Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Thor’s Hammer in the Pulpit

An album cover for the Swedish death metal band Aman Amarth ~ the name is Tolkien's creation. This article is precisely about the connection between Lewis, Tolkien, Heavy Metal and modern preaching. 

Living in the shadows
Live a life of sins
Now you feel the pressure
There ain't no giving in
Do you ever wonder
Do you ever think
What may lie beyond you?
What's the missing link?
Will you enter the Paradise?
Will you see the Light?
What is your destination?
Your eyes will see - eternal dark.

Is this a sermon? It almost reads like one. It is not until the second verse that the viewpoint becomes clear.

There ain't no use behaving
Life can never change
There ain't no book to guide you
You're desperate to the range
Why do you listen
To the Holy Man?
Sage one will take you
The only one who can

No, it isn’t a sermon. It is a heavy metal song by the band Picture. A number of German names constitute the band lineup. Even more to the point, I discovered the song through a cover by the Swedish metal band Hammerfall. Now perhaps you are thinking this is yet another attempt to justify musical junk. Actually the project is a bit more academic and sociological than that. Strangely enough, something has survived in the old Germanic countries and has resonated or cropped up again in our time and it is a style of rhetoric.

When I first picked up a copy of Anglo-Saxon Spirituality and delved into the sermons of Wulfstan and Aelfric, the Vercelli Homilies and the accounts of St. Guthlac, I thought, except for some sensational miracles of the kind you encounter in Medieval Christianity the world over, it sounded puritanical. It may be my imagination but I started to get a glimpse of areas of England that never lost certain qualities of this rhetoric, especially in places arguably less dominated by the Norman Invasion and closer to the seafaring world of the Vikings; the fen country which historically remained the quiet coves of smugglers and pirates. I am speaking especially of puritanical East Anglia.
Take for example these Anglo-Saxon sermons on the subject of Doomsday:
Then those dead bones called out to him and said, ‘Why have you come here to look at us? Now all you can see here is a piece of earth and the leavings of worms, where earlier you saw fine cloth adorned with gold. Now look at the dust and dry bones where you once saw limbs that were, according to the nature of flesh, fair to look at. . . . (Anglo-Saxon 64)
And again,
Now there is clamor and weeping everywhere. Now everywhere there is wailing and loss of peace. Now there is evil and slaughter everywhere. And everywhere this middle earth flees from us with much bitterness. And we follow it while it flees and love it while it falls to ruin. Listen, in this we can see that this world is ending and passing away. (Ibid 65)
Or this other Judgment Day sermon,
Lo listen! It then will be a grievous sorrow and a wretched separation of the body and the soul if the wretched inner man, that I, the weary soul that is wicked and neglectful of God’s commandments here, will after that separation slide down into the eternal punishment of hell and there amongst devils exist in murder and crime, in torment and sorrow, amidst woe and worms, between the dead and the devils, and in fire and bitterness and filth and in all punishments that devils have prepared from the beginning for which they were created and which they themselves have earned. (Ibid 90)
These are graphic and violent, morbid and dark sermons. They are on Doomsday homilies so perhaps they ought to be. Nonetheless, consider this teaching on Romans from the Vercelli Homilies, “. . . Let us listen to the teaching of the apostle Paul. He said: ‘Make not provision for the flesh in its desires’ [Rom 13:14]. It is worse that one enjoys (food?) against what is right than if one casts it into a dung heap. In that dung heap it becomes manure” (Preaching 213). This is still graphic.

This kind of rhetoric continued in Scandinavia into the modern era. Take for example the sermons of Lars Levi Laestadius, the great preacher to the still heathen Laplanders of northern Scandinavia (still polytheists far into that the 19th century). A sermon of his for the 2nd Sunday in Advent reads thus: “Has God then created man to eat and to excrete, to drink and to fight, to whore and to steal? For what purpose is man created into this world? The lords of the world anoint their throats with flowing devil's dung and the peasants follow their example, So are they living now in the world and with that life they imagine they are acceptable to God” ( On the Second Sunday in Lent, he preaches like unto Viking warriors:

". . . St. Paul writes to the Christians, 'Put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. Stand therefore having your loins girt about with the truth and having on the breastplate of righteousness. Above all taking the shield of faith, whereby ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God.' Here that valiant Apostle has shown all those weapons of war with which one brave warrior of Jesus Christ must be equipped. And all these weapons of war are needed now; when the enemy has started to attack the Christians so terribly. Now everyone who wants to become saved and to save his life, needs to be equipped both against the world which has begun to hate and persecute Jesus' disciples and also against one's own flesh, from which the devil shoots his darts. But may that great War Hero, who has won over the power of the devil, support the feeble knees, strenghten [sic] the weary hands, raise up the fallen, put oil and wine in the wounds, and drip blood when wounds come into the heart, and be their Healer to those who lie sick. Hear, you great War Hero, the sighs of all the wretched and oppressed and redeem all prisoners, that they could thank you eternally in that new Jerusalem. Amen" (ibid).

The effect of this salty preaching on those northern tribes of Lapland was nothing short of a spiritual revival, the reverberations of which are still being felt today in Scandinavia as well as the northern regions of the United States.

It is clearly the case that heavy metal bands are overwhelmingly Germanic and from England, the U.S., Scandinavia and Germany. Many of these bands come from industrial towns such as Birmingham, England, where both Judas Priest and Black Sabbath were formed in 1969. Musically, I have argued for some time that the complex guitar melodies of bands like Iron Maiden have similar rhythms and patterns to the English folk music played in the same pubs previous to the invention of the electric guitar. (Recently, my alma mater, Hillsdale College, has offered classes on the music and lyrics of Iron Maiden, which I applaud.) The emergence of these bands as the West darkened carried with them a return to something which is an opportunity for Christianity.

The neo-Pagan folk had nostalgia. Sometimes the aspects of Celtic pre-Christianity is focused upon concerning the Hippy movement in the 1970’s but rarely are aspects of the return to the old Germanic warrior themes considered. Along with Black Sabbath’s song “N.I.B.”, or “The Green Manalishi” by Fleetwood Mac and famously covered by Judas Priest, songs about demonic influence, other songs would emerge about the Germanic warrior ideal in the late 70’s and 80’s. For example, consider Iron Maiden’s pro-Britannia songs such as “Aces High,” about the Battle for Britain, or “The Trooper,” about The Charge of the Light Brigade. The poster picture of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” is, incidentally, the emaciated worm-eaten red-coated warrior so well described in a Vercelli Homily, “Although one might shine in the glory of the world, although one might glitter in crimson and gold, although one might tower above, enfolded in precious clothes, although one might be fortified around with a multitude, although one might be protected with an army of sentries, although one might be fortified with innumerable troops of followers . . . nevertheless he is always in torment, always in sadness, always in crisis” (Preaching 131).

Indeed, alongside the Darkness, songs of “Duty, Honor, Country” followed with themes of old chivalry and Teutonic bravery. Contemplate the band Saxon, formed in Yorkshire in 1976, and their hit “Crusader” and its refrain: “Fight the good fight, Believe what is right, Crusader, the Lord of the Realm.” Or consider music by Ronnie James Dio, that New Jersey Italian who latched onto this culture so well, in such albums as he and Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell” and the song “Neon Knights”: “Cry out! To legions of the brave, time again to save us from the jackals of the street. Ride out! Protectors of the realm, Captain's at the helm, sail across the sea of lights.” And more lately, bands like Hammerfall who covered “Flight of the Warrior” by Riot: “Thundering down from the mountain you ride, clutching a sword made of steel. The ones you call friends they all left you for dead, alone on the battlefield . . . Shining into the night, you are riding through the darkness and light. You are flying with the wind in your hair - The flight of the warrior.” And who wrote such songs as the one following, called “The Way of the Warrior.”

Blood-red the steel of our swords shall flow
and by the allegiance we're ready to go
Stout are the foe in warfare so bold
Nothing can stop us, the future we hold . . . .

The saints and the sinners in battle so bright,
As the forces of steel will unite
The way of the warrior, the call of his life,
Shall lead us all into the light

The metal crusade will conquer all
Our bonds will be stronger, see the infidels fall
Surrender your soul to the Gods of steel
In the blood of the fallen the enemies kneel

These are not just lyrics. This is a poem of the style of the old Germanic bards.

As the darkness grew in the West, in 1941 Bishop Bo Giertz of Gothenberg, Sweden, wrote his three novellas entitled Stengrunden, “The Stone Foundation.” His first novella was entitled Herrens Hammare, “The Hammer of the Lord,” and drew upon the imagery of the Hammer of God’s Law mentioned in the Prophets sifted through classical Lutheran sentiments. But it also drew upon an image well-known to the Germanic pagan, Thor’s Hammer. Meanwhile, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien across the North Sea began to work within Germanic lore as an image of Christian warfare. (In fact, the success of C.S. Lewis' lectures to Iceland on "The Norse Spirit in English Literature" is recently documented. Consult further, Christianity Today's article, C.S. Lewis was a Secret Government Agent.) 

More to the point, before the drug fever of the 1970s produced hallucinations, ravings and demoniacs in the Secular world and many other factors caused grave heresies in the Church, God's Providence had prepared the antidote. The world, perhaps starting with Johnny Cash and picked up by heavy metal bands, began to wear black. Before long, the metal musician was wearing a long black gown, made of leather, and reminiscent of Christian ministers. The stores began to sell black denim robes of an identical cut as clerical cassocks for teenagers to wear.

We hear much of missionary work, often in the Global South, and of working in the Classical idiom of Apologetics – all good things. Yet we hear less about how to face the world of Dungeons & Dragons, Vampires, Werewolves and Hogwarts in the North. It was the same monks who faced the Germanic tribes of England who took it upon themselves to evangelize their cousins in Germany and a similar culture in Scandinavia. Is it any wonder then that the gothic Alice Cooper, from a family of Pentecostal preachers, is now an outspoken Christian or that, more recently, Dave Ellefson, heavy metal bass player for Megadeath (and bearing a Scandinavian name) began studying at seminary, a Lutheran one? There may be a place in mere Christianity after all for the black gown and prominent pulpit and the fist hammering upon it. There may be a place after all for speaking of dung (one of Martin Luther’s favorite words) and worms, of crusades and blood up to the bridle. There may be a place again for the discordant chords and startling music of the organ to match the wailing guitar and warn of the Doomsday to come. There may be a place again for Thor’s Hammer, the straightforwardness of Germanic rhetoric, in the pulpit of Isaiah and Elijah.


Boenig, Robert. Anglo-Saxon Spirituality: Selected Writings.

Zacher, Samantha. Preaching the Converted: The Style and Rhetoric of the Vercelli Book Homilies.

Fr. Peter Geromel is Assisting Priest at Church of the Incarnation, Interim Vicar of St. Elizabeth's Memorial Chapel, Tuxedo, NY and an adjunct professor of Philosophy at Northampton Community College. Educated at Virginia Military Institute, Hillsdale College, Reformed Episcopal Seminary and the University of Dallas, Fr. Peter has authored Sublime Duty: Its Emphasis in The Anglican WayChrist & College: A Guide from The Anglican Way, and Frankincense & Mirth on HighHe manages Traditional Anglican Resources.

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