Iron Maiden Reads the Book of Revelation

Heavy metal regularly mines Christian discourse for its often-otherworldly style of lyrical storytelling, and occasionally, buried deep in the mix and obscured by the roar of power cords, we find clever, witty and thoughtful dialogue with the Bible. This often involves rewriting and repackaging its terms and narratives in support of nonreligious subjects.

Consider, to illustrate, Iron Maiden's "Brighter than a Thousand Suns" from their album A Matter of Life and Death (2006; lyrics by Bruce Dickinson and Steve Harris). The song opens with a first person plural confession ("We are not the sons of God") and closes with the sinners' prayer ("Holy Father we have sinned"), and in between these striking admissions describes humanity's Nimrod-like ambition and lust for power: "the power of man, on its tower ready to fall" (cf. Genesis 11:1-9). This alludes to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel in which God confuses the builders' language and puts an end to their overreaching endeavors (v. 8).

Some things never change and it is obvious the songwriters use an ancient story as a vehicle for commentary on a contemporary concern. Just like the ancients, human striving and progress in the modern world exceeds reasonable limits, something suggested by the ingenuity symbolized by E=mc2, which, in the context of the song, amounts to the boastful "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens" (Genesis 11:4). It follows that if modern societies share the ambition embodied in the ancient Babel tower builders, they face a similar fate: "The LORD scattered them abroad" (Genesis 11:8). Attempts to build a city and tower -- technological and military advancements described in Genesis and continued in the present (E=mc2) -- are a "race to suicide." The song alludes to war generally, and nuclear war in particular. Its title derives from Robert Jungk's book about atomic warfare "Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists" (originally published in German in 1956). The lyrics even mention the author ("Robert") and refer to missiles (iron fingers stabbing the sky), nuclear dust and bombers.

Dickinson and Harris also draw on Jesus' Olivet Discourse, an apocalyptic sermon concerned with the impending destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans. Twice the lyrics refer to nations rising, which recalls Jesus' words "nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom" (Matthew 24:6-7; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:10). Significantly, Jesus' Olivet Discourse describes the complete devastation of Jerusalem ("not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down" [Matthew 24:2]), and the inevitable suffering military actions produce. Jesus warns his followers to "flee to the mountains" (24:16) at the first signs of the crisis. It is fitting that a song outlining the horrors of warfare draws on this ancient sermon to give poignant force to its antiwar rhetoric.

We also find in "Brighter than a Thousand Suns" a possible connection between the image of nations rising (Jesus) and the powers of darkness described in Revelation when the songwriters introduce the terms "hate," "fury" and "Satan." The latter (Revelation 12:9) comes to the earth full of rage, as Maiden fans know well: "Woe to the earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath" (Revelation 12:12; spoken, along with Revelation 13:18, at the beginning of "The Number of the Beast" [Number of the Beast, 1982]). It also comes as no surprise to those reading Revelation (or listening to Maiden's "Number of the Beast," for that matter) that the Devil's "time is short" (Revelation 12:12), so once again we find the songwriters aligning present-day "enemies" (overreaching warmongers) with the soon-to-be-defeated villains of biblical literature. God scatters the tower builders of Babel, and ultimately ends the Devil's activities.

The Bible's "fingerprints" are everywhere in popular music, not least in heavy metal, where we often find a symbolic universe -- evident in lyrics, videos, album art, etc. -- informed by religious language and imagery. Sometimes the music is subversive in its engagement with sacred themes, dwelling on and identifying with, for instance, night, darkness, evil, the Devil, death and heterodoxy, rather than a more traditional alignment with day, light, goodness, God, life and orthodoxy. At the same time, even with its carnivalesque reversal of values, heavy metal is a conservative art form, typically relying on a clear demarcation of good and evil, God and the Devil. In the case considered here, the stress on dark elements in biblical apocalyptic language contributes to a forceful and emotively charged call for peace.