No, Lil Nas X Isn’t ‘Mocking’ Christianity

Hip-hop’s consummate trickster, Lil Nas X, has started off the new year doing what he always does: Riling folks up on the internet. After all the complaints about devil worship that were flung at the rollout of his last project, Montero, he’s apparently adopted a policy of malicious compliance, going to the other extreme with a “holy man” persona that has the same exact demographic calling for his head again — big surprise, right?

The accusations being leveled at him this time are that he’s “mocking” Christians — i.e. the same people who spent a year throwing him under the bus for his method of self-expression (not to mention his sexuality). While Nas accepts that his reputation as a troll somewhat demands that his actions be taken with a heavy grain of salt, he also denies that the purpose of this rollout is to mess with his biggest critics — at least, not solely.

But even looking at the imagery he’s shared at face value, it could hardly be said he’s mocking anything. He’s got a point; his reputation has led to this interpretation more than anything he’s shared about the new direction his visuals have taken. By casting himself as the subject in reproductions of well-known art pieces — pieces that do admittedly have religious overtones, if inaccurate ones — he has much more to say, though, than sticking out his tongue at religious adversaries.

First things first, it seems we need some art history lessons. Just like when Doja Cat had to explain the 15th-century inspirations behind her tattoos last year, it seems that adding some context could shed light on why so many people are up in arms about Nas’ promotional artwork. The single cover, which depicts Nas in the process of being crucified, is a clear reference to tons of Renaissance-era depictions of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion from the Bible, but it’s not like those depictions are strictly accurate.

In fact, depictions of Christ have been controversial throughout history, with some traditions outright banning them. The Renaissance works from which we’ve taken the majority of our modern understanding of religious imagery were commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church in the 15th and 16th centuries, long after anyone would have even known what the historical Jesus would have looked like. Nas is reproducing these images, yes, but more as an expression of his appreciation of Renaissance art than as the mockery some assumed — for instance, the cover art for his No. 1 single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” took inspiration from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, which adorns the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Likewise, Nas is far from the first artist to reproduce famous Renaissance depictions of Christ and similar iconography in his work. Before pop matron Madonna was wearing grills and du-rags, she was irritating conservative thinkers with videos for songs such as “Like A Prayer,” which juxtaposed crucifixes with sexual imagery, evoking the Church’s long, knotty entanglement with the subject of sex. The elder rap Nas depicted himself being crucified — a rather common execution practice during the Roman Empire, it should be noted — in his video for “Hate Me Now.”

As fans on Twitter pointed out, artists ranging from Kanye West to DaBaby to Tupac to Kendrick Lamar have all incorporated some aspect of these well-known symbols into the presentation and promotion of their art — symbols that were, again, invented in at least their broad aspects by artists who lived over 1,000 years after the events imagined in their work. Likewise, contrary to come of the complaints leveled at Lil Nas X, these religion-themed works are far from the only classical artwork that modern artists have reproduced or referenced to sell their music.

As for why it may seem that way, well, it’s probably because those are the works that are the most ubiquitous in Western culture. After all, it’s not like there were toy commercials disguised as kids’ cartoons name-checking the most famous West African or East Asian artists. Much like some of those early Christian traditions, some religions outright ban depiction of their most holy figures — why do you think no one ever dressed up as Muhammad for Halloween?

While Lil Nas X is far from the first or only artist to receive some modicum of backlash for his reproductions of classical Renaissance interpretations of Biblical stories, it does seem as though he’s gotten an outsized amount of it. While some of that can probably be attributed to his rep as a troll, with folks interpreting anything he does as making fun of something, it’s obvious that a lot of it stems from religion’s inability to reckon with queerness as a concept. The sad part is, like the Renaissance images Nas appropriates for his promotional campaigns, homophobia isn’t actually intrinsic to Christianity, either. But that’s a conversation for another day.