Twitter explodes for all sorts of reasons. In fact, it runs on explosions. So it wasn’t surprising to hear digital din over the recent Grammy performance by Sam Smith and Kim Petras. It was, in one person’s words, “literally a tribute to Satan.” But to be honest, I’m not surprised that sexuality was paraded for entertainment that night. Nor am I surprised that Christians were up in arms over a recent display of hellish-themed art. I’m not even surprised that a bunch of demons were dancing on a stage and falling down to worship the devil, dressed to the nines as a non-binary performance artist. I’m a Calvinist. And this isHollywood. Do I need to say more?
What I am surprised at—and what many conservatives in social media feeds are missing—is how much this performance reveals about secular thought in our time. If we can learn a bit about how people think, especially those who differ from us, it can help explain their behavior. And if we can explain their behavior, we can respond to it appropriately, with biblical incision and love. In short, my surprise lies in how little we know about secular culture and its assumptions.
Three Secular Assumptions
So, here are three assumptions underlying the performance of the song “Unholy.” Knowing these three things won’t make you appreciate the performance by any stretch, but it may help you understand why the artists did what they did and where you stand in relation to it. At the end of the article, I’ll suggest how Christians might respond constructively.
1. The role of religion (especially Christianity) is to identify, oppress, and exclude. In commenting about his performance with Sam Smith, Kim Petras said,
I think a lot of people, honestly, have kind of labeled what I stand for and what Sam stands for as religiously not cool. And I personally grew up wondering about religion and wanting to be a part of it, but then slowly realizing it doesn’t want me to be a part of it. So it’s a take on not being able to choose religion and not being able to live the way that people might want you to live, because, you know, as a trans person, I’m kind of already not wanted in religion.
Notice that the jab is not directly at God; it’s at “religion.” What’s being assumed? There’s language rooted in identity and exclusion: labeled, what I stand for, doesn’t want me, I’m already not wanted. What does religion do, according to these words? It identifies its adherents according to a dogma, oppresses dissenting voices, and excludes anyone who doesn’t conform. (That’s an ironic critique ofChristianity, given cancel culture in the LGBTQ+ community, which often does the same thing). The musicians are expressing themselves in response to this caricature. And not many people outside of Christianity question them. This isn’t because they’ve made a rational argument that’s captivated contemporary minds. It’s because they’re taking for granted a culture that’s already established as post-Christian.
In our culture, any faith system must be out to rob, exploit, or victimize people. Carl R. Trueman has shown the deeper historical roots of this sentiment in the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx. For them, society is governed by power-players and guised materialists who play at religion as a control hobby. The problem, of course, isn’t that established religions haven’t exploited or victimized people; they certainly have. But the worst of something doesn’t reflect the heart of it. And breaking something—i.e., discarding Christian faith—doesn’t mean you’ve fixed anything, or that you even know what it truly is. As Tolkien once put it in the voice of Gandalf, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” In trashing Christianity as yet another mind-controlling “religion,” secular culture has thrown away transcendence and objectivity. But, as Nietzsche warned, they aren’t ready to handle the consequences. Without transcendence and objectivity, there’s no such thing as “human nature.” And if there’s no such thing as human nature, identity—which is what the artists are so concerned to protect—blows away in the breeze of cultural trend.
But most Christians today would be uncomfortable claiming their faith as a “religion,” given the negative connotations that phrase has in a post-Christian world. Instead, they would claim to have a personal relationship with God. Why does this matter in the context? All relationships shape people. They conform us to others. This is something that repulses a culture built on the principle of poiesis, self-making. Contemporary secularists don’t want to be conformed; they only want to conform themselves. Christians hold to the principle of mimesis, imitating or following the God-given order and meaning of things, communicated through revelation. We accept conformity as a basic fact of existence, rooted in the beauty, glory, and goodness of God. What’s at stake are the diverging paths of self-creation (poiesis) and discovery (mimesis).
In sum, Petras opposes a caricature of religion, not the personal God of the Bible—at least not in this quotation. But we have to see that opposition through historical lenses: particularly the thought of Nietzsche, Marx, and even Darwin (who attempted to remove humanity from any spiritual foundation of origins). We also have to keep in mind that basic approach to life as either poiesis or mimesis, making verses finding and following. From that perspective, the Grammy performance was openly attacking religion, Christianity included, but only a caricature, a distortion of religion that’s been around for hundreds of years.
Maybe Sam Smith and Kim Petras were rejected by Christians in their youth. But I know plenty of disciples of Christ who would have welcomed them into a candid but loving conversation. The latter isn’t what gets Twitter to explode, though.
2. Identity is psychological. This is one of the central tenets of Trueman’s book, rooted in the thought of Philip Rieff. Sam Smith and Kim Petras did that Grammy performance based on the assumption that identity is something only defined by a person’s internal drive to happiness or contentment. “God can’t tell me who I am. You can’t tell me who I am. Only I can tell me who I am.” And the answer to the question of identity is found in feelings. Here’s Trueman:
In characterizing the modern age as that of psychological man, Rieff makes a point very similar to that of Charles Taylor in his understanding of the human self: that psychological categories and an inward focus are the hallmarks of being a modern person. This is what Taylor refers to as expressive individualism, that each of us finds our meaning by giving expression to our own feelings and desires.
If identity is psychological, then what is Christian faith? An obstacle. At best, it’s an annoying parent trying to interfere in a teenager’s world, and, at worst, an oppressive tyrant crushing the “real” identities of human individuals.
This is why the theme of the Grammy performance was so hellish. In portraying himself as a devil worshiped by demons, Sam Smith wasn’t speaking to Christians; he was speaking to his own constituency. Christians would obviously be the first to call out the Satanic imagery as a mockery of God. In fact, that’s what the artists were counting on. The real message was internal, to those who already questioned Christianity. “These Christians paint dissenters as demons. Well, look at me. I’ll front their shallow-minded bigotry so we can all smile together. Ridiculous Christians. Go ahead and call us devils; the rest of the world is bent over laughing at you.” This sort of sentiment can only pass the popular litmus test of acceptance if the broader culture has already imbibed the idea that identity is psychological. The defensive question, “Who are Christians to think they could tell me who to be?” is met mostly with understanding. Hence the performance.
Christians, in marked contrast, argue that identity is theological. Following that principle of mimesis, we find our identity in another, not in ourselves. We learn who we are in the relational God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s God who tells us not just who we are, but why we’re here and where we’re headed. And because our identity is in him, it’s going to stay steadfast even when culture changes, even when identity moves from being rational (Enlightenment) to psychological (post-Enlightenment) to sexual (contemporary). But that doesn’t exclude us from cultural engagement, as the third principle makes clear. We’re at a new place in history.
3. Identity is now political. The real reason why the Grammy performance was so provocative is that our world now politicizes sexuality. And that’s a first in human history. Among many other things, it’s what stands behind the recent repeal of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and the institution of the RMA (Respect for Marriage Act). Telling me who I am is no longer just “religiously not cool,” to use Petras’s words. It has legal implications. If the self is understood in psychological terms and personhood is a matter of sexuality, then challenging my sexuality is tantamount to challenging my personhood. And you can see how personhood and the “pursuit of happiness” are woven into the United States Constitution.
Gone are the days when identity was a private affair. It’s now public. And Christians are going to have to decide where they stand and how loud their voice will be in this new political climate. There’s going to be persecution, no doubt, and there already has been. But to be faithful, we need to hold to identity as theological, no matter what the culture concludes, no matter how much political suffering it entails. Letting that fall would tear the cornerstone out from under the church. We would cease to be the church, in fact. As followers of Christ, our task is to suffer for his sake. In fact, that very thing (suffering) is how the resurrection life we’ve been promised unfurls itself like tendrils in the sun. As the New Testament scholar Richard Gaffin Jr. wrote,
Sharing in Christ’s sufferings is the way the church manifests his resurrection-power. Again, as in 2 Corinthians 4:10–11, the locus of eschatological life is Christian suffering; the mark—the indelible, ineradicable impression—left on the existence of the church by the formative power of the resurrection is the cross.
We need to be ready to suffer for the political conflicts headed our way. The Grammy performance wasn’t breaking any new ground in that sense; it was merely calling more attention to the issue that’s already dividing our world into tribes. It was, in Charles Taylor’s language, a deathwork, as opposed to artwork. While artwork creates culture; deathwork seeks to destroy it. Deathworks “subvert and destroy the sacred order without really having anything with which to replace it.” The sacred order Sam Smith and Kim Petras set out to destroy with this performance is the Christian understanding of heterosexual monogamous marriage. And their goal isn’t to rationally deconstruct it. It’s to make it appear disgusting. “What person,” their performance implies, “is so repulsively backwards thinking as to suggest that Sam Smith really is doing something demonic or evil in expressing his inner self?” The common responses of Christians on social media played right into the game. That was the whole point. Many Christian responses reaffirmed assumptions of those who already despise Christianity, and it further marginalized the Christian view of marriage on the political landscape.
So, why dress up as the devil, worshiped before a fiery background by a host of demons? Because the artists believe their sense of self is under attack, and they have the power to fuel or reinforce existing assumptions about Christianity in order to better establish their political rights. That’s the truth. And it’s scary.
Responding to the Mechanics of Secular Media
How do we respond to all this? The mechanics of secular media and pop culture are a book-length project. But there is something we can observe fairly easily, from a scroll on Twitter. Here’s the basic mechanics. (1) The artists hold assumptions such as those listed above. With those assumptions already in place for the broader culture, (2) their act of deathwork was simply meant to make everyone look. Turning heads was the main goal. And it didn’t matter who—supporters and naysayers are both welcome. The more the merrier, because the more onlookers, the greater the social media explosion will be. I’d say they succeeded there. But the point of getting more people to look at what they did was (3) to trigger an emotional response. An emotional response would draw more people to their view of a psychological, sexualized self. And (4) those who are emotionally repulsed by what they did are conveniently slotted into a tribe that’s long been losing influence in the west: conservative Christianity. Being aware of the mechanics of secular media is more important than ever, especially with political implications being on the line.
Rather than responding to the mechanics of secular media by tweeting all about our disgust (or even amusement), and thus driving more people to look at what the artists are doing, we might do much better to practice what we often preach: pray.
Pray for the God of identity to work in the hearts of those who have allegedly been wounded by religion. Why not pray for communion—restored fellowship with God—for Sam Smith and Kim Petras? Isn’t that why they approached religion in the first place, for a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose? Isn’t God the only one who can give that to them?
In an earlier interview about his album, Sam Smith said, “I think that you can’t blame people for thinking something’s not beautiful sometimes. Some people just didn’t like it, but it was a case where I had to sit there and be like, ‘Wait, maybe you don’t like that because you don’t understand it.’” The artists clearly feel misunderstood by Christians. But this is not a cultural problem or a problem with our view of sexuality more specifically. At root, it’s a theological problem, something only God can deal with.
In the foreword to Trueman’s book, Rod Dreher wrote,“Because men have forgotten God, they have also forgotten man.” We can pray for those who despise our faith in hopes that God would remind them—remind them who he is, remind them who they are in relation to him, and remind them how they will never find peace and identity anywhere else.
Related Resources from the Author
- "You Are They: Human Identity and the Trinity"
- "If God Has Spoken"
- Finding Hope in Hard Things: A Positive Take on Suffering