Interview: Tortured Conscience

Tortured Conscience is a Christian death metal band, who deal with deeper theological issues as well as social issues. Jeff Lenormand took some time out of his schedule, to discuss the history of the band, the story behind remixing & remastering Every Knee Shall Bow, Reformed theology and the upcoming release "Death to False Gods".

Introduce yourself and tell us your role in Tortured Conscience.

Jeff: I’m Jeff. I write all the lyrics and music for Tortured Conscience and play both guitar and bass on the recordings. TC isn’t a full band yet, so I have to pull quadruple duty. Haha.

What is the history behind the Tortured Conscience?

Jeff: Long story short, a billion years ago I was part of a Christian metal email group and asked if anyone in the Bay Area (where I was living at the time) wanted to start a Christian death metal group. A guy in the group named Shannon Frye said he was a drummer, lived in San Jose, and was interested. I was in a Christian Nu-metal group at the time (don’t judge me. There weren’t too many Christian bands in Northern California at the time and I took what I could get. And to be fair, they were actually very good) named Urn that practiced over in Concord. So Shannon and I started practicing there. Later Shannon got an offer from Biogenesis to play with them, so he moved to where they were. (Ohio, I want to say?) He eventually formed the thrash band Avenger of Blood and moved to Las Vegas.

After Shannon left I asked John Gotelli, the drummer in a secular band I was also in at the time called Vulgar Pigeons, if he would play drums for me. He said yes and we jammed and I wrote the music and lyrics for what would be Every Knee Shall Bow. John and I have been jamming for years and we’ve always worked easily with each other.

I met Berto Salas through a metal chat room (this was back when AOL was a thing) who said he was a fan of both Vulgar Pigeons and Benumb (bands both of which John was drumming in at the time). He played guitar for a grind band named Ignit at the time, and he became our singer.

After EKSB came out, we started working on the follow-up, but life happened and that was put on hold. John and I, along with Benumb singer Pete Ponitkoff, started a secular band called Agenda of Swine. After that petered out, I became disillusioned with music as a whole and almost gave it up entirely. But Charles Powell called me and asked me if I would put out another TC album on his new label. I honestly didn’t want to do it. At the time I felt music was painful. It was soul-crushing. Whenever I sucked, whether it was live or on tape (yep, I just dated myself with that one. Haha), it was just an overwhelming feeling. I felt EKSB really didn’t come out the way I wanted it to and I was almost embarrassed by how bad the recording was. I didn’t want to make that same mistake. But Charles convinced me to give it another go. This time, I told myself, I was going to do it differently. Tighter performances, heavier music, and deeper lyrics.

What are your main influences musically and lyrically?

Jeff: Musically my main influences are bands like Cannibal Corpse, Misery Index, Nile, First Fragment, Malevolent Creation, Hate Eternal, etc. Lyrically I’m inspired by writers and apologists like Greg Bahnsen, James White, Sye Ten Bruggencate, Jeff Durbin, RC Sproul, John McCarthur, Scott Oliphant, Douglas Wilson, etc.

Every Knee Shall Bow was originally recorded in 2006, what was the mindset behind remixing and remastering it?

Jeff: Actually, the idea came from Duane Keith from Vision of God records. He suggested we do it. He found out that Bombworks Records, who originally released the CD, didn’t have ownership, so I was free to do it. Keith wanted to put it out on VOG, but I told him I’d have to talk to Charles to see if Battlefrost wanted to put it out. If he didn’t want to, then VOG was free to do it. Charles said he did want to do it, and we got to work. I tracked down the original artwork from Joshua Croft and the original tracks from Adam Bove’. Charles took what he had, cleaned it up, and released it digitally. We’re still working on the bonus track, a re-writing and recording of the song No Ambiguity, and when that’s done he’ll release the physical CD.

What is the theme of the record and the concept behind the artwork?

Jeff: The artwork was an idea I had where you had Satan bowing down to Jesus, showing that yes…every knee will bow down before Him, even Satan.

What was your inspiration for writing the lyrics?

Jeff: At the time I was into apologetics, but I hadn’t discovered presuppositionalism yet, so my inspiration came from evidentialists like William Lane Craig, Hank Hanegraaff, Frank Turek, Lee Strobel, etc. So a lot of the lyrics reflected that theological worldview, as well as an Arminian position. Since then I’ve embraced both Reformed Theology and presuppositional apologetics.

How is the writing and recording process going for Death to False Gods? You’ve talked online about having a couple of mishaps along the way.

Jeff: “A couple” would be an understatement. Haha. Charles and I are trying to get a home recording situation set up for me, but every time there is progress, something happens. For instance, I have already recorded 5 songs for the album, which means it theoretically should almost be done. However, when I was recording the new No Ambiguity, Charles noticed a popping sound coming from the recording. Now, I hadn’t heard it and still couldn’t make it out, but Charles has much more tuned-in ears than I do and caught it. So what that means is all those other songs that I had already finished could possibly be no good which means I might have to start all over again. See what I mean by how music is painful?

What's the theme of the record?

Jeff: I set out with two goals in mind – one, to write lyrics to get the listener/reader to think; to put a stone in their shoe, as it were. Two, to perhaps inspire other Christian metal bands and musicians to get deeper into theology and apologetics. I think that a lot of Christian music just lacks the depth of, say, the old hymn writers had. I’ve also noticed a trend in the Christian rap scene where their lyrics are much richer than ours. If you think about it, back in the day it was the Christian artists that led the way in artwork, poetry, sculpting, etc. But now we’ve fallen behind. Christian movies, for instance, generally suck and are subpar. I believe we should all strive to change that. Now, none of this is to say that I’m claiming to be some wordsmith of any kind. Far from it. But I’m hoping that the lyrics just might inspire someone who is to reach deeper into themselves and pull out their God-given talents. If I ultimately fail, well…at least I gave it the ol’ college try, as they say. Haha.

What's it like working with Charles Powell of Battlefrost Productions?

Jeff: It’s a freakin’ nightmare!! Haha! Just kidding. Actually, Battlefrost Productions is the most logical choice any Christian band could make. With BP you get not only a record label but access to recording facilities, making the cost of recording an album much lower. Charles has always been available to talk and make plans and to basically get the best product. I’ve never had a similar experience before.

How did you come to faith in Christ? Were you raised in a Christian home?

Jeff: No, not at all. In fact, I believe I’m the only Christian in my family, or at least within throwing distance. I’m also the only politically conservative as well. As far as how I came to faith, the easy answer is by saying, “By God choosing me in eternity past.” But basically at 17 or so I smoked too much pot at a Judas Priest concert, got paranoid, and thought I was going to die. Haha. Obviously, I didn’t, but I wondered what would have happened had I died. So reached out to a friend of mine that I knew went to church and asked him a bunch of questions, the first being, “What does it mean that you have to believe that Jesus died for your sins?” I had heard that before, but never understood what it meant.

Do you have an affinity to a certain branch of the Christian faith? How did you come to that position?

Jeff: The church I go to now, Zion United Reformed Church in Ripon, California, bases its structure around Reformed Presbyterianism, which includes infant baptism. When I started going I told them that was the only issue I was still struggling with. I was a credobaptist and didn’t agree with paedobaptism. I’ve since come to appreciate the position of the paedobaptists and, while it’s not a hill I’m willing to die on, I’m leaning more towards it. But I still understand the objections the credobaptists have. So don’t expect any debate on the subject from me. Haha. (Not yet, anyway.)

How much of your lyrics come from knowledge and how much from divine intervention and the need to get the message out there? (Question from Hezekiah R.)

Jeff: I’m certainly not in the position to speak for God, so I couldn’t comment on any divine intervention. I write about what I study. I have a passion for Reformed theology and presuppositional apologetics so that’s what I write on. When an issue comes up that I feel I should address, I suppose one could say that the idea was inspired by the Holy Spirit, but I don’t want to go too far with that for fear of tying something to Him that may or may not have come from Him. Too many Christians are too flippant with saying things like, “The Lord told me…” or “I feel that God is saying/telling me to do X, Y, and Z.” When you put things in God’s mouth that He never said, that’s blasphemy. That’s not a road I want to go down.

How did you come to embrace Reformed theology? And could you expound on some of the major tenants for our readers who might not be familiar with this particular school of thought?

Jeff: Well, “Reformed theology” has a huge spectrum that includes things like ecclesiology, eschatology, the Canons of Dort, and the like. I don’t think all of that can be covered in one interview. Haha. So I’ll just talk about the difference between what is known as Calvinism and Arminianism.

Speaking in general terms, the Calvinist believes that the natural man is not only incapable of making a positive move towards the call to salvation but has no interest in God and by nature hates Him (total depravity). He also believes that God has chosen from eternity past who He will save (known as the elect) and that no power will prevent Him from saving that person, by taking out their heart of stone and giving them a heart of flesh, turning their nature from a God hater to a God-lover (unconditional election). He also believes that the blood of Christ, while having the power to save all of humanity – past, present, and future – it is only applicable to those whom God has elected unto salvation (limited atonement). He also believes that when God decides to change the nature of a person He will overcome all resistance to His gospel in that person (irresistible grace). He also believes that once Christ has that person, nothing will prevent Him from keeping that person (preservation of the saints).

By contrast, the Arminian believes (without going into detail about the difference between Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism) that man is capable of responding positively to the gospel but only with what is called “prevenient grace” where the Holy Spirit gives an individual the grace to decide for Him, by showing love towards them at some point in their life. Also, the Arminian would agree that man must have faith in Christ in order to be saved but disagrees with the Calvinist in the order in which that happens. (The Calvinist believes that regeneration comes before faith, whereas the Arminian would state that faith comes before regeneration.) He would also state that Christ died for every man, woman, and child but in order for the blood to be applied to them they must have faith, thus agreeing that atonement is limited but that that limitation is not rooted in God’s decision but in man’s. (This differentiates between the average Arminian and the Universalist, who believes that all of mankind will eventually be reconciled with God and that Hell is either not eternal or doesn’t exist. There are variations within that school of thought, but for time’s sake I won’t go into those.) He would also argue that man has the volition (also known as “free will”) to resist or accept the call to salvation and that man can indeed lose their salvation (though some Arminians would disagree with this).

When writing EKSB, I was a confirmed Arminian, and the lyrics reflect that. What made me start questioning things is when a friend of mine at the time, who I looked up to and got me into apologetics in the first place, became an Open Theist. (I don’t know if he still holds to it or not. We stopped talking soon after this.) I didn’t know much about the idea but came to learn that, basically, it’s a belief that while God knows of all possible future events and decisions made by man, He doesn’t know the specific event/decision. For instance, if I come up to a crossroads in the road, He knows that I can go forward, turn around and go back, go right, or go left. He also knows of all possible futures that each decision would make, but does not know which direction I will go. In other words, the future is open. To the degree of which it is open varies between the Open Theists, though.

I knew instinctively that this was heresy, but as an Arminian, I found I couldn’t consistently argue against it. For instance, when thinking on what I would later understand as “theodicy” (the justification of God in light of the existence of evil), I believed the existence of evil was rooted in the free-willed decisions of man. However, the Open Theist would ask, “Did God know what Hitler would do prior to creating him?” I would have to answer yes…God “looked down the corridors of time” and saw what Hitler would do. Then the Open Theist would respond, “So God knew what he would do, yet chose to create him anyway? Was He under some obligation to create him? If God created Hitler knowing what he would do, how does this not make God the author of purposeless evil; an evil that exists for no purpose or plan?” I would say that God knew what Hitler would do and turned that into something that was good. The Open Theist would say, “You mean that God ‘turned that frown upside down’? He said, ‘Lucky Me…I can turn this into something good. Praise Me!’?”

The more I looked into it, the less I could be a consistent Arminian without having to embrace Open Theism. Another example would be that, as an Arminian, I believed that while God knew the future, I balked at the idea of determinism; that the future was predetermined in some way. The Open Theist would say, “How does God know the future?” I would say that, again, God looked down the corridors of time and saw what was going to happen. The Open Theist would ask, “So does God know that you’ll have cereal for breakfast tomorrow?” I would have to say yes, “Then, is there any chance you’ll have eggs instead?” I would have to say no. “Then the future of you eating cereal is set. It may be soft determinism, but determinism nonetheless.”

I began to see that the only consistent Arminian was, indeed, an Open Theist. After all, the Open Theist would say that God didn’t know what Hitler would do; that He knew that he could either be the murderous tyrant that he became or a good, upstanding citizen, or something in between, but all decisions of what Hitler would do would be Hitler’s alone. He would also say that, because God does not know the future (since He can’t know of something that doesn’t exist yet) all decisions are truly undetermined.

So I decided to take another look at Calvinism and see what it had to say on the subject. I would read articles, watch countless hours of debate, watch lectures and sermons on the subject, etc. The more I researched, the more questions kept coming up that, as an Arminian, I just couldn’t answer. Why am I a Christian and my neighbor isn’t? Was I smarter than him? More spiritually “in tuned” than him? Had a softer heart than him? Was more humble than him? Whatever answer I gave, the difference between him and I would ultimately be me, not God. God might get 99.9% of the credit, but that .01% was because of me, not Him. No matter how hard I tried to say it was all God, I just couldn’t get around this fact.

I began to also see that the tropes and “Christian-eze” things I was saying as an Arminian really made no sense. I would tell unbelievers, “Jesus died for you.” First off, wherein the Bible is an unbeliever ever told that Jesus died for them? Second, if Arminianism is true, what exactly does that mean? Jesus wouldn’t have died for any one person but instead died for an unnamed group and invites you to join that group. As Norman Geisler once said, “Jesus made you saveable.” I believed Jesus loved everyone equally, as some peanut butter love spread all over. But did Jesus love the Egyptians the same way He loved the Hebrew slaves? Or the Amorites? The Assyrians? If God loved all these people equally, with the exception of Jonah and the Assyrians, why do we not see Him sending prophets to them?

I also began to realize that my initial objections to Calvinism based on misunderstandings of it, taught to me by non-Calvinists. I was led to believe that Calvinism taught that God “made” people sin, and then punished them for committing the sin He made them do. I was taught it made us “robots;” mere one or two-dimensional actors in a grand play or something of that nature.

I would watch countless scholarly debates on the subject, listen to lecture after lecture, sermon after sermon, trying to make sense of everything (or at least somethings). To my surprise, I kept seeing that it was the Calvinists who were the ones exegeting Scripture and walking through it, while the Arminians tended to rifle off passages without breaking them down, or they were taking entire sections and going in various directions with it instead of walking through it. I began to see that it was the Calvinists who were the consistent ones Scripturally and made more sense of it. So I ended up fully embraced it. I’m still learning, but my love for God has grown beyond all measure as compared to when I was an Arminian. I have been more challenged intellectually and spiritually than ever before.

Reformed Theology tends to have a bad reputation, especially in our modern context. How has the general reception been to your lyrical content? Have you received any backlash?

Jeff: Since Death to False Gods hasn’t been finished yet, I haven’t seen any backlash towards the overtly Reformed nature of the lyrics. However, I have had some backlash in general when speaking/writing on the subject. But I find that a lot of the objections to what I’m saying stems from an assumption of what I’m saying, not on what I’m actually saying. For instance, it gets assumed that I’m saying God “makes” someone do evil, which I reject. It’s assumed that I’m saying that no action is done freely, which I do not believe. (I believe all actions are done freely, but done with a fallen nature, which is ultimately selfish and self-serving. Only a freed nature can any action be towards the glory of God and not of self.) I’m sympathetic to those that are making those objections because, at one time, I made those same objections when I was an Arminian.

What’s the progress on the upcoming release from your side project Arterial Atrophy?

Jeff: All the guitars, bass, and drums are completed. I’m only waiting for Pete to finish recording the vocals. Unfortunately, because of Covid, a lot of studios in his area of Oregon are closed. But he finally found one and is making plans to record there. Fingers crossed!

What are some of your favorite bands in the Christian metal scene? And what are some recent albums you’ve particularly enjoyed?

Jeff: I really dig Broken Flesh, Frost Like Ashes and Crushing the Deceiver. Taking the Head of Goliath is also another one I’m digging. In-Conquered and Brotality have recently sparked my interest. I’m just waiting for Luke Renno, Steve Reishus, and Miles Sunde to put out another Crimson Thorn album!

What's the best way fans can support you in your musical endeavors?

Jeff: Buy the merch, I suppose. Lol

Thank you for taking the time to do this. Any last words you’d like to share?

Jeff: I would encourage every Christian musician to make sure they’re in a healthy, well-balanced church where they can be discipled and held accountable and be fed. Get deeper into your love for God and learning more about Him. Strive to become examples for others to follow through with your art.

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