Dear Cardinal Tobin,
My name is Chris Krovatin, and I am a resident of Mine Hill, New Jersey. I grew up Catholic in Hoboken; though I am no longer practicing, the history and traditions of the church are as ingrained in my mind as my own name. I am also a diehard fan of heavy metal music, which I spent most of my adolescence listening to on Seton Hall University’s radio station, 89.5 FM WSOU, about which I’m writing this letter. An organization named The Lepanto Institute has drafted a petition demanding you shut WSOU down. I am urging you to decline their request, and leave the station running as is.
I discovered WSOU at 14 years old, having grown a little tired of the typical alternative rock and rap-metal on New York’s 93.5 K-Rock. Rock radio was still the easiest way for me to discover new bands. But unlike most stations, WSOU didn’t play the same six chart-topping songs over and over again, instead introducing me to acts like Machine Head, Darkane, Amon Amarth, Soilwork, Shadows Fall, Opeth, and New Jersey’s own Overkill. The music on WSOU was bizarre, intense, and unhinged…and it completed me. As a teenager whose tastes leaned towards the dark and elaborate, WSOU provided me with a soundtrack during my most disillusioned and hopeless moments, and for that I will forever be grateful.
Darkane’s “Emanation of Fear,” one of the songs I discovered on WSOU in my youth.
But — sometimes to my own teenage frustration — WSOU was always respectful of religion, and worked hard not to offend any of its listeners. Profanity and uses of the Lord’s name in vain were warped if not bleeped outright, and bands with overtly satanic or violent messages weren’t played on the air. Sure, the lyrics were sometimes grisly and often snotty, but they were never offensive or harmful, which to me illustrates how WSOU has always shown consideration for its listeners, understanding full well that even fans of apocalyptic music might not want to hear people’s belief systems disrespected.
The most listeners would hear on WSOU was the occasional death metal song telling a horror story straight out of a Stephen King novel — entertainment, escapist and ultimately harmless. Some of the music played on WSOU does, as The Lepanto Institute points out, make reference to “sadistic execution techniques from the Middle Ages” and “demonically driven murder and mutilation” — but then again, so does Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment on the wall of the Sistine Chapel.
The truth is that Catholicism has always been the most metal form of Christianity, its emphases on pageantry, tradition, and bloody sacrifice echoed in the epic and visceral sounds of extreme music (in this way, metal is also perhaps rock ‘n’ roll at its most Catholic). Yes, metal will always have a soft spot for the Devil, but nine times out of ten he presented in his Christian form, a horned and winged beast draped in the imagery and atmosphere of ancient Catholic texts and paintings. In truth, more of the Latin mass is used or sampled in heavy metal than probably anywhere else in contemporary music.
Most importantly, the music played on WSOU makes thousands of people happy during their everyday lives. While the rest of the world feeds them art and culture that they don’t understand or believe in, Seton Hall’s Pirate Radio delivers them the loud, furious, and spooky music with which they can indulge, explore, and vent their dark moods and negative feelings. The joy they feel upon finding a spot on the radio dial where they belong is one that all outsiders can relate to — among them, I’m sure, those who have found God when they felt something was inherently absent from what society at large was telling them to accept.
Cardinal Tobin, I’m sure that on most spiritual matters, we fundamentally disagree. But my lapse in faith does not mean that I do not believe God could exist. And if there’s one thing on which I think you and I would see eye to eye, it’s that God is not a drama queen. In these harrowing times, God’s got bigger fish to fry than a kid wearing a pentagram on his T-shirt; if anything, I think He would recognize the glimmer of love, hope, and solidarity which that kid feels when he listens to death metal as an instinctive spark of His Grace. For years, WSOU has fanned that spark for thousands of New Jersey’s heavy metal listeners, who, thanks to hearing their music played on the radio, feel a little less alone in the world. Please don’t take that away from them.
Words by Chris Krovatin