menu

Lil’ Nax X’s Gift to the Church: Theological Clarity

Lil’ Nax X’s Gift to the Church: Theological Clarity July 5, 2021

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.

However, in spite of the song’s graphic nature and its shocking visuals (equally powerful as repulsive), Lil’ Nas has done the Church a great favor. With profound theological clarity he has provided a stark vision of the real battle that exists between Heaven and Hell, between God and Satan. It is a battle the greatest poets, dramatists and playwrights have always seen as fundamentally over the state of man’s eternal soul. It would be easy to dismiss Nas’ video and his new “Satan Shoes” as just a gimmick. Perhaps the shoes really are that. However, if we are serious about influencing the culture for Christ, phenomena like Nas’ song should not be passed over lightly. Nor should we simply get outraged about them or throw childlike fits. Like Cardi B., Nas also has his literary and philosophical forefathers. In fact, many of Nas’ predecessors have been read and taught for centuries in our public and private schools. Their work today often going under the title “Classics.”

The Confessions of Augustine and Rousseau

In 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
Chastity, seen as either total celibacy or life-long, monogamous heterosexual marriage, was, according to Shelley, “dull” and even “selfish.” It was a cheap virtue at best. And those who strove for it were senseless and cold. This iconoclastic attitude toward sexual norms not only criticized the actions of medieval saints like Francis of Assisi but questioned their entire character and being. An ascetic like Francis simply could not have been a kind and loving person, let alone cheerful! According to the 18th-century poets, the saints of old were not just boring, but in their pursuit of purity were in fact selfish, inhumane, and heartless. For Shelley and his kinsmen, especially his father-in-law William Godwin, Christian sexual ethics and the biblical institution of marriage are not just old-fashioned or erroneous, they are “essentially evil” and “immorality dressed up in righteousness” (Trueman, Rise and Triumph, 155). Therefore, the very intentional goal of much of 18th and 19th-century poetry and literature is the social and political dismantling of biblical morality and the traditional family. For the Romantics (the poets, not the rock band), “the battle with Christianity is a battle with evil” (Trueman, 155).

Lil’ Nas X: 21st-Century Romantic

Three factors have lead us to where we are today as we contemplate Lil’ Nas’ own form of lyricism:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
With this historical framework in place, a movement of thought and action that goes back almost 400 years, we can see that the ideas Lil’ Nas X presents through his song and video are not new. In fact, it is by and large the same message as that of the Romantic poets. Now, it is just technologically supercharged to enhance the sensate experience and reach a far greater number of “the masses.” Today’s Romantics are the pop-stars and entertainers, the music and movie makers (and yes, even the rock band). These are the ones who utilize the media for both influence and, perhaps unlike their literary predecessors, for profit. Lil’ Nas is like the Shelley or Blake of our time, if not in style, at least in substance. Minimally he is no different than D.H. Lawrence or a young Oscar Wilde, not to mention the likes of a Marquis de Sade. Each of these artists stirred the same controversy in their day as Nas has today. Still, Lil’ Nas has done us the favor of placing his particular ode to the inner man in an explicitly biblical framework and with explicitly biblical imagery. This artistic choice at least makes it easy for people to “get” what is going on.
That is, assuming they know some basic theology.

The Theology of the Devil: An Eternal Struggle for Power and Dominion

Nas’ 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.”
And this is the deeper reality of hell that those tempted by the message of sexual “liberation” simply miss. Allured by the simple, sensate pleasures of physical gratification, they, we, fail to see the true purpose of biblical sexual structures.  Biblical marriage exists to prevent us from falling into an endless and infernal competition with “the other.” A competition that has only one rule: dominate or be dominated. Here, it is sheer manipulation and power that decides who is master and who is slave. Exploitation is the ideal in Hades and all being is but an instrument, a tool, for one’s own ends. Nothing, not even one’s self, has intrinsic value, or inherent worth.

Conclusion: Lil Nas X’ Gift of Theological Clarity

The hope of the poets, the Romantics of the past, was a false hope and a grave error. These classicists were deceived in believing that human nature was inherently “other focused” and that it could, apart from divine Grace, make room for another Self. Nas’ view of man in “Montero” is still Augustinian in this regard. As such, Lil Nas X is far more correct about man than was Wordsworth, Shelley or Blake. Nas gets his theology correct where the great poets of the past got it horribly wrong.
Montero Lamar Hill is a 21-year old, self-identified gay man and artist. And, he is a relatively honest one at that, at least in this regard. Hill is angry at how he was brought up, perhaps justifiably so as a recent tweet reveals. Moreover, he has not cheated like the earlier Romantics, the ones we read about in school. They never would have shown a scene of unsocialized man murdering Satan. For Blake there was no violent overthrow of Hell by man, nor any attaining of Heaven due to divine Grace. Instead, he assumed, that in the end there would be a marriage of Heaven and Hell (an assumption C.S. Lewis brilliantly dismantled in The Great Divorce). He thought good and evil mere illusions. He was wrong. Hill’s video, conversely, makes one thing very clear, whether he knows it or not. Behind all of the sensuality, the blurring of gender and the flagrant acts of bodily abuse; behind all of these there is a more fundamental dynamic at play: the unrestrained lust for power. Power over others and power over creation. Unfortunately for Hill, and for all of us who continue down this route, the ever increasing appetite for sexual pleasure is always met with the ever decreasing gratification in the sexual act itself. Sex cannot do the work. Once that pleasure is no more, then there is only violence: physical, emotional and spiritual violence, as Hill seems to show in the video.  
Featured Photo: Unapersonetaquearreglafotos, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.

Browse Our Archives