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.