My initial acquaintance with black metal came through a series of compilations called Beauty in Darkness. The title spoke to me, because I was fascinated by beauty and darkness, and especially by the interplay between them. I was, after all, so very Goth that I painted black teardrops on my face (no, I don’t have photos) and believed She wept tears of blood from her riven wrists was the most eloquent sentence I would ever write. I strove to be the walking embodiment of beauty and darkness, so how could I not love music that paid tribute to those ideas?
The bands featured on the compilations were, I admit now, mostly noise and chaos and rage. But in a few cases, out of those ingredients emerged a searing, evocative power, a magnificence fused from the contrast between crashing cacophony and exquisite melody. At its best, the genre inspired me — to research Norse mythology; to view my world through a different lens (listening to extreme metal rendered driving through the Pennsylvania forests a magical experience); and in my writing. In fact, the first two short stories I published owe their genesis to songs from those compilations.
What also fascinated and repelled me was that for the early Scandinavian bands, black metal wasn’t just music — it was a mythology, a spiritual path, a way of life. They took it so seriously that several ended up in prison for murder and arson. Yes, their actions were reprehensible and even sociopathic, but unlike a lot of the hypocritical Christians and pseudo-satanic poseurs I had known, they were sincere. And that sincerity spoke to a part of me that craved authenticity — even if it came in a malevolent form.
I discovered black metal during a time when I needed to know that beauty could coexist with and even grow from darkness. Darkness had been a constant part of my life for more than a decade by then, and I had come to define myself by it.
It was not a friend or a companion that I chose at first. I grew up in an environment saturated in evangelical Christianity — home, school, church, camp, after-school jobs, friends, extended family; we even learned to ride bikes and drive in a church parking lot — and I took my faith more seriously than a lot of kids do. Unfortunately, nothing equipped me, or anyone else in my milieu, for the severe depression that started chewing on me when I was 13. My elementary school had been filled with kind teachers supervised by a gentle, compassionate principal whose cologne was one of the most reassuring scents of my childhood. Although I attended the same school for junior and senior high, we were on a different campus with a very different principal. Depression was not met with kindness or understanding or even basic knowledge; it was treated as a moral failure — of faith, self-control, obedience to God, and love of others. At school and church, people told me that if I just did things differently — prayed and read the Bible more, prayed differently, read the Bible in the morning instead of at night, volunteered more, focused less on myself, slept less and prayed more, wore less black — God would cure my depression. That didn’t happen, so I must be doing something wrong, an assumption that invited all sorts of people to sift through and analyze and criticize everything I did.
Music became my lifeline. Ironically, it was also one of the areas that the self-appointed accountability police spent the most time picking at. So I once asked the wisest of my high school teachers whether it was okay to listen to a song that expressed anger at God. Instead of giving me the clear answer I wanted, he said, “All beauty is God’s beauty, and all truth is God’s truth.” My challenge and responsibility, he explained, was determining whether the beauty and truth in this song would be more beneficial to me than the lyrics were harmful. And no one but me could make that determination.
Maybe his response inadvertently vindicated my later appreciation for black metal. Because I discovered that even people who set out to produce ugliness and chaos and cacophony can create, often despite themselves, works in which beauty and truth shine through. And if you believe, as I do, that God is stronger than anything else and God is love, then you start to notice how consistently and persistently love appears, even when we do our best to fragment and dilute and distort and defy it.
By the time black metal came into my life, I had stopped fighting my own darkness — it wasn’t a battle I could win — and instead embraced it. I enjoyed the sense of power that came from being the scariest-looking person out at 3 a.m. As a senior in college, I’d had an agonizing conversation that forced me to confront the ugly truth that my Christianity had little to do with love or a relationship with God, and a lot to do with not wanting to go to hell. Like many people who emerge from cults, I started wondering whether hell could really be worse than what I’d experienced in the church. For years my Christianity had been called into question anyway, since simply feeling what I felt, and responding to it in whatever ways I could manage, had been labeled sinful by so many people. Stepping away freed me to ask questions I needed to ask and explore spiritual paths that had always intrigued me. And that brought me, eventually, back to God, but to a fuller, richer, deeper understanding; to a profound peace; to a genuine desire for a relationship with a Christ I don’t just admire but want to emulate and long to love.
In the midst of that journey, though, I viewed myself as a creature of darkness, a child of night. (Never let it be said that I lack melodramatic flair.) I didn’t know whether there was anything salvageable in me, anything worth redeeming. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was black metal that ultimately let me know there was: that however “dark” I became, light still filtered through, and the light was what I sought, what sustained me, what nourished my soul. I could find beauty in the music while rejecting the malicious choices of the musicians. In the end, no matter how much chaos and madness and rage and pain and hatred I wrapped around myself, the love — and the beauty and the truth — were always going to prevail.
I share these thoughts now because we, collectively, are walking into a time of darkness. We don’t know how bad it will become or how long it will last. It has already begun to exact a toll, but we can’t anticipate how terrible that toll will prove — and the uncertainty carries its own darkness. So we need, perhaps more than ever, to seek beauty in the darkness. Because it’s there, and it can give us the spark of hope that keeps us going.
Beauty is free and accessible to everyone with senses attuned to recognize it. Appreciating it doesn’t require time or advance planning; you can be surprised by a majestic sunset or snatch of birdsong as you’re taking out the trash. Of course, we can also be intentional in seeking it out, especially now.
Beauty is the thread that has kept me oriented in the worst moments, that has helped guide me toward truth and love. To find beauty flourishing in places where I did not expect it, even where I doubted it could survive, taught me how pervasive God’s love is and how subtly redemption often works.
We need, in the coming days, to grasp that beauty — and that truth and hope and love — wherever we find it. And find it we will: in the smile of someone we adore, in the selfless gesture of a stranger, in a meme that makes us laugh. In the affection of pets. In a brilliant burst of flowers and in trees limned by sunset. In light reflecting on water. In the elegant flight of an egret or the graceful leap of a deer. In the moon’s gentle glow. In a strain of melody. In an eloquently written passage that inspires us to view the world just a bit differently.
It might sound frivolous to resolve to seek beauty in the face of a pandemic, but for me it’s a survival strategy. It’s how I remember there is no darkness so deep that God’s love doesn’t glimmer through. No place so desolate that there is not something in its landscape that speaks to my soul of truth, of goodness, of hope.