A few years back, rocker Marilyn Manson gained infamy for ripping up Bibles on stage. Now he says he plans to read The Bible from the stage. A community group called Citizens For Peace And Respect has called for Manson to skip the June 21st Denver stop of the heavy-metal tour Ozzfest. The organization's website says that Manson "promotes hate, violence, death, suicide, drug use, and the attitudes and actions of the Columbine killers."
In response, Manson has promised to "balance my songs with a wholesome Bible reading."
The Bible readings, he says, will allow his fans to "examine the virtues of wonderful 'Christian' stories of disease, murder, adultery, suicide, and child sacrifice. Now that seems like 'entertainment' to me."
So the battle rages on. Perhaps no figure in modern culture is as famous or reviled for his use of religious imagery as Marilyn Manson. In this Beliefnet interview, in which Manson recollects childhood nightmares about the Antichrist and attending services by evangelist Ernest Ainsley, he shows that his dispute with Christianity is as much reaction as provocation.
The same can be said for his views of the media. In the wake of Columbine, Manson was attacked as an indirect cause of the shooting - even though it was later shown that the killers were not Manson fans. At the time, I worked with Manson on a piece he wrote for Rolling Stone magazine to defend himself.
"A lot of people forget or never realize that I started my band as a criticism of these very issues of despair and hypocrisy," he wrote.
He went on to attack the media's ghoulish fascination with the murders: "I was dumbfounded as I watched the media snake right in, not missing a teardrop, interviewing the parents of dead children, televising the funerals. Then came the witch hunt."
Manson isn't naÔve about the implications of changing your name from Brian Warner to Marilyn Manson - a conflation of his obsessions with sex, violence, and celebrity - or of making albums titled Antichrist Superstar (1996) or last year's Holy Wood (In The Shadow Of The Valley of Death). He's well aware that people might conclude you're out to stir up trouble.
He's also aware that talking about the spiritual premises and implications of his music and his own complex religious upbringing in a setting like Beliefnet is to jump into a fiery furnace. What is perhaps most surprising about Manson is how deeply engaged he has been in religious topics, and how genuinely he wants to confront those who are likely to fiercely disagree with him. It's his idea of a good time.
Manson points out that his act only uses the tools made available to him by the media machine.
"Marilyn Manson is a criticism of gimmickry," he once explained to me, "while being itself a gimmick."
The Manson critique includes a highly theatrical brand of bone-crunching, guitar-driven rock & roll and lyrics that harshly denounce the crushing effects of conformity. Rather than face life's confusing freedom and difficult choices, Manson says, people disown their humanity to become, as one of his album titles puts it, "Mechanical Animals".
It is Manson's fascination with violence (which, he points out, we get in a constant stream from many sources) that raises hackles. And it must be said that his message isn't always clear. His songs are laced with nihilism ("All your infants in abortion cribs/I was born into this/Everything turns to shit") and blasphemy ("When I'm God everyone dies").
The persona he assumes - he never breaks character in public - is a distinctly unsettling, sexually indeterminate blend of pancake makeup, bondage gear, lipstick, mascara, and religious imagery. The formula has sold nearly 5 million albums.
Though he has flirted with Satanism, his philosophy has far more to do with the radical individualism of Nietzsche or Ayn Rand than devil worship. Manson, a 32-year-old product of Ohio and Florida, is as gripped by religion, as Christ-haunted, as anyone I've ever met. Here he explains the origins of that ambivalent attraction.
During my visit to his Hollywood Hills home in 1997, Manson posed next to a gruesome crucifix for part of a filmed interview. Later, seated on his terrace with the grid of lights that is Los Angeles twinkling in the background, he did seem seductively satanic, tempting viewers with all the kingdoms of this world - or, at least, all the potential delights of L.A.
"Maybe I should become a Christian and make them all happy," he said.
"But I think if I found Jesus - which, I didn't know he was lost in the first place - I don't think he would be all that different from me."
Manson spoke to me recently about the current state of his soul from his home in the city of the (fallen) angels, Los Angeles.
What was your religious upbringing?
"My first memories of religion were being taken to Episcopal church. My father was Catholic, but my mother, I believe, was Episcopal. So I sort of veered off into the watered-down version of Catholicism.
At the same time I was going to a nondenominational Christian school, where I was taught a very underhanded form of Christianity. For example, my Bible teacher would ask the class, "Is there anyone in the room that's Catholic?" or "Is there anyone that's Jewish?"
If there was no response, she would talk about how wrong those other religions interpreted The Bible. So at an early age, Christians already started to appear to me as people who believed that their interpretation of God was the only one that was right."
At least she didnít want to offend anyone...
"Then I started to learn about Revelations, and they pumped a lot of fear about the end of the world into us. I used to have nightmares about the Antichrist - what would happen, where it would come from, and who it would be. The Christians also created this myth about The Rapture, which if you look through The Bible, doesn't exist. There is a verse in The Bible that mentions that when Christ returns, he'll come like a thief in the night. So there was a movie they would play for us about the rapture called Thief In The Night. It was about everyone who fell prey to the lure of The Antichrist and got the mark of the beast would be left behind during the rapture. Cars would be abandoned, and people would be starving and killing each other. Everyone else would float up into heaven.
When I turned about fourteen, I developed a friendship with this guy whose mom was the secretary to Ernest Angley, the faith healer, who's very popular in the Midwest. He had a television show, and he was sort of like Liberace mixed with Jerry Falwell - very glitzy, very high-tech. He had a gold cathedral, one of the most decadent places I'd seen, until recently when I went to the Vatican - that outdid it! But whenever I spent the weekend with my friend, I would have to go to these Friday night services that began at midnight."
That sounds wild.
"It was odd because you were starting to fall asleep - it's the perfect time to brainwash people. People were tossing money onto the stage and speaking in tongues. It was very terrifying, like a horror show. It may have been what inspired me to become a rock musician!
So that was the point where I started to seek out other interpretations of God. And initially, when you rebel, you go for the obvious choices - heavy metal, Satanism. To me, Satan ultimately represents rebellion. Lucifer was the angel that was kicked out of heaven because he wanted to be God. To me, what greater character to identify with?
So initially I was drawn into the darker side of life. But it's really just human nature. I started to learn that everything that's considered a sin is what makes you a human being. All the seven deadly sins are man's true nature. To be greedy. To be hateful. To have lust. Of course, you have to control them, but if you're made to feel guilty for being human, then you're going to be trapped in a never-ending sin-and-repent cycle that you can't escape from. And you're going to be miserable. Ultimately, you'll be living in your own Hell. So there's no need to worry about going to hell, because Hell will be on earth."
What are your spiritual beliefs now?
"A lot of people like to pass me off as a devil worshipper. I think that could only be true if I considered myself to be the devil, because I tend to be narcissistic and believe in my own strength and my own identity. I find God to be what exists in what you create. I make music. I think that that's coming in touch with God when I write a story, when I come up with a phrase or paint a picture, because that's about creating. Art gives people a reason to be alive. It gives people something to believe in. I think art is the only thing that's spiritual in the world. And I refuse to be forced to believe in other people's interpretations of God. I don't think anybody should be. There's no one person that can own the copyright to what God means."
When did you begin to encounter resistance because of your beliefs?
"Well, resistance always will be the first thing to fuel the fire when you're young. That's how I learned about heavy metal music. They would have these seminars in Christian school saying, 'This is what you're not supposed to listen to'.
So I immediately went out and bought it.
But when people rail against me for what I do, I absolutely can understand why they would. And I make that a part of my art. My art is not limited to the songs I create but also to the reaction it creates. I like to sit back and look at the whole thing as if it's a tornado that I'm controlling. It's creating chaos. When you create chaos, ideas are turned upside down, and everybody looks at things in a different way.
At the same time, I'm not simply out to shock people. I like to make people think. Since I chose the forum of rock music, people like to pass it off as simple, dumb, and childish, meant to trick teenagers into spending all their money on my records. But that's never why I got into it. I got into it to get laid, basically! No, I got into it to say what was on my mind, and I'm fortunate enough that people are listening. And it amazes me sometimes how many people are listening."
You've always been fascinated by the idea of Jesus as a figure that brings together images of violence, fame, and sexuality.
"Absolutely. I've gone to great lengths to express it in my work that Christ is the first celebrity. The crucifix is the most successful piece of merchandise ever created. I think the image of him dying on the cross is very violent. It's very sexual. It's very phallic. And I think it's intended to be all those things. It's intended to make women want to be married to Christ and make men want to be like him. And to cause fear. Some of the scariest buildings I've ever been in are churches. They're beautiful in their ominous architecture. And I think that image has caused more pain and suffering than a swastika or the hammer and sickle. And those images are taboo, while the crucifix will always be considered holy. But think of how many people died in the name of that image."
You say you recently saw the Vatican. What was that like, and what do you think of the pope?
"It's odd that you ask, because I have the pope's head, which someone sold me from a wax museum, sitting on the shelf in front of me, staring at me. I don't really have an opinion on the pope. It's strange that so many people look up to him, because if you actually believed Christ's teachings, it would be inappropriate to idolize somebody as much as you do God, and a lot of people look to the pope or the Virgin Mary in a way that's idolatrous. But I don't have a problem with him.
I was kind of overwhelmed by the Vatican. I was overwhelmed by the amount of gold that was used to create the building, while so many people complain about hunger and homelessness and the pain and sufferings of the world. And buildings like that are supposed to be what God intended. It doesn't add up."
Is there a particular religious figure that you most love to hate? Any you admire? You once said to me, "I see someone like Jerry Falwell as the same as Marilyn Manson in some ways. He's stating his opinion, expressing his beliefs, whether he really believes them or not. And it's a form of entertainment, because people pay him for it. Religion to me is entertainment."
"I don't really have hatred for any of them. I find amusement in a lot of modern religious figures. And I wouldn't say I have respect for many modern religious figures. But I acknowledge what they're doing. And the ones that do it best I envy, because I see the sheer evil in what they're doing. You have to admire their cunning and their diabolical ways of manipulating the world. It fascinates me, ultimately. I just find myself fascinated with all religious figures throughout history."