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August 12, 2010

The Day Metallica Came to Church

Author says God speaks through all kinds of pop culture -- including head banging heavy metal


John Van Sloten, whom some call "Canada's pop-culture pastor," once preached a sermon about Metallica and the band's spiritual connection, never believing anyone outside of his congregation -- Calgary's New Hope Church -- would notice. But word spread, it made international news, and even the heavy-metal band heard about it. That led to a series of sermons on pop culture, covering films like Spider-Man and Grand Torino, bands like Coldplay and Green Day, artists like Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Van Sloten says God is speaking everywhere, through everything.

"The reason I preached on all these topics is because I believe they belong to God," he says. "And when things belong to God, they matter and have something to say."

It's an intriguing but controversial idea, this notion of God speaking through everything. Really? Everything? Through The Hangover? Through gossip rags and celebrity tabloids? Through Lady Gaga? The very idea drove almost half of Van Sloten's members away. But he says of those who remained, they "no longer watch a film just for entertainment; now they constantly find themselves asking, 'What are you saying here, God?' When you acknowledge that God is speaking everywhere, you're forced to engage in seeing and listening more discerningly, and to ask the right questions."

Well, yeah. Sorta. I'm all for discernment and asking the right questions, but sometimes God simply isn't behind it. Sometimes the question isn't, "What are you saying here, God?", but "What are you saying here, Musician/Filmmaker/Artist/Whatever?" It's good to ask what a piece of art or slice of pop culture might be saying, and indeed, we often can find God behind something "secular" -- truth, beauty, and goodness are all manifestations of his glory, whether the humans behind those things are believers or not. But some things are totally devoid of truth, beauty, goodness, and more, and I'm just not convinced that God speaks through those things at all. Maybe he can speak through a donkey, but I don't think he speaks through crap.

(I'm also a bit troubled by New Hope Church's website. The homepage background consists of the cover art for Van Sloten's book, and about half of the promoted content on the homepage is linking to pieces that promote the book. I'm all for self-promotion, but taking up half of your church's homepage for it? Gulp. FWIW, the publisher, Faith Alive, does have a "proper" promotional website for the book as well.)

The previous parenthetical aside, what do you think of the premise of this book? Does God really speak to us through everything?


Hi Mark, the author John Van Sloten addresses this tension (the "crap") in his book and offers the idea of counterbalance: "But when we read the Bible and creation/culture together, there is a corrective influence at play. Each of these texts no only co-illuminates the other, but also brings balance to the reading of the other" (pg. 69). There's more "checks and balances" ideas in the book, too -- I hope you'll read it. It's good.

if God spoke through an ass. The question should be if God is really all powerful what cant he speak through? anf if he cant speak through something then is He all poweful?

Hi Mark. In regards to the website and the promotion of the book on the website: The book was written by Pastor John, but it belongs to New Hope Church. He does not receive a dime from the sales of this book. Any proceeds from the book go towards supporting New Hope Church's various ministries (after the publisher gets their cut, of course) This book is about the vision of our church and we think its a pretty great vision. So why wouldn't we want others to learn about it and know God better because of it. Furthermore, the book just released two days ago, so we are maybe just a little excited about it after waiting for 2 years. I hope that clears things up for you.

New Hope member: Thanks for clarifying that, and where the proceeds go. I appreciate the excitement about the book, I just still think the homepage was a bit of promotional overkill. Still, thanks for clarifying, and I wish you and the New Hope congregation the best.

Yes, Mark. Sometimes God is not behind the message or the messenger, but a whole other principality invokes it. We are supposed to discern and be aware of these spiritual forces, and sometimes I have more experience with it than I like to admit. I am glad that you were not afraid to speak out. Also, I like your appropriate use of the word "crap." Sometimes it is just a whole lot of it and we need to speak out and say so.
"Let no one deceive you with empty words...do not be partners with them. ... Live as children of light...Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret...Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise (Gal.5)

I hope you'll get a chance to read the book in its entirety Mark. It would be really great to hear what you (and others) think of it after reading (and beyond the premise - after all, we really can't just judge a book by its cover.) The very idea of it is what has kept some of us not only in the church, but in the faith.

Actually God did want to speak through crap once, but a human objected - Ezekiel 4.

I think the bigger point this book is making (I've read it twice now) is that God is much, much greater than we often grant Him credit for. When we dismiss huge swaths of his creation as devoid of His blessing, we miss understanding Him in significant ways.

I haven't read the whole book, but I read the first chapter (available for free) and talked with the guy a bit on the book's Facebook page, and we think very similarly.

I do agree with the premise that God speaks through everything -- even those things which drastically oppose God. The most staunch atheists often have good points, and even staring into the face of evil (like Lady Gaga) grants insight into the spiritual state of our culture. It's sort of like scouting the enemy to know what you're up against.

The concept is Biblically solid. God used the Assyrians as a sword to exert his justice upon the land, and the Assyrians had absolutely nothing to do with God. If God can use the Assyrians for his own purposes, he can certainly use Metallica.

So was god speaking through Metallica when they recorded "Leper Messiah", "The God that Failed", and "The Judas Kiss"? And what is god saying in Slayer's "God Hates us All"?

There's a line, as noted above, between God declaring and a declaration about ourselves in relation to God. Often, in literature, music and film, God may use it to prompt people to consider Him, what He would have them do, what is valuable in life, etc. On the other hand, the arts may reveal as much about humans in their search for God and purpose, which then asks questions of God.

C.J., have you read the lyrics to those songs? Because I see 'Leper Messiah' to be a warning about false teachers coming in the name of God and seeking wealth. 'The God That Failed' could be viewed as our human perspective on Jesus - He failed. He did not achieve success from a worldly angle. He was crucified as a criminal, He did not set up an earthly kingdom and kick out the Romans. 'The Judas Kiss' has this verse, which I think is consistent with God's plan:

In the heart of evil man
Plant the seeds of my own plan
Strong and powerful will fall
Find a piece of me in all
Inside you all

It's about redeeming culture over rejecting culture. If Metallica or Slayer hold a perspective of God, where did it come from? Is it accurate? Is it based upon a misinterpretation? A misrepresentation by Jesus' followers? What can we learn from it? How can we reach out to people who do not know the love of Jesus? This was Paul's primary method - learn the culture, look for ways that God is moving and then draw them to the forefront.

It is also of note that for many centuries, the enemy has used the church to promote his agenda over God's. Examples like slavery, the demeaning of women and children, the idea that redemption of the culture can only come through political power instead of through His Son. Ya know, stuff like that.

So is God speaking through porn too?

Sometimes what God is saying is, "No. This is wrong. This is not what I intended. Go the other way." That's what He says through porn, Larry. Listening to God in "everything" means listening to what the Holy Spirit (pointing us to the truth of Scripture) is telling us with reference to everything, pro or con. We're in really, really dangerous territory if we literally look for beauty or goodness in everything. Ugliness merely serves as a foil against which we see beauty.

God doesn't speak through Bathory, Immortal, Nortt, Vesania, Slayer, or any of them. It's quite the opposite.

Bart, I must say that your counterpoint was amazing! I see now that those songs don't bash Christianity as a whole, but certain parts that god may not agree with, such as people who exploit religion for money, or Christian Science (James Hetfield's mother, a Christian Scientist, died from untreated cancer). I still don't personally believe Pastor Van Sloten's idea of spiritual connection, but it isn't a crazy idea. I also don't mean to offend any Christian Scientists, that is what the song is about. And Larry, in porn god is saying the same thing as everyone else. "Put your pants back on @#% hole!!!"

"i don't think he speaks through crap." wow mark, i can't believe how limited the god is that you serve. and i can't believe how condescending you are to artistic expression. god can and will speak through whatever he wants, regardless of the intent of the person--you meant it for evil but god meant it for good. mean anything to you? don't get me wrong, i'm not gonna watch porn and try to see how god is speaking through it but i think it's perfectly fine for christians to seize upon a biblical idea to highlight god's perspective.

take the movie matrix for example. yes, sorta buddhist and filled with violence but the many nonchristians who watch that might be curious to explore the idea that maybe the world we think we see and live in isn't all that it's cracked up to be. i think it's a very biblical idea, see 2 cor 4:4. it's perfectly fine to pull ideas from our pop culture to try to get people to understand god a little bit more.

I would imagine this idea will be refreshing to Christian artists, too, who don't create in a Christian genre -- i.e. music bands who aren't Christian but may reflect God through the lyrics. These people often take crap for not being a "Christian" band (see Roaring Lambs, another great book on Christians and culture).

Now Christians think God is speaking through Metallica? Black album. Track 10. Period.

MasterOfPuppets. You obviously have no idea what Track 10 of the Black album is about. The "God" That Failed is the god of the christian science cult that James Hetfield's parents belonged to and would not allow his mother to have treatment for cancer. I'd be p.o'ed at that god too.

God does speak through "crap", both literally and figuratively. Donkey, Horse, Cow, and other hay eater "crap" make for wonderful fertilizer in an organic garden. Out of the "crap" comes beautiful plants and food to eat. Many times going through "crap" helps us "grow" as well.

Doesn't this concept seem a bit new age to me? This is EXACTLY what a sect of people believe in, that God can speak through anything because God is in everything and since that is the case then we must be gods. I am not saying this author is saying we must be gods, but it is a logical conclusion many unbelievers may come to after hearing this message.

The fact is that God CAN speak through anything but He chooses not to speak through everything.

Yes, the Lord can speak through circumstances, through our observations of nature, through people, but most importantly--through His Word and through your prayer time and relationship with Him. There are some secular things that the Lord may use to grab our attention (i.e. political happenings, weather disasters). The fact of the matter is, that though there may be good messages in some movies and other music, you can not say that we should embrace all aspects of our current culture as being okay. The Lord did call us to come from among them, and unless being exposed to these things are being used solely to connect. What Paul was doing in Europe was correcting a misunderstanding of the knowledge of God (i.e. the marker of the unknown God) and pointing that knowledge towards the truth about the Lord Himself. He did not refer to Athena or any other Greek gods to explain Christ and Him crucified, save the fact that these gods cannot be known (because they are not real). There was reference to the words of a poet, but again, it was to support the overall claim about our relationship to the Lord. Certainly he did not go at length about their culture and how it speaks about God to them. I am not condemning the preacher, but I am concerned as to the unspoken consequences such teaching can cause.

This opens up a door to a lot of things that can be detrimental to the Christian walk, especially for the few youth that remain active in the faith. They may take away from this that it is okay to explore everything (i.e. drinking, drugs, premarital sex, occult, religions) or listen to certain music (even though it's often laden with anti-Christ and satanic messages--Jay-Z for example) because God can speak to you through it. I can get high off weed, because God can speak to me through it. I can listen to music that degrades women and blasphemes against God because He's telling me not to do those things (which is in the Bible itself, btw). I can watch movies with lots of satanic things in them, killings, murders, etc. because God is telling me a message through them. One must be careful as to what they allow to enter their eyes, ears, and mouths, because no matter how "strong" you are, it will affect you spiritually, even subtly. I am not going to say that doing some of these things are wrong (i.e. going to movies, listening to some secular music, watching tv shows), but one must be careful of what they allow in A, B-understand that when something is created, not only is that thing placed into existence but the intent behind that creation as well as the spirit associated with that creation is FOREVER connected to that particular thing that is created. That means that a song written about satan cannot ever be changed to glorify God at any means because it's creation was for evil and not good. That old adage what you meant for evil, God made it good is being used too loosely here. That is referring strictly to the enemy's plot to destroy you through the people whom you are closest to and to the overcoming of those things and allowing Christ to get the full glory for its fruit. That is not referring to taking anything and making it good. I'm not saying we should live in a cave and do nothing. There are plenty things we can enjoy, but to entangle that with the message of Christ, save the exception of using it as a point to correct the error of one's ways or to make practical a principle (i.e. parables about the way people live), is dangerous indeed.

I have to agree with Jeanne. This seems like such a silly argument to me! Of course He CAN speak thru anything, He is GOD afterall ... but the question should probably be "Does He speak thru anything and everything?" Our God is all powerful and totally in control, but as Jeanne mentions, this line of thought may be dangerous for the young people amoung us. Until you reach a certain maturity I strongly believe parents should "censor" what their children encounter from our culture. I hate to quote my father since I swore I would never sound like him when I grew up ... but I guess I do anyhow. "There is nothing wrong with a mud puddle out in the yard, but when your mom tells you to stay clean then rolling in the mud makes it wrong. Its not the mud its how you interact with it."

Since God gave us clear instructions thru His Word, should not we strive to obey Him whenever possible? Phillipians 4:8? " 8Finally..., brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."

Jeanne and Angela... The book addresses many of the concerns you bring up (three chapters worth of response actually!), and you're right - discernment and wisdom are key in seeking out God's truth in his world. We need to be wise in terms of what's appropriate for differents ages and sensitivities. I think we need to do the same thing with some of the bible's more salacious stories as well; adultery, genocide, incest, murder, etc... Once, forgetting about all the kids in our church, I showed the trailer for The Passion of the Christ. Mothers were horrified. JVS

The basic principal is really that nothing happens without God allowing it. That being the case does not make God in favor of it. Remember, all things work together for good (not all things are good). We can learn forgiveness from the way Jesus treated the woman at the well or the woman caught in adultary without saying what she did was good and God inspired. But that doesn't mean God can't use that to teach us a valuable lesson. The really good teacher can take all things and freely associate them into a tapestry of solid teaching. Using Metalica as a sermon illustration does have the danger of sending a mixed signal to the immature desciple but it does not negate the value of the lesson.

I only read the free first chapter, and it had the same flavor as "The Velvet Elvis". New ideas and ways of thinking on our everyday lives. Someone always coming up with something new to push the boundaries. And I say eat the chicken and throw away the bones. The only thing that particularly troubled me was that during the service mentioned in chapter 1, 3 metallica songs were played by the band. If you want to preach about the parallels between scripture and metallica lyrics, and prophets and metallica band members, then me might as well parallel metallica songs and worship songs. I mean why dont we just start mosh pitting in service. There is no reverence for the things of God among his own people anymore.

Satan knows the scriptures, he knows that God's words have power and if he can infuse those with the cursing and the sexuality of todays generation, and then have "Christians" turn around and take Satan's plagarism that was used for the gross dillusion and present it as GOD'S message then he has won.

I agree with the point made of God speaking to the lost through this music, and I agree God can use anyone or anything to bring us to him. Yes maybe sometimes he does bring us to him through donkeys and "crap". However His temple is now our bodies and minds, and we should not fill it with donkeys and crap.

"Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things [are] honest, whatsoever things [are] just, whatsoever things [are] pure, whatsoever things [are] lovely, whatsoever things [are] of good report; if [there be] any virtue, and if [there be] any praise, think on these things." - PHIL 4:8

It's a shame that so many of you want to twist the message here and turn the focus away from the Pastor's intent. He isn't embracing the culture he's found a niche which it sounds like a lot of you are running away from. You want to quote scripture and get on your high horse and take the moral high ground. How about this scripture "for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" Rom 3:23. Pastor Van Sloten found a way to get 200 people who don't normally darken the doorway to get to church. No one has even mentioned that. If you don't agree with him that's fine. I don't agree with the Catholic church, which by the way is guilty of far more atrocities than there's space to mention, so I don't attend there. We need a wake up call and while yes I agree we don't want to go blindly into the world you folks need to keep this in mind "he who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God" John 3:18. Pastor Van Sloten now has an audience with people who are headed for hell. We need to get over our fear and prejudice and support him. A few years ago the lead guitarist from the band Korn got saved. Is he any less worthy of salvation? We might never know on this side of heaven how many lives were impacted for Christ by the Pastor's message. Two final thoughts and I'll go. Has anyone who's blasting this taken the time to pray for it instead? And finally Luke 15:7 "I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.

Late response, but I was reading through this thread and thinking EXACTLY what Jim in the previous post stated. This pastor and/or church are penetrating an audience that may not otherwise give Jesus a chance. As long as Jesus is at the heart of this book's message (and any of the other topics he may use to preach), then it's alright with me. Think about where you may have been, what you may have been doing, what you may have been listening to the day (or the day before) you came to know Christ. What has your angle been in reaching people with the gospel since then? Invited anyone to church lately?... that has accepted your invitation? Maybe so, just asking.

I'm not really sure why all the hubbub about this book. I've used contemporary pop-culture references in preaching and teaching (as have many other pastors I've known) for years. One of the first lessons I ever taught in church I used the song "Dear God" by XTC and talked about why someone would have that perspective and how to deal with those questions. I've seen churches use "Lost", "The Apprentice". "The Matrix", "The Office", Madonna songs, Three Doors Down songs, Bruno Mars songs (this week), etc, etc. Maybe this is a new idea for some, but a lot of people have been doing this for a long time. I applaud the author for giving more people exposure/guidance on how to engage our culture in a meaningful way, as well as how to evaluate the cultural messages around us.

Hey Robert... I think the hubbub has to do with one big difference. I used to 'use' pop cultural references as illustrations for years as well. But now something has changed. I've moved from seeing them as merely relevant to now seeing them as revelatory. What's controversial is the idea that God is speaking THROUGH these things. JVS

I've always been able to find God in movies and TV shows, and i believe yes God can speak through anything. The problem arises when we start to try and seek God in sinful things as in sinful movies like the author of this post suggested "The Hangover". I have gotten several revelations from secular things, but you should never compromise and look for God in sin.