Why the Church Times is right to laud Iron Maiden et al.

Here’s a sentence you might not expect to read in the Church Times, courtesy of the Rev Rachel Mann: “Metal has no fear of human darkness. It calls the Church to discover a liberative theology of darkness: darkness not understood as negative, but as a place of possibility.” Her suggestion, in the latest issue, that Britain’s Anglicans have much to learn from heavy metal will doubtless raise eyebrows at jumble sales and coffee mornings in church halls, but Mann is right. Indeed, heavy metal offers us all lessons. Here’s why:

Heavy metal makes kids read Romantic poetry

By taking the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and turning them into songs, Iron Maiden (with Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and Rush (Xanadu, based on Kubla Khan) have done more to draw attention to one of English literature’s heroes than any number of Oxbridge academics. Every teenager who hears these songs goes on to dig out the originals, boosting Coleridge’s audience several thousandfold.

Heavy metal makes kids engage with religion

While few metal abums offer as profound a consideration of the relationship between God and man as, say, Cardinal Newman, metal does engage with religion in a way no other branch of rock does. Usually that takes the form of detailing the lifestyle and activities of Satan and his chums. But even Black Sabbath, who institutionalised the genre’s obsession with darkness, sang in 1971: “Could it be you’re afraid of what your friends might say if they knew you believed in God above/They should realise before they criticise that God is the only way to love.”

Heavy metal encourages kids to be loyal

Metal fans do not write off bands after one album, nor desert them when someone younger and more fashionable comes along. Nor, though, is their loyalty blind: if a metal band makes a substandard album, their audience declines. Unlike most other forms of rock, however, the fans return when the music improves. See Iron Maiden, who reached No 1 in the album charts last month for the first time in 18 years.

Heavy metal is prophetic

More or less everything bad that happens in the world is foreseen by metal bands. Admittedly, it’s usually by accident, but the genre’s obsession with dystopias means it’s always engaged in futurology. In 1982, Electric Eye by Judas Priest sounded like a silly song about an all-seeing robot. In 2010, it sounds like an everyday description of CCTV culture.

Heavy metal nurtures the imagination

For all its reputation as the most priapic musical form, very little true metal is about sex. Most metal lyricists write about subjects beyond their experience, forcing them to actually use their imaginations. This is to be encouraged, even if it does risk encouraging audiences to read too much fantasy fiction.

Michael Hann