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Academics debate religion's role in heavy metal

The relationship between metal music and various facets of religion — from Christianity to Satanism — is a topic nearly too deep to plumb.
Marilyn Manson performs at the Save on Foods Memorial Centre in 2009.

The relationship between metal music and various facets of religion — from Christianity to Satanism — is a topic nearly too deep to plumb.

Analyzing through academics the subtext of Metallica’s Leper Messiah, Slayer’s Christ Illusion and Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar? These are seemingly Herculean tasks, indeed. But the difficulty of such an exercise didn’t stop organizer Shamma Boyarin.

He committed more than a year ago to examining the complex relationship between theology and thunderous riffs in the symposium South of Heaven: Heavy Metal and Religion. Spread over two days this weekend at various University of Victoria locations, South of Heaven (named in honour of the Slayer song of the same name) is practically bursting at the seams with activity.

In fact, the combination of film screening, concert and lecture series — under the wider banner of UVic’s Congress 2013 event — was almost too much to handle from an organizational perspective. “It could have gone bigger, in fact,” said Boyarin, who conceived the idea with Andrew Wender and Brian Froese.

“There have already been murmurings about what we can do next year. It’s such a big topic.”

The event opens Friday with a screening of Global Metal, the acclaimed documentary (by former Victorians Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen) which explores the impact metal has on cultures across the world.

The film is what prompted Boyarin to stage South of Heaven in the first place. Making matters more symbiotic, he was amazed to discover that Dunn (who is appearing in a Q&A session after the film) not only hails from Victoria but also graduated from UVic, where Boyarin currently teaches in the religious studies program.

“For me, Global Metal is where it all started,” said Boyarin, a native New Yorker who moved to Israel when he was five.

“When [the filmmakers] went to Israel and the Middle East, it was amazing to learn about something that I wasn’t even aware of when I lived there.”

Boyarin is one of six speakers appearing at the Saturday-afternoon lecture series. With topics ranging from Man That You Fear: Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar as Social Prophet, to Unblack: Christian Black Metal, attendees will not be without food for thought, Boyarin said.

“I’m interested in the multivalent ways religion and metal intersect. It’s not just one way — anybody who is involved in metal and interested in religion, they view it differently from what I am thinking.”

Victoria freelance journalist Greg Pratt is giving a lecture on religious imagery in metal, a topic that is tied to the very DNA of the form.

For years, Pratt said, members of Florida death metal band Deicide continually spouted anti-Christian sentiments. When it came to light that the band was not a gang of Satanists, the group’s reputation took a hit. “It came to light years later that they were not Satanists whatsoever. It was just an act, which is interesting because it was such a part of their act.”

For each topic of discussion, opinions will vary. But one thing is for certain: No matter how many symposiums are staged, or festival mounted, the metal genre will remain an underground curiosity. One of the biggest-selling bands in rock history is Metallica, and yet their mostly-male audience — in theory if not fact — is comprised primarily of outsiders.

“Metal, at its core, is teenage rebellion music,” Pratt said. “People who don’t fit in anywhere, it gives them somewhere to go.”

Boyarin heard loads of feedback when South of Heaven was announced. To his pleasant surprise, there was a general sense of excitement over the idea.

“Initially we thought about doing it in a small, low-key way on campus. But as people started hearing about it, metalheads and academics were coming out of the woodwork at UVic.”

And yet, metal still fights for respect. Take big-selling acts like Metallica, System of a Down and Lamb of God out of the equation, and Pratt said it would appear that metal is destined to be on the fringes of popular music for some time to come.

“You still can’t go into your day job and say, ‘I love heavy metal’ without someone laughing at you.”


Congress 2013 continues at UVic until Saturday. For a schedule of events, go to


South of Heaven Symposium: Heavy Metal and Religion

What: Global Metal screening, followed by Q&A with director Sam Dunn
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Where: Cinecenta (UVic Student Union Building, 3800 Finnerty Rd.)
Tickets: $5 (student), $7.50 (regular)

When: Saturday
Where: UVic Fine Arts Building 116, 3800 Finnerty Rd., Rm. 103
Tickets: By donation
1 p.m. Welcome from Paul Bramadat, Director, Centre for Studies in Religion and Society
1:10 p.m. Running with the Devil: The meaninglessness and incredible meaning of religious imagery in metal (Greg Pratt, journalist)
1:30 p.m. In Search of Orthodox Metal: Musings of a Convert (Shamma Boyarin, University of Victoria Religious Studies Major Program)
2 p.m. Discussion
2:40 p.m. Middle Eastern Metal: A Region-Wide Musical Discourse of Existential and Political Struggle and Aspiration (Andrew Wender, University of Victoria Department of Religious Studies)
3 p.m. Unblack: Christian Black Metal (Pam Andrews, Memorial University Department of Religious Studies)
3:20 p.m. Discussion
4 p.m. Coffee Break
4:20 p.m. Man that You Fear: Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar as Social Prophet (Trevor Murphy, Saint Mary’s University)
4:40 p.m. The Devil Wears Denim: Heavy Metal, Satanic Folk Culture and Evangelical Parody (Brian Froese, Canadian Mennonite University)
5 p.m. Discussion and Close

What: All-ages concert featuring Unleash the Archers, Nylithia, Scimitar and Atrous Leviathan
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Vertigo (UVic Student Union Building)
Tickets: $10 at Cavity Curiousity Shop, Black Raven, Absolute Underground and Ditch Records; $15 at the door