ORANGE CITY, Iowa | Growing up in a small Minnesota town, Jason Lief would often dream of becoming a guitar hero.
"When I got my own guitar, I'd imitate the guitarists I most admired," he remembered. "Since I was in junior high school at the time, I was instantly drawn to bands like Metallica and musicians like James Hetfield."
While heavy metal brought him "pure joy," Lief said the hard driving music was found to be objectionable and, even, sacrilegious, by members of his own family.
It isn't easy being both a Christian and a heavy metal fan.
"Raised in a religious environment, I felt the tension between what members of my Christian tradition said about heavy metal and what I felt when listening to it," Lief said.
So, how did the music of Metallica, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin make Lief feel?
"It made me feel connected to a community," he said. "Surprisingly, when I listened to black metal, I felt more alive."
Now a religious professor at Northwestern College, Lief has written "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred," a book which explores the symbolic connections between the two diverse topics.
Referencing the research of theologians, philosophers and sociologists, he examines the tensions as well as the similarities between Christianity and pop culture.
Wow, what an interesting topic. I know Christianity uses mythology and symbolism that many heavy metal bands also incorporate into their own secular shows. Obviously, bands uses certain those iconic symbols in very different and contradictory ways, right?
"Metal bands are absolutely using religious symbols in opposition to their intended usage. They're trying to go beyond the mythology while creating an entirely different symbolism. On the surface, many black metal songs revolve around topics like death and war. In reality, they're affirmations of life. Likewise, religious sermons often talk about dying and going to Heaven. Scratch a little further and you realize the sermons are more about living a Christian life in this world."
You've explored the similarity of secular heavy metal shows with Christian liturgies.
"A liturgy is a public worship service performed by a religious group based upon beliefs, customs and traditions. The same can be said of a heavy metal show where symbols, costuming and face-painting. Not too long ago, I saw Metallica perform in Newton, Iowa. (Lead singer and guitarist) James Hetfield described Metallica fans as being a family or a community. That's similar to a church, which is also a community."
I'm sure it's not too surprising that heavy metal musicians take cues from something as iconic as organized religion, right?
"Not only that, many of the musicians probably came from families where religion was practiced. It's pretty common to find a Bible verse used as a song lyric."
Your new book centers on Christianity and metal music but I understand that you often interject pop culture in your religious classes.
"Yes, I do. In the past, I've incorporated themes drawn from the movies of Ethan and Joel Coen into my classes. I've even used (the 2008 computer-generated) 'WALL-E' for a class."