The Mirror of the Apocalypse: “The Reflecting God” of Marilyn Manson and the Subversion of New Testament Image

In October of 1996, Marilyn Manson released their second album, Antichrist Superstar. It was to become the album that jumpstarted the band’s worldwide career and created the myth and reputation surrounding its eponymous front-man. Aside from its titular pun on the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, biblical references abound in the lyrics of all of its songs—a phenomenon which has continued to a lesser extent with the band’s works since then, and most importantly, shows that the New Testament has had an unrivalled influence on arts and culture since its dissemination. Like the musical it directly mocks, the album follows the rise of a sort of rock star, from a misunderstood and mysterious boyhood to an invincible manhood and transcendence, accompanied by a struggle with adjusting to notoriety and the persecution which usually follows it.

As will be explained in this essay, one particular song from that album, The Reflecting God, innovatively utilizes more than its other tracks the New Testament, and in particular, the Book of Revelation to create a concept which both comments on the socio-political atmosphere surrounding its creation, the creation of the biblical book from which it is derived, and the story created by Marilyn Manson that dominates the album which features it. Expanding on and sometimes outright altering the events contained in Revelation, The Reflecting God manages to transcend the sometimes hindering trappings which accompany any biblical derivation and makes its own revelation. A close reading and informed listening of the song evokes not only sonically a uniquely barren and apocalyptic landscape, but lyrically as well, a tumult that without doubt has been designed to instil in its audience a foreboding sense of anticipation, warning, awe and fear.

That the song makes use of the New Testament is unquestionable, how it does, however, requires analysis. Conflating various episodes from throughout the Book of Revelation, The Reflecting God makes no direct quotations from the scriptural text, but seeks to create the abysmal atmosphere contained in its source. Revelation is viewed by the song as a whole, not as a narrative subservient to linear time; when reading the lyrics, one becomes aware that their author is well-versed in the apocalyptic Book and that he is not simply seeking to make a cheap or sudden allusion to it for its ingrained controversy. As will be demonstrated by dissecting the song and comparing its constituent pieces with corresponding passages from its creative source, Marilyn Manson will be vindicated in his efforts and be proven to have not only been inspired by the New Testament, but to have manipulated its influence and impact in such a calculated manner as to successfully criticize those who abuse Christian power in society. However, regardless of whatever political or artistic message one can gauge from the ambiguity of a short song, what will be most important for the understanding of the New Testament’s impact is that it lends itself so seamlessly to music, particularly metal and hard rock, as not only a source but as a tool.

Essentially, the narrator of the song can be said to be a figure similar to John himself, the narrator to whom the message of the Book of Revelation is attributed.[1] Beginning as John does, the song speaks to someone specifically—while John does it in an epistolary manner and to follow divine orders, “John to the seven churches that are in Asia[;]”[2] the narrator of The Reflecting God seems to speak more directly, “your world is an ashtray / we burn and coil like cigarettes / the more you cry your ashes turn to mud[,]”[3] perhaps the lyrics themselves in the opening of the song are akin to the text of a letter-proper. The narrator appears to be scolding his or her audience with as much fervour as John, “[b]ut I have a few things against you:  you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam[,]” but for reasons which do not get explained.[4]

Thus far, the song and Revelation are nearly the same; after addressing a community of sinners, “[t]o the angel of the church in Ephesus . . . [a]nd to the angel of the church in Smyrna . . . [a]nd to the angel of the church in Pergamum [et cetera,]”[5] or perhaps an individual sinner, “it’s the nature of the leeches, the virgin’s /   feeling cheated / you’ve only spent a second of your life[,]”[6] the narrator deviates from the chronology and plot of Revelation, and actually expresses a dominant and guiding hand in the situation: “my world is unaffected, there is an exit here / I say it is and then it’s true[.]”[7] The narrator presents him or herself as a being of great power who is making the situation unfold as it does; in Revelation, this is not so: “[a]nd no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it[, a]nd I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy[.]”[8] John takes a passive role, receives divine word somewhat randomly, “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day [sleeping or resting], when I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet [the voice of God,]”[9] and disseminates it merely because he is told, to “‘[w]rite in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches[.]”[10]

The narrator of The Reflecting God seems to be abusing the power given to John, “I say it is and then it’s true,”[11] and either misinforming his or her audience or warning them that God himself is guilty of such a crime, saying “I went to god just to see, and I was looking at me / saw heaven and hell were lies[.]”[12] Regardless, the song’s narrator seems rather sure he or she will come away clean and unharmed from the evil which is about to ensue, “my world is unaffected,”[13] while the John of Revelation is as subject to God’s will, “[w]hen he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake . . . ‘[f]all on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’”[14] just as those are to whom he is delivering his message.

The narrator speaks of an ever-present and guaranteed egress from the horrible situation no matter what its outcome, “there is an exit here[,]”[15] and then reverts back more faithfully to the plot of Revelation and explains that he or she is in a state of dreaming—“there is a dream inside a dream, / I’m wide awake the more I sleep / you’ll understand when I’m dead”[16]—just as John is when he receives God’s apocalyptic message. Likewise, this dreaming could be speaking more generally in terms of being naturally receptive to the esoteric, showing certain seniority over his or her audience, who must be ignorant and uninitiated, perhaps even conformist to some extent.

Elaborating on his or her dream state, the song’s narrator takes on even more of the character of John and details a mystical journey to God, though it sounds rather literal, wherein her or she finds out he or she is equal to God, at least in abilities, though perhaps not goodness: “I went to god just to see, and I was looking at me / . . . / when I’m god everybody dies / scar/can you feel my power? / shoot here and the world gets smaller / scar/scar/can you feel my power?”[17] The most startling deviation from Revelation’s plot comes next, when the song’s narrator reveals what he or she has actually learned from their visit with God: “saw heaven and hell were lies[,]”[18] that the very geography of the Christian faith is an utter fabrication, and that what his audience has been preached was actually a deception. The song is virtually the antithesis to Revelation in message, “[c]ome and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there [evaluate and identify the righteous and obedient;]”[19] it is a perversion of its form and plot for the artistic purpose of expressing an individual salvation beyond the scope of the superficiality of Christian god-fearing found in the New Testament. The narrator of Manson’s song does not measure or evaluate the righteous, but instead identifies him or herself as the only one worth saving, as he or she says, “when I’m god everybody dies[.]”[20]

John takes on a devious nature as the basis for the narrator in The Reflecting God and while not—and never—God himself, he exploits his all-too-human ability to imagine and embellish and intentionally convolutes the message God has given him to warn the people, telling them, “it’s the nature of the leeches, the virgin’s
feeling cheated[.]”[21] John, in the form of the song’s narrator, actually incites a global-scale riot of sorts, bringing about a literal apocalypse, “scar/can you feel my power? / shoot here and the world gets smaller / scar/scar/can you feel my power?”[22] When perhaps all God actually wanted him to do was warn communities or individual sinners to repent: “[i]f you conquer [your temptations and vices], I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it.”[23] Comparing him or herself to God, the song’s narrator expresses rather clearly that if, when, and since he or she is basically God in the eyes of a people anxious to hear what message has arisen from his dreamy meeting with God, the people will die at his own whim, reitertating, “when I’m god everybody dies[.]”[24]

Now, this could be death and destruction literally or spiritually, but what is important is that the song deviates from the New Testament text by revoking the salvation it offers, and by exaggerating the destruction it uses metaphorically: “‘you’ll understand when I’m dead[.’]”[25] The chorus of the song takes on a different form in its diction and written format, lyrically attacking the reader or listener with a suddenness that both incites fear and provokes awe: “scar/scar/ . . . / shoot shoot shoot motherfucker[;]”[26] the reader or listener, just as with Revelation, is moved to captivation by the authority of the narrator—the origin of which is never questioned in either Revelation or The Reflecting God: essentially, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent[,]”[27] and, “you’ll understand when I’m dead[.]”[28] That both John and the song’s narrator seem so sure and confident in their addresses seems enough to rally submission. Both spend little time emphasizing their direct contact with God, and in Revelation, John indirectly acts in the position of God, chastising his people—in the form of the various churches to which he writes scolding, “to the rest of you . . . who do not hold this teaching . . . hold fast to what you have until I come”[29]—while the song’s narrator believes he or she is God, or, as the title implies, a reflection of the divine: “I was looking at me[.]”[30]

The seeming reference to suicide, “one shot and the world gets smaller[,]”[31] might actually be speaking of such on a more spiritual and metaphorical level; to aim or shoot for heaven—which the song establishes to be a lie anyway—is to make one’s own existence on earth seem smaller and insignificant; it is the pursuit of transcendence and deification that requires the belittling of one’s self, and leads ultimately to one’s own dissatisfaction and spiritual and moral demise. The narrator of the song might be making such commentary to draw attention to the broader and much more real world that the song was written in, a world where right wing politics seemed to have been dominating the world’s most powerful nations, and where Christian fundamentalism had a foothold on mainstream society, with art being censored and freedom of speech limited and challenged.

The Book of Revelation does not warn its audience against seeking entry into the realm of heaven, “‘they will rest from their labours, for their deeds follow them[,’]”[32] but rather preaches against deviating from the path of Christianity in its basic form and precepts: “[l]et the . . . righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy[.]”[33] The churches to which John is writing seem to be aligning themselves, however intentionally, with sects and bodies frowned upon by John and his superiors—ultimately, unfavoured by God himself: [b]ut I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel who calls herself a prophet [and falsely teaches.]”[34] Manson can be seen as the parallel to this—disapproving of association with those right wing and Christian groups that oppose his artistry, the Jezebels who talk falsely about his endeavours, whereby “no salvation” begets “no forgiveness[.]”[35]

Conceptually, Manson could be said to be using a narrator derived from John in Revelation to represent his character on the Antichrist Superstar album—that of a sort of super-human rock star, who in this instance, is in communion with a sort of God, and able to warn the people (his fans) that it is the rock star himself who is God, making sure the people know that to try and reach God is a fruitless endeavour. It is this perversion of Revelation that heralds an innovative rather than mere cultural use of the New Testament. Manson is not quoting scripture, but in a sense, rewriting it for a conceptually artistic purpose. The mentions of swords, “let’s jump upon the sharp swords / and cut away our smiles[,]” the Virgin, “the virgin’s / feeling cheated[,]” and threats of death, “without the threat of death there’s no reason to live at all[,]”[36] all seem explicitly New Testament, “telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword[,]”[37] despite not being direct quotes. More than any image in the song, that of jumping on swords and risking death is most closely linked in allusion to Revelation. The cutting away of one’s smile might be the narrator of the song attempting to sway his or her audience from living in the state of complacency which has long plagued them in their subservience to a false God.

After the bridge of the song, Manson’s narrator places in The Reflecting God its most mysterious part, one of only two spoken from another perspective: “‘each thing i [sic] show you is a piece of my death[.’]”[38] These are not quotes from Revelation itself, but hint at its style of writing, perhaps expanding on the Christ myth of the New Testament, speaking as a sort of parable, just as Jesus did, to dissimulate his true message. These two quoted passages, the other saying, “‘this is beyond your experience[,’]”[39] of the song seem to be Manson paraphrasing Revelation. John speaks repeatedly of how his readers will undoubtedly be confused by his message, reassuring them of its veracity: “[l]et anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches[;]”[40] and how what he has been experiencing by way of his visions and communications with God is far beyond their realm of consciousness and comprehension, but nonetheless is something which they should heed: “[t]o everyone who conquers I will give some hidden manna[.]”[41]

This sharp connection between Manson’s lyrical structure and the canonical apocalypse shows the profound influence of the New Testament on his work, and ultimately, of the holy book on popular culture. Despite the inaccessibility voiced by an unidentified speaker off to the side of the action through the two quoted statements in the song, the song ends seemingly immediately after the mysterious dialogue with an ambiguous reference to “forgiveness[.]”[42] In the lines preceding it, salvation and forgiveness are forbidden, “no salvation, no forgiveness”[43] and impossible, but a single and final mention of forgiveness without any context leaves the audience wondering if they have hope or if they do not. This all seems very calculated, and like Revelation, leaves itself open intentionally for interpretation. Manson’s song depends on his audience to recognize it as being borne of biblical material, but goes beyond the implicit and becomes and utter adaptation of a part of the New Testament. The inaccuracies and wavering faithfulness of Manson’s Reflecting God to its biblical source is surely part of the creative project, and by far no mistake or act of laziness. The Reflecting God, like the Book of Revelation whose plot and message it subverts, is artistic subversion at its finest.

APPENDIX

The following are the official lyrics to the song, as printed in the Antichrist Superstar album booklet. For consistency and accuracy, the formatting and original wording has been preserved, including punctuation, line-breaks and expletives.

The Reflecting God

your world is an ashtray
we burn and coil like cigarettes
the more you cry your ashes turn to mud
it’s the nature of the leeches, the virgin’s
feeling cheated
you’ve only spent a second of your life
my world is unaffected, there is an exit here
I say it is and then it’s true,
there is a dream inside a dream,
I’m wide awake the more I sleep
you’ll understand when I’m dead
I went to god just to see, and I was looking at me
saw heaven and hell were lies
when I’m god everybody dies
scar/can you feel my power?
shoot here and the world gets smaller
scar/scar/can you feel my power?
one shot and the world gets smaller
let’s jump upon the sharp swords
and cut away our smiles
without the threat of death
there’s no reason to live at all
my world is unaffected, there is an exit here
I say it is and then it’s true,
there is a dream inside a dream,
I’m wide awake the more I sleep
you’ll understand when I’m dead
(bridge)
(chorus)
“each thing i show you is a piece of my death”
shoot shoot shoot motherfucker
no salvation, no forgiveness
“this is beyond your experience”
forgiveness…[44]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Manson, Marilyn [Warner, Brian Hugh]. “The Reflecting God.” Lyrics. Antichrist Superstar. Songs of Golgotha Music/Dinger & Ollie Music, administered by Dinger & Ollie Music, BMI, 1996.

The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.


[1] The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Rev 1:1-2.

[2] Ibid., 1:4.

[3] Marilyn Manson, “The Reflecting God.” Lyrics. Antichrist Superstar. Songs of Golgotha Music/Dinger & Ollie Music, administered by Dinger & Ollie Music, BMI, 1996.

[4] Rev 2:14.

[5] Ibid., 2:1, 2:8, and 2:12.

[6] Manson, The Reflecting God.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rev 5:3-4.

[9] Ibid., 1:10.

[10] Ibid., 1:11.

[11] Manson, The Reflecting God.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Rev 6:12, and 6:16-17.

[15] Manson, The Reflecting God.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Rev 11:1.

[20] Manson, The Reflecting God.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Rev 3:12.

[24] Manson, The Reflecting God.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Rev 2:5.

[28] Manson, The Reflecting God.

[29] Rev 2:24-25.

[30] Manson, The Reflecting God.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Rev 14:13.

[33] Ibid., 22:10.

[34] Ibid., 2:20.

[35] Manson, The Reflecting God.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Rev 13:14.

[38] Manson, The Reflecting God.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Rev 2:7.

[41] Ibid., 2:17.

[42] Manson, The Reflecting God.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Manson, The Reflecting God.