The Letter Project

April 16, 2012

Special Delivery (236)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 3:03 am

J. J. Anselmi writes this letter to Tom Araya (of Slayer) to discuss two subjects that move him:  rock music and religion.  The letter was never sent to Araya, but it was mailed through the post to The Letter Project.  Maybe Tom Araya will read this after all? 

 Dear Tom,

            I should start by saying that Slayer used to be one of my favorite bands. I still like a lot of your music. I was fifteen the first time I heard the song “Reign in Blood.” The duel-harmony guitar lead that transitions into a chainsaw groove, which is driven by Dave Lombardo’s insane double-bass drumming, that your bass tightly links to, all combined to give me a rush. I couldn’t believe that a band could play so fast. That first time, it was hard to catch the lyrics, but I loved your yell. The music hooked me. I had been playing drums for a few years. Lombardo became my drumming-hero. I bought every Slayer album I could find.

            But, Tom, let me get to the point, or start getting to the point. I am not writing this to glorify you. I am writing to you because a friend recently told me you are a practicing Catholic. Considering Slayer’s vehemently anti-Christian lyrics, and the imagery your band uses on memorabilia and album covers, I didn’t believe him. So I searched online to see if I could find any information to back this up. I found an interview where you talk, briefly, about your religious beliefs. You say that being a Catholic, and a member of Slayer, isn’t problematic. The guitarists, Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, write the anti-Christian lyrics, you say. Basically, you think we can disconnect our personal lives from our art. After reading this interview, I have been thinking about your Catholicism, and how it collides with the ways a lot of fans digest your music. I am kind of worried about you, Tom. This might sound strange, but I think being in Slayer is fucking you up. Before I get into that, though, let me tell you more about myself, and my relationship with Slayer. I think it will drive home some of the points I want to make.

            Music attracted me to your band. Anti-Christian lyrics and imagery kept me around. A baptized Catholic, I went to church and Sunday school until my first communion. My dad’s side of my family is Catholic. For my paternal grandparents, religion was about keeping up social appearances within the small world of Wyoming. My Grandpa Don was a successful businessman and politician—the Democratic state chairman of Wyoming in the 60s and 70s. He and my Grandma Dora obsessed over the Anselmis’ reputation, which meant that they wanted everyone in my direct family to be good, church-going citizens, or at least to project that illusion. My mom isn’t religious, but she went along with my dad and his parents’ ideal to raise me and my sister under the roof of Catholicism.

            Until my first communion, church mainly seemed unpleasant, but something I still had to do, like going to school. Learning the methods of communion and confession, I began to think religion was strange and kind of scary. It was an inarticulate, unexamined thought—I was nine—but the idea of drinking human blood and eating human flesh, and the way this idea is acted out during mass, made me feel uneasy. Confession also confused me. When priests and Sunday school teachers talked about confession—the time when God forgives our worst sins—I felt like there should be something in my past that was much worse than any of the things I had really done, but nothing came to mind. After telling a priest that I had been cussing, teasing my sister, and committing some other little-boy mischief, I went through communion. As the priest said, “The body of Christ,” while placing a thin wafer on my tongue, I almost vomited. I pictured elderly priests in white robes, huddled in a decrepit, ancient tomb, slicing off pieces of Jesus’s rotten skin with potato peelers, gathering the pieces into glass jars, then shipping the jars around the world. I knew I wasn’t really eating pieces of Jesus, but that thought was still there. Shortly after, I told my dad that I didn’t believe in God. My mom said if I didn’t want to, I didn’t have to go to church anymore.

            Seeing so many adults in mass play a weird game of pretend, without calling it a game of pretend, creeped me out. My conception of religion didn’t get much more complex than this for a long time. Throughout junior high and high school, the language shaping my thoughts about religion became vitriolic, which connected to a growing dislike—an easier reaction than trying to understand—for my dad’s parents. I first listened to the album Reign In Blood, my favorite songs immediately becoming the title track and “Jesus Saves,” in eighth or ninth grade. An illusion of being entirely anti-religious became my religion. Listening to Slayer became my method of prayer.

            Most of my early memories of my dad’s parents consist of them getting drunk and being cruel to my direct family. They both used to tell my dad, who dropped out of college and worked for a power company for twenty-five years, that he was a fuck-up, that he had done too many drugs, that he was a failure because he couldn’t live up to their expectations. In 1978, my dad got busted with some weed in Rock Springs, Wyoming—the small town where my grandpa made his money—which warranted a night in jail. Afterward, Grandpa Don wrote him a letter, saying that my dad’s arrest, which the Rock Springs daily newspaper documented, was the source of his political downfall, even though, really, his political career had been declining since 60 Minutes featured a fallacy-driven piece in which Dan Rather strongly suggests that my grandpa was somehow connected to organized crime-related gun and real estate dealings, which aired in 1977.

            Visiting my grandparents in Jackson Hole or Tucson—throughout my adolescence, they spent summers in Wyoming and winters in Arizona—Grandma Dora would get drunk most nights, and sometimes during the day. I remember listening to her nasal voice and cackle, while she looked at my sister and me, with a cigarette in her mouth and a martini in her hand, saying, absurdly, “Do as I say, not as I do.” In my mind, Grandma Dora was a two-dimensional character. She prayed for me, she often said. I didn’t have sparkling report cards like my cousins, her other grandkids. I had no ambition to go to college. To me, she only seemed concerned about my success or failure in the realm of how it would effect her reputation in the gossip-void of Wyoming. Instead of sifting through complicated emotions connected to my grandma and grandpa, I simplified their personalities into one characteristic: religion. I concentrated mutated emotions, which manifested as hatred, onto this characteristic in an attempt to digest these relationships.    

            “Jesus Saves” from Reign In Blood was one of my favorite songs to listen to when I thought about Grandma Dora. Over an onslaught of hyper-fast thrash, you yell:

            You go to the church, you kiss the cross, you will be saved at any cost

            You have your own reality, Christianity

            Spend your life just kissing ass, a trait that’s grown as time has passed

            Think the world will end today, you praise the Lord, it’s all you say

            …For all respect you cannot lust, in an invisible man you place your trust

This song, as well as a lot of other Slayer tunes, helped me feel fully justified in hating religion, which became synonymous, in my mind, with hating my grandparents.

            When Grandpa Don was slowly deteriorating from lung cancer, my mom, dad, sister, and I went to visit him. Sixteen, at their large, expensive house on the outskirts of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I followed my dad into my grandparents’ bedroom. The rich smells of leather furniture, old, western-themed paintings, wooden statues, and imported rugs that permeated the house, contrasted the stench of dead skin inside the bedroom.

            Grandpa Don, in his healthier days, was short and stout, with an elegant beer belly. Being around him made me feel like he was bearing down, with all of his physical weight, on my psyche. He usually had something to criticize about me, even when I was only nine or ten years old. At family dinners—both in public, at fancy restaurants, and in private—he would say things like, “Didn’t anybody ever teach you good manners? Don’t cut more than one piece of meat at a time.” His voice always seemed harsh. Throughout the rest of these meals, I felt like everything I did was somehow wrong. These situations created feelings that have taken me years to dissect and understand. As a teenager though, hating Grandpa Don seemed like a logical response. 

            Now, on his deathbed, he was emaciated. Folds of nearly transparent skin hung from his jaw-line and chest. Between his protruding ribs, the skin was so thin, I thought you could poke through it with the back of a pen. He sucked oxygen from a tank. In his eyes, which used to be cold and calculating, there was emptiness, like he didn’t really understand the situation. Seeing him in this vulnerable state contrasted the character he had become in my head. When he saw me, which was the first time in a while, he said, “So you decided to grow out your hair, eh?” Distaste dripped from his words. He didn’t say anything else to me.

            Trying to inhabit a metal-head caricature—another over-simplified answer to a chaotic reality—I had shaggy hair that covered my ears. I didn’t know how to respond to his words, which, to me, communicated his obsession about the way people saw his family. Before seeing him, I hoped he would say something about being proud of me, or give me some kind of life advice. Dying, he still wanted to make sure every Anselmi adhered to a homogenous image of success. It was the last time I saw him alive. A gold crucifix hung from his scrawny neck. I focused anger onto this crucifix, this representative piece of his personality. 

            I’m telling you all of this, Tom, to illustrate a mindset I supported with the messages in Slayer’s music. I didn’t strive to understand Catholicism or my grandparents. I just hated them. After reducing my grandparents’ personalities to religion, I used the hatred in Slayer’s lyrics to justify my harshness. I think this response inhibited my self-perception by perpetuating a binary lens of reality. Before and after my grandpa died, I remember listening to “New Faith” on God Hates Us All, over and over, thinking about my grandpa. As you scream the lines,

            I reject all the biblical views of the truth

            Dismiss it as the folklore of the times

            I won’t be force fed prophecies

            From a book of untruths for the weakest mind

            I keep the bible in a pool of blood

            So that none of its lies can affect me

I felt a warm, tingling sensation in my spine.

            The way I responded to my grandparents was a subjective problem. If I would have looked a bit deeper in both of my grandparents, I might have surmised that harsh upbringings under the authoritarianism that defined parenting for their old-world parents shaped their interaction with my parents, sister, and me. I might have seen that they were human. Some resentment would have been justifiable on my part, but hating them was destructive. My reaction to my grandparents created a rift, not only between me and my grandma, but also between me and my dad—rifts I’m not sure I can bridge. To my dad, I always made my hatred for his parents vocal when I was in high school. Because he has never analyzed their many flaws, my words widened the gap between us.  

            I’m not blaming Slayer for the way I reacted. But I want to illustrate the ways some fans digest your music. Now, when I listen to these lines from “New Faith,” it’s hard for me to believe you are a practicing Catholic.

            In the interview I talk about earlier, you say, basically, that your creative life doesn’t affect your personal life. But other people, who are a lot like my teenage self, also reinforce a close-minded hatred of Christianity with Slayer’s music, which directly affects you. Unfortunately, a lot of devoted music fans internalize artists’ messages without analyzing them. But this happens all the time, of which Slayer fans provide a grotesque example. Like me when I was a Slayer fanatic, most of these fans don’t seem to see this contradiction: Slayer fanaticism is a form of religion.

            In the cult of Slayer fans, it’s encouraged to tell Christians that, essentially, their God is bullshit. It’s a badge of credibility. When I was a teenager, I used to walk up to Mormon kids at school and say, “You’re Mormon? That’s bullshit.” I got a kick out of it. Standing in line at my first Slayer show, in Salt Lake City, Utah, I told two metal-head dudes about doing this.

            “Ha, that’s sick dude. My buddy here,” a camouflage-pants-wearing dude pointed to his friend, who had brown hair that hung down to the middle of his back, “likes to go up to random Christians, outside churches, and tell them, ‘God hates us all.’ ” The dude with brown hair grinned. I felt like I was part of a real community. 

            During fights with my dad when I was in junior high and high school, I often told him that his religion is bullshit without seeing my hypocrisy. It took too long for me to realize that a lot of hardcore Slayer fans, which includes me as a teenager, are members of a different type of religion, one based on hating Christians. A lot of other Slayer fans might never examine themselves, and this worries me. I think part of the self-damage for you, as long as you are a member of Slayer, lies within the potential for these reactions.

            I have been to eight or nine Slayer shows. At every show, with thousands of other fans, a lot of us wearing Slayer shirts with anti-Christian imagery and words on them—inverted crosses, different versions of the Satanically-oriented Sigil of Baphomet pentagram, depictions of Jesus as a goat-like creature, as well as shirts sporting the album title God Hates Us All—we came to worship your band, taking the words you scream—it doesn’t matter if you didn’t write the lyrics—as gospel. The lyrics, in themselves, weren’t very powerful for me. Your yell infused the words with meaning.

            It’s true that the problems I have been talking about lie within each fan, within the skewed tendency to worship rock and metal musicians. In the interview in which you talk about being Catholic, you say, “People are not in good shape to where they have to question their own belief system because of a book or a story somebody wrote, or a Slayer song.” But these people exist, Tom. I also see a logical hole in this statement: Catholicism is the product of people questioning different branches of Christian belief systems, because of different interpretations of a book, which contains stories and songs.

            We can’t separate our personal lives from our art. I’m pretty sure you’ve been thinking about this, too. I recently learned, from a metal site, that you and Dave Lombardo, who is also Christian, which I didn’t know until I found out that you are Catholic, have been working on a Christian metal project. That’s radical, Tom. Like you say in the blurb from which I found out about this new band, I think this project will make you feel good. But you also say that you have no intention of quitting Slayer. I’m not sure I can say this without sounding like a condescending, paternalistic dick, but I think you should quit Slayer and focus on the other project.

            Combined with the way some fans internalize Slayer’s messages, which is unfortunate—it always connects to a lack of self-awareness—but is still a reality, years of screaming words that attack your own belief system seems like it would destroy your self-worth. Art provides a space where we can express and examine our most intimate emotions. Used toward this end, it can help us determine who we want to be. Constantly expressing the opposite of your real feelings—again, your yell gives Slayer’s lyrics meaning, your yell injects emotion into them—seems like it would make you hate yourself. Attacking Christianity, instead of examining it, destroys the artistic space where you might otherwise engage in fruitful self-examination.

            In the first interview I have been citing, you say, about being in Slayer and also being Catholic, “People have these heavy issues and ask, ‘Isn’t this a problem for you?’ And no. I’m well-rounded, I have a really strong belief system and these are just words and they’ll never interfere with what I believe and how I feel.” But I think that’s a flawed statement, Tom, because we construct our identities with language.

            I try to imagine myself in a similar position. Let’s say, for example, I write a novel glorifying heroin use. This novel motivates a lot of people to try heroin, many of them becoming life-long junkies. In my personal life, however, I don’t get high because I think heroin use is problematic in a lot of ways. Unless I completely isolate myself from other humans, the ramifications of my message would slither into my life every day, especially if I live in a city. Every junky I have ever encountered would be a contradiction to the idea that I can disconnect myself from my art. Thinking about the people that become junkies after reading my book, I could attribute their addiction to the mindlessness with which they have consumed my message. A lot of these people probably would have tried heroin without ever reading my novel, but I can’t be sure. Really, my problem would be a lack of self-awareness, a lack of examining myself, and my affect on other people. In this fictional context, I couldn’t know myself until I start writing with honesty.

            Messages in our art, unless we have examined those messages, how they affect us, as well as other people, and attempted to determine, through in-depth, careful analysis, what we want to do with our own lives and the many branches stemming from our lives, are inevitably going to be harmful, to us, as artists, and the people we communicate with. Unless we believe what we say, we will destroy ourselves. I am writing this to myself as well, Tom. Writing nonfiction and playing music, I struggle with this in-depth examination all the time. To know who I want to be, to construct a meaningful, adaptable identity, I have to keep examining.

            Tom, if you continue with this new Christian metal project, I will buy your album. I will go to a show or two. I don’t listen to thrash very often anymore, and I am not Christian, but I promise to give your music a chance. It would be rad if you and Dave Lombardo went back to the old school, crossover-punk-style thrash of the early Slayer days. Whatever sound you go with Tom, I don’t think I am alone amongst former and current Slayer fans in saying that I will give the new band at least a few listens.



J.J. Anselmi


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