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Missing the Despair: Do “Negative” Emotions Have a Place In Christian Entertainment? by John Harju

John Harju
Writer | Podcaster

Since the inception of our podcast, Primitive Rhythm Machine, Steve’s and My primary goal has always been to be able to provide Christian music alternatives for individuals who were in need of them (or at least just curious as to what was out there). 

The problem that we ran into almost immediately was my love for Doom metal (which I will refer to as just Doom going forward). That isn’t to say that there aren’t any good doom bands under the “Christian” banner; there are several. But every time we found a new doom band to consider, each one would always be missing a certain intangible…. something that my favorite secular doom bands would have in spades. It was incredibly infuriating to me, too, because I could never quite put my finger on exactly what it was. It was literally 10 minutes right before I sat down to write this article when it finally clicked with me that what I was missing, the key element that my anxiety-riddled mind related the most with: a strong sense of despair.

I’m going to put this out there because I know that some people are asking; the bands that embody everything that I LOVE about doom metal are bands like Pallbearer, Swallow the Sun, and Khemmis. When I was writing the end half of the first arc of Playing Games with Strangers, I had “When a Shadow is Forced into the Light” by Swallow the Sun and “Foundations of Burden” by Pallbearer rotating around each other in my ears pretty much constantly. It drove my creativity in a very specific direction. It enabled me to pull the emotions that I wanted to pull in my story, but it begs the question: why would a Christian want to listen to something that seemingly wallows in “negative emotions?

Allow me to assert that this question is VERY American thought process. The modern American Christian perspective on what is deemed as negative emotions are shaped by a sense of triumphalism created by the prosperity gospel doctrine that arose in the 1950s and is still alive today. Thus, there is a doctrine that is prevalent in the current American church that seems to think that it is bad to feel sad, anxious, frustrated, etc.; and if you do feel in such a way, you must immediately seek to rectify that situation because, if you don’t, that means that people will believe that our God isn’t powerful enough to care for his flock. What they don’t seem to understand is that ideology is at the core of what makes the church feel so out of touch or irrelevant to our increasingly post-Christian world.

Biblically speaking, when you read your Bible, God always moved best when humanity was laid low because it is in these situations that we see how much we need Him. I am currently in my 3rd read-through of the Bible (I just finished Jeremiah tonight), and it is in the history of Israel that we see this proven time and time again. Every time God would bless the nation with abundance and riches, they would turn away from God as they would no longer see their need for Him, but when he would bring them low, they would cry out in repentance. There is even a book of the Bible that is literally CENTERED on feelings of despair. It is called Lamentations; the name should say something. These emotions are not BAD. They are a part of the human experience, and they can be used to draw closer to our heavenly Father. Like so many other things in life, it is all in how you use them.

Now let’s bring it back to the Christian entertainment aspect. Why would a Christian want to listen to a song that deals with feeling alone or hopeless? Again, I can’t speak for everyone, but in my talking to other Christians I have met who also deal with anxiety problems, it would seem to me that we just need to know that we aren’t alone in what we are going through.  

Back in the 90s, when I really started to cut my teeth on Christian music, all the genres of Christian music dealt with a variety of topics, including feelings of worry, depression, and the rest of the gambit of “forbidden feelings.” Newsboys wrote the song “Always,” which dealt with the feelings of abandonment that a child of parent’s going through a divorce inevitably feel. That particular song got me through MY parents’ divorce. DC Talk wrote “The Hard Way,” dealing with feelings of failure as a Christian. These feelings are core to the human experience, and the human experience IS the Christian experience.

Is it wrong to feel despair, isolation, anxiety, depression, or whatever else as a Christian? 

Absolutely not. So why would it be wrong to create art about that experience as a Christian? I would submit that if Christians dealt with these feelings more openly and directly, rather than throwing around platitudes taken out of context (if I hear “but the Bible says to be anxious in nothing….” one more time, I will hurt somebody), less people would feel compelled to suffer in silence, and we all would be in a much better place because we would be shouldering each other’s burdens. That is why this is NEEDED in our music again; it takes it off our shoulders and allows us to feel some respite. The need to relate to other people is as old as humanity. That is the basis of art. It is no coincidence that most people would tell you that Peter Frampton’s best song is “Do You Feel Like I Do?” So, as Christians, let’s start answering that question with more honesty and say “Yes, I do. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”


If you are struggling with anxiety and don’t know how to start to get help, please feel free to reach out to me via the Devoted Geeks Facebook group or on the Geek Devotions discord server. I struggled with anxiety and feelings of isolation due to spiritual abuse for years because I was afraid to get help and didn’t know-how. Getting help was one of the best things I have done and I am always available to anyone who is still in the struggle.

–John
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