In 2001 I went to see Ozzfest when it rolled into Atlanta. No, I’m not a metalhead; I had free tickets because a friend of mine was dating a roadie who worked for the band Slipknot. So I got to go see bands like Black Sabbath, Marilyn Manson, Papa Roach, Linkin Park, Mudvayne, and numerous others, and also got to hang out backstage with some of the musicians.
It was bonecrunchingly loud. I wore ear plugs most of the day and it still made my ears hurt. But there the kids were, sweating in their mosh pits and dancing on the edge of ritualized violence. I was forty at the time, right at the cusp of midlife. Part of me wanted very much to be one of the kids rocking out to my favorite bands. But another, and ultimately bigger, part of me kept thinking about how I’d be a lot happier listing to a choir sing a mass by William Byrd (and I was still a pagan at the time).
The most memorable point in the day was when my friends and I got a chance to visit with the members of Mudvayne after their set. It turns out their bass player, Ryan, enjoyed a lot of the same bands that I like (not sure that he was a fan of choral music, though), so we kind of hit it off. We only talked to the lead singer, Chad, for a minute or two, but he said something that stuck with me ever since. We were talking about Mudvayne’s “mission” when he said, “We’ve got a message. The kids aren’t here to hear a message, they’re here to enjoy the music. But we try to get the message across.”
During the show, a couple of times he had spoken to the audience about thinking for themselves. I never asked him what his “message” was, but I think it probably had something to do with thinking for yourself. Of course, heavy metal does not necessarily have anything to do with critical thinking or self-reliance — it’s just music that could be melded with all sorts of values. But good for the guys in Mudvayne for trying to make a positive statement in the midst of the high decibels.
So I was thinking about this not long ago, and I was thinking about Christ’s message. A message about how we are all loved and forgiven and free, and therefore there’s a certain logic in loving and forgiving and liberating one another. It’s a great message. But it often gets lost in the high decibels of organized religion.
A lot of people hate organized religion, just like I don’t care much for heavy metal. But obviously, lots of people must get something out of organized religion, or else there wouldn’t be so many churches packed on Sunday mornings. But do the people who love institutional religion “get” the message at the heart of the gospel: the message I just alluded to, about love and forgiveness and freedom?
Some no doubt do. Many, alas, don’t. Religion, like heavy metal, can promote all sorts of values, often values at odds with one another. Religion can promote compassion and celebration and confidence in a higher/bigger order; but religion can also foment intolerance and bigotry and repression and sectarian violence.
So for those of us who love religion as much as the Ozzfest crowd loves heavy metal, it’s up to us to make sure that the right message gets across. What’s the “right” message? Well, I think it has something to do with Jesus and how loving and forgiving and freeing his words were. Here’s the kicker: we can’t rely on the religious establishment to get the message across. Oh, yes, many priests and ministers and other leaders in the churches are profoundly dedicated to the message, and will do all they can to promote it. But others do not share their vision, their commitment, their loyalty. Because of this, we can’t count on the establishment to do what it ought to do.
Which is why each one of us has to do it, ourselves. In our own way. We don’t have to draw attention to ourselves or to our “message.” Like the guys in Mudvayne, it’s best just to go about doing our creative work and making just a few offhanded comments here and there. Just to get the word out. Some people will hear it, and others won’t. That’s okay. We don’t have to save the world. We don’t have to fix it. We just have to be true. True to God, true to ourselves, and true to the message. And in that truthfulness, we get to speak the truth. In the midst of our high decibel world, often what we say will get drowned out. That’s okay. It just means we gotta keep talking.