Johnny’s Off License

I rushed to find the exit of the Coliseum.  Getting oriented when leaving a circular building, especially when all the signs are in another language is easier said than done.  Eventually, I found a taxi and managed to communicate in very bad Italian where it was I wanted to go.

Traffic was awful and I could feel my anxiety rising as the minutes ticked on and as I watched the fare tick up.  Embroiled in grid lock I saw the cross street of my destination just ahead.  I paid my fare and weaved my way to the sidewalk.  As I walked around the corner onto Via Veio, the printed awning greeted me “Johnny’s Offlicense.  Enoteca.”johnny's offlicense

Although I had been in Rome for five days already, I had been looking forward to making my way here for months.  I had even been in touch with the owner, John, and arrived bearing gifts of some American beer (thanks to Mike for the introduction).  John greeted me with a firm handshake.  Soon afterwards I presented him with cans of Two Brothers Sidekick and Sly Fox Grisette (much easier to fly with cans than bottles) as well as copies of Philly Beer Scene magazine.  In between serving customers we got to know one another.

John himself is actually an Irish ex-pat who moved to Rome 12 years before.  In fact his parents and sister were visiting him at the time and I got to know them as well.  Not surprising really because combining Irish and Italian cultures creates one very warm and gregarious mix.

Anyway, being a good host John quickly opened a bottle and poured out two glasses for us to enjoy as we talked. Over time that lead to a second then a third, all different and all Rome 2013_845notable.  From what I can recall the highlights of the tasting included Zona Cesari, Rex Grue and 2007 vintage Barley BB 10 (a strong ale brewed with “sappa” of Cannonau wine from the only craft brewer on Sardina).  Both beers were so incredible that I bought bottles to bring back to the states.  (And if you are very nice to me widely praise and share this blog you might even get a taste)

The shop itself was amazing.  It combined a great bottle shop with a top end liquor store.  Although Italians have been producing some of the world’s great beer for a while now, it is only in the past few years that an actual beer scene has begun to develop and, according to John the heart and soul of that scene is in Rome. Rome 2013_840

While the shop had plenty of Italian beer on hand, there was also a great range of Belgian, German and other European beers.  I was lucky enough to grab a brick of Westy 12 to take home.  As I explained the craze the stuff caused here in the States John showed off a Rome 2013_340Westy crate and offered his opinions on the beer itself.

There was also beer from Asian and of course the USA.  Indeed, some of beers we take for granted here are highly prized and sought after, hence my gift.

Sadly, the more we conversed and drank the faster time seemed to fly.  I knew I had to leave to make the rendezvous with my family near the Pantheon.  John called me a cab and I crawled in with my satchel full of bottles and the brick of Westy clutched in my hands.  I believe I sang Italian folk songs on the way back, though if the cabbie actually recognized them as being Italian he didn’t show it.  I found the family by the elephant statue as arranged.  They took my high spirits and huge hoppy haul in stride.

Rome 2013_846I got to make one more trip to see John before departing Rome and had an equally wonderful time.  If even in Rome, do what all Roman beer geeks do and go see John.  You can check out their website (which is in Italian) here.


667- The Neighbor of the Beast… or can a Christian listen to Black Metal?

With apologies to those who are looking for a beer related post, I offer instead more thoughts on music.  I promise, we will return to sudsy musings again very soon.

Last week my friend Marcus sent me an editorial entitled, “Dear Watain, Thank You For Being The Greatest Band Ever.”  It was an interesting, even amusing read but it got me to thinking… can a Christian listen to black metal in good conscience?watain

Let’s backtrack for a moment, black metal is a sub genre of heavy metal that is typified, not just by its volume or often shrieked vocals, but also by its pro-Satanic and/or anti-Christian lyrics.  Watain most certainly falls into that category.  If you are not feint of heart then click here to see one of their videos complete with disturbing lyrics.

I hope that if you watched the video you are still with me and have not run off searching for some holy water to sprinkle on your monitor.

Anyway, even though I had an idea about  their ideology, because I trust Marcus’ musical judgment I gave them a listen.  While I must give them mad props for quoting New Model Army on their homepage, to me their music is only OK.  I don’t love it and am not struggling with the question as to whether or not I should download the album or go see them live.  I just don’t happen to like them that much.

But that brings me to the real point of this post.  Because there are bands that I do happen to like such as Arch Enemy and King of Asgard (which I am listening to as I write this), which although they may not be as decidedly Satanic as Watain, are still no friends  to Christianity.  The question is can I as a Christian (or worse yet as a priest) listen to these bands at all?

I struggled with this all through my teenage years.  I loved heavy metal.columbia-house  But my mother carefully scrutinized anything I wanted to order from Columbia House (remember them?) to make sure that nothing Satanic or unwholesome made its way through.  I can still remember her vetoing a Journey album because of the song title “Lovin’, touching, squeezing.”   Yet somehow, I managed to get a copy of Back in Black under her radar.  Later it was Holy Diver by Dio.

Yet even after mom finally gave in and let me choose my own music, I could never go in for overtly Satanic references, symbolism or lyrics such as “Number of the Beast” by Iron Maiden, let alone Slayer, Venom or Celtic Frost.  (Of course I now fully realize the absurdity of this  considering the lyrics on Hell’s Bells and the fact that ole Ronnie James (RIP) was all about challenging the Judeo-Christian worldview and values)

In time I got involved in some pretty conservative youth groups.  It was there that I was first really introduced both to “Christian Rock” and to the notion that as a Christian I should not be listening to anything that was not expressly Christian.  For months I wrestled with this until finally one day, in my zeal, I took all the non-Christian albums and posters out into the back yard, put them in a trash can, and burned them.

As you may have guessed, this phase didn’t last.  In the end the music won out over the ideology.  This was aided and abetted by the fact that a lot of “Christian” Rock (in this case meaning bands on “Christian” labels as opposed Christian bands like U2 or The Call who are on secular labels) just sucks.  There are exceptions of course, but especially in the metal genre they were inferior rip offs of secular bands.  I realized that the reason why I loved a band was not necessarily because I agreed or disagreed with them philosophically, but because of the quality and character of the music they made.

And so began to rebuild my collection appropriately starting with Back in Black.  Today I have about 1000 albums which includes a huge range of music and covers the whole spectrum of ideologies.  Yet I still struggle with the original question.

Arch_Enemy_Wallpaper_by_coshkunFor example, when last at an Arch Enemy gig, I remember trying to decide if I should buy one of their t-shirts which prominently sported a pentagram (which is often associated with Satanism) in the background.  I thought about what my parishioners might think if they saw me in it.  And so ultimately I didn’t buy it.

It is no different when it comes to deciding to listen to bands like Watain or the critically acclaimed Ghost BC.  If  the music is all that matters, then there should be no issue.  Listen to it and like it for what it is. After all, no music, no matter how hostile to Christianity it may be, is going to destroy my faith.

So what is the role of ideology when it comes to music?  I realize we are venturing into the realm of hermeneutics ( the study of how we interpret things) now which is a long way from the relative simplicity of Iron Maiden, but the question is important.  Does the intent or personal ideology of the author/performer have any moral bearing on its validity or quality?  Does their moral standing (or lack thereof) reflect on us if we choose to listen to it?  To parse the issue differently, should we no longer read the philosophy of Martin Heidegger because he was a Nazi sympathizer?   Or in terms of music, what about Wagner?  He was a nationalist whose work was co-opted by the Nazis… should we nix Ride of the Valkyries from our playlists?

Not such an easy question now is it?  And so I turn it over to you, gentle reader.  What do you think?  Does the fact that I like Arch Enemy make me a bad Christian?  Does the fact that I am uncomfortable listening to Ghost BC because of my faith make me a hypocrite?  Where do you draw the line, if you draw the line at all?

Brotherly Shove (a lesson in Pit-iquette)

I really enjoyed your feedback to last week’s post. I have seldom gotten as many comments on my hair (unless it was from the hookers who worked off of Granville Street in Vancouver). But in reflecting on those days I realized that not everyone reading it may have fully understood the subculture I was describing and so what follows is a theological reflection that may deepen your understanding of what I was describing.

Mosh_Pit_by_Shadow_TanninThe mosh pit, or just the Pit for short, is a scary place. That is no accident.  The bodies of mostly young men, some of whom are big and strong and all of whom are pissed off, flying around is a frightening prospect for most folks.  After all, most people tried to avoid getting bull-rushed.  Yet those who go into mosh pits are doing exactly that- seeking out such attacks with a relish.  The point of the whole thing is to give physical expression to the violence of the music that inspires it.

So it might be surprising to learn that there is also a very committed community and ethos of care and protection that governs the Pit.  But how can this be if the whole point of the enterprise is to knock the other guy’s head off?  Here’s how it works.  Yes- the point is to try and hit the other guy and hit him hard enough to knock him down if you can.  But what happens next is what defines the ethos.

If someone is knocked down, a group of people, often including the guy who just knocked him down, will stop everything else and pull him back to his feet and make sure he is OK. The obligation doesn’t stop there- if someone looses their glasses or is really having trouble getting up, a group will instantaneously form a cordon to protect them until they can get up safely. mosh pit

It is intriguing find such a commitment to caring and compassion in a place otherwise dedicated to violence.  Pits vary, sometimes wildly in character and intensity.   From the upbeat fun of Gogol Bordello, to old school hardcore punk to the adrenaline and speed of Arch Enemy to the unbridled ferocity of Slayer…. they are all distinct.  And yet, throughout them all I have found that this diverse community, which is united only by its love of music and moshing, does a better job of living out its ethos than do many churches.

To be fair, it exists in rather limited parameters.  Yet when you consider that many of those who go into the Pit may not believe in God at all, it is undeniably compelling that a truly spiritual community should take shape in the midst of a circle of anger and violence.  Our willingness, indeed our need, to create community at all times and in all places never ceases to amaze.

Elijah with a Mohawk

I waded into the crowd as hardcore band, Death Sentence, tore into their next song.  The music became a wall that pushed into me, almost as forcefully as the careening bodies.  All around me were enemies.  And, having just turned 20, I took them all on.  Eventually I emerged, soaked with sweat and with blood running down the front of my “Rebel for Jesus” t-shirt…. a triumphant Elijah, emerging from the midst of the prophets of Baal.

Biblical prophets and mosh pits don’t often go hand in hand.  I agree that it is not a common connection so allow me to explain.  I had taken a semester off from college and moved to Vancouver, BC.  I was living in Christian community run by Youth with a Mission (YWAM).  Our primary focus was ministering to and  assisting the many street kids and runaways who flocked there because of the temperate climate, particularly in the winter.

Kirk Mowhawk 1Looking to blend in I was at the height of my punk phase complete with leather, spikes and an 18 inch Mohawk.  In the photo I am standing with my friend Mark (RIP).

At the concert, which was headlined by the Dayglo Abortions, I ran into an acquaintance.  While myregalia helped me blend in with the punks, metalheads and skinheads who filled the hall, my t-shirt did not.  It read “Rebel for Jesus” with “Rom 12:2” in the background.  I got it at an Altar Boys (a Christian punk band) concert a few years earlier and it derives from a verse from the Book of Romans- “Do not be conformed to the things of this world, but be transformed.”

Anyway, when my acquaintance introduced me to some of his black metal buddies, it most certainly did make an impression.  To be fair, they actually didn’t make much of an issue of it. But since I walked in the door with a chip on my shoulder I allowed their supposed Satanism to become an issue.  Needless to say, the conversation went downhill from there.

And so it was that, in my post adolescent egotism, I began to envision myself as the prophet Elijah facing off against the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:20-40).  Standing alone against overwhelming odds, but with the force of righteousness and indeed, G-D himself on my side, I pushed my way into the surging mass of humanity.  At one point, I took an elbow in the nose and felt the blood running down my face, but I didn’t stop.  Caught up in the adrenaline I kept on throwing shoulders.

I emerged transcendent, feeling affirmed in my (self) righteousness and glowing with pride over my battle scars.  I made sure that I walked by the black metal guys so that they saw my sweat and blood soaked glory.  Of course, most that battle took place only in my own mind.  Truth be told, while many people noticed my shirt, they probably couldn’t have cared less.

So it is interesting that what happened next, took me out of my self-imposed isolation and into a most creative and enjoyable partnership.  But that, as they say, is another story.