not this morality play

(The Devil and Dr. Faustus meet. Via Welcome Collection)

Hello friends—

Sorry I’m a little late this week. It’s been an exhausting month in ways both physical and mental. It’s my first month doing a full publicity slate in quite a while, and honestly, it’s been depleting. I’m working on a post about Raymond Carver, Ann Petry, and conspicuous self-reflexivity in contemporary fiction re: class. I was going to post it this week, but it just needs a little longer to cook, and I want to get through Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class so I can draw on it a bit more for the piece. So check back for that next week if that sounds interesting to you.

My short story collection Filthy Animals snagged a Kirkus star! It’s a great review, and I’m really happy about it. Preorders help a lot, but I won’t pull your arm about it.

Last week, rapper Lil Nas X released a music video for his song “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” and as of this moment, it’s been viewed over 49 Million times on YouTube. I mean, even by mass-culture standards, it’s got to be one of the most witnessed pieces of art in all of human history. The video is something of a throwback to camp theatrics of videos of yore as it tells in trippy CGI splendor the tale of the fall of man. Lil Nas X strums a guitar in a neo-Eden and is tempted by a humanoid serpent. Following a trial which is presided over Nas X in his Nicki Minaj-inflected finest, he briefly ascends toward heaven before plummeting into hell on a pole, showing off some impressive core strength. In hell, he rides the devil for all he’s worth and ascends to the throne. The story seems simple enough, dealing in themes of persecution and temptation and ultimately self-salvation through self-acceptance. Nas X reclaims his power from those who would cast him into hell by basically being like Bet. Aight. It’s not, like, revolutionary. It’s not even particularly interesting as an aesthetic choice. It’s kind of dated, no, as a move? But, the video is stylish and, like I said, kind of a throwback to those high concept videos. Back before mumblecore became the governing aesthetic of the early 2000s in music videos. It was, as is the usual music video in the TikTok era, full of easter eggs and references. In some way, the video seems destined to have its scenes dissected and reproduced in the app. I’m almost certain there will be some sort of Barb filter before this is all done.  Lil Nas X is like, twenty-one. I couldn’t even say the words gay out loud when I was twenty-one. So, no, it’s not novel, but the video slapped, and the song is catchy, and black gay boys living their fucking life on their own terms is beautiful and incredible.

The video, because of its imagery I guess, has caused a bit of a moral panic among Christians that is both kind of funny and also sort of sad for how earnest they are in articulating their offense and aggrievement. I mean, who knew that in 2021, it was still possible to find a music video featuring cartoonish Christian images offensive. On Twitter, Satanists and Christians and Christianity trended for days. DAYS. The outrage was of a kind with the kind of moral panic we witnessed when Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion teamed up to give us “W.AP.” another visual spectacle of a video featuring Megan and Cardi and an array of dancers in rubber and latex dancing like the fucking rent is due. GIVING IT. STOMPING FOR THE GODS. It must be said. People were outraged and provoked by the very idea of two black women expressing sexual desire in direct and frank terms and having fun all the while. They were powerful, sexy, but more than anything, they seemed free to do whatever they wanted with their bodies. And people got really mad. Outraged. Truly. You’re a role model! Act responsibly! It’s almost as if there’s some kind of governing ethic in our culture that hates when black women and queer men express agency or something. Wild. And the Christians. The Christians.

It was all very nostalgic.

I don’t know if many people remember this, but around the turn of the millennium, America’s evangelical Christians lost their fucking minds and entered full-on End Times mode. That fervor entered a new register when Obama was elected, as white Christians quite literally saw Obama as the Anti-Christ. But there was, also, a Christian frenzy around 9/11—how could there not be, I guess. It’s hard to describe the air in those days. How you could turn on the television and find seemingly reputable reports on how the devil’s face had been glimpsed in the smoke billowing out of the towers. Or, how the US intervention in the Middle East would lead to the final catastrophic wars prophesied in the Book of Revelation. I know it sounds silly. But in 2001, it seemed very possible, as likely as the rain, that we would wake up and be raptured into heaven or left behind. Around that time, it seemed, there was also an uptick in severe weather and calamitous storm systems. Of course, it was climate change, but we didn’t call it that then. Some people did, of course, but it hadn’t gone fully mainstream yet. In my family, we blamed it on the End Times. The Bible had accounted for that too in its prophecy.

I bring all of that up just so that you know some of the context in which I read the Lil Nas X reaction. Those old days of white moms on TV crying about taking Jesus out of school. When they banned books about magic and made rules about how we weren’t allowed to engage in occult behaviors or activities. My bus driver banned doing sorcery and putting spells on people. Consider that. I come from a place in the world where people so thoroughly believed in Christ that they also believed in dark magic. But that’s not surprising if you think about the things Christians believe. I mean, the very foundation of the religion is predicated on a man dying and then coming back to life. Watching Christians freak out about Lil Nas X did pitch me back to Bush’s America. And in some ways, we’ve never quite left that America. It still seems possible that we might wake up and be raptured. Now more than ever, maybe.

I’m not sure anyone back in 2000s America who had come of age praying to God and begging to be made clean and whole and burning up with Christ’s light could have imagined that one of the most viewed pieces of art of this century would be about fucking the devil and then sitting upon his throne and reigning over all of hell. I think it would have seemed more likely to a person in 2000s America that we’d all be stuck inside fearing a global plague. In fact, the pandemic is more continuous with the moral universe of 2000s American than anything else. Sometimes, I marvel at the unreality of our times, but then I think back to 1999 when my grandmother would say, “Get your house in order. You better start back at Church. The world is ending.” My family fully believed that the rapture would come at any moment. They probably still do.

Whenever I talk to people about my former life as a Christian, I have that same feeling I get when I tell people I don’t drink—misapprehension. It’s difficult to articulate what it means to be a former Christian, specifically rural Baptist. Because my Christianity was nothing like the Christianity a lot of Americans imagine. It was all white polyester sleeves and oil sheen in the blue can and white patent leather pumps and zebra stripe gum and peppermint if we were good and the slippery heat of the bible. The hiss of its pages, the terrifyingly straight underlining of passages whose meanings glinted at me as if through a screen of shifting trees. My Christianity was the smell of damp dogwood leaves and the metallic reverb as our voices struck the patches in the roof. It was silence during storms, everyone sweating and watching the Lord work.

Sometimes, I could feel God’s presence all around me. I’d walk outside after a storm had blown through and stand at the top of the hill, looking down into the deep gullies furred with kudzu and dark berries, and I’d feel His presence. It is a special kind of thing to know God. And then to come out of it. Trying to explain my life as a Christian is like trying to explain a dream. You know it’s not real. But it is. When you sleep, it is real. The dream in itself is real. Sometimes you wake from a dream so good and so perfect, so utterly continuous with waking life that when you leave it, something in you aches for the rest of the day. That is what it is to know God.

I don’t believe anymore. I mean, there was no tenable way to stay with God and survive my life. My family wanted me to be something else. Something I am not. Mostly straight. But other things too. I think sometimes it is worse having known God and then having left Him. You know what I mean? Like, you get this close, but you can’t cross that little bit of space into belief. And so you are left with doubt. Such doubts. You’re left with only the miracle of this little blue rock hurtling through space. Which isn’t nothing. But it’s not that feeling I used to get when I could feel the presence of God.

There’s a theme running through a lot of my stories, characters who used to be religious and who are not anymore. Of course, not a lot of people ask me about that because they are too busy asking me about James Baldwin, and not about how he was a child preacher but mostly about how we let white men fuck us. They are too busy asking me about race to ask me about faith and why my characters struggle so much with it. We accept atheism and agnosticism as a default position. I know that many of you think that this is a secular country. But it is not.

I remember vividly getting into an argument with a baseball player in high school. He called me a secularist because I didn’t believe in the war. He said we had a Christian duty to fight. You are a secularist. You will burn with the infidels. We had been, not friends, but on friendly-ish terms. Something happened when the towers fell. There was suddenly this sharp divide between me and all of the people I had considered my peers more or less. Suddenly, I could understand that they were different from me. I had spent all this energy in my early adolescence trying to fit in with white kids and they had “accepted me” but when I said that the war was just a pretext to get oil, one of these white boys who I’d liked quite literally jumped across two desks and shoved me against a white board.

I recognize it now, of course. They were Republicans. But back then, I didn’t know what that meant. I thought that grown ups were grown ups and all more or less thought the same thing. And that kids were kids and we all kind of thought the same thing too. But after 9/11, it all changed. Some shift in the light. And suddenly, all these shadows everywhere. I felt myself drifting from the people I’d been close to. And they noticed too, and called it out, and tried to say that I was changing. But I wasn’t changing. I mean, I was, but my movement wasn’t away from them. It was just closer to myself.

After 9/11, my school system was one of the many across America that mandated the singing of the National Anthem after the Pledge of Allegiance. We did that every morning before announcements. We sang it off of little handouts because we didn’t know the words. I was in seventh grade when the towers fell. We started then, the day after. And it continued until I graduated. When I was in high school, there was this big court case involving a monument of the Ten Commandments being placed in the Alabama courthouse. The monument was designed and placed by Roy Moore. Some of you know of Roy Moore because of his Trump allegiances and eventual revelations of sexual harassment and assault allegations. I knew of Roy Moore when he was an Alabama Supreme Court Justice who refused a federal order to remove the monument and was then removed from office because of it. The debate trickled into our high school, where we were also having debates over whether or not to allow prayer in school. And whether or not our mandated “moment of silence” at the start of every day was technically prayer. My AP Chemistry professor, in the middle of a lecture on thermodynamics, put his arms out in Christ pose and said, “It’s crying out for a maker. You see it, don’t you? The equations, it doesn’t make sense without a maker.” My Physics and Chemistry teacher was deeply religious as well, but she kept it out of the school.

In Alabama, there was a sense of chaffing against the secular yoke of separation of Church and State. There was a sense that America was heading toward the same fate as Rome if we didn’t turn it around and stop abortions and gays and go over there and blow up whole sovereign nations. There was a sense of moral obligation to turn our country around, which mostly meant telling girls to wear long pants and putting black people in “decent clothes.” It was the height of Cosby Respectability Politics and thinking that if young black men and women dressed well enough, respected themselves enough, they would be safe. It was also the height of a so-called “epidemic of teen pregnancies” and when it was totally permissible on National Television to opine about the “loose morals” of black girls and black women, or to discuss their bodies as though their bodies indicated something about the moral characters of their souls.

Frankly, it still seems permissible in a way that is horrifying and should shock the cultural conscience. Look only to the treatment of Cardi, Megan Thee Stallion, Serena Williams, Lizzo, Chloe Bailey, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Even the most cursory glance at Twitter shows all the misogynoir in full fucking flow. It’s horrifying. And all too present in every part of our society. It seems that if there were to be a moral panic, we should perhaps have a moral panic about the prevalence of misogynoir in our culture and the ongoing march of violence that deforms and warps the lives of black women. If there’s going to be a moral panic, why not over the shocking violence toward Asian elders that’s flecked the news lately, culminating in a horrifying mass shooting in Atlanta that saw Asian women targeted specifically due to some white man’s misogyny and religious fervor. Moral panics never break out over things that matter, I feel. But I guess the Christians are too tired after a long day of telling Lil Nas X that he shouldn’t ride the devil.

America in the 2000s was a series of moral panics—teenage pregnancy, teen drinking, tanning, rap music, violent video games, prayer in school, no prayer in school, black literacy, inner city violence, American values, porn, homosexuals. There was a time in the 2000s when to be black was to be violent and to be gay was to be ridiculous and to be both was to be dead. Or invisible. When you couldn’t say that you were agnostic because then you’d end up getting a casual exorcism performed on you at a family BBQ picnic. It was a time when our identities felt static and codified.

America is a theocracy. I wrote that in an essay in ninth grade. I remember it because someone read it over my shoulder and told their friend. And that was why the boy jumped across the desk at me. I was trying to say that America was a theocracy, no different from the theocracies it was trying to topple as a pretext to steal their natural resources. But there was a feeling that I was being disrespectful to my country. That I was out of line and insolent. And I was going to burn in hell. There was a lot of that then. A lot of You’re going to hell.

That was why I ultimately stopped going to church, I think. You can only hear that so many times before you either decide to fold in on yourself or get loose, get free. Some people never find their way out. Instead, they deny themselves. Or hurt themselves. They turn themselves into lesser, smaller versions in order to survive. I think people sometimes think that it’s healing. But it’s not. It’s a kind of deprivation. I used to hear this thing a lot when I was still in the Church: God will love you unconditionally if you just change. It always struck me as silly, doublespeak. Just change and you will be loved unconditionally. Just be someone else, and you’ll have God’s eternal love. Anyway. I got out.

It feels like a miracle.