Satanism on display at the Grammy Awards

At the 2023 Grammys, pop icon Madonna took the stage holding a dominatrix riding crop and expressing: “Thanks to all the rebels out there forging a new path.” She then introduced trans artists Sam Smith and Kim Petras as they performed a song entitled “Unholy.”

Many were shocked by the performance, replete with demonic imagery. This was hardly innovative. In 2021, the Lil Naz X released his 666 shoes featuring a pentagram and drop of human blood, and a music video in which he gives Satan a lap-dance. In 2022, Demi Lovato released an album in which she sings that she is “Like a serpent in the garden,” “the fruit that was forbidden/I don’t keep my evil hidden. … I’m the sexorcist.”

Satanic themes have long been a fixture of American music, going back, at least, to legends of Robert Johnson trading his soul to the devil. ACDC released “Highway to Hell” in 1979. Van Halen released “Runnin’ with the Devil” in 1978. The Rolling Stones released “Sympathy for the Devil” in 1968. This is Spinal Tap was hilariously mocking all of this as far back as 1984; As Thomas More observed five centuries ago, “the devil, that proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked.” Perhaps, we who recognize Christ’s victory over darkness could do with more mockery and less doomsday forecasting when faced with blatant displays of the demonic. Jesus has already put Satan and his minions to cosmic shame by his work on the cross (Colossians 2:15).

The “Unholy” performance was unique in being the first time that an erotic ritual of devil-worship was targeted at children on a major network during prime time. Petras stated, “I just hope that it inspires kids at home.” What precisely was supposed to inspire kids at home? Smith, donning devil horns, received choreographed worship, while Petras, legs spread, gyrated inside a cage in the face of multiple strippers. How inspiring for the kids.

A standard response is that “Religious Nuts LOSE IT Over Unholy Grammy Performance,” a la the The Young Turks: “These performers probably don’t actually believe the devil exists. Satanic imagery is not actual devil worship. It’s art, you morons!”

Regardless of the performers’ personal beliefs, we should never sacrifice the innocence of children on the altar of artistic expression. Jesus has strong words, something about millstones and the sea, for those who would dare make children stumble (Matthew 18:6).

Consider a simple distinction between Devil Worship A and Devil Worship B. A describes those doing the bidding of an actual Satan. B refers to those who reject the existence of Satan, but use him artistically to make a point. Smith and Petras would likely put themselves in category B. Does this mean all those “religious nuts” who think that Smith and Petras endorsed actual devil worship can be written off as quacks? Not so fast.

What is the message driven by Smith and Petras, two biological males with XY chromosomes, the first of whom identifies as gender fluid and the second of whom has undergone gender mutilation (at the age of 16) to identify as a female? Their predictable mainstream message is that our desires define reality and we should live our own truths. This was precisely the message of Anton LaVey, the founder of the actual Church of Satanism. LaVey used Satan as a metaphor for bold obedience to one’s own desires over and against all traditions and social expectations. In that sense, the “Unholy” performance was indeed satanic.

But there is a deeper sense, the biblical sense. The message of self-exaltation is hardly, in Madonna’s words, “forging a new path.” It merely repeats the ancient temptation of Satan. The offer to become “like God knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5) is an offer to reject God’s authority and become the sovereign makers of our own reality. Smith and Petras overhype what is literally the oldest lie in human history. Their edginess is archaic, their innovation hopelessly outdated.

It follows that Devil Worship A and B are not mutually exclusive. Those who use satanic imagery to advertise self-definition through uninhibited sexual assertion may not believe in an actual Satan. They, nevertheless, do his bidding. If we seriously reckon with the hard evidence of destruction, especially to young girls’ bodies and psyches, promoted by entertainers who claim to inspire children, then it is hardly a leap to believe in the existence of some malevolent entity who specializes in deception and destruction.

Kim Petras was asked about the inspiration behind the performance. Petras replied, “I personally grew up wondering about religion and wanting to be part of it, but slowly realizing it doesn’t want me to be a part of it.” Allow me to respond directly.

Dear Kim, your rejection of religion hasn’t made you non-religious. You are still bowing, only to the finite creation rather than the infinite Creator. Let me be crystal clear for you and Sam: You are loved in a way that no sexual experience can grant. We absolutely want you to be a part of Jesus’s movement to bring healing and redemption to a fallen cosmos. We, like you, have made spectacles of our self-worship. But there is grace for us all. Jesus is infinitely more joyous and meaningful than all the world’s accolades and affirmation. He is where our deepest identity is found. Ever since Jesus’ death and resurrection everything changed. The system of self-glorification is on its way out. Please, don’t find yourself on the wrong side of the future. Don’t spend your career parroting the doomed dogmas of an ancient snake. Repent. Find eternal life in Jesus.

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Thaddeus Williams

Thaddeus Williams is the author of the best-selling book Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice (Zondervan/HarperCollins, 2020). He serves as associate professor of systematic theology for the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and resides in Orange County, Calif., with his wife and four kids.

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