Lil Nas X and “Where The Devil Reside”

Silhouette of man with wings standing on a hill. The sun is rising or setting directly over his head.
Photo by Rakicevic Nenad from Pexels

Lil Nas X recently released a video for his song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” that features him in a CGI garden making out with a serpent and later giving the devil a lap dance. He followed this up by releasing a custom-modified set of sneakers with a Satanic theme and even one drop of human blood in the air pocket mixed with the red dye. Naturally, large parts of the Christian community are up in arms.

I am a product of the particular form of Christianity practiced here, so I won’t assert that I was completely comfortable watching Lil Nas X cavort with demonic-looking figures. But art isn’t supposed to necessarily be comfortable. (If your initial response to that is “but that’s not art”, I’ll gently remind you that while not every expression is art, the range is probably broader than what any one person would accept.) I did notice two things though.

First, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mainstream music video where a man sexualizes himself the way a woman might be expected to for the benefit of men the way we’ve seen in countless videos. That alone was interesting, and for the LGBTQ+ community, possibly groundbreaking. We’ll set aside for the moment the question of whether that sexualization is a good thing, and focus on the fact that it is bringing other sexual identities out of the shadows. (It’s also possible that not being a member of that community and being at an age where I’m rapidly entering the lawn-guarding stage of my music appreciation career, I am not aware of other work that’s been done.) Second, I didn’t realize his real first name was Montero. Singing an eponymous song while literally wrestling with his demons sheds a whole new light on the meaning and intention behind the work.

Hell has a checkered story. The Bible doesn’t talk about Hell as we know it. Jesus in the original untranslated text talks about Gehenna, which was a valley in Jerusalem that was considered to be cursed because ancient kings of Judah sacrificed children by fire there. Rabbinic literature talks about it as a kind of purgatory, but one’s stay there is seen as temporary. Other faiths’ concepts, such as the Greeks’ Tartarus, a place of torment that corresponded to one’s sins in life, later influenced Christian conceptions of what Hell is. Gnostic beliefs about the separation of the spirit and the body, also influenced by Greek philosophy, fed the frequently taught notion that the body and the world the body lives in is corrupted. The word Hell itself comes from the Anglo-Saxons that were converted several hundred years after the life of Christ. And the medieval artistic imagination completed the vision as we see it: a burning, desolate realm, where a goatlike humanoid supervises while legions of abominations roam free and torture the souls of the wicked.

American Christians are also very afraid of Satan. Satan comes from Semitic language roots as a word for “adversary”. Theologically, depending on one’s reading of the Bible, he’s both the one who is the prosecutor arguing before God why you should be locked away in Hell and the undercover police officer setting you up to commit the crime. Americans have a particularly literalist interpretation of Biblical text, and as such tend to believe in a personified being. There have been times when I’ve referred to some of the more fundamentalist practices of Christianity as “devil worship” because they spend more time in practice expressing their fear of what the devil is doing or what will do next than their faith in God. The Gnostic-influenced dualism ascribes nearly as much power to the devil as to God, making him god-like in his reach and capability. In their eschatology, God will ultimately prevail, but only after a pitched and difficult battle.

Many of the more conservative forms of American Christianity continue to look at our “fallen world” and see evidence of the devil’s work throughout. They are deeply concerned that the mainstream society and culture, as it grows increasingly tolerant and expresses broader points of view, will at least turn its eye away from God altogether and at most explicitly worship God’s adversary, granting him more power. To maintain the purity of the Church, many small-c churches have forgotten how to love people as they are and create a welcoming refuge from the fallen world. Instead, they construct an ever-increasingly-complex set of rules and practices, and in order to be a part of the community, your beliefs must line up just so. Otherwise, while you may attend and even volunteer your talents in service to the body, you will not be fully allowed to participate in the life of the church, lest you lead others astray. I experienced some of this in previous churches due to my willingness to even hold explicit uncertainty rather than accept literal interpretations of Scripture. LGBTQ+ parishioners have experienced it all the more.

The stereotypical conservative position is portrayed as “gay bad, stay away until you decide to live the way God intended.” I have attended churches with a more nuanced position, but still one that in practice did not let people fully participate in the life of the church without choosing celibacy and singleness. If they do choose that, they’ll then still often be pressured to find a heterosexual partner and marry, as official leadership and unofficial authority is primarily only available to married men, and to women only indirectly through their husbands. There’s a whole separate thing about how celibacy and singleness should be first-class concepts in the church regardless of one’s identity and orientation, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

All this context is the place from which Lil Nas X is drawing this song. He grew up outside of Atlanta, the son of a gospel singer. He tried to “pray his gay away” and couldn’t. I do not know the exact church framework he grew up in, but it stands to reason based on his documented handling of coming to terms with his sexuality that he grew up in a conservative Christian context that saw no place for him as he was. His supporters, and many LGBTQ+ people that I have seen express opinions on it see it clearly as him embracing the things about himself that his upbringing told him would send him to Hell. Some gay people who were raised in a conservative Christian context struggle with the imagery as well, but hold the tension and understand the message.

Let’s get back to the latest Satanic panic. American Christians are concerned about the devil, or as many call him due to some choice lines from Paul, the god of this world, taking over the mainstream culture and ruling over all except the small remnant who choose to profess Christ. Videos like this to them are just evidence of attempting to corrupt the children directly, normalizing worship of the devil and practice of evil. Variants of these ideas are informing cult practices like QAnon that have infested white evangelical spaces.

in my experience though, I have only met 3 kinds of people Christians would call “devil-worshippers”:

  1. People who practice pre-Christian faiths (with a partial exception made for Judaism) in as close to their original form as possible
  2. People who practice reconstituted faith systems drawing from pre-Christian beliefs like Wicca or Thelema
  3. People who don’t believe in anything and who are trolling Christians (the Satanic Temple is a good example of this)

I’ve had personal relationships with people in all three categories. None of these people are plotting to take down the Christian God or corrupt God’s followers for the benefit of their own deity or pleasure. Evangelism is not a universal religious practice, and they are not seeking converts either. Only the most militant atheists, who ironically are often backlashing against a fundamentalist Christian upbringing, are concerned about ending belief because of the great harm they’ve seen believers do to each other. Most atheists and believers in other deities or systems just want to be left alone to live their lives as they see fit.

My own afterlife theology is evolving. I don’t know exactly what happens after this, though I think the Hell we constructed out of burning trash heaps and medieval visions isn’t how it works. I am also not sure I believe in an incarnate adversary-in-chief, though I have experienced spiritual warfare firsthand and know there are malevolent forces out there beyond our scientific understanding.

What I do know is that our church that is so deeply concerned with the devil has so much molestation and abuse of all kinds in it, either in the homes of parishioners or in the offices of leaders, that it’s not even considered a stop-everything moment when yet another leader or priest or counselor or parent is exposed for what my friend rightly calls “spiritual murder”. I have seen churches manipulate and emotionally abuse people as well, causing great damage and distress, and driving people away from a faith whose only face for them is the church leadership. And let’s not even get started on the horrors of genocide, slavery, segregation, and colonization that were justified by twisted forms of faith that have still not fully been unwound.

I remember watching an episode of “College Hill” of all things, a reality show where Black college students live together in a house with the expected ensuing drama, and during a trip to the woods where everyone bonded, one girl talked about how she was molested weekly downstairs at the church while service was going on upstairs. And while she was supported and received sympathy, no one even saw that as surprising or remarkable. No one went to the church with pitchforks and torches. It’s just the way things happen, so watch your kids and good luck. The problem is so endemic among Catholic priests that it’s become a distasteful joke. Even our secular religion of sports is now showing itself to be a center of abuse from the same coaches that pray with young athletes on the field.

I do not believe that there is something fundamental about Christianity as a system that causes this. I think, and the world shows, that this is a universal human capability. Part of the ability to choose between good and evil is the ability to choose evil, and in that regard, we need no devil to tempt us. The power is its own temptation. I do believe that fundamentalist praxis that brooks no dissent, no understanding of metaphor, and no reflection, and that forgets the core revolutionary charter that Jesus set out, opens us up to calling, as Isaiah 5:20 says, “evil good, and good evil”. The repression of fundamentalism allows no escape for our evil urges, no way to put them in disinfecting sunlight, so they sit inside, fester, and grow.

Despite the fact that it’s not Christianity itself that is broken, but its practice here, we are not excused from the duty to change the practice where we can. We are not excused from welcoming our neighbor as they are without qualification. We are not excused from protecting the vulnerable and casting down the haughty and those who would abuse their sacred responsibilities. Something is broken in a faith practice that shakes its fist at a young man dancing on another man in red makeup while it sits mute, shame-faced, and silent while children are broken and women are murdered both spiritually and literally for the warped desires of men.

Lil Nas X is mocking a practice of faith that failed him and finding freedom in that. We need not celebrate it if we don’t personally connect with it, but we have nothing to fear from it either. The onus is on those who believe to create a practice of faith that is so full of love and justice that there is nothing to mock.

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