In my endless search for connections between faith and music, I came across a stark and beautiful sight last month. First of all, I finally bought a Sleep album after knowing about them for years. Sleep is a sludgy, brutal Doom/Stoner Metal band from the early ’90s, and I really can’t explain why I love them so much. But that’s beside the point. I was reading about their history, and discovered that one of their original guitarists, Justin Marler, had left the band to become an Orthodox monk.
Intrigued, I tried to track down what happened to him, and came across Death to the World, and let me tell you, I was floored. Death to the World is a ‘zine, created by Justin Marler and other monks, that was passed out in the ’90s at punk shows all over the country. It targeted the punk subculture, but it was all about Jesus Christ and the saints of the Orthodox Church. It was recently resurrected and continues to have an online presence. The artwork is simply stunning, and quite different from what Latter-day Saints may be used to, but I thought it was simply beautiful. After reading a few articles I knew I’d have to interview someone about it, and I was honored and blessed to receive that interview this week from John Valadez, a writer for Death to the World.
John’s response was beautiful and insightful. He highlights a perspective on life and Christ that I found to be very new and refreshing. Since John was generous enough to bear his testimony as a member of another faith, please remember respect and courtesy in your comments.
Tell us a little about how Death to the World got started. Is Justin Marler (Asbestos Death, Sleep) still involved?
Death to the World was started by some punk converts to the Eastern Orthodox faith who became monks in a monastery in Northern California. They started the publication to reach out to old friends that were still engulfed by the punk scene. Yes, one of these first people was Justin Marler from Sleep, but he is not a main editor anymore. We still send him zines and he is working with us to re-print the book “Youth of the Apocalypse” which was first printed during the first few years of Death to the World’s existence.
In your opinion, what are the main challenges facing our youth in the 21st century?
As our Father Seraphim Rose once said, “Our abnormal life today can be characterized as spoiled, pampered. From infancy today’s child is treated, as a general rule, like a little god or goddess in the family: his whims are catered to, his desires fulfilled; he is surrounded by toys, amusements, comforts; he is not trained and brought up according to strict principles of Christian behavior, but left to develop whichever way his desires incline” (The Orthodox World View). We are the ME generation, narcissists. We live in a fantasy world, a Disneyworld, from youth we are very rarely directed towards the seriousness of life and what the world demands of our souls. Thus, when we grow up, we are plagued by the same desire to surround ourselves with as many distractions and gizmos as we can. Life in the 19th century was drastically different. Today, instead of the flickering flame of a prayer candle that once used to illuminate our homes, it is the television that gives off its un-illuminating light. Our values are no longer dictated by the words of Christ or the lives of His Saints, they are regurgitated through this glowing television set. Living rooms used to be set up for conversation about God and each other, now look what we have done! Our living rooms surround the television set! Where has it got us?! Children walk around with their heads glued to cell phones; earphones playing loud music would rather be found in their ears than a serious conversation. Where has this all gotten us? We who are so superior to the ancients because of our “advancements?” We have forgotten holiness; we have stopped striving for wisdom. Many souls today live off of the electric shock that comes off of our computers, not by virtue or purity. Sex crimes, murder, suicide, etc. run through the streets today like a pack of wild dogs, consuming many, some that we personally know. Our whole society and the way it is structured is a challenge to the youth of today. A monk in the first centuries of Christendom once asked his elder, “Will Christians in the last times be able to raise the dead or perform miracles like us?” The elder answered him, “It will be a greater work for them to even be Christians in those times.” These are the times we are living in; the society we live in is very much anti-Christian, forcing us to look like strange religious radicals, sometimes even to Christians of our day. As Saint Anthony, an ancient monk once said, “A time is coming when people will go mad and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’”
Many view the punk subculture, and those lost to drugs, self-defeating behavior, or nihilism, as “lost causes.” You obviously disagree. Why?
No one is a lost cause. As Saint Elizabeth the New Martyr once said, “The image of God can be overshadowed, but never destroyed.” Sometimes these subcultures build a strong rebellion in a person, but the only problem is that they don’t know where to direct it. They know the world is bad, but the rebellion they have is directed politically or sometimes in self-harming ways. Death to the World tries to direct this rebellion against the world in a healthy way, we quote Saint Isaac of Syria (6th c.) inside of every issue, “‘The world’ is the general name for all passions […] See for which of these passions you are alive. Then you will know how far you are alive to the world, and how far you are dead to it.” By this, DTTW propagates the more you die to your desires and the more you cut off your self-will, the more you “rebel” and reject the world. Thus, it becomes not merely a physical struggle, but develops into a spiritual and inward struggle.
Subcultures today are filled with young people wanting to fight for the truth through rebellion against this world. The punk subculture is a rebellion, but it is false rebellion that if one follows it to its end will lead to complete nihilism and despair. These rebellions within subcultures can be effective, but the truth they are fighting for is usually not the truth as we know it, Truth as a person, Jesus Christ. Unlike the rebellions of this world, death to the world is a rebellion without a dead end and the acceptance of something real, something otherworldly. This is why it is “The Last True Rebellion” because it is the only true one.
Death to the World has often featured articles about martyrs and saints in the Orthodox faith. Why do stories about martyrs seem to resonate with your audience?
The souls of people today that are trying to seek the Truth are suffocated by our fake plastic society. Television programs, billboards, movies, etc., more often than not have no good solid real people to look up to. Our society is not only surrounded by, but also bombarded by the fake everyday. It seems sad to say, but some of us don’t even have parents who we can look up to. The saints and martyrs relate to us on a level that some of us feel that no other person we know can. By their lives, they bring to us the reality of life, the reality of what it means to follow Christ in a true manner, without compromise. The brutal deaths of Saints Justin, Ignatius, George, Panteleimon, and other great Christians during the first centuries hold some of the most amazing stories of steadfast faith a person can ever read. The lives of Saints John of San Francisco, Nikolai of Zhica, Herman of Alaska, Raphael of Brooklyn, and other American Saints or those who lived during our times, reveal to us how God has not left His Church even in these dark times. In the Orthodox experience, the Saints are real, alive, and intercede for us standing before the throne of Christ. They bring heaven close to us through their prayers and worship before our Creator in Heaven. They are the “lovers of truth” who have completely sacrificed everything and anything earthly, dedicating their lives to the Ultimate Truth, which is seen in the incarnate Christ Himself. Thus, by seeing these very real and radical lives and their testaments to life beyond the grave, people see that our “rebellion” is not fake, but very real.
The Orthodox faith has a rich tradition of having beautiful artwork and icons. How do you incorporate that tradition into your publication?
Iconography has been with the Church since the very beginning. According to tradition, the Apostle Luke first painted Christ and His Mother on a plank of wood taken from the table in the Virgin Mary’s home where Christ ate with her. It has been proclaimed throughout the centuries that the icon is like a window into heaven, revealing the world to come. For two thousand years, the Orthodox have always placed great emphasis on worshiping God with our whole being, with all our senses, and the icon is a visual representation of theology for us. In one icon, a person can see all of salvation; the renewal of human nature, the promise and radiance of heaven, the exaltation of humility, etc. The icon intrigues people because it is a form of art that is holy, it comes from an apostolic tradition and it moves people souls. Within our publication we use many depictions of icons and they resonate in people’s hearts, there is something about them that catch people’s eyes. Saint John of Damascus spoke that icons were the Gospel to the illiterate. It is very true, for although a person can read, their soul can be illiterate to spiritual things and icons really do communicate the Gospel to them.
The Orthodox Church is the oldest Christian Church, historically tracing its roots to the Apostles. It has existed before both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, being blessed by Christ Himself, the Apostles being the first Orthodox Christians. One can point the Orthodox Church’s origins to the time of Christ, but it would be more proper to say that it has always existed, as we exclaim that our Faith has “established the universe” (Orthodox Synodikon). We say this because our Church has a direct link to the Apostles and therefore directly to the Old Testament all the way back to the foundation of the world. We understand that, through God’s love for us, salvation for man has been a process since that foundation, being ultimately revealed in Christ’s incarnation through the Mother of God, all His works on earth, and through His voluntary death, tomb, and resurrection. The Traditions of the Orthodox are very deep and have not changed since the beginnings of Christianity, keeping in line with Saint Paul’s words when he said, “…stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (2 Thess. 2:15). The deep understanding of man and what it means to be transfigured through Christ have flowered abundantly throughout the centuries in rich monastic communities and has given the Church a very thick and dense sense of what it means to be a Christian in this world. Unfortunately, the richness of the faith has near been lost in the west through the breaking away and degradation of Roman Catholicism and the near radical rebellion of the Protestant Church and its too many descendants. Orthodoxy incubated and flourished in the East, preserving the teachings of Christ and continuing to celebrate the most ancient form of Christian services, the Divine Liturgy which can be traced back to the Apostles James himself, the brother of Christ. I think that this is what makes us stand out, what makes us unique to our audience. There are too many churches today that sway with the times, which change year to year depending on the culture surrounding them because they think it will bring more people in. People see that Orthodoxy is not like that, she does not change with the world around her because she is too deeply focused on the life of the age to come, ever being engulfed by and directed to heaven. People who see the fakeness in this world want Orthodoxy because they see it as a refuge that will always be preserved and firm among the ever crumbling world around them.
All in all, do you feel that Death to the World has been successful in bringing young people to Christ?
With depression, sadness, and uneasiness plaguing our society and the people around us, the outlook of the Orthodox on suffering is one of the key things that DTTW relates to people. The ancient Christians and monks of the past viewed struggles and sufferings as a means to put our flesh into subjection, to learn to carry our cross without complaint, all too ultimately relate to our suffering Christ. As our society casually sweeps the suffering, the poor, and the destitute under the rug and out of the sight of the “civilized,” Orthodoxy reaches out to them and relates a suffering God to them, not a God wrapped up in a pretty American box with a bow on top. We like to speak of things how they are, life should not be sugar coated. Both joy and suffering should be acknowledged as part of our journey toward salvation. Suffering is a part of our life that should be embraced by us more often, not ran away from, but unfortunately we who have grown up in a very comfortable and relaxed society have a very hard time with this and it is to our own detriment. Saint Dorotheus of Gaza once said that when God cast men out of the garden He looked at them and said to Himself with sadness, “he [man] does not know how to be happy; if he does not have a hard time he will be totally lost, if he does not know what sorrow is, he will not learn what rest is […]” (Practical Teaching on the Christian Life). Therefore, suffering is given to us out of God’s love, that we might remember our fall and cultivate within ourselves a deeper love for the Heavenly Kingdom. When suffering teenagers and young adults see the lives of these Saints and Orthodox people who bare their sufferings with joy, it gives them hope and courage to embrace and conquer their struggles. The human heart is very complex and cannot be remedied by distraction and prescription medication, it needs something more, something that man and this world cannot give. When suffering people come to us, it always humbles us to see that these people in sorrow are sometimes closer to our Christ than we are. As we sing to God in a service called the Akathist of Thanksgiving, “Thou descendest to the bed of the sufferer and his heart communeth with Thee. Thou kindlest the soul with peace at the time of sorrow and suffering. Thou sendest unexpected help. Thou art the comforter. Thou art all-knowing love. To Thee I sing: Alleluia!”
What would you say to our readers (mostly Latter-day Saints) who are worried about raising their children in Christ in this generation?
Bring your children up in truth. The world around them will give them many contradictions and false teachings, help and explain these things to them. Cultivate within them purity and love towards their Creator. Be a family, eat together, pray together, unite your souls, your home should be a small chapel. Be direct rather than vague about such things as sex, drugs, etc. so that they know what these things are and what their consequences are, not only on the body but more importantly on the soul. Help them to embrace suffering and do not pamper them, it will build endurance and attention towards the soul instead of distracting them on temporal things. Above all, they need to seek out any truth they can in able to survive in our anti-Christ like society—make them to be lovers of Truth. There is an excellent book on this called, “Raising them Right” by Saint Theophan the Recluse who once said that out of all holy works, the upbringing of children is the holiest. Some of his writings can he found here also:
Where can interested readers find out more about Death to the World or the Orthodox church?