My story- Spiritual Dysphoria and Spiritual Dislocation
I was raised in the Episcopalian tradition, and as my well-meaning mother compelled me to attend a church that was designed in an old-fashioned way intended to use shame as a form of social control (tightly-packed, uncomfortable wooden pews have the effect- intended or appreciated- of making it hard for any bored person to leave without drawing embarrassing attention to themselves). In this particular church, there was a stained glass window of the personification of Hope to Jesus’s left. This figure- Hope- was standing in front of an anchor that looked conspicuously like a Devil’s tail. The curious placement of this anchor is an established tradition within the Anglican and Episcoplaian faith (a reference to a Bible passage noting Hope’s steadfastness). However, the leaders of the church (including, as I recalled, even the vicars) weren’t theologically literate enough to provide a satisfactory explanation. And seriously, it is difficult to explain why a tradition would involve placing an anchor behind a figure- where it could easily be mistaken for a Devil’s tail- instead of in front of the figure (where it wouldn’t be). Regardless, I grew up being dissatisfied with the answers as to why Jesus seems to be standing next to a Devil Lady, and my interest in the occult (piqued by weekly blood-drinking, body-eating ceremonies in front of a demon) seemed to have no place in discussion of spirituality.
I was sent to boarding school at 14, essentially because the local school district was so elitist that it was criminally negligent in providing for the needs of students like myself, who had learning difficulties. Thus, I missed out on the high school experience of attending rock concerts, although I learned of bands like Metallica and The Offspring through schoolmates. During the December holiday of my second year of boarding school, I had a life-changing mystical moment. I was superficially familiar with metal, having heard stuff like Iron Man and Crazy Train on the radio and from schoolmates. But, again, having not been to any concerts, I hadn’t really experienced it. This changed when I saw Beavis and Butthead Do America in the cinema. Having no previous understanding of the effects of peyote or the aesthetics of psychedelia, 15-year-old me was totally unprepared for the awesome experience of seeing the animated sequence for White Zombie’s “Ratfinks, Suicide Tanks, and Cannibal Girls” on a huge screen with surround-sound speakers. This was a “thin space” moment, although it would be more than 20 years before I had the theological vocabulary needed to recognize it as such.
My first two years of college were foundational. I made the naive mistake of attending college in Lynchburg, Virginia, under the assumptions that, being south of where I grew up, Lynchburg was warmer and friendlier. I was wrong on both counts, especially given that, unbeknownst to be, Lynchburg was the central hub of evangelism. Because evangelism created a black hole of rock culture, there was pretty much nothing to do but get stoned, drunk, or laid. I wasn’t interested in or swave enough to do the latter two, so I experimented with pot. It was during this time that I met my friend T. When I first encountered him at a video rental store, he correctly calculated that only a stoner would deliberately rent Yellow Submarine. (I’d only started smoking pot recently). With him I then started participating in a ritual of getting high and driving around while listening to a whole bunch of music I’d never heard before, including Nine Inch Nails, Type O Negative, Godsmack, and Brutal Planet era Alice Cooper. These drives felt mystical to me, and they opened my mind to whole new ways of understanding and appreciating music. These drives, I would later recognize, were also thin spaces.
My friendship with T was very peculiar, however, as he was paradoxically a hedonistic pothead and an Evangelical Christian. He seemed to sincerely believe that his libertine lifestyle (involving lots of pot use and frequent non-committal sex) was ok because, as somebody who had accepted Jesus Christ as his Personal Savior, he had carte blanch to do what he wanted, knowing that he would be forgiven at the End Times. For obvious reasons, I found T’s theological outlook wholly unsatisfying and uncomfortable (as I did with Evangelical Chrisitianity as a whole), and I struggled to reconcile the mystical encounters I had through heavy metal with the professed faith of T and people like him.
This reconciliation struggle eventually led me to realize the deep spirituality inherent in the heavy metal musical culture. Leaving aside the significant degree to which inclusivity, enthusiasm, and compassion effectively make the heavy metal culture a beloved community, I also realized that metal tends to continue a sacred tradition of principled rebellion against the abuse of authority. In religious history, this tradition included Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah, but also Jesus, Mohammed (pbuh), and The Buddha, all of whom rebelled against abusive authorities of their day. To me, the question of whether or not any particular metalheads do or do not believe in God, Jesus, or any other divine figure was- and still is- as material as the question of “is Ska good music?”. Relative to the degree to which someone rejects cruelty and bigotry, the question of private belief is inconsequential.
By seeing metal as a continuation of a sacred anti-authoritarian and anti-injustice tradition, I found that I was comfortable with understanding spirituality in a metal context. I also realized that I could see myself as spiritual- and spiritually healthy- without having to accept or embrace the toxic intrusion, exclusion, imposition, and manipulation that’s so often associated with organized religion. As it stands now, I am a Unitarian Universalist seminary student who is aspiring towards chaplaincy. Chaplaincy, I should note, is a calling that, as a metalhead, I’m especially comfortable with- and one wherein I have a good sense of my spiritual place- because chaplains have a professional duty to avoid engaging in negative religious behaviors.