The Devil in Metal: 5. The God Who Exceeds Our Naming

In my third post in this series, I offered a sustained critique of Behemoth’s Satan as found in their 2014 album The Satanist. My previous post engaged the markedly different depiction of the Devil found in Ghost’s 2015 album Meliora. Having done so, the question pressed on us is this: as a Christian, is the only possible reaction to an album celebrating the Devil that of rejecting it as threatening to faith and decency?

For many believers and theologians, this question is a non-starter. Of course, the Devil must be rejected: in all times and places, whoever goes under the name of Satan is entirely bereft of God and worthy of damnation. Hesitation or quarter in this matter is simply to give up the faith and to cede the day to the forces of darkness who toil relentlessly to pervert and undermine the lives of the faithful. We are ever threatened by the demonic hordes who seek to seduce and draw us away from the light, and the purity and integrity of our faith and practice demand that we stamp out any thoughts or passions which would draw us away from God. Therefore, albums celebrating Satan must be relegated to the funeral pyre of the damned.

I reject this view.

Another approach one might take would be to advocate listening to devil-depicting albums as a way to help us better understand the Devil as the one who has forsaken God and all God’s ways. It’s kind of the Breaking Bad approach: here is an example that narratively depicts how total depravity goes all the way down, working its way into every nook and cranny of our lives, and attending to this gives us a better understanding of our own human condition and need for God’s grace. Looking at The Satanist as depicting the convulsions of toxic masculinity gone wild would be an example of this approach.

I’m (clearly) fine with approaching the Devil in metal this way, but there is another, more ambiguous way of engaging things, one cut loose from the certainties of burning our records or nodding our heads in time to Devil-discouraging depictions of Lucifer.

What if, against all expectations, an album celebrating Satan might be read as a commendation of God precisely in those areas it commends the Devil. At its heart this would be an apophatic approach, one which recognized the limits and fragility of our language, that unspooled and wound its way around the luminous darkness of the Divine who forever skips just out of reach of our words and thoughts. This would mean owning the fact that there is always a gap between us and God, and that far from trying to close down this abyss, part of our task is to keep it open, to sustain the tension found in spinning around the chasmic and asymptotic Love who is void.

This would mean rejecting the idea that theology and practice “work” because of the sufficiency of our human words to name and describe the Divine. This would mean rejecting the assumption that we have to intend to speak of the Christian God to actually speak of this God, that we have to use pre-approved and revealed names to actually speak of this God, and that on their own our words can ever actually speak of God.

And, indeed, I reject these views.

Our language, which is created and creaturely, is inherently unable to depict or “name” God. Even our best, even our most refined, even our most thoughtful and elegant and passionate speech and thought breaks down in light of the infinite God who outstrips us at every turn. There is always and everywhere a space between our grammar and the God of whom we are trying to speak. Instead of being a cause for despair or hopelessness, we may dance out over this abyss of Love, living, speaking, and thinking because God is the one who supports us and knows us and sustains us, even where, and precisely where, our speech and cognition fail.

Despite their failings, Behemoth begins to point us in this direction when they sing (speaking of the Devil), “Thy name is nowhere./Thy name is never” on from “O Father, O Satan, O Sun.” Indeed, this is the central gesture of apophaticism: God is not a place alongside other places (“Thy name is nowhere”); God is not a name alongside the names of other creatures (“Thy name is never”), God is not a time alongside other times. Compared to all that we see, and think, and act God simply is not. Therefore, we are unable to capture God with our thought and language.

Because of this, because all of existence is upheld and flows forth from this impenetrable Ground of Being, because all language inherently fails to capture God, we may, nonetheless, find God flexibly taking up and whispering herself to us, even under the most (apparently) contradictory of names. It is precisely this awareness that I believe opens up the space within which we might come to find Meliora’s Devil as none other than the God of salvation.

We saw this Satan plucked from the heavens, cast down, and vanquished. Here he retains his majesty and dignity, and refuses to bow his head to the might of the Empire. Though he would like to do otherwise, he takes this world as it is, confining himself to the limits of creation. Instead of nursing his resentment, he offers aid and strength to humanity. Far from being the one who might justify human domination, degradation, and violation, this One provides a way of living with this life as it is, in solidarity with others, and, indeed, in beauty and joy. Even where suffering and sorrow are the inescapable conditions of this life, Lucifer stands with and for the world, providing the strength by which they might turn towards and plunge themselves joyfully into life on the ground. This may not be a heavenly revelry, but it is earthly indeed.

Here Ghost gestures to a heavenly being who comes and dwells with us, taking up life and providing sustenance and provision for this journey we find ourselves on. Here this divinity goes and makes his abode among the outcast and offscourings of this world. Where tragedy and loss have been interwoven into the fabric of their lives, this One offers comfort and support. Where joy and happiness are found, this One provides celebration and fellowship and love.

What is this if not an account of incarnation? I would even argue it speaks far more truly about the nature of the Gospel than much that masquerades under the name of Christ. Far too many people hold that God and God’s ways have primarily to do with what happens after this life, that what is important is where we are headed when the curtain drops, and that God’s salvation provides a way out of hell and damnation. In this frame, God’s deeds with humanity are primarily and centrally about where we go when we die. Indeed, faith and trust are important because they help secure this final destination.

The Gospel rejects this view. Ghost rejects this view. So too must we. Meliora is an aid to that end, precisely as it offers teasing and tantalizing glimpses of this God who exceeds our naming.

Let’s dance.

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Background banner is William Blake's "The Ancient of Days"