Recently I wrote about Cardi B.’s smash hit, WAP. There I argued that WAP stands in line with a long history of existentialist thought on human nature and the desire for liberation. That song, and its performer, along with their philosophical and literary predecessors, articulate a kind of “theologia diaboli,” or theology of the devil. Now, even more explicitly, another cultural poet has presented us with a very similar kind of anti-theology. Some might simply argue that Lil’ Nas X’s “Montero” is yet another example of a culture going down in flames. One could call this “corruption to the point of no return” and, in many ways, be correct. It is that.
The Confessions of Augustine and RousseauIn an excellent new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, theologian Carl Trueman gives a brief history of the shift from a classical Christian view of man as born in depravity, i.e. the Augustinian view (see Augustine Confessions Book I.1), to a view of man born in innocence only to be corrupted by society. This latter view was enunciated most skillfully by the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau. Rousseau’s modern autobiography, also titled Confessions, parodied Augustine’s 1,300 year-old conversion story. The Frenchman Rousseau comes to a fundamentally different conclusion about man’s natural state than that of his African predecessor. For example, in Augustine’s autobiography, he attributes the thieving of pears as a young man to his own desire to do evil and in taking pleasure in the criminal act. For Rousseau, conversely, his act of stealing some vegetables was because he was “cajoled” into it by an outside pressure, some socializing force. Apart from society pressing on his will, he [Rousseau] never would have thought to do wrong or commit evil. It was not in him to do evil, nor is it in anyone else. In this sense, Rousseau turns Augustine on his head (as Marx did with Hegel). The “enlightened” Rousseau sees the origin of bad behavior and the nature of moral culpability opposite from the biblical Augustine. Man is not born enslaved to sin in need of some liberating force, rather he is “born free, but everywhere in [society’s] chains.” However, Rousseau’s new philosophy of natural man and his innate goodness needed a transmitter to the broader culture.
The Romantics (The Poets, not the Rock Band)Few people in the 18th century had access to books or lectures on philosophy, the emerging science of rationalism or Rousseau’s “new” characterization of human nature. Ideas still remained in the domain of the elite. Rousseauean notions about man and society were peddled primarily among the aristocracy. Therefore, the people needed to be educated through some other medium. Ultimately, it came down to the artists of the day–to the poets. It was poets who transmitted this new “expressive individualism” to the masses (see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 473-495). For if man was truly born free, and if his most intimate thoughts and desires, those parts still unsocialized, represented his true self, then to express that true inner self would mean liberation from society’s oppressive chains. This was an urgent message that needed to spread! The artists who translated Rousseau’s vision to the masses came to be called the “Romantics.” Their weapons were their words. Their mission was to liberate man from social norms, norms shaped almost exclusively by the history of Christian thought. Men like Shelley and Blake in England and Schiller and Goethe on the continent, gave voice through verse to the longings of the true and authentic “inner man.” This poetry was not “mere entertainment,” therefore, but the means “to connect human beings to that which truly makes them human”(Trueman, Rise and Triumph, 132). The realm of emotions was the source of knowledge for the Romantics, and verse was their instrument of expression. While these great thinkers utilized poetry to make commentary on everything from government to nature to industry, one major, if not primary, institution to attack through lyric was that of religion. In particular, the Romantic poets aimed their quills at the the sexual ethics of Old Testament Judaism and its only somewhat milder successor, Christianity. In Shelley’s classic Queen Mab, chastity as a virtue comes under direct assault:
Unchecked by dull and selfish chastity, that virtue of the cheaply virtuous, Who pride themselves in senselessness and frost. Queen Mab, Canto 9.84-86
Lil’ Nas X: 21st-Century RomanticThree factors have lead us to where we are today as we contemplate Lil’ Nas’ own form of lyricism:
- The dramatic break from the Augustinian view man as a naturally sinful creature who builds corrupted societies, toward the validation of the natural self in contrast to oppressive society.
- The political use of the poetic arts as the mechanism to express the inner self, a self that is equivalent to one’s deepest feelings and desires.
- The focus of the arts on the “oppression” of traditional religion, in particular the Judeo-Christian tradition and the biblical view of sexuality and marriage.
The Theology of the Devil: An Eternal Struggle for Power and DominionNas’ video revels of course in the sexual tripe of the day, namely, the expression of LGBTQ+ identity. LGBTQ+ is a movement that sources all of its political will in the same Rousseauen instinct of “born free but everywhere in chains.” Unfortunately, but understandably, most people will get stuck on two features of the video: the further blurring of gender distinctions and the various acts of oral and anal sex. All of which are antithetical to the Divine Nature, the created order and the biblical commands. However, these themselves are not representative of the deeper evil that exists. Nas strikes deeper than just sensuality in his song, he goes to the originating original sin itself: to the sin of pride. Sex and sensuality are but the means to something far more coveted than mere physical stimulation. Montero Lamar Hill (Nas’ real name) shows this in the final image of the video. In this scene, after subjecting himself to Satan as a kind of sex slave, Montero reverses the order of temptation and, in doing so, breaks the Devil’s neck with his bare hands. He then removes the crown of evil from the once dominant power, so he now can have dominion over others. It is an incredible visual articulation of Milton’s famous line: “It is better to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven.” The hell-bound soul is not, nor ever will be, satisfied with second place. In his classic treatise on spiritual warfare, C.S. Lewis describes this very “axiom” of hell:
The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. ‘To be’ means ‘to be in competition’. C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.”