The Opposite of Worship: Ghost's "He Is"
Singing is ten times more powerful than prayer. This little piece of divine servitude calculus was repeated week after week during elementary school mass, which was held underneath the basketball nets in the gymnasium. I sat with the 300 other students that attended this publicly funded institution, slouching on seafoam green stackable chairs, and soaked it up. Yes, singing is louder and more attractive than whispered, shameful devotions. Joining in with the singing flock was a great way to be sure I was where God was looking. If he noticed me, that was one more point on my list of reasons I wouldn’t be going to Hell.
Well, as has been detailed elsewhere on this blog, I committed the greatest of all sins, apostasy, and so now God doesn’t scare me. But the lingering burn of His dead eyes still aches sometimes. Catholic guilt doesn’t ever really go away, so whenever I actively renounce the big ole church in Rome and its three-pointed idol, I look over my shoulder and brace for divine retribution. Like a dog who had an abusive owner that died, I keep expecting to feel God’s rolled up Saturday edition pop me in the nose. And that’s why the song “He Is” by Grammy award winning metal band Ghost is so fucking cool – it reminds me that I’m still scared of a divine being I don’t even believe in.
The gentlest song on Ghost’s 2015 album Meloira, “He Is” is an anti-hymn. If you were to hear it out of context, you would have little inclination to call it metal on a pure sonic level. The delicate picking of the song’s verses, the rapturous vocals, the repetition of the song’s title, everything except the guitar solo makes “He Is” sound like the kind of song you could find in a Church hymnal. But when you listen to the content of the lyrics, especially if you’re the kind of person whose mind goes to church when you hear a song like “He Is”, you realize that it’s as metal as music gets. It is literally Devil worship.
The imagery of the song inverts all expectations of holiness conjured by the song’s composition. The verses tell of star crossed lovers reaching out to a beast with many names, standing next to the abyss, and world in flames. The second verse lyric “The guidance of the Morningstar will lead the way into the void,” takes the brightest of Lucifer’s titles and positions it as virtuous, yearning for annihilation and rejecting the Christian promise of life everlasting. It’s esoteric stuff, making the subversion all the more insidious as it builds into a God-slaying refrain:
He’s the shining in the light without whom I cannot see
Insurrection, he is spite, he’s the force that made me be
By positioning the song’s subject as a “shining in the light” Ghost inverts the holiest value of the divine, flipping a theological trope and conjuring feelings of revelation. How, after all, can something shine brighter than heaven? A normal hymn would simply have the Lord shine in the dark and bring you away from it. “He Is” positions the light of eternal salvation as blind servitude that you can be liberated from. What’s more, thanks to the hymnal structure, Ghost makes it all but impossible not to sing along, multiplying the tribute to the Beast in accordance with the elementary school mathematics of prayer power.
“He Is” is so complete in its blasphemy that it makes me Godfearingly nauseous as it brings tears to my eyes. Apostasy is lonely. There is no community outside the Church of Satan and some of the more odious militant atheist circles in which I am spiritually welcome, and to be completely vulnerable about it, losing your faith is a lot like killing a parent. There is an emotional component, magnified by the stigma that you’ve done this to yourself, and the sort of joy in spiritual wholeness becomes all but unattainable. Outside of God’s embrace, you feel rough, spiteful, mistreated and violated—angry for a lifetime of shame and apology for being born human.
If a hymn is to thank God for accepting my fealty and the imperfections He built into me so that I can live on forever, then the perfect anti-hymn is to flip the value of those imperfections, thank the Devil for them, and pray for the day I will no longer exist, finally consumed by the abyss. It’s a horrific thought to many, I imagine, because even to me – a godless man who by definition can’t pray to Satan by virtue of his non-existence – singing to the power of the biblical light bringer still feels sacrilegious. And that’s why “He Is” is so important. It’s like taking back the penance for my life’s sins, ten prayers at a time.