“If I was to see Jesus Christ… I would kiss his feet. I wish I could give God a hug, bro,” rapper Cardi B said in the 30-second Instagram video after learning she had two singles simultaneously in the Billboard Hot 100 chart
“I love my supporters and I love God,” she added in the caption. “The devil be working but God always works harder!”
Cardi B’s celebration and claiming of Jesus may come as surprise to some Christians who have so categorized and controlled what a “good Christian” looks like that they have excluded all things that aren’t explicitly holy and sanctified from being considered legitimate image-bearers of God.
The irony is that Cardi B raps about a lot of things related to Jesus’ teachings while giving props to God for her success. Cardi B embodies a redemptive narrative that you would think would be easy for a Christian to identify with and celebrate.
“The label of 'Christian' means more to most Christians than pursuing God in all things and in all people.”
But because she was a stripper, because she curses in her music and celebrates her sexuality in her work, she isn’t what some would consider a proper Christian artist and isn’t likely to have her songs blasted during Sunday service.
Just days after Cardi B shared her emotional Instagram video, MTV announced nominations for the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards and she led the pack with 12. The VMAs air on Monday and I wonder if, by judging artists and avoiding awards shows like this altogether, Christians will miss the reality that Jesus probably would have nominated her, too.
Cardi B is arguably one of the most influential celebrities in the world right now, and she is also one of the most relatable. We’re drawn to her charming personality, silly catchphrases and sharp political critiques. We love her catchy lyrics and, of course, her come-up story.
From her honesty on social media to the lyrics on her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, we learn Cardi B’s life hasn’t fit clean narratives of success and accomplishment. She’s struggled, hustled, stripped and gang-banged. She’s had her heart broken and she’s broken hearts. She’s fought to be taken seriously and to maintain some sense of herself in the process.
The Bible is full of people who have stories that look a lot like Cardi B’s. Ester is a concubine in a king’s court and after winning a sexualized royal beauty pageant is honored for saving the Jews from genocide. Paul and his gang of “thugs” initially murdered Christians, and we now call Paul a father of the faith. David is an arrogant man with a multitude of sins, and we have no problem touting him as a “man after God’s own heart.”
What is scripture if not a long list of stories about God redeeming the people who looked the least holy or spiritual? It seems that Jesus is always drawing close to the outcast while the church, in its moral policing, continues to make more barriers and boundaries to finding the image of God in those we have been taught to discount. The stories in the Bible are much more like the stories of Cardi B, her content and her fans than it does of those who decry certain people as being “unholy.”
“The love for God that is expressed in most gospel music is also expressed in the music and the lives of artists like Cardi B and their fans. Christians should not write them off.”
Like many other hip-hop artists― including Chance The Rapper, who is also nominated for a VMA ― Cardi B exists outside the purity-driven, morality-policing culture of Christianity; she exists at the intersection of the life she lives and a belief that God is with her. Instead of berating her character and the character of people who choose to listen to her, it should be the Christian’s job to find the sacred in what she does.
But apparently, redemption only matters when it is Christians’ to control or curate. Instead of finding commonality and joy in what some would call “secular” entertainment, the church moves toward a separatism that creates an ideology that says, “If I can’t see God in it, then it isn’t Christian.”
The church doesn’t trust people’s own ability to engage in art and come to responsible conclusions. There’s a fear that permeates the church that people will somehow be drawn to sin if they consume anything other than “pure” Christian content (think hymns, homilies and Hillsong). It is as though the church is so afraid of “the world” (read: the world that doesn’t submit to cultural Christian morality and belief), that it has lost all faith in people’s ability to view art with complexity and nuance instead of being blindly led by its messages.
The church is now functioning as a gatekeeper to what is holy, sacred or acceptable. The church ― that is to say, the human people within the church, not Christ ― has decided that to be Christian is to create art that is limited to salvation, evangelism, worship and feel-good tracks about God’s love. Even an artist such as Lecrae, whose work has been rooted in faith for well over a decade, receives criticism for abandoning the label of “Christian music” in his attempts to write about things that expand Christians’ worldview through truth-telling and political engagement.
What this communicates is that the label of “Christian” means more to most Christians than pursuing God in all things and in all people.
It would seem Christian culture has lost its ability to engage with art and thus to engage with the image of God. Art gives us space to find the divine, to see the diversity of the image of God in those whom we marginalize or demonize. We ignore the part of God that lives in sexual, struggling black women in the name of separatist movements. We protect some pure image of the Gospel rather than the people that the Gospel seeks to redeem and humanize.
The church touts morality outside the context of the reality of people’s experiences. The love for God that is expressed in most gospel and Christian music is also expressed in the music and the lives of artists like Cardi B and her fans. Christians should not write them off, but ask where they might find the image or story God within them.
“Why can’t Christians just enjoy and appreciate an artist like Cardi B without judgment of her life and personality?”
Can we also be real? If what we consider to be traditional Christian art were really as impactful and necessary as Christians think it is, wouldn’t people who aren’t Christian want to participate in it? Historically, Christians have produced much of the iconic (relative to the standards of whiteness) art of our world, so what happened?
Why can’t we just enjoy and appreciate an artist like Cardi B without withdrawing into Christian subcultures that, under the mask of integrity, pit the gospel and culture-at-large against each other instead of celebrating how all things work together for the good of God’s people?
I invite us Christians to re-evaluate what we consider to be “good Christian art.” There are messages in contemporary music that we won’t find in the Bible, in our pews or in our limited media consumption. I’ve written before about how contemporary Christians, especially white Christians, must re-examine the ways in which we engage with “the world.” We must seek to reclaim a love for beauty, an appreciation for success and a trust in people’s ability to find God in all the diverse ways that God can be found.
As the VMA’s air, Christians have an opportunity to lean into the divine and sacred found in things without the label “Christian” or stifled by the rigor of moral boundaries, fake piety and morality. We can debate all day about whether Christians should listen to Cardi B We can judge her music, content and life, but at the end of the day, in some capacity, Cardi B experiences the presence of God with her. We ought to take a step down from our high horses to find ways to see God’s own image in Cardi B.
Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.