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

by Anthony Costello

Recently I wrote an article about Cardi B.’s smash hit, WAP, a song that, as I argued, stands in line with a long history of existentialist thought about the nature of the human person and our desire for liberation. That song and its performer, along with their philosophical and literary predecessors, articulate what could be called a “theologia diaboli” or theology of the devil. Now, somewhat more explicitly, another cultural poet has presented us with a very similar kind of anti-theology. Lil Nas X’s “Montero” is for most Christians an example of a culture going down in flames, corrupted to the point of no return. In many ways, they are right. It is that.

However, in spite of the graphic nature of the song and its accompanying visuals (which really are quite powerful, and quite repulsive), Lil Nas has done the Church a great favor. He has, with profound theological clarity, given us a stark vision of the real battle that exists between Heaven and Hell, between God and Satan; a battle with man caught in the middle and that is being fundamentally fought over the estate of his soul. Of course, while Nas’ video and his new “Satan Shoes” can be quickly dismissed by people of various religious commitments, for those who are dedicated to influencing the culture for Christ, phenomena like these should not be passed over too lightly, or with mere visceral outrage. Like Cardi, Nas too has his literary and philosophical forefathers, most of whom have been read and taught for centuries, their work today often going under the title “Classics.”

Rousseau, The Romantics and The Poets of Today

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,1 see Augustine’s Confessions, where he articulates the doctrine of original sin and the need for God’s grace in the most memorable of ways, “Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud. But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no rest until they rest in you.” (Confessions, Book I.1) to a view of man born in innocence only to be corrupted by society. This view was enunciated most profoundly, to the Church’s chagrin, by the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau. Rousseau’s own autobiography, Confessions, parodied Augustine’s 1,300 year-old conversion story, coming to the very different conclusion about man’s natural state. For Augustine, the thieving of pears as a young man could be attributed to his own desire to do evil and his taking pleasure in the criminal act. For Rousseau, alternatively, the act of stealing some vegetables was because he was “cajoled” into it by an outside pressure, a socializing force. Apart from society pressing on his will, he [Rousseau] never would have thought to do wrong or commit a social ill. It was not in him to do evil, nor in anyone else. As such, the whole understanding of the origin of bad behavior and the nature of moral culpability was turned on its head with Rousseau and his anthropological turn toward man being “born free, but everywhere in chains.”2 Trueman outlines this drastic change in Western thought in Chapter 3 of the book, “The Other Genevan: Jean-Jaques Rousseau and the Foundations of Modern Selfhood”

However, Rousseau’s new philosophy of natural man and innate goodness3 Not that it was genuinely “new” since there are no truly new ideas in the course of human events. needed a transmitter to the broader culture. Not many today, let alone in the 18th century, had access to books or lectures on philosophy, the new science of rationalism, and this new characterization of human nature. It was in the domain of the elite where such ideas were peddled, and, therefore, some other medium was needed to educate the people. As such, it came down to the artists of the day, the poets, to transmit this new expressivism to the public at large. For if man was truly born free, and if his most intimate thoughts and desires, those parts still “unsocialized,” were his “true self,” then to express that true inner self would mean liberation from the world’s chains. The artists who acted as the translators of this view came to be called the “Romantics” and their weapons were their poetic words, and their mission was to liberate man from social norms. Men like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake in the English speaking world, 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”4 Trueman, Rise and Triumph, 132 therefore, but the means “to connect human beings to that which truly makes them human.”5 Trueman, 132. The realm of emotions was the source of knowledge for the Romantics, and verse was their instrument of expression. While the great thinkers utilized poetry to make commentary on everything from government to nature to industry, one major, if not primary, socializing institution to attack through lyric was that of religion. In particular, the sexual ethics of old Testament Judaism and its only somewhat milder successor, Christianity, was in the cross-hairs for the Romantics’ quill and inkwell. 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, which could translate either into celibacy6 i.e. life-long singleness, along the lines of those who take religious orders or life-long, monogamous heterosexual marriage between adults7 The term “adult” would not mean the same today as it did in the 18th century, but religious condemnation against marriages between people of age and children would have been present in Shelley’s day just like today. was, according to poets like Shelley and also Blake, “dull” and even “selfish.” It was a cheap virtue, at best. And those who strove for it were senseless and cold. This, at that time, iconoclastic attitude toward sexual norms was not only a scathing critique of the actions of a medieval saint like Francis of Assisi, but of his entire countenance and being. A ascetic like Francis simply could not have been a kind and loving person, let alone cheerful! Now, according to the poets, the saints of old were not just boring, but in their pursuit of purity they were selfish, inhumane, and heartless.

Three factors then have lead us to where we are today as we contemplate Lil Nas’ own form of lyricism: First, is the dramatic break from the view of man as an innately sinful creature, who, in virtue of that sin nature, builds corrupted societies, toward the validation and celebration of the inner self over and against the oppression of corrupted society. Second, is the use of the poetic arts as the mechanism of transmission to express the inner self, a self that is equivalent to one’s deepest feelings. Finally, there is the focus on the “oppression” of traditional religion, in particular the Judeo-Christian tradition, of the natural sexual drives and longings of man. Once we have this historical framework in place, a movement of thought and action that goes back almost 400 years, we can now see that the idea Lil Nas has presented through his song and video is really nothing new. In fact, it is by and large the same message as that of the Romantics, now just technologically supercharged to enhance the experience and reach an even greater number of “the masses.” The Romantics of today are the pop stars and entertainers, the music and movie makers, who utilize the media for both influence and, perhaps unlike their literary predecessors, for profit.

As such, Lil Nas may very appropriately be seen as the Shelley or Blake of today, 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 whom stirred the same controversy in their times as Nas in his. 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; an artistic choice that 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: The Endless Struggle for Power and Dominion

Nas’ video, which I will not link to here, revels of course in the sexual tripe of the day, namely, the expression of LGBTQ+ identity, a movement that sources all of its political will in the same Rousseauen instinct. Unfortunately, but understandably, most people will get stuck on two points of contention in the video: the further blurring of gender distinctions and the various acts of oral and anal coitus. Both of which are clearly antithetical to the Divine Nature, the created order, and the biblical commands. However, these themselves are not representative of the deeper evil, which is the originating sin itself, the sin of pride. Sex and sensuality are but the means to something far more coveted than mere physical stimulation, and Montero (that is Nas X’s real name) shows this in the final image of the video, where after subjecting himself to Satan as his sex slave, he 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 truly a visual articulation of Milton’s “It is better to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven.”

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 many who are tempted by its message of sexual “liberation” simply miss.8In reality, we all miss it to some degree or at some stage in our lives, for few if any have avoided such temptation completely. Allured by the basic, sensate pleasures of physical gratification, they, we, fail to see that the purpose of Christian sexual morality, of Christian marriage, is 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, as 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. This was the hope of the earlier poets, the Romantics of the past, but it was a false hope and a grave error. The classicists were deceived to think 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, and, as such, Lil Nas X is far more correct about man than was Wordsworth, Shelley or Schiller.

Montero Lamar Hill is a 21-year old, self-identified gay man and artist. And, he is a relatively honest one at that.9 Hill is angry at how he was brought up, perhaps understandably as one recent tweet reveals: “I spent my entire teenage years hating myself because of the (expletive) y’all preached would happen to me because i was gay,” he [Hill] wrote on Twitter. “So i hope u are mad, stay mad, feel the same anger you teach us to have towards ourselves.” He has not cheated like the earlier Romantics, who never would have shown a scene of unsocialized man murdering Satan. For Blake there was not a violent overthrow of Hell by man, nor an attaining of Heaven apart from divine Grace, but instead a marriage of Heaven and Hell in the end.10A notion C.S. Lewis brilliantly dismantled in The Great Divorce. Hill’s video, conversely, makes one thing very clear, whether he knows it or not, that behind all of the sensuality, the blurring of gender, and the gross acts of bodily abuse; behind all of these there is a more fundamental dynamic at play, namely, the unrestrained lust for power. Power over others, 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 of the sexual act itself. It cannot do the work. Once that pleasure is no more, then there is only violence: physical, emotional and spiritual violence.

The only part of the video that will not be true is that Satan will never be dethroned in hell. He is too powerful for man, and, as such, unrepentant man will forever be in his service as slave.

Cardi B., Jean-Paul Sartre and “Theologia Diaboli”

by Anthony Costello

Much commentary has been made recently about the ultra-vulgar nature of the song “WAP” by popular rap star, Cardi B., a song whose text I will not reproduce here for the sake of all that is good and holy. For the sake of understanding this essay, however, it may be necessary to click on the above link and examine, albeit briefly, the sheer crudity of the song’s lyrics. In doing so, one hopefully experiences shock at this ode to barbarism. That said, it should not surprise anyone who has immersed themselves in the Bible, or listened carefully to what the Church’s theologians have said about the depravity of man and the corrosive effects of sin on the mind. Fortunately, we live in a culture still imbued with some generic Christian sensibilities, so such depravity still occasions outrage in a few quarters of society. This outrage is good, even if a bit late in coming.

At the same time, it is not just those who hold to Christian sexual ethics that might find this massively popular hymn to sexual exploitation unsurprising. Those who have studied with any seriousness the phenomena that Immanuel Kant described as “das radikale Böse” (radical evil), will see in both the song, and the meteoric rise of its creator, an embrace of what one philosopher called a theologia diaboli,1This is the title of F. H. Heinemann’s essay in the book Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, (New York: Harper Brothers, 1958). or theology of the devil. The fact is, Cardi B. is not without her historic predecessors, both in the realm of pop music,2Predecessors in this genre might include vile groups such as NWA or 2LiveCrew as well as that of existentialist philosophy. Whether known to the rapper or not, she stands in a long line of profound thinkers and creative geniuses who have found comfort in the arms of evil.

The Theoligia Diaboli of Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre

In his survey of 20th century existentialism, philosopher F.H. Heinemann appends a short essay commenting on Jean-Paul Sartre’s book, Saint Genet, Comedien et Martyr, a book that explores, in no uncertain terms, the nature of radical evil. Heinemann, writing in the 1950’s from Oxford, opens his review of Sartre’s tome by considering the current state of Western culture:

Human societies are to-day [sic] secularized to a degree unheard of in former times. Some of them are indifferent and others hostile to religion, some ‘humanistic’, others openly atheistic. There are millions of people to whom nothing is sacred. But why is it that nations soaked in humanism, which have achieved a high standard of material well-being, are nevertheless unhappy? Can a society which has completely lost the sense of the holy reach a state of relative perfection? Further, is it possible to eliminate the sense of the sacred altogether?

Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, 205.

So begins Heinemann’s commentary on Sartre, the avowed atheist materialist, whose existentialism demanded that God not only die but never again be resurrected. Sartre’s book, Saint Genet, is itself an exposé on the thought and moral psychology of the French writer, activist, and thief, Jean Genet.3 Jean Genet started life as a petty thief and vagabond. After his release from prison he visited the US as a guest speaker and supporter of groups like the Black Panthers, and activists like Angela Davis, a pupil of Herbert Marcuse. Genet also protested against police brutality in Algeria with his fellow French novelists, Sartre and Foucault. The main themes of his works were a celebration of homosexual sex, moral iconoclasm, and finding beauty in acts of evil and criminality. Regarding Sartre’s book on the iconoclast Genet, Heinemann says, “Saint Genet pursues this rebellion [of evil-doing] to its extreme possibilities,”4 Heinemann, Existentialism, 206. indicating to the reader, and to Sartre’s discredit, that the book pushes the boundaries of morality to the edges of human sensibility. For Sartre, Genet is a modern saint in his radical overturning of all things that could be construed as Judeo-Christian morality or as “civilized,” and for his overt celebration and embrace of the criminal. Heinemann calls this reveling in pure rebellion a “Justificatio Diaboli,” i.e., “Diabolo-dicy,”5 As opposed to “Theodicy” an intellectual defense of that which has, to paraphrase a real saint, been believed to be wicked “everywhere, always, and by all.”6see Vincent of Lerins, For the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies, Chapter 2.6

For men like Genet and Sartre, as Heinemann’s opening reflections suggest, there truly is nothing sacred. There are only two realities for such thinkers: material realities and the free will of man. Moreover, anything that has been traditionally viewed as heathen, barbaric, or malevolent, is now not only open to pursuit and practice but even to praise. Thus, Genet and Sartre can applaud everything from coitus per anum7Genet was himself a notorious homosexual, who wrote in detail about the sexual act. to lying to pursuits of personal vengeance as acts of liberation from both traditional religion as well as man’s alienation from his true nature as a pleasure seeking beast. No longer are their pleasures forevermore to be sought at the right hand of the Almighty God,8see Psalm 16:11 rather whatever is at God’s left hand is where the pleasures lie. All the abominations of the Bible are now the objects of desire for these modern existentialists. This pursuit of evil, especially in the realm of sensuality, but certainly not limited to sexuality, takes on concrete form in a kind of theological anti-dogma. Its core principles can be numbered and articulated with relative clarity. Heinemann lays them out in detail, details worth reproducing here in full:

1) Regard every event, even if, and especially when, it is harmful…as if it were the product of your unconditioned will and a gratuitous gift which you have decided to make to yourself.

2) Your principal motive should be the horror that your future action may inspire in others and in yourself.

3) Act in such a manner that society treats you always as an object and as a means, and never as an end in itself or as a person.

4) Act as if the maxim of your action could be regarded as a rule in the thieve’s tavern….9Heinemann, Existentialism, 208.

These formulations of the evil will act as perversions of the Kantian ethic, and they express the following sentiments:10ibid., 208.

1) The megalomania of a man who would like to possess the creative power of a negative God, i.e. of the Devil;

2) the sadistic cruelty of a character anxious to dominate others and to equal the dictators;

3) the masochistic self-abasement of a ‘have-not’ who throws his most valuable possession overboard-his personal integrity-and who allows himself to become a mere object and merely a means to an end; and

4) the cynical contempt of the realm of persons or of the Kantian realm of ends, and the corresponding exaltation of the thieve’s tavern!11ibid., 208.

It is points 3 especially that are relevant to understanding how Cardi B.’s song, and her own attitude toward her song and its critics, follows in the long tradition of atheistic existentialists like Genet and Sartre. Indeed the young rapper’s message is not new, even if finding this anti-dogma being proffered by a woman, and not just wicked men, might be novel.

Cardi B.’s Vision, Instrumentalizing the Human Person, and the Will to Power

Point 3 of the act and sense of this theologia diaboli makes the explicit claim that for any act to be liberating in this upside down ethic, one must intentionally allow oneself to be treated as a mere tool or instrument by society. The notion of a human person being intrinsically valuable, or possessing an ontological worth that cannot be handled instrumentally, is itself repulsive to the dogma of radical evil. The song, WAP, is as clear an expression of this intent as anything could be. The woman, here Cardi. herself as the song is self-referential, is no longer a being of incalculable ontological value, rather she just is a body meant to serve a function; the function of being sexually pleasurable to the dominant male. It is this embrace of “self-abasement” that should be shocking to anyone, or any culture that is morally, spiritually and emotionally healthy. The question that seems to be an open one, is whether or not our culture was indeed shocked at all?

There are a few important implications of this kind of libertinism. Moral dissolution always surfaces the most profound questions of human existence. One implication that has been noted by conservatives for many years, is the apparent inconsistency of women “being empowered” through the marketing of their bodies for the sake of stimulating horny, vile, and, likely, very rich men. This new means to feminist empowerment would apparently undo everything that the original suffragists and even feminists of the 1970’s and 80’s were arguing against and fighting for, both in the court of public opinion and courts of law. In Cardi B’s vision, clearly the road to power is not through competing with men in academic, industrial, economic, legal, military or medical arenas, but rather in the open embrace of old-fashioned temple prostitution. Of course, if avarice also counts as a moral good on the theologia diaboli, then it makes sense that whatever the road to fame or fortune may be, it is one worth traveling.

Secondly, WAP further propagates the mental and spiritual disease of seeing women as reducible to sex objects. Here it becomes difficult to understand what someone like a Harvey Weinstein actually did wrong, since he was psychologically primed and fed by pop culture itself to understand women as mere instruments to sexual pleasure. Cardi’s vision, it could be argued, provides an explicit model for young girls to be understood primarily, if not merely, as sexual slaves in the service of men, and to see that slavery as itself a good thing (again, point 3 on Heinemann’s list). Perhaps to Cardi’s defense, one could say it will only be those men who can afford these young sex slaves that will actually have them, since something like monetary exchange or a “life of ease” seems part of the Cardi telos. This exchange of the human body for wealth, of the human person for luxury, also seems to fulfill point 4 of the theologia diaboli anti-dogma, which makes unholy and unjust commercial exchanges a desirable endeavor.

Third, Cardi’s performance of the song serves to satisfy point 2 on the list, invoking horror in those who still retain some semblance of either a Christian moral ethic or generic moral conscience or who just have young children. In an interview with Stephen Colbert she seemed to indicate that part of her intent was just that, to “piss off a whole bunch of Republicans.” In another interview it is “fake religious people”12see: who have been strangely unsettled. Unfortunately, or fortunately for her, I think there were more than just Republicans or religious people who were horrified at such an abuse of talent.

Finally, when one listens to her testimony about her music and her life, we see the most profound condition of the theologia diaboli fulfilled, namely the self-revelry in the expression of one’s “unconditioned will.” Here, we might say that Cardi is as close to a real life embodiment of Nietzsche’s Übermensch as one could find today. In the unconstrained expression of her will, she not only achieves heroic greatness in record album sales, but achieves life fulfillment:

“Life is about making your dreams come true, but in order to make your dreams come true, don’t think that it’s gonna come and fall from the sky to your lap…You actually gotta put in the work. You gotta be ambitious. You gotta network. You gotta become great at what you do. You gotta be able to take criticism — believe it or not, y’all be saying I don’t take criticism, but yes I do.”

from an interview with “People” magazine,

A creative genius unbound and released from any moral normativity lay at the heart of Nietzsche’s “overman,” one could say that Cardi is the “overwoman.”

The Nature of Sex and The False Liberty of the Existentialist Mind

In his book on classical wisdom and modern psychology, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck describes from the standpoint of psychoanalysis the phenomena of authentic love, defining it as “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”13. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 81. This extension of one’s self for the sake of the other’s growth usually requires other virtues, most importantly the virtues of discipline and sacrifice. Love, in this sense, is not a mere feeling or set of temporary sensations, but rather “Love is an act of the will.”14ibid., 83. When the pleasurable nature of sexual intercourse is taken into account, however, it becomes tempting for people to conflate the physical stimulus of coitus with love itself. This is highly problematic to the human person:

It is obvious and generally understood that sexual activity and love, while they may occur simultaneously, often are disassociated, because they are basically separate phenomena. In itself, making love is not an act of love. Nonetheless the experience of sexual intercourse, and particularly of orgasm (even in masturbation), is an experience also associated with a greater or lesser degree of collapse of ego boundaries and attendant ecstasy. It is because of this collapse of ego boundaries that we may shout at the moment of climax “I love you” or “Oh, God” to a prostitute for whom moments later, after the ego boundaries have snapped back into place, we may feel no shred of affection, liking or investment.

Peck, 96.

The goal of this essay is not to ridicule or judge the person known as Cardi B. However, it is to point out that the singer/songwriter has fallen into the ancient trap of looking for authentic love, the dropping of ego boundaries, in the sexual act itself. Clearly this mother of a young daughter should want to feel real love, the kind of love that safeguards the value of the human person, that invests in that person, and that acts on behalf of that person’s spiritual well-being. Unfortunately, in WAP it is profoundly clear that the only experience of “love” being aimed for is that of the physical pleasure that attends the fleeting and uncommitted sexual act. The lack of willingness by both partners to commit to the person inside the sexualized body does not lead to liberation as one might hope, but as soon as ego boundaries “snap back into place” the realization of one’s enslavement and emptiness often follows. This dynamic of oppression and misuse of sex is presented in the earliest chapters of the Bible, where the inspired author knows what sin will do to God’s original design for human companionship,

“To the woman he said,

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;  in pain you shall bring forth children,yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

Genesis, 3:16

From a biblical standpoint it seems the “Overwoman” is not really empowered over anything, but, in fact, has merely submitted to the rule of sinful man.

Philosophically speaking, Heinemann echoes Peck’s understanding of real love and freedom, when he points out the abject failure of Sartre’s diabolical theology:

In short, Sartre’s freedom is no real liberty, but caprice and licence, and therefore insufficient as a basis for ethics. Real freedom consists in accepting responsibility for one’s own actions in relation to others within a moral order, and equally for this order itself. A choice is not authentic because it is made by the Self and of the Self, but because it is the right choice, i.e., it is the choice of the right moral order and the right action in these particular circumstances, made on the basis of this moral standard.

Heinemann, 212.

Caprice and licence to do whatever one’s inner impulses suggest is not freedom; it is slavery. Authenticity lies not in a choice for “the Self” by “the Self” but in making the right choice, a choice aimed at an objective standard. Augustine saw this most clearly in his formulation of the doctrine of original sin. To entertain without restraint our inner most desires is not to become like God, it is to usher in our own destruction and become as nothing. We have been made to be a certain way by our Creator, and to struggle against the way we were meant to be, while not futile, is nevertheless fatal. It is fatal because in resisting the grace and subsequent redemption it offers, we will never experience authentic Love, the Love that saves, that sustains, and that grows us. We can only pray that Cardi B. will not go down the road of Jean Genet or Jean-Paul Sartre, but instead turn away from the glorification of the Self, which only serves Satan’s plan of total domination of our souls. Once she does, as I suspect she might, then her true glorification in Christ may begin.