I spent the first 10 to 15 years of my life with a pretty black and white idea of Christianity and the world in which it exists. Christianity was completely true and all other religions, paths, practices and philosophies were completely false. In high school, I started to perceive a few shades of grey; my mind started wandering into things that ended in question marks and ellipses rather than periods. That made me curious but uncomfortable, so I confined my search for answers to my own internal logic, what I could figure out on my own. It was a bad move.
When I got to college, the number of my questions just exploded. Uncertainties were coming at me from all sides and I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore. My only recourse was to dispense with the uncomfortable feeling and barrel on ahead. It got to the point where I was questioning just about everything. When I was young, all things were certain; now, very few things were.
A couple of things stayed true: God was real, love was real, and God loved me. I’ve always been certain of that. But every other thing was up in the air, and they’ve slowly been coming down to a more graspable height ever since college. They still fly away sometimes, but I know I’ve got a firm hold on the really important stuff.
The most important thing I’ve learned since high school is that there’s not a lot of difference between Christians and non-Christians. I used to think there was this thick black line dividing them, and that line ran along who treated you well and who didn’t. What, little Ben cut in front of me in the line for the drinking fountain? He must be going to hell! But who treats you well has to do with their own battle with their sin nature, not whether or not they carry the label “Christian.” Christians can be just as vile as other people, and they even have a corner on the market of certain types of vileness. And quite often some deep truths about God, love and the nature of both come from seemingly “heathen” sources.
Since their first record and for about 10 years after, Black Sabbath had been fighting against insinuations and outright statements that they were Satanists. Every time the question came up in an interview, they flatly denied it. Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler made no secret of the fact that they were brought up Catholic. The image was brought on by their dark, doomy music and references to Satan in their lyrics, but the public took it several steps further. Sabbath eventually learned to live with it, and then to use it to their own advantage, but it had to be frustrating. And around the time of their third album, they decided to fire back.
Master of Reality contains some pretty bold statements about the goodness of God, the evils of Satan, and some unabashed references to love. The songs “After Forever” and “Lord of This World” lay the groundwork for Christian metal, even if no Christian artist under the sun will admit that it’s true. “After Forever” takes an incredibly direct approach to God and the question of his existence, even having the narrator (which would most likely be Geezer himself) say “I’ve seen the light and I’ve changed my ways.” Furthermore, he warns the person he’s addressing against denying God in front of their friends, and says “God is the only way to love.” Gospel message? Maybe. Something a Satanist would say? Definitely not.
“Lord of This World” takes the opposite tack, being a letter from Satan to a hapless victim whom he deceived. But rather than laughing in victory, Satan seems a little sad, like taking the person’s soul was a little too easy. There’s no longer any need for deception on Satan’s part, so he just lays it bare. His victim chose “evil ways instead of love” and made him the “master of the world where [he] exist[s].” Satan might as well be saying, “Why did you follow me instead of God? I’m freakin’ evil, dude! Get a clue!” Christian ministers who preach hellfire and damnation can’t even do it as effectively as this.
At the cap there’s “Into the Void,” a futuristic account of the few people who know the truth leaving the earth in spaceships forever because it’s too corrupt, and searching the galaxy for a place to start anew. The earth is filled with hatred, evil, misery and death, and it’s all Satan’s fault. I have a feeling those who left the planet did so because they were looking for heaven, and Earth too closely resembled hell.
There is a very important distinction to draw here, one that could make or break your decision on Black Sabbath, if you haven’t already made up your mind. Sabbath’s message on Master of Reality is pro-God and pro-love, but not necessarily pro-Christianity. Jesus is never mentioned explicitly, though God is. The principles Sabbath presents here are found in an undiluted form in Christianity, but they’re careful to avoid throwing their hat in with the Christian crowd (or any crowd).
And I can’t talk about Master of Reality and its Christian themes without also talking about a track from their very next album Vol. 4, called “Under the Sun.” It’s a cover, but it captures BS’s spirit very well. It’s a call to not let anyone’s philosophy intrude on your own, to make your own path. This is stupid, of course; everyone’s philosophy is a collection of things they’ve heard and have chosen to hang onto. The reason I mention it is that they make a reference to “Jesus freaks” in the first line, where the narrator is laying out all the people groups he doesn’t want telling him what to believe. That list also includes “black magicians,” but the slap in the face to Christians remains. “Under the Sun” basically says the singer already has it all figured out, and doesn’t want anybody telling him what’s what; a revelation of arrogance, naivety, and plain old stupidity.
Black Sabbath eventually came to accept their slightly demonic image, and in 1980 they started fostering it. Ozzy had been fired, and an essential part of Black Sabbath’s image was gone. Nature abhors a vacuum, but rather than replace Ozzy, they shifted their image and musical direction, hiring Ronnie James Dio as the new lead belter. With the addition of Dio, they started leaning into the suggestions of Satanism, or at least started embracing the devilish side of their public face.
The Dio Sabbath always made me uncomfortable. With Ozzy, the suggestions of Satanism were a hysterical joke, made tragic by that some people took the joke seriously. With Dio, though, they seemed somehow authentic. I fear they started dabbling with things they shouldn’t. All in all, Black Sabbath’s Lucifer influences are a lot of bluster without any substance, but they came dangerously close to making them real in the early 80s. For that reason, I’ve always preferred the Ozzy years to Dio. After Dio… well, it’s not worth mentioning.