The priest projected without a microphone, gregarious and firm at once, the kind of voice you’d have no reason to disbelieve. He said, “Something else you probably don’t know, because you never hear about it do you, is that in fact more Catholics perished in the Holocaust than Jews. We’re often told six million is the number: six million Jews perished, six million Jews. But these numbers, they’ve been grossly inflated and have actually in the past mistakenly included Catholic deaths as well, a mistake which unfortunately has only been repeated into common knowledge. Catholic scholars and priests now estimate more accurate totals to be closer to two million Jewish and in fact nearly four million Catholic victims of the Holocaust.”
The college kids in my midst were nodding their heads. They were rapt. What was left of the lasagna was getting cold. It was always lasagna, and it was always getting cold. There was sweet tea or lemonade or water from the water fountain by the clean bathroom. I liked that this bathroom was private, with a good lock. This was before I learned I was lactose intolerant; shitting with the Catholics was close to ritual. Part and parcel of the Thursday night lectures.
I can’t remember what they were actually called, but lectures is what they were. We’d find a good stopping point in our intro comp essays or band practice or self loathing and walk down to the Catholic Student Center for a free meal and a “talk.” One time, a youth group leader jived with us about the dangers of porn addiction. Another Thursday, a Catholic-brand feminist let us know all about the woman’s admirable and godly place at home with her children. Another time, to a packed hall of eager pasta-gobbling undergrads: the inaccuracies of the Holocaust. History rewritten to reflect real victimhood, stopping just short of full denial and reported like a Powerpoint, both shocking and familiar.
You might think it was sometimes strange or uncomfortable attending these events, since I wasn’t and had never been Catholic. You might be 100 percent correct. But that was only sometimes—for the most part, I was grooving. My closest friends, whom I’d followed to college from high school, were Catholic, which meant just about all of my new friends were Catholic as well. Everyone knew I wasn’t—I wore my faithlessness more or less emblazoned across my chest with an uncomfortable mixture of youthful pride and an outsider’s heavy embarrassment—but I knew that everyone knew that I knew that they all kind of wanted to get me there.
Me and Christ have had a weird relationship my entire life. I was raised and baptized Methodist, a sort of eggshell Christianity which seems in hindsight like the only option you might have in central Virginia if you don’t want to go full Falwell. I remember absentmindedly writing original Goosebumps knock-offs on the back of my program while the hardwood pew did a number on my coccyx on Sundays, and I remember singing a song like “Pharaoh, let my people go” with my sisters in the youth group gathering we attended after services, but that’s it. That’s my whole memory of my career as a Methodist, boiled down. Then my parents split up and my mom married a woman and together they went looking for an Episcopal church to call their own.
If you’ve ever gone church shopping hand-in-hand with your same-sex spouse in the Commonwealth of Virginia, you know how much fun it is. And how much fun it is, too, to eventually discover you’re just going to have to drive the hour-minimum into D.C. every weekend if you want to praise the Lord like everyone else.
So that effectively cut short any lingering love I might have still had for Jesus and his congregants. Still, the lifestyle fascinated me, and fascinates me still. Just this week, in fact, I listened intently to the entirety of a two hour long podcast interview with a Franciscan friar, yes-Jesusing the whole time alone in my car. The conviction of the wholly convinced comforts me, and not in the way that can sometimes reek of condescension or detached observation. I don’t follow the path of Christ, but I believe in a universal shared consciousness, and in living with intention, and in love, and what’s Jesus if not those exact ideals?
I’ve thought about this a lot because as a music fan, my deepest darkest secret is that, like a follower returning to the flock, I’ve been abandoning and circling back around to Christian rock my whole life. And within that sacred corner of the industry, littered liberally with frosted tips and swaying “Lift Him Up” singalongs, is a brave band of disciples pushing onward through a genre diametrically opposed to their very core purpose. These are the Christian metalheads.
Christian metal is typically understood to have started with the Resurrection Band, a group that recorded and toured together for nearly 30 years, originally going by the name Charity in 1972 and later, in bids to appeal to either the hopelessly cool or the temporarily secular (or both), by Rez Band or simply REZ. In 1974, the group recorded two cassettes to sell hand-to-hand at the churches and prisons and nursing homes where they mostly played, pulling a Nelly’s Sweat/Suit by filling one with acoustic worship tracks, and the other with original riff-heavy hard rock. This second tape, the fantastically titled Music to Raise the Dead, became the Rosetta Stone—or the Adam’s rib, if you will—of an entire genre.
Music to Raise the Dead was recorded entirely in the Milwaukee basement of band friend Gary Rotta’s mom, and was recorded entirely on headphones so as not to disturb Gary Rotta’s mom from her sleep. For a cassette put together on a cheapo TEAC four-track through headphones, the one guitar pedal the group could afford, and (one imagines) whispered thumbs-ups when the take was solid, Raise the Dead rocks pretty solidly. Imagine Cream’s, like, second or third band practice. Or a good Blind Melon cover band covering Aerosmith’s back catalogue. Like most proto-hair metal bands, the Rez worshipped pretty devoutly at the altar of the white boy twelve-bar blues in their early days, but when they break from the format even a little bit, Raise the Dead settles into some solid grooves. “Crimson River,” I’m not kidding, I thought was an Allman Brothers song, until I remembered every song here is explicitly and comfortably about finding Jesus. And you know the best song from Jesus Christ Superstar? Whatever song you’re imagining right now, “We Can See” is almost as good as that.
Flash forward into the next decade, when in 1981 Resurrection Band releases Mommy Don’t Love Daddy Anymore, their most critically acclaimed and commercially successful record. The group slid into the eighties easily because they’d spent the seventies setting the stage for much of what the eighties would produce. Even more importantly—and this is what typically gets lost in the discussion of Christian rock—they adapted to the changing world around them. “Elevator Muzik,” Mommy Don’t Love’s second track, is a straight-up Devo nod, and joyfully, gleefully so; “Chair” was clearly produced after a days-long Elvis Costello listening sesh. The unfortunate assumption many make about followers of the path is that they’re out of touch with the world, because how could you worship the unseen-unknown and not be? When you picture Christian rock you picture waves of hands held skyward slowly swaying, eyes closed, tears down the cheeks—you picture Creed in silk unbuttoned shirts and Jesus hair a-flowing.
But the Rez, our quintessential Christian hard rock goobers, they didn’t fuck around. To this day, they still sound good. And they wrote good songs, maybe great ones. I’ll even step forward and say that their dedication to the Lord and to Lordly content places them in a tier above most other hair metal goobers of the same woebegotten era. You can’t really say you’re into Motley Crüe or Poison or Cinderella today without any number of caveats: “It was the eighties”; “I didn’t realize how gross they were at the time”; “It’s just a guilty pleasure”; “Isn’t that funny?” But put on some mid-era, peak-era, hairsprayed Resurrection Band for the same “guilty” pleasure and feel only love come through. Your groaning disdain for He at whom that love’s directed at only starts and ends with you.
Religious conversion freaks me out a little. And if I’m being honest with myself, it freaks me out primarily because I’m a little worried I could be converted easily and any day.
The first time I spent any substantial time with my family after going to college was the first week of October, five weeks or so into classes, for my grandparents’ 55th wedding anniversary. Not unlike most college freshmen, I was in a decidedly Weird Place. The high school friends I’d followed to higher education had quickly formed themselves into a group with little use for me, my roommate and I hadn’t exchanged more than let’s say nine words total since move-in day, and I’d gleefully accepted a very patchy haircut from someone who’d never done it before, giving me a very unsettling early-years-of-the-nuclear-apocalypse shade of gaunt.
In the hubbub of the party, my mom and I were able to find a corner of the kitchen to ourselves; I sat on the counter, swinging my feet. My dark blue Polo and thrift store jeans were both too big on me, in a purposeful semblance of not-caring. The pictures of me from this night look manic.
In the kitchen, I told my mom about the Catholic dinners—the lasagna and totally chill new friends and little talks. I asked her if she knew about all the Catholics who perished in the Holocaust, that in fact what you never hear about is that almost twice as many were killed as Jewish innocents. Isn’t that wild, I asked. I was insufferable, yet had to be suffered; this was my mother.
She listened, waiting only for me to finish, then asked what evidence I’d seen beyond this particular priest’s words. For the flash of three seconds, I thought she didn’t get it, didn’t understand me, who I was, who my friends were, that she was flexing the old parental skepticism muscle. Then for the flash of what has been the rest of my life, I asked myself how I could have been so stupid. I asked myself who am I, and what happened, and when?
When the church decided my mom and her new wife were unworthy of the Lord’s undying love it had so ardently promised, I decided Christianity wasn’t for me, and I’ve never looked back. Never even considered returning to the flock. And befriending Catholic kids who ate a free hot meal once a week in exchange for weird propaganda wasn’t convincing me either. I just found it interesting. It’s not the best word, but it’s my only word for it. I watched, I listened, I judged, and I walked away each Thursday feeling fascinated, like an anthropologist far more than a convert. Call it the magnetic power of the wholly convinced, the weird sweetness necessary to believe in a codified structure to one’s life, bound by the words of an idea shaped into a man surrounded by light. Literally anything is possible—that’s how much we don’t know anything about anything. Is the truth of the Christian faith the exclusive truth? The way, the truth, and the life? Entirely possibly so. And equally possibly un-so. And the comfort I found in this total dedication to a single path is the same I’ve always found in gospel music, Christian folk, Christian rock, Christian metal. It’s like coming home again, like letting someone in charge finally take over, like completely letting go.
Yet still that fresh-faced autumn I mostly accepted what was said, week after week, deferring to the collar because it was a collar and I only a child. This, too, is the equaly alluring danger of Christian rock. If I observe the devoted singing mightily of their love for the King of Kings, will I too fall in love? And if I do—would that be so bad?
So where to begin with Christian metal? For starters, it’s a genre that proudly refers to itself as both “Heavenly” metal and “White” metal (as opposed to Black), the former of which is a great pun and the latter of which makes my skin crawl all over. And like most Christian music, it has evolved to match the times as the times themselves have changed.
The eighties, for instance, saw the meteoric rise of leather-pantsed, hair-teased Stryper, probably still the most commercially and critically successful Christian metal band, whose To Hell with the Devil is objectively great. Stryper opened the door for bands like Sacred Warrior—more of a direct Iron Maiden send-up—and Holy Soldier, who after only a couple of years of glamming it up traded their vocalist for a dude from Seattle and became a grunge band.
Then there’s Petra, of course, who are still on the move and have been melting faces for 45 years in 2017—they only get included here because they had a metal-ish phase as they moved through the eighties. Petra is the granddaddy band of Christian rock; whether you find them cheesy or essential to your life will depend greatly on your age.
Recon helped usher the genre into the nineties—their vocalist, Vett Roberts, boasted one of the highest vocal ranges many had heard at the time. Even today, the internet is still debating if he could get higher than the dog-whistle-pitched Geoff Tate of Queensryche. The Swedes in Leviticus had broken up by the time the decade turned, but their symphonic metal sound gelled perfectly with a lot of what the genre was heading toward at the time. Also, their biggest album was called Setting Fire to the Earth, which might have been a botched translation but still rules mightily as a title. As the nineties wore on and hair metal faded as quickly as it seemed to have risen, Christians waited for hard rock to rediscover itself. What they got was Creed and P.O.D. and Norma Jean and, eventually, the massive flash in the pan that was Underoath. The youths were into it, and the conversions bore on.
This is not a definitive understanding, by any means, but it isn’t the worst place to begin. The years stack up with and without us; drums turn echoey then bombastic then flatten to electronic baps. But the good word is consistent, and the hoary beast of a life lived with passion bleeds through.
There’s an old interview with Christian metal gods Stryper, a 1984 segment from the equal-parts laughable and terrifying Wally George Show, a.k.a. Hot Seat. Wally was a sort of proto-Limbaugh, a conservative instigator with little regard for the answers to the questions he was asking of his (typically liberal) guests. He was the kind of interviewer who packed the answers into his questions, called his guests idiots, and knew the camera loved to see him get riled up talking about the evils of Satan. His in-studio audience could sound sometimes more like a WWF crowd, the jeers and cheers just barely restrained, edging into danger.
In the video of this particular interview, brothers and founding Stryper members Robert and Michael Sweet—drums and frontman, respectively—sit beneath an enormous sign that reads HOT SEAT. Wally himself has a poster behind him of a rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral, USA IS #1 in block letters right under it. He asks Robert Sweet about his shirt, a black sleeveless tee with “Jesus Christ Rocks” stitched in ornate gold. “Right away we’re gonna have people at home across the country seeing that on your T-shirt where it says Jesus Christ Rocks,” Wally says. “Don’t you think that’s kinda blasphemous? How do you explain that you’re—I mean, do you think Jesus Christ rocks?”
I don’t care if it’s a planned softball. Sweet the Younger stares Wally down, leaning comfortably into his seat despite the heat, and when Wally is finished stammering Robert pats his stomach, straightens the offending article, and says, “Well I’d say, I do know what the Bible says, and it says Make a loud and joyful noise unto the Lord, and that’s what Stryper wants to do.” The audience goes bonkers, drowning out whatever fire, whatever nonsense, its host delivers in response. They hoot and holler and stamp, thrilled to see this young buck’s halo through his mane of feathered, hair-sprayed hair.
And that’s it, isn’t it? That’s the whole holy enchilada. Make a loud and joyful noise unto the Lord, or unto the Dark Lord, or unto the Lord of Your Own Being, or unto the Lord of Nothing at All. Atheists rest well, supposedly, in the comfort of the idea that they’ve not been hoodwinked—that they see what’s really going on, and what’s really going on is war and bigotry and human separation in the name of a higher something. But the beautiful paradox is that they do have a god, and their god’s name is No God.
In the summer of 2008, righteous-leaning metalcore heavyweights As I Lay Dying posted an FAQ on their website, now defunct though archived. At the top of the Q’s to which they provided A’s is one that looks to make an interesting distinction: “Are you guys Christians in a band or a Christian band?” Frontman Tim Lambesis laid it out:
I'm not sure what the difference is between five Christians playing in a band and a Christian band. If you truly believe something, then it should affect every area of your life. All five of us are Christians. I believe that change should start with me first, and as a result, our lyrics do not come across very "preachy." Many of our songs are about life, struggles, mistakes, relationships and other issues that don't fit entirely in the spiritual category. However, all of these topics are written about through my perspective as a christian.
It’s the most levelheaded statement you’re likely to find on the whole issue of Christian influence on a Christian life. A later Q wonders how the band, as Jesus lovers, can tour with Satan-worshiping metal groups. Lambesis more or less says why not? We trust in ourselves, and we represent our beliefs with strength and honesty. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t choke me up a little.
Look. We all need something, and for some that something’s nothing at all, a rejection that something is anything to begin with. Me, I’ll take the loud and joyful. I’ll be drawn to the light and the rock and the noise of the ever-prayerful. I’ll be wary of who I am and strive always for who I could be. I’ll listen for love, no matter what it sounds like. I’ll turn it up past eleven.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a music-writing project pairing each of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original story or essay, and co-editor of Bad For You, a bi-weekly junk food newsletter. He teaches middle and high school English in Berkeley, CA.