The Back Page: Smoke, Mirrors and Satan®

By Matt Swartz

SmokeI got a child’s-eye view of an interesting period in evangelical history; I witnessed the passing of the Fear Baton. It was never announced clearly in a way that made sense to a 12-year-old, but one year, it seemed, we were supposed to be afraid of world Communism, and the next year, we were supposed to be afraid of a Floridian performance artist named Brian Warner.

He made gothic rock music under the nom de plume Marilyn Manson, and there seemed to be a consensus among my church’s adults that if any of us tweens were to hear any of it, we’d be instantly smitten and permanently seduced by the satanic imagery he employed.

The antics that occurred at his concerts were discussed in hushed tones, which piqued our interest precisely because they were forbidden. Rare was the youngster in my hometown that had any interest whatsoever in that particular genre, but Rock ‘n’ Roll has always had a symbiotic relationship with the idea of danger, and no better marketing for Manson’s music could have been imagined than the sound of the people who exercised daily power over our lives saying his name in fear-inflected tones.

The thrumming of the moral panic machine spread, over the course of three or four years, from the parents to the children. Soon, we were spreading apocryphal stories about this man’s background, proclivities, and, in fact, anatomy.

Time and Google later clarified for me that many of these stories were urban legends that had been transposed slightly from older rock stars and (and previous moral panic focii), while others of them were true. But for us, they were all true; true enough to be at once repulsive and fascinating. We were horrified, and our horror heightened yearly or biennially, when he came to our region to play a 2,300-seat venue. Presumably he sold out. There were prayer vigils outside, he was mentioned out over pulpits, his name said in anger; in short, his provocations were successful.

But it was never explained to any of us young ones what his defilements of Christian iconography were actually supposed to mean. We attached no positive superstitious meaning to objects. If anyone had suggested to us that crosses were magical, we would have laughed them off, but somehow we felt, and were encouraged in feeling, that something powerful and evil was being called up from hell by his upside-down neon crosses.

Theologically, it was a case of good teaching, incompletely internalized; we knew that God was sovereign and that witchcraft was doomed, but we didn’t believe that it was doomed quite yet, and we feared it being spread among us through popular (if hookless) music.
Eventually, the star’s light began to dim; he bored of music, and the Church bored of him, and he lost his ability to perform the rock and roll alchemist’s trick that The Clash once called “turning rebellion into money.” And we grew up, and our parents calmed down, and all was well, more or less, but still I wonder about the amount of energy that was wasted.

Young me could name two Marilyn Manson albums, and maybe five songs, but only one historic church council, and probably only one of the five Solas of the Reformation. I do not fault my elders, for they were doing their best to safeguard the kids in their care from what truly was some sinister and morally corrosive entertainment. But I am left with the impression that some energy was misused, some opportunities wasted.