Power to the Powerless: Heavy Metal, Worship, and Creatureliness

There are times in our lives when we all feel powerless. We can feel that we are being controlled by circumstances that escape our control, or perhaps we lack people who will stand with us through our trials. This feeling of powerlessness is overwhelming. Its insidious nature lies in its power to distort reality and cause us to grow mired deeper and deeper in its clutches. We end up feeling like we’re trapped in a sticky web and our struggling only manages to get us tangled up even worse. I have become awakened to these issues of power and powerlessness through reflection on other aspects of life experience, but one crucial practice that has opened my eyes to them has been that of listening to metal. By being in the metal scene, I’ve come to understand the central role that power and powerlessness can take in our lives as creatures.

This claim will likely surprise many, particularly because of the outward characteristics of a music scene that seems to thrive on machismo, anger, and war. As a member of the metal scene myself, and one who has done considerable reflection on my (as well as others’) relationship with metal, I’ve reached this conclusion slowly but decisively. I’d invite you into this meditation by with the question, “Why do people enjoy metal?” Many people ask this question, but few sincerely want an answer. It’s more a rhetorical question in modern parlance; the answer is assumed to be irrational.  Only the silence of bewilderment will suffice. I would challenge you to enter into the heart and mind of a metalhead, and ask yourself this question. “If metalheads are humans who are broken, full of hurt, and longing for the love of God, why do they enjoy metal?”

This question has as many answers as there are metalheads, but I would like to propose that feelings of powerlessness seem to be a regular theme that I’ve observed in my own heart, and I believe that I can speak confidently when I say that it holds sway in the hearts of many other metalheads. Why powerlessness though? This feeling of being beaten down and unable to rise? This feeling of helplessness in a sea of forces stronger than yourself? Losing control is scary. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and I think that one way to characterize metal is the music of desperation. It’s the song of those who wish to rise, to be strong, and to not be alone. There are many in the metal scene who are hurting and broken, and in metal they find their voice. Some come from broken homes, some are addicted to drugs or alcohol, some struggle with self-hatred and self-mutilation, and some just feel alone.

How do the powerless find a voice in metal? This question is perhaps the hardest of all, for the true power of metal lies on a deep and embodied register that can be powerfully felt, but only described with great difficulty. Our voice as metalheads is found in the emotional experience that the intense sound evokes. The feeling produced in the listener gives them a sense of overwhelming power and strength. As the guitars chug or riff, as the drummer pummels his kit, and as the vocalist screams or growls, the listener connects with it on the gut level. It grabs your heart and your body. It makes you want to move. It makes you want to take a stand. You feel like you’re ascending. Until you feel this feeling, you won’t understand metal. I promise. Once you feel it, I doubt you’ll be able to go back. It’s this feeling, I think, that connects to those who feel powerless. Metal can become the song in our ears and in our hearts that makes us want to break chains, tear down strongholds, and rush into battle against the powers of darkness. We know there’s nothing more powerful than a song in our hearts as we go about our labor. We find strength to face another day and we feel able to fight on.

But this feeling can function as a double-edged sword. It can be easy to place our hope in this sound (and the community in which it is embedded) as the longed for remedy for our feelings of powerlessness and despair. When this happens, we will continue to use metal (or perhaps growing tired of it, something else) to alleviate that sense of powerlessness, but we will never end up dealing with the root cause of that feeling. At bottom, we are creatures who were made to be dependent upon our loving Creator. Living in rebellion and contradiction to this reality will leave us quaking and desperate to be something we can never be. We will crush ourselves beneath the weight of our burden if we try to shoulder God’s role as eternal Creator and Redeemer. Our bone dry hearts can never replenish the empty wells of our soul. God must come from outside and fill us up.

But this is why metal can also be profoundly worshipful and spiritually fruitful. Metal can lift us up and point us beyond ourselves (and itself!) to the one who truly is powerful, and not simply in the sense of His possessing brute force, but a majestic power that He wields in love and unto our benefit. He is the master of Himself and thus He can love with total freedom. God can give us all of Himself and yet never lose Himself in the process. This pillar and sure Rock is that power which our fragile and powerless beings are longing to rest in. Though we may seek to find power or control through any number of means, we will always twist God’s good gifts and end up destroying ourselves by asking too much of them. Metal is no different. But I would contend that, when metal is approached not as the end in itself, but just like any created thing, as a witness beyond and through itself to our Creator, we will discover its usefulness for loving God and growing in righteousness.

The sound of metal causes this overwhelming feeling of strength, boldness, and awe to well up in my heart. When this sound is combined with beautiful words of praise or even of profound doubt, I find that the resulting song emanates from the deepest part of me and resounds through the caverns of my heart. In those moments, I’ve tasted a tiny morsel of the power that flows from our majestic King. A power that is mingled with the hatred of wickedness and also an unlimited store of security for His people. This perfect union of love and power confronts us in the reality of our God’s death on the cross. In his brutal and gory death, we see power made perfect in weakness. But this death is followed by the resurrection and ascension where our King takes His throne and His crown. Having established His kingdom, He poured out His Spirit upon us and drew us into His own life. Consequently, we may begin to joyfully plumb the heart of God through the power of His Spirit. When we do so, infinity opens up before us and we are transformed to more and more love what He loves and hate what He hates. Metal has time and again shown itself to be a fruitful instrument of God in my life. I praise Him more. I love Him more. I want Him more. No longer am I powerless. But instead, my power is found in resting in the Almighty God who came to earth and became powerless for me, in order that I might be lifted up into His tender loving care.

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