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    photo of a person with headphones sitting in a train station

    Screaming about My Sinfulness

    Christian hardcore gave expression to my self-loathing, but ultimately only led me further from the life-saving shore of God’s love.

    By Krispin Mayfield

    May 12, 2022
    • Thomas Severin

      Being raised a Catholic christian, I was exposed to mixed messages about God’s love for me that appeared contradictory. On the one hand I was told that God loved me unconditionally, like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son. The father's love for his sons was independent of anything his sons did or didn’t do. On the other hand, I was told that God’s love could be lost if I failed to love Him back or if I seriously violated one of His commandments. Even worse, I could be damned to hell for all eternity. Catholic theologians claimed that these opposing viewpoints were due to the tension between God being a God of Justice, as well as, a God of Mercy. The God of Justice was the God that required His son’s death on the cross to atone for manklinds’ sins. Mercy and forgiveness were triggered by a heartfelt apology for offending God by violating His commandments. At issue here is the fundamental question “ Is God’s love unconditional or not?” Is it really a gift freely given without any strings attached or must I earn it? Just as heaven is a gift that none of us can merit, so too is God’s love. Should we pose the question of worthiness in the reception of God’s love, the answer is simple. No one is worthy.

    • Chris

      Thank you for this powerful writing. I can relate to this message that many have internalized, "there’s something about you that deserves harm or exploitation, something that cannot be loved." So many Christians carry this feeling of being unlovable and unworthy into adulthood and have a hard time disentangling—maybe never disentangling because that childhood message is so strong, especially when the trauma of abuse has implanted it deeply. Christian parents can be just as abusive as non-Christians and when it's in a religious context that the message of unworthiness is drilled in, it often results in the person turning from God and the church forever. And no wonder! Thank you to Krispin for learning about trauma, becoming a therapist and sharing the truth of God's deep never-ending love for us.

    • Paul C.

      Very insightful article. Thanks for opening your heart to help others heal theirs!

    • david s.

      Thank you. thank you. thank you. Many parts of your story is my story as well. I truly believe without the deep work in training to become a pastor and spiritual director, I'm not sure I would have made it.

    “I don’t deserve to rest, I must serve my God til my hands crack and bleed”
    —Nodes of Ranvier, “A Life Wasted Sleeping”

    “I’m a vampire”
    —Blindside, “King of the Closet”

    “I don’t like me – I despise me”
    —Dead Poetic,“August Winterman”

    Christian hardcore music has always helped me feel calm. There’s something soothing about the loud drums, screeching guitars, and guttural screaming in place of singing, married to faith-based lyrics. It is a genre that formed the life raft I needed as a teenager, but looking back, I realize that it wasn’t all helpful. In some ways it feels like it simultaneously saved my life and took me further and further from shore.

    I was obsessed with this music, but I wasn’t a typical “scene kid.” Though I sported the skinny jeans, tight black t-shirts, and bangs that fell across my forehead from a dyed black mop, I never had a chance to go to the shows because I was a missionary kid, in the middle of China.

    Most of my scene experience was via a Sony Walkman and bulky over-the-ear headphones. Something about blasting that loud music into my ears helped me catch my emotional balance, which I desperately needed. My family had moved to China right before I turned thirteen, and I felt adrift in the world. In a family that revolved around my father’s silent, smoldering anger, there wasn’t much space for me to express my emotions. I was also trying to make sense of sexual abuse I’d experienced as a younger child, without words or a frame of reference for it.

    But I could go home every afternoon after my day at an international school, press play and allow the screaming in my ears to put me to sleep for a nap. As a therapist now, understanding more about emotional regulation, I know that having our internal world mirrored externally can be a powerful remedy – whether it’s a parent who gently tells us, “You sound like you’re feeling really overwhelmed right now,” or scribbling a stormy scene in an art journal, or listening to shrieking voices and screeching guitars.

    photo of a person with headphones sitting in a train station

    Photograph by Max Wolfs (Public domain)

    During those years, we hosted a house church, so Sunday mornings prompted a transformation of our living room into a domestic sanctuary for up to thirty people. We hoisted our TV high atop a stack of furniture so that everyone could see the words to the songs from any part of the room. We would have lengthy times of worship, opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, always trying to discern what God wanted us to say or do. Would we pray for a specific person in our midst? Would God have a particularly challenging word for us that morning?

    I tried hard to join in the worship experience, wanting to be close to God like these people were. I wanted to want to sing of God’s love forever. I wanted God to be the air I breathed. I wanted the words I was singing to be true, but it felt like there was something amiss. Sometimes I had intensely euphoric experiences of God’s closeness, but most of the time I only felt a distance. And since God couldn’t be the problem, I could only conclude that the problem was me.

    Those intimate worship services in our living room gave me only half the story: call out to God, and God will come near. But Christian hardcore filled in the unspoken gaps: God isn’t close because you’re so sinful and broken. The hardcore songs I listened to all followed a similar lyrical format: they were generally addressed to God, full of longing for closeness – asking to be held close, to be loved, just like the songs I sang on Sunday mornings. But they also spoke to this feeling of being defective and unworthy of God’s love. Using metaphors like monsters, vampires, and darkness, they emphasized how desperately sinful we humans are.

    Many of the songs spoke of deep regret over continually sinning, a sort of musical self-flagellation that Martin Luther might have appreciated had he been born in the US suburbs in the twentieth century and owned a guitar and set of distortion pedals. In his Ninety-Five Theses, he says that “inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.” Christian hardcore was like that, except the self-harm was limited to hearing loss and occasional bruises from the mosh pit.

    Many of the songs spoke of deep regret over continually sinning, a sort of musical self-flagellation that Martin Luther might have appreciated had he been born in the US suburbs in the twentieth century and owned a guitar and set of distortion pedals.

    The problem was more than just sinning – more than any action or behavior. It felt like there was something at my very core that was disgusting and awful. It reminded me of my experiences as a young child in Sunday school, cutting out tracings of a black heart as an object lesson about what gets in the way of being with God. As a teenager, I knew that Jesus’ blood had washed away my sin, but it didn’t feel like anything had changed. This music spoke to that feeling.

    If my heart still felt the same, I had to wonder if my confession of sins didn’t take. In my favorite song at the time, the vocalist of Underoath wondered the same: “Do these prayers feel sincere? The dirt never washes clear!” he screams with frustration in a song on the 2002 album Changing of Times. It helped me feel less alone, though it didn’t really offer a solution to my self-loathing. In a grand crescendo, the album ends: “What’s faith if I can’t believe? It’s everything. A cure, but I make it a disease. God take me, because I hate me.” Words like these communicated that my brokenness was more powerful than his grace and love. There was nothing in my experience of faith at the time that could push back on that.

    The Christian hardcore I listened to was one of many expressions of American evangelical subculture. Many Christian hardcore shows were hosted in church basements, with harsh guitars echoing off the checkered tile floor, while some event organizer tried desperately to keep on schedule for curfew while at the same time preventing the rascally teenage crowd from doing any real damage to church property.

    Down there in the basement, the concerts unpacked ideas that were implied but not discussed directly upstairs in the sanctuary. Teenagers and young adults wrote these songs, making sincere music from their dearly held experiences of faith. We had ingested the message that God is pleased when we beat ourselves up for sinning instead of accepting his forgiveness and love. Christian hardcore created a space for kids like me who wondered why we kept failing, why God felt far away, who worried that perhaps we weren’t saved after all, that our hearts were still black and still disgusting to God (a metaphor that also reinforced White supremacy). The bands were saying what everyone believed but no one said; they were, as my wife often says, “saying the quiet part out loud.”

    For me, Christian hardcore was a mirror of my own inner angst, the ways I hated myself, and the ways I felt broken. Listening to it brought tremendous relief. At the same time, it only reinforced the belief that I was so rotten inside that I could hardly hope for God to love me, let alone like me. It was a life raft that took me further and further from the life-saving shore of a God who loves unconditionally and wants to bring us into communion with him.

    It wasn’t until over a decade later, after being a practicing therapist for a couple of years, that I began studying attachment styles and how they affect our connection with God. In attachment science, I found a different explanation for that terrible feeling inside. As I dug into the research, I found that many survivors of relational trauma have this deep sense of being broken inside, a feeling that there’s something repulsive at their core that drives others away. That feeling exists not because they are repulsive but because of the message received when they were harmed or neglected by those charged to love and care for them. The literature is replete with examples of how survivors of this kind of trauma feel – deformed, utterly undesirable, worthless – they describe themselves as rats or pigeons or monsters.

    It began to dawn on me: What if I felt this way not because of what I had done, but because of what been done to me?

    Christian hardcore had given space for my emotions of intense shame. But it fell short of an accurate diagnosis, just as the church has often done. Sometimes we feel defective not because we are, but because we are yet to have a healing experience of being loved as we were created to be loved. Henri Nouwen writes, “The real ‘work’ of prayer is to become silent and listen to the voice that says good things about me.” Christian hardcore was an exercise in just the opposite.

    I began to listen back through these albums of my youth, and I heard them in a different way. These were kids crying out for love. Listening to a whole album from one band, I could tell that the lyricist had clearly experienced emotional neglect. Another songwriter seemed to experience depression in a church community that had no concept of such a struggle. I heard rumors that some other vocalists had experienced sexual abuse. And though all of us thought we were too sinful to be truly embraced by a holy God, it turns out that it was not our own sin that prevented healing. We’d been given abusive messages that we weren’t worthy of connection, closeness, love. It’s hard to learn that it’s not a matter of confessing sins or screaming how terrible we are – it’s a matter of being embraced by a God who loves us and wants to tend to our wounds.

    Many have come into the church with deep wounds from internalizing the message there’s something about you that deserves harm or exploitation, something that cannot be loved. It can come from unhealthy parents, or abusers, or society at large, or systems that discriminate and oppress. All too often, churches have reinforced this message.

    Yet the gospel teaches that we are delighted in and beloved by God. Not just a grin-and-bear-it love, but the kind of love that runs to meet you, wraps you up in a huge hug, and kills the fattened calf to throw a party for you. And it’s that kind of love that heals.

    I’m grateful to Christian hardcore for giving words to my experience, but in the end, it only echoed the voices within myself. I needed a Divine Parent who would step in and say, “Those things you feel about yourself – they aren’t true.” I needed to hear that, although I make mistakes like all other humans, I’m not a vampire or a monster. I’m beloved by God.

    Contributed By

    Krispin Mayfield is a professional counselor who lives in Oregon with his wife D. L. Mayfield and their two children. He is the author of Attached to the Invisible: A Practical Guide to Deeper Spiritual Experience and co-host of The Prophetic Imagination Station podcast.

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