Last Tuesday, a group of 150 conservative Christian preachers released a document called the “Nashville Statement,” claiming that true Christianity is inherently anti-LGBT and that it’s basically heretical for Christians to affirm queer or trans identities. Two days later, I learned about the Swedish rock band Ghost and their recent video for the song “He Is” on an atheist blog. You can watch the video and learn about what it’s like from the link, but I should add that it shows Ghost’s singer, who adopts the persona of a demonic Pope called Papa Emeritus and is named Tobias Forge in real life, delivering a somewhat over-the-top church service in corpse-paint makeup. In fact, I thought he was made up to resemble Jim Jones, and the video’s director has mentioned preacher Tony Alamo, now serving jail time for sexually abusing members of his congregation, as an inspiration for the character in the video. “He Is” itself is an ode to Lucifer, although that may not be immediately apparent at first listen. Still, the more I listened to it, the more I thought that the terms in which Ghost praise Satan – “he is insurrection,” “he is the disobedience that holds us together” – are healthy ways to think about your spiritual deity, whoever he/she/it is, and that liberal Christians would benefit from talking about Jesus in these terms, which they rarely do. Here is my other favorite take on the song, from someone who took religious belief way more seriously than I did, even as a child. Theologians have written papers on the way the band depicts Satan.
Let’s be clear: Ghost are a very gimmicky, theatrical hard rock band in the tradition of Kiss and Alice Cooper and more recent metal bands like Gwar and Slipknot. Although they’ve often been called a metal band, most of their music is not actually that heavy. Even though most of their lyrics are devoted to the subject of Satan, I’m quite sure they don’t actually worship the devil. This is a long-standing tradition in hard rock and metal, dating back to the first Black Sabbath album, and apart from Deicide and much of the original Norwegian black metal scene (who went as far as burning down churches), almost no one means it literally. Still, their song “Square Hammer,” which is so catchy that it converted me from thinking that “the band is conceptually interesting but wimpy” to “they are excellent songwriters who know exactly what they’re doing,” mixes Masonic and Satanic imagery, but still got to #1 on US rock radio. Its chorus still contains the line “Will you swear right here, right now before the devil?” I’d sing it at karaoke. The band seems to be deliberately trolling the kind of people who post YouTube videos alleging they’ve found occult imagery in Rhianna and Beyonce videos proving the singers are Illuminati pawns – Ghost spells everything out pretty bluntly!
Many Scandinavian metal bands have said things along the lines of “hail Satan, fuck Christianity.” As a song and video, “He Is” does this with a sense of humor you generally won’t find it true kvlt black metal. There’s a weirdly cheerful and positive vibe to Ghost’s music. On some level, their embrace of Satanism is obviously a theatrical gimmick intended to get free publicity by pissing off easily offended Christians (check out the many on-line posts and YouTube videos angsting out over “Is it OK for Christians to listen to Ghost?”), but I think there’s actually a serious point to it. The second single from their 2015 album MELIORA, “From the Pinnacle to the Pit,” seems inspired by Milton’s PARADISE LOST and describes Lucifer’s fall from heaven, saying “You will wear your independence like a crown.” The band’s other American hit, “Circie,” has very vague occult references, but seems to be a compassionate statement towards a troubled person. None of this would matter if this band’s music wasn’t good, but although they’re nothing remotely like an extreme metal band, they remind me of a cross between late ’70s Blue Oyster Cult and Mercyful Fate (this is not a very original comparison). They have roots and influences beyond metal, which is palpable in their music; they’ve covered Roky Erickson, the Eurythmics and Echo & the Bunnymen, and in an odd way, I can hear both ’70s AOR and the better late Public Image Ltd. singles like “Disappointed” and “The Body” in a song like “Square Hammer.” The “He Is” single also contains 2 excellent electronic remixes by Health and Haxan Clock.
Independence is not a quality I associate with most expressions of Christianity in America. Starting with the 1979 foundation of the Moral Majority, it has been effectively weaponized into a tool against women and/or LGBT people, to the point where Christianity has basically been branded into something essentially homophobic and anti-abortion. Obviously, progressive Christians exist; I have friends who attend congregations that publicly support LGBT rights and Black Lives Matter. But Christianity needs someone like a new Martin Luther King to stand against the likes of Joel Osteen and the signers of the Nashville Statement. Every time a Muslim commits terrorism, it seems like thousands of people call on every other Muslim in the world to condemn his acts, even though they had nothing to do with them. Liberal American Christians’ attempts to speak out against expressions of hatred like the Nashville Statement have not had anywhere near the traction of the original statement, and every single attempt to do I’ve seen on-line has led to a comments section filled with homophobic conservatives.
I’ll be honest: I’m a Jewish atheist who doesn’t literally believe in God or Satan. If there are truly demonic forces in the world, they’re embodied by Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, not rock bands singing about the devil. But I was so pissed off by the Nashville Statement that I suddenly wanted to explore rock bands who are using Satanic or occult imagery in an intelligent way to critique Christianity or organized religion. Alas, there are many black or death metal bands who have made videos that look like outtakes from THE WALKING DEAD or consist of fake blood being poured over topless women. However, the band Zeal & Ardor is also onto something. A one-man-band project of biracial Swiss-American musician Manuel Gagneux, they synthesize slave chants, blues and gospel with Scandinavian black metal. But as you might guess from the black metal influence and the fact that their album is named DEVIL IS FINE, the gospel influences are directed away from Christianity and towards Satanism. Gagneux has said that Zeal & Ardor is intended to evoke an alternate past where African-Americans rebelled against being forced to convert to Christianity. (In real life, some have done this by embracing Islam instead.)
There was a period about 10 years ago where black metal suddenly became very popular with indie rock fans, and I think this had a lot to do with its sense of genuine danger, something missing from bands like Vampire Weekend, the National or Destroyer, no matter how good their music is. However, while Burzum’s early music is excellent, the man behind the band, Varg Vikernes, is a murdering neo-Nazi scumbag, and I’m astonished anyone walks around Williamsburg in Burzum T-shirts (including people of color!) As a queer man, I feel a sense of genuine danger from right-wing Christians who want to prevent me from earning any further civil rights and take away what rights I do have. Progressive Christians should not either freak out at the Satanic imagery in Ghost and Zeal & Ardor’s music or write it off as a way to sell records. (The queer R&B singer who calls himself serpentwithteeth is doing something interesting with the influence of gospel, although he has described his music as “pagan gospel” and often sings over samples of classical music.) It’s a reflection of the very real reasons why millennials are rejecting organized religion, and if they figured out how to describe Jesus in the terms in which Ghost often describes Satan as a figure representing freedom, rebellion and independence, Christianity would seem way more attractive instead of seeming like homophobic dogma.