Lovin' On the Freakshow Sitting Next to You: The Church According to Twenty One Pilots

In yesterday's post I shared some theological reflections about the music of Twenty One Pilots in relation to my book The Slavery of Death. Today I want to share a related reflection about the song "Heathens" by TØP and my book Unclean.

Both Unclean and "Heathens" are meditations about welcoming the outsider, especially the extreme outsider.

In the gospels we observe Jesus extending hospitality to extreme outsiders. Jesus welcomed all sorts of extremely marginalized groups, Roman centurions, zealots, tax collectors, Samaritans, women, children, lepers, sinners, the demon possessed and prostitutes. Jesus welcomed the demented, the disabled, and the insane.

Sadly, the church routinely fails to display Jesus' lifestyle of radical hospitality. Far too often the church fails to welcome the heathens.

The song "Heathens" was released in 2016 by TØP as the lead single of the soundtrack for the film Suicide Squad. The song has set records on the music charts and was nominated for a Grammy.

"Heathens" makes many of the points I try to make in Unclean. The speaker and audience of "Heathens" is unclear, but I'd like to read the song as Jesus speaking to the church, as TØP preaching to their fellow Christians. Read this way "Heathens" is both a prophetic rebuke to the church as well as an invitation into Jesus' lifestyle of radical hospitality.

The song opens with these lines:
All my friends are heathens, take it slow
Wait for them to ask you who you know
Please don't make any sudden moves
You don't know the half of the abuse
Both Jesus and TØP have friendships with "heathens," relationships with the criminal, the immoral, the broken and the insane. They bring these "heathens" to the church. And the request is for the church to welcome these "heathens" with gentleness and compassion. Take it slow, church, don't make sudden moves. People are fragile and weak. What you see on the outside will tempt you toward judgment and harshness. But you don't know half of the abuse.

But judgment is hard to eradicate. As it says in the next verse:
Welcome to the room of people
Who have rooms of people that they loved one day
Docked away
Just because we check the guns at the door
Doesn't mean our brains will change from hand grenades
As I describe in Unclean, hospitality begins as an affectional capacity, with what Miroslav Volf calls "the will to embrace." Hospitality starts in the heart. On the surface a church gathering seems committed to peace, we've checked our guns at the door, but violence is taking place within our hearts. Our brains are throwing hand grenades.

This is the source of our failure in displaying Jesus' radical hospitality. Our brains are throwing hand grenades at the heathens.

But the song continues by pointing us toward a radical vision of Christian fellowship, a transgressive, surprising community:
You're lovin' on the psychopath sitting next to you
You're lovin' on the murderer sitting next to you
You'll think, how'd I get here, sitting next to you?
Unclean deals a lot with our disgust response, how the emotion of disgust gets used to mark and then push away outsiders as "unclean." Disgust is associated with our sense of smell, the characteristic wrinkling of the nose. This olfactory image is highlighted in the next verse of "Heathens":
We don't deal with outsiders very well
They say newcomers have a certain smell
These feelings of revulsion, and a host of other affectional triggers, have to be mastered if we want to replicate the motley and unlikely crew that Jesus gathered around himself. Hospitality to heathens is the church according to TØP. As the song continues:
You're lovin' on the freakshow sitting next to you
You'll have some weird people sitting next to you
You'll think "how did I get here, sitting next to you?"
Church should be a fellowship where weird people are sitting next to you. Church is that place where you are called to love the freakshow sitting next to you.

And we do this not because we are saintly people. As it says in the last line of the song: "It looks like you might be one of us."

We welcome heathens because we're all heathens. We're all broken, all sinners. All weird in some way. We welcome freakshows because Jesus welcomed us when we were a freakshow. And each week we come together to confess that we're still a freakshow.

That is the source of radical hospitality, the welcome of Christ that calls freaks and weirdos into community.

That is the church according to Jesus and TØP. The church is a community of radical embrace so surprising and unlikely that we look around with joyous, disbelieving faces to ask, "How I get here, sitting next to you?"

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