron Maiden, Metallica, Slayer, or one of those legendary bands you’re fine wearing a shirt with their logo on it. Festivals are also an exception, sometimes it’s almost impossible to avoid wearing a shirt from every band on the bill). EDIT: This seems to be an American behavioral convention – and apparently doesn’t translate as much in other countries.
  3. Don’t wear a band shirt from one of the headliner’s previous bands. This one is a little less strict than the first two rules, and it’s more of a courtesy thing. You’re there to support what the artists are currently doing, not their previous accomplishments. Examples would include no Pantera shirts at a Down show (or a Hellyeah show), No The Agonist or Nevermore shirts at an Arch Enemy show, No Cannibal Corpse shirts at a 6 Feet Under show, etc.
  4. Don’t wear a band patch/shirt if you’re not familiar with the band. This is just a given, but this is a list of the unwritten rules so it makes the cut.
  5. Don’t expect to be in the same spot for the duration of the show. A crowd is a fluid thing, and chances are (especially at a metal show) people are going to be moving around a lot. This also means nobody is going to “save your spot” if you have to go take a piss, grab a beer, smoke a cig, etc. The only way to really guarantee you’re going to have the same spot for the duration of the show is to get there early and get one of the spots at the very front near the stage.
  6. Proper footwear is a good idea. Leather/steel toe boots aren’t really a fashion statement in metal, they’re just practical. Like I said before, the crowd is constantly moving. Chances are your feet are going to get stepped on. A lot. Steel toe/leather boots make the entire concert a lot more enjoyable.
  7. Wear clothing that lets you move around. You might notice a lot of dudes in looser jeans or cargo shorts – there’s a reason for that. If you end up moving around a lot (you probably will) or in the pit mobility is a very good thing. Call me crazy, but skinny jeans or sweatpants seem like they’d restrict your mobility. And after a few hours I’d imagine they get rather uncomfortable.
  8. As much as some people don’t like them, a wallet chain comes in awfully handy at shows. The risk of it getting caught on something is there, but I’d rather get caught for a second or two than lose my wallet in the pit. Mine’s served me well for over 16 years – I highly recommend them.
  9. If you’re wearing a lot of spikes and studs, be conscious of your surroundings. Yeah, they’re fucking cool. No, getting hit in the face with them isn’t cool. A lot of venues ban then because they’re considered weapons (bullshit), so if you have the privilege of wearing them by all means don’t ruin it for everyone else.
  10. Don’t sing along unless the lead singer asks the audience to do so (I’m guilty of this one, and from the look on the singer’s face I have a terrible singing voice).
  11. Don’t buy anything from the merch booth till after the show. Seriously, holding all that shit gets uncomfortable, and takes away for your ability to enjoy the show. It’s fine to scope it all out beforehand – that way when you actually get up there to buy something you already know what you’re getting and can make your purchase and get out of the way as soon as possible. The people running the booth and the people behind you will be thankful. If I’m getting something like an exclusive tour vinyl, I’ll purchase it beforehand and ask them if they can hold onto it until after the show – that way everyone wins. Also, tip the vendors.
  12. Do NOT buy a cheap knockoff shirt from the dude in the parking lot after the show. the price might be right, but you’re fucking the band over and you’ll look like a tool every time you wear the shirt. Don’t be “that guy.”

Ladies-

  1. Avoid wearing a dress. It’s a disaster waiting to happen at a metal show, especially if you’re trying to get up close to the stage. It’s not for any sexist reasons, it’s not to try and make women conform to male stereotypes, it’s just common sense. Because you’re going to be awfully uncomfortable if someone accidentally bumps into you and you do a “graceful” spread eagled face-plant. I would wager, in fact, it would be more uncomfortable than wearing pants.
  2. If a guy keeps bumping into you or trying to get you into the pit and you’re not keen on participating, keep an elbow up or a hand out and let him know vocally.
  3. Sometimes, due to the fact that the crowd is moving around, people will bump into you. But it’s pretty safe to say you’ll be able to tell the difference between someone accidentally brushing against you and someone groping/getting inappropriate. If a dude does something scummy, be very vocal about it.
  4. If vocalizing your dislike of certain behaviors doesn’t stop them from happening, rest assured that the dude standing next to you (in fact, pretty much all of them within range) will put a swift end to it. I’ve heard girls who have been into metal for years complain about scumbags at metal shows – you might be pleasantly surprised to find out just how little tolerance there is for this sort of behavior in the metal community.
  5. EDIT: I’ve had enough girls comment on this that I felt inclined to add another rule – no high heels under any circumstances.

In the pit –

  1. If someone falls down, pick them up immediately. This is the most important rule, no exceptions
  2. No hitting – it’s not a fight. Things happen, limbs flail – if you accidentally hit someone do a friendly gesture and apologize (flashing the horns and mouthing “sorry” over the music works). Chances are, they’ll forgive you. If not, step out for a bit and let them cool down.
  3. When you’re on the outside of a particularly violent pit, and you see someone trying unsuccessfully to get out, if you think you can handle it go and get them. They’ll appreciate it.
  4. If someone is seriously hurt, form a protective circle around them until help can get there. If necessary, send someone to speak to the nearest security guard – their job is the safety of the crowd, and they’ll know what to do.

In General –

  1. Know your shit. If you’re going to make a statement or talk in general about a band make sure you know what you’re talking about. This is another one of those things that should go without saying – there’s no shame in saying you’re not familiar with a band or album.
  2. Respect your elders. At the risk of sounding old – this is one that seems to get lost by the wayside with a lot of the newer influx of people into the metal crowd nowadays. Metal isn’t classified as a “youth subculture” because of the fact that metal doesn’t reject it’s elders. If you see some older dudes at a show, say hey or offer to buy them a fucking beer or something. Every single one of them has been a part of the scene and the culture for a long time. These are the dudes (and chics) who kept metal going through lawsuits, the satanic panic, congressional hearings, etc.
  3. Don’t bitch about metal culture. If you’re going to sit and whine about how they’re not a friendly group if you’re not wearing a black band t-shirt and cargo shorts, you’re in the wrong place. Metalheads are a global culture that’s almost 50 years old, and there are good reasons for every cultural norm. You’re not going to shock the system and start a social revolution by complaining about the group of people who invented social networking before the internet (I’m looking at you Shayne Mathis).

Also, Hardcore dancing/Two stepping/Practicing karate is not my favorite. It really depends on the show, but most places I go to discourage it. It’s about as cool as the shirtless white trash guy that ends up in the pit at every major show (we get it, you’re sweaty and overheated. Taking your shirt off won’t change that). Most people I talk to are either ambiguous about it or harbor a strong dislike of the practice. If other people are doing it and it floats your boat, whatever. I just hope it disappears like Grunge or Hair metal.

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