I’ve shared previously growing up a churchboy for me meant nearly my entire musical education and consumption came from bands labeled Christian. These were bands whose albums were recorded on Christian record labels, marketed to Christians, and sold nearly exclusively in Christian bookstores. I was not totally ignorant of what was considered hit songs or popular bands, but my knowledge mostly existed only of the radio hits I would hear in public places. I say mostly because there was also another source of information where I gained knowledge of popular music. It was common for youth groups I was part of to attend, either in person or through recorded audio or video, seminars on the evils of rock and roll. During these seminars, bands were scrutinized for their band names, stage acts, lyrical content, and the hidden messages found in their songs if they were played backwards. I learned during these seminars to not only to stay away from these bands and the evils they portrayed but also honed my judgmental skills for distinguishing good from bad and determining if something was holy or profane based on how it looked or presented itself. These tendencies stayed with me throughout my life into adulthood and even parenthood.
Part of being a parent is wanting the best for your child and protecting them from harmful and damaging influences. To accomplish this in our home, our kids were given the same musical education I forced upon myself growing up . . . nearly exclusively Christian music. The only exceptions to this came through movie soundtracks, singing competitions on television, or music driven video games. About three years ago, my teenage son began listening to a band I was not too happy about. It was a band I was certain was evil although I was truly familiar with only one of their songs. When I first learned what he was listening to, I did what any good father would do. I expressed my displeasure and asked him to stop. Of course, this simply caused him to do so in secret and his love for them grew. As he grew more fond of their music, it was more difficult to keep it hidden and he started talking to me about it and even started playing an occasional track for me to see how I would react. His love for the band reached the point that for his sixteenth birthday, we received notice the band would be playing live during the next year within a day’s drive from home. Knowing this could likely be a once in a lifetime opportunity, we secured tickets for the show for him and I to attend. The only problem with attending the concert is I was still unfamiliar with all but one of their songs and, being that song is their biggest hit and likely to be the encore, it was going to be a long night if I didn’t learn their music. Making the decision to learn more about the band and their music, and to ensure it would not be a long evening for me at the show, I asked Geoffrey to send me a chronological listing of their discography and in July of last year I went to work. I have since consumed all ten studio recordings they’ve released as well as several other recordings. This band is none other than the heavy metal icons Metallica.
The experience of exposing myself to their music has been eye opening but not in a way I expected. I was certain as I began devouring the music I would be vindicated and justified in my decision to keep not only him but myself from the tunes growing up. However, while there are certainly tracks filled with rage, hate, and anger and the use of profanity is not uncommon at times, what I began to realize as I listened were many of these tracks were simply four guys being honest about who they are, where they were, and what emotions they were feeling. My voluntary exposure to their music began to be a spiritual parallel for how I had lived my life as a churchboy judging by appearance without taking the time to listen.
On their fifth album, lead singer James Hetfield channeled his anger over the death of his mother to pen a track titled The God That Failed. The theme of the song is faith and human reliance on it, and of belief in a God that fails to heal. Hetfield’s mom died of cancer after refusing medical attention, solely relying on her belief in God to heal her due to her Christian Science beliefs. My first listen to this track upset me. I took it as blasphemy and mockery of the God I know and serve. However, after several subsequent listens, I have come to not only to respect the honesty of the emotion expressed in the song but also to identify with it.
In penning these lyrics, James vocalized a sentiment common to man throughout existence and even displayed by many whose lives are depicted in the Bible. Cain, when his offering was rejected, surely felt God failed him. As a father, I cannot fathom all the emotions Abraham must have felt after being promised a son and then being asked to sacrifice that very son. The many cries of David are written in the Psalms, even to the point of him crying out in Psalm 22, “Why have you forsaken me?” The entire book of Job is all about a man who feels God has failed him. The rich young ruler sorrowly walked away from Jesus after his boasting of keeping the entire law had been rejected.
When we encounter unexpected hardships in life, we often identify with the anguish shared by the band in these lyrics. We feel as if God failed. As my life as a churchboy began unraveling several years ago, I undeniably felt God had failed me. I identified with these words from James:
Pride you took
Pride you feel
Pride that you felt when you’d kneel
Broken is the promise, betrayal
The healing hand held back by the deepened nail
Follow the god that failed
The life of churchboy is a life of outward pride combined with inner shame. It’s a life of being proud of all you’re doing externally to make God happy and make yourself appear holy while hiding how miserable, hurt, and angry you are internally feeling as if whatever you do will never be enough. When you begin to see how meaningless all the efforts to please God and appear holy are, you find yourself feeling betrayed and that the God you followed has failed. However, the beautifully ironic truth is that God has not failed you, but you have actually lived on a hamster wheel attempting to accomplish something already accomplished for you and gifted to you through Jesus.
I never would have imagined finding God in a Metallica song, but I did. To me, it’s not about the message James Hetfield conveys in The God That Failed but rather the emotions expressed and how honestly he expresses them. The greatest fear a churchboy experiences is the fear of rejection from God and from others and, due to this, often feels being honest is the last thing he could ever be.
Am I claiming it a Christian song or Metallica a Christian band? The answer to that really isn’t important and, for that matter, it’s not mine to decide. All I can do is simply share what it means to me. This recovering churchboy’s God didn’t fail me. He simply opened my eyes to what He has already done. The music of Metallica has provided a bond with my son I did not anticipate but am ever grateful for. I could never consider that a failure.
As for Metallica, their musical catalog is now a part of my playlist and in a little over two months, this recovering churchboy will spend an awesome night together with his son.
More posts in the Soundtrack of a Churchboy’s Recovery series: