Personal reflections · Religion and Spirituality

I’m not saying religion sucks, but it hurt me, okay

Disclaimer: this is not an attack on religion or religious people for being religious. It’s just my thoughts about MY former faith and how I interpreted it then and now.

Seven billion lives to punish
This race will pay for their avarice
The odious destroyers
Leading our lives towards exile
The fickle breed will purge themselves

Seven billion people will be burnt from this earth
This world will never be safe
Glorifying christ like he saved us
With a thousand eyes we watch but refuse to act
We will bathe this world in our blood.
Pain is your guide.
Pain is your god.
Pain is your guide.

I wasn’t exposed to a lot of good music growing up, so my partner has shown me many rock and metal albums that I missed. I don’t think I could even name all the bands he’s gotten me into, including my current favorite band, He Is Legend.

This album is his favorite of all time, but I haven’t been able to emotionally approach it for years because the themes are so strongly Christian. I used to love Christian music while I was a Christian, and I’ve known a lot of bands that are formerly Christian, including He Is Legend. (If you’d like to see a video about why so many metal bands left Christian metal, Finn McKenty covered it well here.) Some Christian music is fine for me, but some of it is nothing short of emotionally devastating, and it brings me to tears of rage and grief. I told him that we could listen together when I was ready, and today, at last, I was. And I cried a few times throughout the album, as expected, but it was good.

I’ll tell you what it’s called, but it’s not for everyone. Define the Great Line by Underøath. For those who would prefer to avoid the screaming vocals, this song is a transition in the middle of the album that’s soft, emotionally soaring, and contains Psalm 50:1-6 performed in Icelandic, a truly gutting and harrowing recording. Below is the passage in English:

The Mighty One, God the Lord,
Has spoken and called the earth
From the rising of the sun to its going down.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God will shine forth.
Our God shall come, and shall not keep silent;
A fire shall devour before Him,
And it shall be very tempestuous all around Him.
He shall call to the heavens from above,
And to the earth, that He may judge His people:
“Gather My saints together to Me,
Those who have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice.”
Let the heavens declare His righteousness,
For God Himself is Judge.

Most of my readers weren’t here back in my Christian days, but I used to pour my heart out over the deity I once believed in. I haven’t salvaged all of the archives from when I was blogging daily starting back in 2012, but I’ve always incorporated musical lyrics that resonate with me in my writing. In this post I talked more about what it’s like to lose your religion, where I actually quoted the one Underøath song I’ve always really liked.

I don’t know if I can begin to describe how intoxicating it is to genuinely believe in the supremacy of the divine. I noted while I was listening that the music soars with emotion, and it was the Psalm I linked to earlier that brought me to tears. At last, there has been enough distance from the trauma for me to appreciate the beauty in the art created through religion. I’ve always found the recitations of religious literature incredibly beautiful, inspired and fueled by the magic of consciousness in wonder. I don’t care if it’s an Arabic passage from the Quran or a Hebrew selection from the Torah, or any non-Abrahamic religion. My point is that I can see the appeal.

I can more than see it. I am familiar like a former addict. I used to ride the emotional waves, conjuring a whole god in my imagination, to shrink under its infinite shadow. Allow me to paint a picture of why this particular passage from the religious book I used to believe was the written word of the god of the universe and all creation. The scene that comes to mind is the view I saw from the height of climbing a 14,000-foot mountain and looking down at the surrounding mountaintops of the Rockies, spreading to the horizon like slow waves in a haze of clouds. It was on this trip that one of the kids in my wilderness camp expedition group brought along a copy of A Wrinkle in Time and asked me to read it aloud. They were at the part where the children ride Mrs. Whatsit’s Pegasus-like angelic form, and are brought up high above mountains on another planet, overcome as well with a breathtaking view. In the book, they use magical flowers to help them breathe. Below them, beautiful creatures perform a musical dance in a garden, which has a profound effect on them emotionally. They don’t understand the words until it is translated into another biblical passage, Isaiah 42:10-12.

Sing to the Lord a new song,
And His praise from the ends of the earth,
You who go down to the sea, and all that is in it,
You coastlands and you inhabitants of them!
Let the wilderness and its cities lift up their voice,
The villages that Kedar inhabits.
Let the inhabitants of Sela sing,
Let them shout from the top of the mountains.
Let them give glory to the Lord,
And declare His praise in the coastlands.

There’s a lot there to analyze, and I’m already past the “short post” line, so I’ll do my best to be brief. The idea of a deity is so massive that it takes up a lot of space in the consciousness. It may have no impact on reality whatsoever, but it impacts the psyche deeply. You don’t need to have proof of miracles to believe in them. In fact, the religion I once identified with encourages belief without proof. There’s a story in the bible that after the resurrection of Jesus, his disciple Thomas has his doubts until he sees his crucifixion wounds for himself. The resurrected Jesus is reported to have made the statement, “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.”

This literature goes big, it goes to epic proportions. This deity is imminent in the rotation of the planet we inhabit and its star. Not only that, he’s beautiful and perfect. Not only that, he is powerful enough to rain fire from the sky with a thought. Not only that, the future of all time is up to him to determine and resolve. He is so majestic, so immense, so powerful, that anyone who encounters him will be brought to a state of groveling in worship. Not only that, at the end of all things, anyone who hadn’t clearly seen before that this deity is supreme will fall to their knees and admit they were wrong about it. The wonder of the universe itself pays tribute to the deity, because he is its presumed creator. These ideas distort reality so that everything is scrutinized in the light of a literally sky-sized imaginary friend.

It got to me when I read the line, “Gather My saints together to Me, those who have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice.” This is because for many years, I was a self-proclaimed Jesus Freak who thought martyrdom was a worthy end I would be lucky to endure. One of the great tragedies in the myth of Christian martyrdom is that it has glorified pain and torture and death, turning horror to honor. The promise is that if you’ve suffered well enough, and not recanted your faith in the saving grace of god, someday you’ll have earned the reward of a better existence than this one.

To me, that false hope with a refusal to acknowledge the finality of death is tragic. So as I find it haunting and I appreciate the poetry of those who are under its influence, my experience of this kind of art is fresh once again, and I am processing the emotions at last that were too painful to approach for so long.

I’ll close with describing a music video from a very secular metal band, I Exalt. The name of the band satirizes this concept of worship, and the songs criticize the hypocrisy of many religious people. The video itself contains the vocalist hanging from a cross, secured with chains, at one point with black liquid spilling from his mouth. The music itself is called deathcore metal, so again, it’s not for everyone. Here’s that video, for anyone who cares to see that while listening to deathcore metal music and vocals.

I opened this post with the conclusion of that song. That is how I feel now about denial in the face of climate change and near-term human extinction, something many people use religion for. I’m not saying all religion is bad, or that people who practice and believe it are bad people. What I am saying is that for me, to go back would be to embrace denial.

Anyway, I don’t feel that I really grasped why it was good for me to go on this emotional journey. It just was. It helped me process the way I used to think and feel. Sometimes that’s enough.