We’re back with our slightly erratic series where Nine Circles is STILL very pleased to bring you book reviews written by musicians throughout the metal scene. As much as they love to write their own blast beats, discordant riffs and swirling maelstroms they also love to read and, for all of our benefit, discuss. The most recent post in this series features one man black metal/noise machine and occasional 9C contributor Jonathan Petkau of Domestikwom with his thoughts on Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred by Jason Lief.
In Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred, author Jason Leif sets out to explore the positive relationship between Christianity and heavy metal. As heavy metal, at least historically has appropriated Christian language and symbols to protest the religion and the larger “Western” societal context, most of the time is spent establishing the goals of metal and Christianity through the lens of sociologists like Emile Durkeim and philosophers like Slavoj Žižek.
I believe that Leif’s central driving idea is where the book is most successful. His presentation of “the Christ event” (ie: the death of God) as being an event so destructive that it shatters existing categories of meaning to create new ones does bear a similarity with the tradition within heavy metal of desecrating Christian language and symbols to create new meaning. And by categorizing these expressions as existing not outside of the religion but as a dark underside within society (ie: the “impure sacred”), it calls to mind Stephen King’s words about why we love works of horror. He sees horror,
“as lifting a trapdoor in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.”
I do take issue with the book for a small handful of reasons. Firstly, it is quite simply too long. Leif manages to make his fairly compelling point early on in the book, and then spends the rest of his 100 pages making the same point repeatedly in ways that don’t move the needle meaningfully further. It would have had much more potency at half of its length or even shorter.
I find that while Leif successfully articulates the ideas that he is bringing together for purposes of comparison, he mostly fails to engage in critique or engagement with the merit of these ideas. You could argue that falls outside of the scope of his intentions for this particular project, but with my earlier concerns of wasted space, this would be a really good place to explore. This most notably occurs in his fixation on Scandinavian black metal, going so far as to quote Varg from Burzum, without addressing the racism in the quote itself, or more widely the racist undertones that are fairly prominent within that particular branch of metal. And similarly, critiques of Žižek have also noted his very European-centered perspective, relegating struggles of racism to being a minor expression of capitalism instead of being a crucial part of the system itself. To Leif’s credit, he does spend a page at the end of the book indicating that heavy metal has had issues of its own struggles with misogyny (though race is absent in his brief critique), it seems like it would be worth spending more time on given his establishing metal as this profound new community built in the ashes of the old one.
Lastly, and this is a personal preference more than anything that reflects on the book itself, but while Leif’s comparison is a good one, I believe that both heavy metal and Christianity are wider in its variety of traditions and expressions, and that allows for more points of connection that I find personally more meaningful. While “The Christ Event” is a cool idea, you don’t need to look too far in the Scriptures to find expressions of people expressing their anger, grief and protest at their God; Job, Psalms, Lamentations. Slaves BC already wrote an album about the Book of Ecclesiastes. The name “Israel” means “wrestles with God” so Christianity, through its roots in Judaism is definitely built to allow angry petulance.
Similarly, metal has evolved musically and commercially to allow for many differing thematic and musical iterations, such that it feels more integrated into the larger musical spectrum that exists, even if it does occupy an extreme position on that spectrum. Sure, there are people that prefer the power fantasies of inverted crosses (and a drunk night out at Amon Amarth never hurt anyone), but there’s more to metal than what is presented here.
I am confident that Leif is aware of these things, and it is possible he intends on exploring the subject further. But given my core objection which is that he fails to expand on his argument despite convincingly establishing it early in the book, I do wish that his argument could have been integrated into a larger exploration of the wide worlds of Christianity and heavy metal.
Many thanks to Jon for his time and thoughts on this book!
Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred within the Secular West is published and available from Lexington Books as well as book stores and online worldwide. Domestikwom’s debut LP A Peace That Destroys is available now on Bandcamp.