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On Confusing 1980’s-Era James Hetfield with Jesus
Zeke Jarvis

Photo by  Karina Carvalho  on  Unsplash

Hi, other white guys. I know that we see each other all the time, but we don’t really talk about stuff, you know? Rock music, maybe, football, sure, but not serious stuff. I know that that sounds weird or like I’m going to hassle you, but it looks like a lot of us have made a mistake. Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you a hard time about slavery. That was bad, for sure, but it’s not really my place to talk to you about that. The mistake I’m going to talk about is something we’re all still doing and that we can actually change. It’s not Nickleback. Nickelback is kind of embarrassing, but it’s not really hurting anything other than our credibility as music fans. What I’m talking about is more of an actual problem. See, I think that way too many of us are mixing up Jesus and 1980’s James Hetfield. While that might sound weird at first, it’s understandable that it could happen. Both figures have long hair and beards (remember that we’re talking about 1980’s Hetfield). Both figures talk a lot about the difference between the rich/powerful and the poor/trodden-upon. There’s probably something about wine, too, but that’s not the primary focus of this essay. And while there are some overlaps, there are some key differences. The real focus of this essay is the fact that we’re not paying enough attention to the ways that Jesus and 1980’s James Hetfield are really different.

In case you’re thinking that this is going to be all about how you should go to church, don’t sweat it. I’m not saying not to go to church, but I think there’s some stuff that we have to take care of before we even get to that step, so let’s focus on one thing at a time. And I’m not going to tell you to stop listening to Metallica. Maybe we can take Reload out of our collection, but that’s not my main point. I’m with the rest of you in liking 1980’s Metallica in general and Hetfield in particular. For instance, I’ll be the first to admit that if you put Jesus and James Hetfield (from any era, really) down to play Guitar Hero against each other, it wouldn’t even be close. Let’s be honest, there’s nothing about Jesus playing guitar in the Bible. He’s more about religion and carpentry. So, both Jesus and 1980’s James Hetfield have their strong points, but they’re very different strong points, so let’s make sure that we’re focusing on the right things in the following paragraphs.

We hear a lot of reasons why we should admire Jesus, but I think that sometimes we focus too much on his suffering and not enough on the fact that Jesus should be admired because he forgave everyone. Even those pricks who nailed him to the cross. Think about it:  somebody was pounding a nail through his hand, and he was just like, “Forgive him, Father, I refuse to be a dick about things and judge people for their shortcomings.” I get pissed off when someone cuts me off in traffic, but Jesus can just take crucifixion in stride. That might be part of why it’s hard for white guys like me to really get into Jesus the way that we get into Metallica. I think that part of why white guys like 1980’s James Hetfield is that they see someone who is good at what he does but still seems pissed off, so he’s more relatable. And his music makes it easy to be pissed off in an enjoyable way. But it’s still better to be like Jesus (forgiving) than it is to be like 1980’s James Hetfield. If you don’t believe me, hang around with someone who’s able to forgive you, then hang around with someone who’s yelling all the time. You tell me who’s better to spend time with, then tell me who you should be more like. The choice is obvious. Be the forgiving cool guy and no the brooding yeller.

I’m sure that makes sense, but maybe I need to explain why mixing them up is such a big problem in a little more detail. If you think of Jesus as your spiritual leader, then you should do things like forgive others, protect the weak, and not want to sin. On the other hand, if you think of 1980’s James Hetfield as your spiritual leader, you probably will end up cursing, being aggressive, and, to be honest, kind of being a dick. There’s not really anything wrong with cursing, in my opinion, but the other two can be a problem. I think that even Hetfield would admit that, while he had some really great music during that era, the 1980’s wouldn’t be his finest hours on a personal level. If you follow his example, you probably spend more time drinking and trying to get laid than you do actually helping others. And as much as we’d like to think otherwise, it’s important to recognize that sex with us probably isn’t the biggest help to most other people in the world, and it’s probably not the most productive use of our time. Instead, we’d be better off and the world would be better off if we used our privilege in a more constructive way.

It probably seems weird that someone might think of James Hetfield as some kind of spiritual leader, but I think I’ve figured out why it happened, and it is kind of related to Jesus. As I said earlier, the problem is that we’ve been focusing a little too much on the martyr end of things and not on the forgiveness and love part of things. For instance, no matter how many times we’ve all listened to “One”, very few of us have actually stepped on a landmine, let alone been left “in hell” because of one. And working a desk job or even in a factory isn’t the same kind of “in hell” as having survived a landmine, I’m sure. And the same thing holds for other songs. I grew up in Northern Wisconsin, and while I’ve gone off the road in the snow a couple of times, I’ve never literally been trapped under ice. And a lot of days I’m not really dying to live that much, either, though I do cry out now and then. But enough about me. The reason why this matters is that, if we listen to 1980’s Metallica, then it’s easy to get hung up on the anger and the desire for vengeance. Where the problem comes in is when we start to play the martyr Olympics, using the lyrics from the band to think about how much we have to be frustrated by. I have plenty to be frustrated by, but it’s not the same thing as living in a country where my entire race is oppressed or where my gender is regularly degraded or even where I can’t use the bathroom that I feel most comfortable using. I can admit it:  if there is a martyr Olympics, then my privilege disqualifies me from most events.

But why should we want to be in those Olympics in the first place? I think that what has happened is that we’ve confused being persecuted with being good. In other words, we think that, if we’re lucky, we can’t be good, and if our life is hard, we’re automatically good. It’s like suffering justifies our goodness and our anger. The problem with that is that we end up focusing on our suffering instead of either our fortune or our strengths. This gets to be even more of a problem when we hear about people of color being discriminated against. If we’re the landmine or one of the people that are making others’ lives difficult, then we don’t feel like we have the right to be pissed off, and that sucks, because we can’t be like James. We can’t be justified in our anger. Being angry can be fun. It can make you really feel alive, so I get all that, but it would be better to be angry at what others have to go through, to be angry from empathy rather than to just be pissed off for our own self-involved reasons.

As I said before, I’m not saying that we should stop listening to Metallica. I’d hate to say that “The Thing That Should Not Be” is “The Thing That Should Not Be Listened To”, but when you listen to “One”, you could think about your own hard life, or you could think about helping veterans. When you listen to “And Justice For All”, you could think about how much you don’t like the government in general, or you could think about how the Black Lives Matter movement has gotten screwed by the people in power a lot more than we have. If you use Hetfield’s work (and Lars’s and even poor Jason Newsted), then enjoy it, but don’t use it to pretend that your life is harder than it actually is. Use it to do some good, and you’ll make sure that you’re not like those pricks who stood by while slavery happened, or even like the record execs who keep releasing Nickleback albums. Instead, you’ll be cool in a whole new way. You’ll be the kind of person who has privilege and uses it well.

Zeke Jarvis is an Associate Professor at Eureka College. His work has appeared in Thrice Fiction, Moon City Review, and Quail Bell, among other places. His books include So Anyway... and In A Family Way. His blog can be found at