Reality Is Now a Diss Track

This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

Not since Tupac died have we seen the country quite as fixated on a feud between rappers. Over the past several weeks, artists Drake and Kendrick Lamar kept the news cycle abuzz with their dueling diss tracks—ridiculing each other in trivial matters of height and weight and popularity before getting nastier with implications of secret love children and the possible grooming of minors.

As the lyrics amped up, police even investigated whether the argument was related to a shooting of a security guard outside Drake’s home in Toronto. For most people, though, the feud didn’t seem dangerous; it just seemed fun. And that’s what worries me.

I am far from qualified to judge who the better artist is between Drake and Lamar. My dogs were named Waylon and Willie, but, come to think of it, the Outlaws wrote a diss track or two themselves. Even so, if this were just a story about musicians’ egos battling, it could be quickly forgotten. The greater concern is not that these two artists have diss tracks, but that we are all living in one ourselves.

Drake and Lamar obviously do have some genuine dislike of each other. I share sarcastic barbs with a good friend sometimes, but I’ve never accused him of being a pedophile or of neglecting his child support. And yet, it also seems that much of this feud is theatrical—meant to mutually benefit them both.

After all, the question in the music industry press right now is not whether restraining orders will be sought but whose tracks are beating whose on the charts. The truth is, no matter who is “winning” or “losing” in that competition, both are winning. People are listening, if only to see which one will hit lyrically lower, jab more personally.

And the consuming audience wins too. It’s one thing to be a fan. It gives fandom an extra hit of adrenaline, though, to move that fandom from liking someone’s work to liking someone’s work while hating someone else’s. That transcends genres and platforms. Not long ago, some fans were enraged by DC Comics writer Tom Taylor’s musings that he would like to revisit some aspects of the backstory of the character Batgirl. They showed it by posting pictures of them burning photographs of Taylor’s face. He responded by posting, “I write COMIC BOOKS.”

This would be one thing if it were limited to fandoms vicariously living out virtual feuds, posing their favorite artists / movie franchises / characters / video game avatars / restaurant chains as imaginary gladiators at war with one another. The problem is that, as with so much else, these online realities are becoming real world realities. And they are affecting every part of life, including that of the church.

Texas Monthly recently highlighted the way that many Eastern Orthodox church communities in the United States are disturbed by the phenomenon of “Ortho Bros” tearing apart their communions. These are usually young men, almost always somewhere on the spectrum of white nationalist/Putinist/neo-Confederate. They are perhaps disproportionately “incel” (involuntarily celibate), but almost always with a view of women that confuses misogyny with masculinity.

And in their churches, they take the tactics of online troll discourse—complete with “I was only joking” when caught in one-step-too-far indefensible behavior—into the actual life of the congregation. These are usually, the Orthodox say, un-discipled young men, often with “father issues,” who aren’t drawn by the spirituality or liturgy of Orthodoxy but by being able to use it like a gamer would a “skin”—an identity from which to identify enemies and to fight them, “safely” and from a distance.

We, of course, have seen a much, much larger phenomenon like this in our own evangelical circles. The theology differs, but not the vibe—and, after a while, one realizes that the vibe is what matters, when one is bored of following Jesus and learning the Bible.

Decades ago, there was an evangelical trope that one should be a disciple of Jesus, not a fan. That’s true, but perhaps we should recognize what particular kind of fandom is infecting our religions communities: the kind that finds belonging by a shared hatred rather than a shared love.

This damages not just the witness of the church but the souls of the “reverse fans” who use it as a place to spike their adrenaline with a constant craving for controversy. It also hides what’s really damaged and hurting, in need of the repair that can come only from grace.

Long before hip-hop, one unbelieving philosopher launched what one might call a “diss track” against another (by then long dead) anti-theist philosopher that almost predicted the reverse fandom we would see now—especially with the theatrical pseudo-masculinity that denigrates women. In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell dismantled Friedrich Nietzsche’s tough-guy portrait of himself as a woman-hating nihilist who valorizes the strong and abhors “weakness.”

“It is obvious that in his day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor; all the men he admires were military,” Russell wrote. “His opinion of women, like every man’s, is an objectification of his own emotions towards them, which is obviously one of fear. ‘Forget not thy whip’—but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.”

Even as atheistic as he was, Russell also called out the ridiculous nature of Nietzsche’s dismissal of Christianity for its “weakness” and “slave mentality.” He wrote: “He condemns Christian love because he thinks it is an outcome of fear: I am afraid my neighbor may injure me, and so I assure him that I love him.”

“It never occurred to Nietzsche that the lust for power, with which he endows his superman, is itself an outcome of fear,” Russell wrote. “Those who do not fear their neighbors see no necessity to tyrannize over them. Men who have conquered fear have not the frantic quality of Nietzsche’s ‘artist-tyrant’ Neros, who try to enjoy music and massacre while their hearts are filled with dread of the inevitable palace revolution.”

With a few minor tweaks, the same could be written of the kind of trolling we see now—absent Nietzsche’s intellect but with all of his bile—that seems obsessed with putting women in their place and longing for a caesar who can impose a Nietzschean kind of “Christianity” on the rest of the world.

These are often people who are terrified of women and who would rather fantasize about cracking the whip in an imaginary, restored Christendom of the future than leading a prayer group in their own actual church. This kind of soul does not resonate with the psalms of the faithful but only with diss tracks—of whatever genre or denomination or tribe, as long as they channel anger and punish enemies.

The police responding to shots at Drake’s house unnerved those who remember previous “feuds”—not just between musicians but even between Olympic athletes and high school athletes and cheerleaders (or their parents), not to mention rival mob bosses—that ended in blood, not just words. Many remember that what starts as theater often becomes real. Artist rivalries are one thing—competing fandoms usually don’t hurt anybody. The stakes are higher, though, for a neighborhood, for a nation, for a church.

A people who lose truth turn to theater. A people who have given up on mission entertain themselves with feuds. A people who forget how to sing the songs of the redeemed can find that all that’s left are the diss tracks of the enraged.

Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.

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