You’re at a punk show. Someone dressed in all black hands you a bunch of black-and-white pages stapled together. Death to the World, says the cover. When you get home and open it up, you’re greeted by unrelenting doom:
The last true rebellion is death to the world.
To be crucified to the world and the world to us.
This is Death to the World, a cult zine that’s punk on the outside, Eastern Orthodox Christianity on the inside. Typical articles have titles like “Death: Our Way of Life” and “One Hour of Suffering in Hell.” Pages are adorned with Medieval-looking illustrations of men climbing up a ladder from Hell to Heaven, surrounded by chaotic scenes of angels and demons and destruction. Essays by sixth century monks are printed alongside musings from former street kids.
The goal, stated in each issue, is “to inspire Truth-seeking and soul searching amidst the modern age of nihilism and despair, promoting the ancient principles of the last true rebellion: to be dead to this world and alive to the other world.”
In other words, the material world is bullshit.
In 1990, Justin Marler played guitar on the first album of the stoner doom metal band Sleep. In 1991, he felt the tug of Orthodoxy. He left Sleep to join St. Herman of Alaska monastery in Northern California, where he became Monk John Marler. “There are a lot of similarities between the punk lifestyle and the monk lifestyle,” he told SF Weekly in 2000. “Poverty, sleeping on floors, not caring about what you look like, externally being a misfit in society because you look different.”
As his former band got famous, Marler immersed himself in a new world. He and a few other monks decided to submit an article about Father Seraphim Rose — the founder of their monastery — to the punk music magazine Maximum Rocknroll in an attempt to reach members of the subculture. Unsurprisingly, the magazine was hesitant. Marler and the other monks had a classic punk reaction: They made their own magazine.
In 1994, with his Brothers from St. Herman of Alaska, he put together the first issue. It was hand cut, pasted together, and black and white. It featured a monk holding a skull on the cover under the title: Death to the World. The monks submitted an ad for Death to the World to Maximum Rocknroll. This time the magazine didn't hesitate.
Death to the World seemed to get traction immediately. The monks, led by Marler, began distributing the zines at shows. It advertised itself as “punk-to-monk,” appealing to young, restless readers who were dissatisfied with their current life trajectories. Dissatisfied with their rebellion. Punks like John Valadez.
Valadez was not raised to be particularly religious. His mother bounced around from church to church, and there were no strong Christian traditions at home. Around middle school, Valadez began to feel alienated. “There was something about the world to me that was very fake and false,” he said. “And I decided in some way or another — even though I couldn't articulate it — that I needed to find some kind of absolute truth in the world.”
The first stop was the Southern California punk scene, which seemed to be advertising its own form of truth. At the very least, it was different from the mainstream bullshit that was being looped on television every day. But gradually Valadez started to sense that even the punk scene was tainted; the band shirts and tattoos and mohawks just another form of vanity. But not every message was empty: One of the bands he saw was a Protestant group that would end a set with an acoustic fellowship and preach about Jesus and the Bible. Valadez started attending a Protestant church. It felt like one step closer to the truth.
Eventually the music scene Valadez was part of started to die. Bands moved away or lost interest. With nowhere to go, Valadez and his fellow Protestant punks started gathering at a Bible study held at a tattoo parlor. They would meet every Monday night after the shop closed and talk “until almost the sun went up,” he said. They felt disillusioned with their churches compared to “the ancient church that is talked about in the book of Acts and in the Bible,” he said. That church seemed “more substantial than what we were experiencing on Sunday mornings.”
“There was an aspect of Protestant Christianity, at least in my encounter with it, that I didn't feel rejected the world enough,” he said. “I didn't feel it rejected fake society enough.”
Then the founder of the Bible study discovered Orthodox Christianity, and the group converted.
Eastern Orthodoxy arose in part after a schism with Rome in 1054. It shares many traditions with Roman Catholicism, including the sacraments and reverence for icons and saints, and emphasizes prayer and asceticism. There are 15 regional “autocephalous Churches,” including the Church of Constantinople and the Church of Jerusalem. It’s estimated to have around 200 million practitioners.
Valadez’s first direct contact with Orthodoxy came through Death to the World. Many of the bands he listened to had received the zines from monks in the 1990s and incorporated them into their artwork and lyrics. His peers in the scene didn’t really talk about Death to the World because it was considered “too Catholic,” but Valadez was curious. The brand of Christianity in Death to the World was radical: It talked about picking up spiritual weapons and rejecting everything else, including your own temptations. He emailed the monks at St. Herman, who sent back a box of the zines and the address of a church to try. Valadez showed up, not sure if he wanted to be converted or what he expected to find. “I was confronted with icons of saints getting eaten alive by lions and a choir singing about martyrs and martyrdom and people standing up for their faith,” he said. He joined the Orthodox church at age 19.
By this point, Death to the World was no longer in production. Justin Marler had left the monastery in 1999 and gone back to making music. Other monks who worked on the project focused their attention elsewhere, and the zine died quietly. Its last issue, No. 12, was published in 1998. Then it only existed as a website and back issues passed around among friends.
But Valadez believed Orthodoxy desperately needed a voice like Death to the World — a powerful, in-your-face medium for reaching out to young people who wouldn’t be receptive to the message otherwise, people who were exhausted by nihilism but suspicious of anyone who told them to believe in something. “There are people that are looking for Christianity that are not going to pick up a nice-looking book about Christianity or take a pamphlet about a timeline of church history and really care about it,” he said.
Valadez got baptized and, along with a handful of other church members, received the blessing from the abbot of St. Herman monastery to start up the zine again. In 2006, Death to the World was reborn.
St. Vladimir’s is a seminary located in Yonkers, New York, just a little bit north of the city. Valadez — now Deacon John Valadez, having been ordained to the Holy Diaconate just a week before at age 30 — lives on campus with his wife and two small children. When we met he wore a black robe, had a long beard, and carried a tumbler covered with a large “Death to the World” sticker.
“I don’t know that if you asked me at a punk show, in 2002 or something, if I could really pin down that I was looking for truth above all other things,” he said. “Looking at it now, I can say that I definitely was. A lot of the times we don’t know that we’re searching.”
Religious zines aren’t quite the anomaly you’d think, especially Christian ones. A Christian punk scene began to take shape in the 1980s, mostly thanks to Grr Records (a label started by a ministry called Jesus People USA). In the 1990s, when the scene was thriving, lots of zines started to pop up. One of these, called Thieves and Prostitutes, was reviewed in the May 1992 issue of Maximum Rocknroll: “Lame Christian zine. Not punk.”
Issue 25 of Death to the World published in January 2014. It looks markedly different from previous issues: The cover is full-color, the layout is more polished, and it’s significantly longer. It looks less like a handmade punk zine and more like a regular book. The publication's online store stocks hoodies and shirts that look a lot like the merchandise you’d buy at any punk or metal show. For $44.99, you can purchase a hoodie with “Death to the World” emblazoned on the hood and a photo of an Orthodox Schemamonk on the front. A shirt parodying Metallica’s Kill ’Em All album cover, showing a Georgian priest baptizing babies with the phrase “Baptize ’Em All” underneath, is sold out. If these items were sold at Hot Topic, nobody would bat an eye.
Death to the World has a lively social media presence on Facebook and Instagram now. Valadez and his co-authors share videos from pages like “Orthodox Teaching of the Elders” and quotes from Hieromonks about the ills of the digital age.
“I don’t know that if you asked me at a punk show, in 2002 or something, if I could really pin down that I was looking for truth above all other things.”
Valadez is in the process of putting together Issue 26 and has plans to further update the zine. “The voice needs to go a little bit beyond that punk rock aesthetic,” he said. A new look for a new age.
Valadez hopes the message will continue to spread. The publication's aesthetic isn’t as relevant as it once was, so his new challenge is to figure out how to keep the zine resonant with a young audience. He also faces the problem of what he sees as a shifting culture. “When the zine first started in the ’90s, there was this spirit of rebellion in the air,” he said. “Now we come to a point in time where there is not really any kind of movement spiritually in a lot of arenas.”
Valadez isn't giving up hope. The way he sees it, Death to the World offers a path that punk kids — or anyone who doesn’t fit in — may not know exists. It's a place to find an alternative to despair and hopelessness. “A search for some kind of truth exists in the punk scene,” he told me. “When the Sex Pistols said, ‘There is no future,’ like in punk rock, there really is no future. There is no future, and that’s a really depressing thing to be living for. And Orthodoxy teaches that there is a future, and it’s something great to live for.”