“For those who are living according to the flesh are intent on the things of the flesh, but those who are living according to the Spirit are intent on the things of the Spirit. For the mindset of the flesh is death, but the mindset of the Spirit is life and peace, because the mindset of the flesh is enmity toward God, for it is not subjected to the law of God, for it is not able to do so, and those who are in the flesh are not able to please God.” (Rom 8:5-8)
I have often joked that John Lithgow's depiction of a conservative small-town pastor in the original 1984 film Footloose ended all hope of members of the clergy speaking out against secular art for fear of becoming like him. The Rev. Shaw Moore is the archetype of the stuffy, uptight pastor, trying to protect his flock from evil influences, only to go too far and commit the sin of legalism. So ridiculous does he appear and so misguided against the spirit of the age. So helpless in his efforts and so petulant in the face of a young optimist, that any pastor seeking to emulate the Rev. Shaw has been asking to be canceled since the film was released. Indeed, since that time, the Church was so concerned about looking ridiculous that it has embraced an aesthetic and model that comes far closer to emulating the world rather than calling God's people from the world.
Whether it was because of Footloose or because it no longer has any cultural influence left to offer, the Church is essentially silent on one of the most truly wicked forces that surrounds us today: pop music. Yes, I know that I have just become the Rev. Shaw Moore, but my concerns are not about Kenny Loggins' pop hits from the mid-1980s that innocently dotted the landscapes of our 80s childhoods. I am not worried about the "danger zones" that our brave F-15 pilots faced during a Cold War or Sunday shoes being kicked off to dance in Oklahoma. No, I am worried about the evolution of pop music since 1984, and the racial overtones that make speaking against some of it virtually impossible today.
Indeed, any conversation about something as subjective as music will quickly prove impossible to navigate with any ease. For it is often a matter of fine lines, personal choice, and the limits of Christian liberty that determine when a spiritual line has been crossed. Should the Christian avoid all worldly/pop music, or only music that clearly crosses a line into territory that is too crass? How do we determine where that line is? Is it okay if things like sex and romance are alluded to, but not explicitly discussed? Can worldly sounds (thumping baselines, aggressive guitars, and the backbeat of a trap set) be sanctified with Christian lyrics? Indeed, can a musical form itself be decidedly worldly in the Romans 8 sense because it's very nature is consistent with a fleshly view?
And perhaps most importantly of all, given the context in which I write this, am I allowed to have objections to particular musical forms if black persons tend to create that form? Or is that merely my privilege and racism showing as traits that would invalidate my criticism? To put it bluntly, do I think that someone like Cardi B is evil incarnate because I am a racist, or because she celebrates a way of life that is so far from God, there is no other explanation?
I pose this question because Cardi B has written a song so wicked and so depraved - and yet, so popular! - that I am simply forced to comment on how much things have changed. I will not mention the song and if you don't know of it, you are all the better for it. But for some reason, it has found the light to the tune of hundreds of millions of views/downloads, etc. Even though I know behind it is a huge playlist of comparable (or even worse) songs that are equally lewd and dehumanizing, this song has become a symbol of just how much success the devil (yes, he really does exist, by the way) has had in normalizing the kind of life that is utterly incompatible with God.
Yes, I know that pop culture has always been crude. It appeals to the masses by appealing to our baser instincts. I am also aware that before Cardi B there were pagan temple prostitutes, the Marquis de Sade, and Hugh Hefner. And perhaps I should mention that I am well aware that those depraved characters were all white lest anyone think I am unaware of the progression of sin through the ages or that depravity is limited to any one ethnicity.
And yet, it still needs to be said. What passes for "music", "art", and "culture" today are so thoroughly of the flesh that their inspiration can only be said to come from the fallen angels. And that means that part of our spiritual warfare includes fighting against the cultural mavens of our day, including Cardi B and anyone else who would normalize what both she and the Bible call whoredom. We could minimally include violence, drug use, profanity, jealousy, adultery, and love of money on that list of sins as well.
But can we say that? Is it even worth it, given the predictable eye rolls and pushback? Because Cardi B is black, her music is said to represent a point-of-view, and all points-of-view are equally worthy of respect, right? (Thank you Postmodernism!) Well, No. The Christian does not have to agree that all points-of-view and their resulting cultures are worthy of respect. If we did, should we even bother to evangelize? Culture is color blind, and so is Christian theology. Ethnicity cannot justify sin, whether it is a white supremacist justifying his racism or a black rapper justifying a profane single.
There was a time when a relatively innocent popular culture could live alongside a Christian worldview. Yes, nowadays we laugh at the 1950s parents who worried about Elvis' hips and the Beatles' hair. We routinely mock those stiffs, because we understood there was a time when pop culture could and did live besides our convictions of faith. Because of this nostalgic view, we refuse to call much of popular culture for what it really is: evil. It is not evil because a performer is black. It is evil if it glorifies sin.
Part of the withdrawal the Christian will have to make is a rejection of art that celebrates the life of the flesh. There is no longer room for much of pop culture to co-exist with trust in Christ. For the forces of pop culture have gone beyond creating something with mass appeal to merely make money, and seem to be animated by a force that is clearly wicked in its orientation. I oppose it whenever it is created, no matter the ethnicity that created it. For just as we are not judged by our ethnicities, we don't get a pass for them either.
Photo Credit- Lauren Davis at Twenty Thousand Hertz