Christian Metal

History, Ideology, Scene

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Marcus Moberg
Bloomsbury Studies in Religion and Popular Music
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , April
     2015.
     200 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781472579836.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

When I told a colleague that I was writing a review of a book on Christian metal music, he suggested that such a combination of terms was oxymoronic. However, Marcus Moberg’s Christian Metal: History, Ideology, Scene proves that the genre—and attendant scene—of Christian metal can scarcely be denied existence or influence. With bands such as August Burns Red being twice nominated for Grammy awards and others such as Underøath selling in excess of one million explicitly Christian albums in the US alone, the phenomenon of Christian metal music warrants serious academic attention. Indeed, its impact, coupled with its seeming nonsensical nature, offers double incentive for such examination. 

In writing a “comprehensive guide to the phenomenon of Christian metal music” (2), Moberg identifies and highlights the ways that Christian metal scenes resource their members with alternative ways of “doing” religion. Drawing from the work of Deena Weinstein, Robert Walser, Keith Kahn-Harris, and others, Moberg is able to argue convincingly for the existence of a unique cultural and ideological form of Christian religious expression that utilizes the sonority of popular metal music in conjunction with that musical genre’s ideological themes, such as aggression, power, and rebellion. He contends that Christian metal is an intentionally (or at least unavoidably) marginal affair, existing within the overlapping ideological spheres of evangelical Christianity, metal music, and popular culture. Asserting that the phenomenon of Christian metal resides in this triadic margin, Moberg’s book examines these phenomena from a second trio of perspectives—historical, ideological, and social—noting how these three intersect each other in important ways. 

Moberg notes that evangelical Christian culture is “often described, and indeed, presented, as a ‘counter-media’ that offers ‘Christianized’ … versions of various forms of popular culture” (28). As such, Christian metal’s marginal site of existence is stabilized even as its instability is identified: Christian metal is a subset of Christian popular music and culture that is often antagonistically oriented towards certain more pedestrian aspects of that culture. Such expression is ideologically pronounced as a mode of dissent that runs in two directions: dissenting from the mores of “secular” popular culture (in adherence to a crucial aspect of the evangelical Christian culture Moberg identifies) while simultaneously dissenting from the mores of more mundane forms of evangelical Christian culture.

Christian Metal begins with a brief description of the genre of metal music writ large, noting some significant sub-genres (thrash, black, metalcore, etc.), and describes the key characteristics of the genre as musical volume, aggression, rebellion, and focus on extreme themes (power, alienation, war, death, apocalypse, madness, etc., in addition to the standard pop themes of relationships) (9-14). Moberg then describes the rise of evangelical popular culture, illustrating the complex relationship between it and metal music while noting how their values alternately align and diverge. Chapter 2 gives a historical overview of Christian metal’s development, focusing on the early progenitors of the genre such as Stryper and Holy Soldier in the US and Mortification in Australia, for example, while also noting how the genre and scene developed in South America, Scandinavia, and Western Europe. Chapter 3 describes the visual, verbal, and aesthetic traits of the scene in relation to those of “secular” metal. He notes that Christian metal borrows much of the thematic material of mainstream metal music yet orients it towards evangelical Christian themes: “death” becomes “dying to yourself,” “power” is ascribed to God, “war” metaphorically describes spiritual warfare, and so on. Chapter 4 describes Christian metal’s performance practices together with the complex and even contradictory relationship it has to human bodies. Chapters 5 and 6 do much theoretical work, revealing and describing Christian metal as a transnational scene that coheres around shared ideologies and discourses even as they are manifested differently in time and space. A concluding chapter offers insights regarding possible future developments of the Christian metal scene.

In identifying Christian metal as a dissenting ideological scene within popular evangelical Christian culture, Moberg has made a dual contribution to scholarship on religion and popular culture. His description of Christian metal as a distinct scene that marries evangelical Christian messages and metal themes in the generic soundscapes of popular metal music is noteworthy in its own right. But Moberg also draws important ideological aspects of evangelical Christian culture into the light. For example, his observation that evangelical popular culture is ideologically configured antagonistically towards secular culture—though it mirrors it methodologically—while simultaneously integrating itself into that culture, furthers our understanding of the tension that characterizes evangelical Christianity. Indeed, his discussion on the debate within Christian metal scenes over whether or not the word “Christian” should be applied as a label for certain bands—especially by those bands themselves—reveals that tension. While one may certainly be cynical as to the motivations for arguing over the label “Christian,” the fact that such a debate exists within such a scene illustrates Moberg’s contribution beautifully.

Christian Metal is not without its flaws, and scholars may quibble over Moberg’s terminology regarding Christian metal as a subset of Christian Contemporary Music (to say nothing of North American Christian metal aficionados’ insistence that Christian metal is not Christian Contemporary Music [CCM]). Moberg’s use of Howard and Streck’s somewhat antiquated study of CCM relies on categories that have been sufficiently challenged by Monique Ingalls, Andrew Mall, Anna Nekola, and others. Additionally, some of his choices for examples of artists seem obtuse and obscure, although I am profoundly grateful that he has offered a study that transcends the geographic boundaries of North America. 

These rather small concerns notwithstanding, Marcus Moberg’s Christian Metal provides a valuable and helpful starting point for scholarship on the phenomenon of Christian metal music specifically, and it furthers our understanding of evangelical popular culture more broadly.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nathan Myrick received his doctorate from Baylor University.  He works at the intersection of music, religion, and theological ethics.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marcus Moberg is Senior Researcher in the Department of Comparative Religion at Abo Akademi University in Turku, Finland. His research interests include the sociology of religion, media and culture, religion, markets and consumer culture studies, and the discursive study of religion.

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