The Grammys were televised a couple of weeks ago and received the usual good ratings. Personally, I don’t watch award shows because they tend to be more about the spectacle than about the product they’re awarding.¹ Quirky, attention-seeking people aren’t particularly interesting to me unless I’m the quirky one seeking attention.
For instance, Lizzo entered the festivities cocooned in a lava-like cape so cumbersome that she needed an entourage of four to help her manoeuvre it. Yes, she is talented but why would I watch her posing for a photo op when I have books to read?
Shock and sexuality are not unusual at the Grammys so it’s puzzling how many people came unglued after Sam Smith’s infamous ‘satanic’ performance. Smith was clad in red and carried a walking stick and devil-horned top hat. Plenty of undulating bodies danced sensually around both he and Kim Petra whose performance emanated from inside a cage. Did I mention there were horns on his hat?
Naturally this caused many conservative gaskets to be blown. Across the continent superstitious christians paused their Coke and Doritos long enough to gawk at the devil worship unfolding before them. Evangelicals in particular were outraged that horny satan worshipers were allowed on a family show meant to be about materialism and celebrity.
The people of God had been told all their lives that it would come to this. So they rose up, hurled social media insults at the performers, and united together to talk about praying against the forces of darkness.
But you will recall there is a history of christian fear on the subject of satan – witch trials, Halloween, demon possession, those kinds of things. Many of us remember the evangelical hysteria around Dungeons & Dragons, rock music, satanic messaging (Stairway to Heaven, Hotel California). It’s hard to overstate the paranoia produced by ‘deliverance ministries’ and wild claims by the likes of Bob Larson and Mike Warnke.
Of course you realize we don’t know that the devil wears red clothing, right? Or that he wears clothing at all? Or that he’s a he? And you know that our beliefs about horns, hooves, tail, pitchfork, etc. are relatively recent scary enhancements? Yeah, I thought you did.
Did you know that biblical references are usually ‘the satan’ and that it means adversary or accuser? Do you know the Bible often describes satan as working in cooperation with God to test human faithfulness? And do you know that a lot of good christian thinkers make the case that satan isn’t a real being but the potential for evil that lurks within us? And that the primary tools of evil are lies and accusations?
Anyway, back to Sam Smith’s horns. Admittedly the performance was creepy and uncomfortable but it was designed to do that. It was also meant to say something important because, when he isn’t worshipping the devil, Sam Smith is also a passionate songwriter.
I don’t know much about Sam Smith’s music but I’m learning. He is the voice behind the memorable song Stay With Me, which is about the desperation of being alone, or the haunting Lay Me Down, which laments the pain of being separated from the one you love.
Unholy is the song at the centre of the horny devil worship controversy. It is about a husband who repeatedly cheats on his wife though she remains innocently unaware. Both husband and wife are desperately lonely and unfulfilled, and the whole song is intended to feel unseemly, dirty.
So to recap: the song Unholy is about the evil of surrendering to selfishness. It’s about the unholiness of cheap sex and broken promises. It’s about the unfulfilled longing for love and intimacy.
Unholy isn’t a christian song but it should be.
Just to be clear, I’m not fond of the imagery either; I don’t even watch horror movies. And we all agree: it is brutally self-evident that evil is real.
In any case, religious people didn’t like the devilish performance. Maybe it was the devil-horns, maybe it was the suggestive dancing, or maybe it was that Sam is gay and Kim is transgendered. Ironically, the song was at least partially directed toward religious people who have attacked the artists’ personal lives.
For many years, Sam Smith’s music has carried themes of separation, loneliness, and longing for love. The performance was intended to express something universal and profound, yet after the Grammys, lots of christians chose to be accusers.
Let that soak in for a minute. Millions of christians were so triggered by a cartoonish caricature of the devil that they acted un-lovingly toward performers who were singing about people who are unloving.
This year I am participating in an online reading group through the days of Lent. I am excited because I have had my eye on this book for awhile: The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge.
The book explores the many symbols, interpretations and possibilities of what happened the day Jesus was killed on a Roman cross. To simply say, “Jesus died to take away my sins” is fine but only scratches the surface of what happened.
Rutledge makes a startling statement about the crucifixion on page 3 of the introduction. She writers that it happened “…without any spiritual overtones or redeeming religious features.” In other words, evil was overcome – not through religious activities – but through courageous humility and love.
How then, should we think about confronting it?
There is an exhausting amount of evangelical outrage these days and it usually resorts to attacking the sinner. But you will recall (again) that Jesus had healthy, accepting relationships with sinners and that his frustration was reserved for the narrow, accusatory religious types.
Among the obscenely expensive commercials at this year’s Super Bowl were some that were part of a larger evangelical ad campaign. The theme was ‘He Gets Us’ and the ads were designed to reassure the masses that Jesus is friendly, understanding, accepting.
I could have saved them a lot of money. Jesus becomes real to others when we embrace them and treat them as he would … with grace and kindness.
You see, the point isn’t whether or not the satan is real – who cares? The point is that we are all too anxious to use his tools of lies and accusations.
Sam Smith and his horns expressed it well.
Withholding love is unholy.
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¹ I’m a huge football fan but I only watch the sixty minutes of the game on Super Bowl Sunday. No pre-game, no halftime, no postgame. I know I sound uptight but the consumerism, militarism, testosterone and idol worship rub my beliefs the wrong way.