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Someone sent me Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” music video expecting that I’d be offended. I’m the senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City, which has long offered refuge and radical welcome to LGBTQIA+ people fleeing religious violence. And I’ll admit, I don’t know that I was fully ready to watch Satan getting a lap dance, but after watching the video, I was offended: incensed by how the church has turned love into poison, spitting at boys like Montero Hill (a.k.a. Lil Nas X) for far too long. The true scandal of "Montero" isn’t Hill’s seduction in the garden; it’s the preaching that made him feel less than beautiful, sacred, and beloved.
As a pastor to the Middle Collegiate Church community for 17 years, the trauma folks bring to me is heartbreaking. Folks are told God hates them, that they are perversions. Congregants have been disowned by their families and experienced homelessness. Others have contemplated suicide because they were taught to hate themselves. One congregant used to meet with me weekly and say, “I know I’m going to hell, but I might as well enjoy this music while I’m alive.” He’d leave my office, and I would weep for him and for all who hear theologies that make hell a destination for their queer and wonderful selves.
What Lil Nas X offers in response to this alienation is art painted directly from the liberation theologian’s palette: He reclaims the symbols others used to condemn him to proclaim his own blessedness. Indeed, what’s immediately striking is Lil Nas X’s theological sophistication. While some of the more suggestive scenes in the video drawing critics’ ire are somewhat blunt—you don’t need to strain to grasp the metaphor of sliding down a pole to the devil—others are rather subtle. The Greek emblazoned on the tree, for example, translates roughly to, “Therefore, after nature was divided into two, each yearned for the other half.” It’s a nod to Plato’s Symposium—which describes the first humans as androgynous before we were split by the gods, instilling in us a longing to find the other part of ourselves for wholeness—an arrestingly nuanced allusion to gender’s historic fluidity.
Likewise, his decision to open in the Garden of Eden, where he is seduced by the snake, drinks from a deep well of feminist biblical criticism. It rejects traditional and patriarchal readings of Genesis, instead understanding the serpent as a more morally ambiguous figure, and celebrates Eve’s own agency. Throughout the video, we see a profound truth: Often, those who have been wounded by the Bible know it more deeply than folks who wield our holy text as a blunt instrument.
The homophobia that plagues too many churches was quick to surface in cultural pews as well. People have attacked Lil Nas X for what they see as gay propaganda, and it was incredibly refreshing to see his forthright reply. In a letter to his 14-year-old self, he wrote, “They will say I'm pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am. The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.” His agenda is freedom; his intention is liberation. And though he might articulate it in a way that ruffles cultural feathers, proclaiming liberation for all people—including queer people—is holy work.
Every year, far too many religious queer youth die by suicide before they ever have a chance to hear how deeply God loves them. Amid this epidemic of hatred masquerading as holiness, the vehemence with which Lil Nas X rejects this false gospel should be the least of our concerns. Moreover, the video’s overt sexuality is precisely the point. Fortunately, more churches are speaking out against homophobia, however their progress usually falls far short of celebrating LGBTQIA+ people’s sexual lives. The queer theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid astutely noted, “All theology is sexual.” I agree, and theology that refuses to name queer sexuality as holy and blessed—particularly after centuries of God-talk that called it anathema—needs to be called into question. I believe the God who makes us all awesomely and wonderfully in Her image created our sexuality as well, as a gift to be celebrated, as unique as our fingerprints. Our sexualities, genders, ethnicities—all these identities honor the complexity and beauty of God. When we see each other, when we acknowledge the divinity embedded in each body, we know more about the Holy mystery that is God. We know more about the stunning diversity that is the human family.
In his seminal masterpiece, A Black Theology of Liberation, Rev. Dr. James H. Cone wrote bluntly, “For too long Christ has been pictured as a blue-eyed honky. Black theologians are right: we need to dehonkify him,” in order to reclaim the gospel white supremacy had stolen. Cone understood: Against racism’s gravity and magnitude, “Christian theology cannot afford to be an abstract, dispassionate discourse on the nature of God.” And this is what Lil Nas X so clearly understands: Queer people need more than a tepid welcome that asks them to leave their deepest longings at the door.
What he offers instead is a glorious subversion of the very same tropes deployed against him. The image of being consumed by love—stirred to cast fear aside and claim pleasure and passion as his birthright—will hopefully spur others to do the same and live into the fullness of their humanity. Christians should celebrate this vision, because it so beautifully dovetails with the ecstasy we can find in relation to God—the boundless love we’re called to share with others. As James Baldwin wrote, “To be with God is really to be involved with some enormous, overwhelming desire, and joy, and power you cannot control, which controls you.” Baldwin never saw "Montero," but his words certainly describe it.
At its opening, Lil Nas X narrates, “In life, we hide the parts of ourselves we don’t want the world to see. We lock them away. We tell them, 'No.' We banish them.” Really listen to those words. In the video, Montero can be his full self. The sin in this video is not some cheeky sex play with a man in horns. Generations of kids entered churches asking to be loved, and we offered them chains. What a joy it is to see Lil Nas X break those shackles and demand a love that calls him by his name.
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