Recent decades have seen a growing interest in a wide range of alternative religions and spiritualities in the West. This has led to the emergence of an alternative spiritual environment that is often referred to as the “holistic milieu” (e.g. Heelas & Woodhead 2005) or, more broadly, “the alternative spiritual milieu” (e.g. Partridge 2004).
Commenting on the changing face of religion in the West, scholars such as Christopher Hugh Partridge (2004, 2005) argue that contemporary Western society and culture is experiencing a process of “re-enchantment”, while Paul Lauchlan Faux Heelas and Linda Jane Pauline Woodhead (2005) contend that the West may be experiencing the beginning of a “spiritual revolution” as a result of the overall “massive subjective turn” of Western culture and society.
In relation to these debates, scholars of religion have also increasingly started to draw attention to the role played by a popular culture within the overall context of religious change and transformation in the West.
Popular culture not only reflects these changes but, in turn, also provides important sources of inspiration for the transformation of religious and spiritual practices and identities (e.g. Partridge 2004, 2005; Lynch 2006; Forbes 2005).
Metal is perhaps the most extreme and aggressive form of contemporary Western popular music. Even though it continues to spark controversy and debate, it has also enjoyed enduring popularity for decades and has spread on a global scale.
Metal music and culture has always been characterized by its fascination for dark and austere themes and imagery.
Commonly dealing with topics such as evil, death, war, alienation and suffering, metal groups have traditionally found much inspiration in the world of religion, particularly Judeo-Christian eschatology and apocalypticism, different forms of paganism, occultism, esotericism and, last but not least, Satanism. These kinds of religious/spiritual themes have arguably developed into an integral part of metal culture on the whole. They contribute significantly to investing metal music and culture with an apparent aura of sincerity and mystique as well as to raising its shock and entertainment value.
At the same time, metal culture is also marked by its high degree of humour and self-irony, its fondness for exaggeration, spectacle and over-the-top theatrics. Even so, metal stands out as a global popular music culture replete with various kinds of often dark and austere religious and spiritual themes, many of which stand in stark contrast to Christianity.
As Christopher Hugh Partridge (2005: 246–55) has pointed out, seen in the wider context of the changing face of religion in the West and the increasingly important role played by popular culture in the transformation of religious and spiritual identities, metal has come to play an important role in the dissemination of a wide variety of “dark” alternative religious/spiritual beliefs and ideas.
My main aim here is to shed further light on this issue through focusing on some contemporary and successful metal groups from the Nordic countries. In relation to this, I also wish to draw attention to some of the ways in which dark alternative religious/spiritual ideas may be viewed as having become an inseparable part of some sections of metal culture as they have become actively and consciously explored, and sometimes explicitly promoted, by the well known contemporary metal groups discussed in this article.
I will begin by offering a short general account of the contemporary alternative spiritual milieu. This is followed by a brief discussion of the current relationship between religion and popular culture, particularly in relation to Christopher Hugh Partridge’s (2004, 2005) recent thesis on the “re-enchantment” of the West.
The final and main part of the article then explores the relationship between popular culture and alternative spiritualities in relation to the world of metal music in light of some contemporary metal bands from Norway, Sweden and Finland.
Debates on the emergence of alternative religions/spiritualities need to be situated within the broader context of wider debates on religious change and transformation in the West. The concept of secularisation has occupied a central position in these debates for decades and has mainly concentrated on the impact of modernisation on institutional Christianity in (mostly Western) Europe and North America. Viewed as part of a broader narrative of modernisation, theories of secularisation have traditionally offered an account of the state of religion in the West, and Western Europe in particular, in terms of a single “running narrative” of slow but steady decline (Martin 2005: 8).
More recently, though, traditional narratives of secularisation have again become increasingly contested and questioned as a result of the emergence and proliferation of alternative religions and spiritualities. Scholars concentrating on these developments often interpret the contemporary Western religious scene in terms of a dialectical relationship between secularisation and sacralization/re-sacralization (e.g. Heelas & Woodhead 2005: 9–10; Partridge 2004: 44).
Scholars adopting this approach seldom refute the overall effects of secularisation on traditional institutional religion, that is, Christianity. They do, however, point to the transformation and changing character of religious belief and practice within contemporary society and culture, with religion and spirituality appearing in new forms and sometimes unexpected places.
Spiritual truth is not to be derived from external religious authorities but from “within” oneself. Individuals are encouraged to seek inspiration in whichever religious and spiritual traditions, beliefs and practices that suit them and their life situation best at any particular time. Hence, spiritual matters are typically approached in a holistic, eclectic, and experimental spirit.
Different beliefs, ideas and practices from a range of different religious and spiritual traditions are thus often combined, resulting in the construction of unique individual spiritualities (Partridge 2004: 72–3).
Alternative spirituality stands in stark contrast to what Heelas and Woodhead call “life as religion”, such as Christianity, characterized by its emphasis on external authority, dogmatism, tradition, metaphysical dualism, absolute truth claims and so on (Heelas & Woodhead 2005: 14–16). This contrast is essentially what makes alternative spirituality viewed as ‘alternative’, that is, as a type of spirituality that is defined over and against traditional and institutional types of religion (Christianity). According to some scholars of religion, these types of attitudes are all typical of “postmodern culture” more generally (e.g. Beckford 1992: 19).
Although the alternative spiritual milieu encompasses a myriad of different and disparate beliefs and practices they often nevertheless share some general basic connections and similarities. So, even though contemporary alternative spirituality is characterised by an emphasis on the authority of the individual and an abandonment of overarching belief systems, a set of key themes have nevertheless come to be widely shared and developed into what Partridge (2005: 11) calls “soft orthodoxies”. For example, there is a shared general sense of the West becoming increasingly attuned to “the spiritual”, of everything being holistically “connected”, for example in terms of an all-permeating “universal energy” or “life force”.
The sacralization of nature in particular, stands out as a recurring feature in many forms of alternative spirituality. In relation to these concerns, there is also widespread suspicion towards “modern invasive technologies” (Partridge 2005: 18) such as those related to irresponsible industrial exploitation of natural resources.
Moreover, alternative spiritualities typically emphasise “the resurgence of ancient traditions” and continuity with an often “mythical past” as being the key “to vibrant, authentic contemporary spirituality” (Partridge 2004: 77). This is also connected to a more widespread distrust, suspicion and sometimes outright hostility towards traditional Christianity.
On a general level, alternative spiritualities are thus characterised by an open attitude to subjective, pragmatic and experimental exploration of new (“alternative”) spiritual ideas and practices (Partridge 2004: 77–81).