The sexualization of religious imagery as ‘virtue’

Ariana Grande (Wikimedia Commons)
Ariana Grande (Wikimedia Commons)

Grace Dalton reflects on the increasing trend over the last few years for pop culture to regard the sexual use of religious imagery as ‘virtuous.’

“Watching the Ariana Grande video rebuts the plausible assumption that this is a song about female empowerment — or rather, it is, but specifically because of the act of sex. The song is not redefining the creator as female; far more heartbreakingly, it presumes that sex entirely surpasses God.”

I really shouldn’t check the Trending topics on Twitter, it is a horrendous waste of time. Recently, when I succumbed to curiosity, one trending hashtag was #GodIsAWoman. Well of course. I’m well used to agnostics, atheists and pagans referring to God as female — some combination of feminism and of wanting to offend Christians. Browsing the Tweets though, I saw that it was trending because it’s the title of Ariana Grande’s latest single. Watching the video rebuts the plausible assumption that this is a song about female empowerment — or rather, it is, but specifically because of the act of sex. The song is not redefining the creator as female; far more heartbreakingly, it presumes that sex entirely surpasses God (if He exists at all). The accompanying video, saturated with sexualised religious imagery, and featuring a monologue from Madonna in which she declares “you will know my name is the Lord” (apparently from Pulp Fiction’s misquote of Ezekiel 25:17), whilst we see female legs splayed open. It’s abhorrent, but crucially, it’s a truly tragic reminder of today’s prevailing religion. Sexuality has been the predominant theme of pop since the 60s, but work like this proclaims that not only is sex a cultural obsession, it has superseded Christianity entirely.

Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” has gone multiplatinum around the world, and similarly celebrates sex. Years & Years’ last album was entitled “Communion”, and included a track entitled “Worship” — greeted with tremendous excitement by magazines such as Attitude and Dazed, these were of course, unmistakably about the sexual exploits of the band’s frontman, Olly Alexander (who was granted his own BBC documentary about sexuality).

“Contemplation of both was sufficient to break me, I sat on the floor and sobbed for how my generation has gleefully rejected God. Most of the time, to my shame, I don’t get emotional, because we’re so drowning in this mire that the implication doesn’t continually sink in. Songs that go so far as to appropriate Christian words and imagery for the purpose of worshipping the new religion should prompt me to lament regularly.”

Almost nothing makes me cry, yet I broke down in tears one morning whilst reflecting on the television I’d seen the evening prior. Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vogue to international jubilation; whilst on the Graham Norton show, Will.I.Am performed “Boys and Girls” — #”The girls wanna play with boys, And the boys wanna play with girls, And the girls wanna play with girls, Boys wanna play with boys. Oh boy, don’t you love this world?”#. Contemplation of both was sufficient to break me, I sat on the floor and sobbed for how my generation has gleefully rejected God. Most of the time, to my shame, I don’t get emotional, because we’re so drowning in this mire that the implication doesn’t continually sink in. Songs that go so far as to appropriate Christian words and imagery for the purpose of worshipping the new religion should prompt me to lament regularly. Because, whilst the onus is on us to refrain from judging; the jubilant celebration of sex that contradicts God’s design evidences audacious shunning of God.

Use of religious references goes further still, proudly declaring that sexuality has entirely eclipsed Christianity, such that its components may be stolen and mutilated. It brings to mind the Philistines’ placing the Ark of the covenant of God (Yahweh) in a pagan temple; or wealth worshipping merchants contaminating the temple in Jerusalem with their exploitative money changing business.

The Twitter thread for #GodIsAWoman was filled with joyful praise of Grande — she’s not merely an artist whose work is adored, she’s deemed a noble heroine. This perhaps, is what’s newest — not only hypersexualisation and the mocking of Christianity, but the new moral code which deems these to be virtuous.

We need to have compassion. Most of our neighbours are unaware of the ultimate joy, and the eternal life in heaven that they’re missing out on.

“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” — C.S. Lewis

“That sexual liberalism is now deemed virtuous is another inference to be drawn from appropriation of religion in sex themed media. Not only are these music videos, screen scenes and so forth proclaiming that the artists worship sex; perhaps they are also acknowledging the respect long afforded to religion, and suggesting that sexual liberalism now holds that moral superiority instead.”

Whilst, amongst demographics, there’s a loose correlation between sexual liberalism and anti-capitalism, it is clear that that capitalism is substantially responsible for the sexual revolution. Sex sells, thus it’s become ubiquitous in our music, magazines, onscreen and in advertising. Because media companies and others will grab more gazes — and in turn rake in more profit — by parading increasingly sexualised material in front of us, corporate greed has transformed what we now consider normal. What would have been considered perverted by our grandparents is now on daytime television. Importantly, just often enough, it’s entwined with art and emotion that convinces us that it is inherently good. The word “love” is used to refer to the most carnal indulgence, and we’re taught things which were deemed “sexual immorality” for millennia are in fact beautiful and virtuous.

That sexual liberalism is now deemed virtuous is another inference to be drawn from appropriation of religion in sex themed media. Not only are these music videos, screen scenes and so forth proclaiming that the artists worship sex; perhaps they are also acknowledging the respect long afforded to religion, and suggesting that sexual liberalism now holds that moral superiority instead. Years & Years’ recent single, Sanctify, corrupts this word for cleansing by God to celebrate sex — specifically including BDSM.

The Bible considers marriage — even romantic intimacy within marriage — to be an illustration of Christ’s union with the Church.[1] This takes some fathoming — the Apostle Paul calls it “a profound mystery.” This is not, of course, to say that God literally ‘has sex.’ But he uses sexual union within marriage as a profound illustration — as an artist might use paint as a medium for a self portrait, but is not comprised at all of paint themselves. The tragedy is that humanity (for whom this illustration was graciously given) takes the painting, and paints all over it, grossly disrespecting the artist and hiding their art’s message.

Of course, the tactic is well established; Madonna’s Like A Prayer being one of the best known chart songs appropriating religious imagery to discuss sex. Iconic ballads Halleluiah by Leonard Cohen and Heaven by Bryan Adams — arguably two of the most covered songs in pop history — are less speculated to be have explicit innuendo rife, but are undeniably also misuse Christian references to elucidate intimate relationships. That they are such popular songs is, surely in part these references; the concepts and motifs linger in the hearts of secular Westerners. Of course

What, ultimately, is the sensation within the mind that sex creates? Like other emotions, it is somewhat a metaphysical enigma — is neither matter, nor energy that can be observed, let alone scientifically measured. Neurotransmitters dance — but they are ultimately molecules, not sensation and the same neurotransmitter molecules contribute to entirely different, separate relational experiences, oxytocin is deemed largely responsible for the feelings of bonding in sex, but also in parent/child relationships. If we believe in God, we believe that we can experience emotions because we were crafted by an ultimate being who themselves experiences emotions. Having studied biomedical sciences, this seems to me incomparably more plausible than the theory that our consciousness and its related neurotransmitter networks developed by the chance deviations of atoms (in particular, the molecular processes that underlie biology are not only too complex, but too interdependent to have evolved by chance alone). If then, even our most intense emotions exist because God gave us the ability to feel, then we know that we can receive every bit as much joy in a celibate life with God (as in a life with sex).

“An NME article just released argues that female sexuality in pop music has eclipsed ‘religion’. The writer claims that the Bible is ‘a load of sh**e’ and celebrates ‘There’s something brilliant about the way pop’s women exert their sexuality onto the facade of religion… Pop, once again, proving to be more powerful than God.’”

An NME article just released argues that female sexuality in pop music has eclipsed “religion”. It offers Dua Lipa’s streaming numbers surpassing the world’s Christian population as evidence — illogical as this is — and praises God Is A Woman. The writer claims that the Bible is “a load of sh**e” and celebrates “There’s something brilliant about the way pop’s women exert their sexuality onto the facade of religion… Pop, once again, proving to be more powerful than God.”

Clearly demonstrated is the ignorance that most have of the intellectual aspects; endless depth and emotional richness of Christianity. Our culture’s addiction is ultimately a lame attempt to satisfy hunger for what people don’t know they’re missing.

We might internally recoil at the ubiquitous sexual imagery and innuendo plaguing our culture, and rightly so, as much as it will have us labelled prudes. God wants us to keep our hearts and minds pure. Vital though, is that we strive to emulate Jesus in how we outwardly respond; resisting judgemental attitudes and words (though we may still be accused of being judgemental simply for not endorsing liberal sexuality). Paramount is that we recognise the urgency of proclaiming who is truly deserving of worship. Paul tells us that “neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality… will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10); whilst Christ tells us that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” (Mark 16:16). It’s response to Jesus that determines salvation — but continuing sexual immorality evidences a heart that’s not yet believing in Christ. Will we be His messengers in declaring that Ariana Grande is wrong?

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] See https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-metaphor-of-christ-and-the-church; and, more viscerally, http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/mshivana/marriage-icon.htm.

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