The Unholy Divine

The Law Always Accuses, But Semler Longs for Grace and Peace

Ben Maddison / 4.30.21

But I’m a child of God, just in case you forgot
And you cast me out every single chance that you got
And that’s your loss, not mine; I’ll be better than fine
You just missed your shot to meet the unholy divine.

If you haven’t heard of the musical artist Semler, there’s a few things that stick out: the heartbreaking and hilarious lyrics, the Gamestop tweaking of the charts, and being a queer artist in the Christian music world. Let’s grab a coffee and abreact to any number of things that she and her music evoke, but there’s something bigger at play. At the intersection of TikTok and deconstructing exvangelicals, there is one beautifully raw, self-produced, explicit Christian album, and something I know to be true shone through — once again — like a giant, painful neon sign glowing in the dark for everyone to see but for no one to comprehend:

The Law always accuses.

For about a week — not long in the world of mass media — Semler’s Preacher’s Kid held the top spot for Christian Music on both iTunes and Spotify. The album wrestles with doubt, hurt, and the pain of Christians judged by the church.

I first heard about the project and the album from my time on TikTok (a whole different story). But the enthusiasm for it (and the visceral antagonism towards it) was hard to ignore. So as soon as it dropped on Spotify, I put in my headphones, closed my eyes, and listened to it from beginning to end. The less than 20-minute album left me in that very specific place between devastation and hilarity, also known as one of Sarah Condon’s favorite overlaps: funny and sad.

I might not have understood precisely the experiences she was remembering. But I had similar ones. Painful ones. Ones I would like to forget. Memories from a time and a church that said holiness and righteousness and relative perfection were the only ways to please God. If I had these feelings — as a straight, male, preacher’s kid — how much more difficult must it have been for Semler?

And that’s when the appeal of the project came into clear view — all of the political and theological and newsworthy parts of the story melted away — and the whole thing became so obvious. The Law had utterly crushed Semler’s Preacher’s Kid. Crushed with no hope for redemption. Crushed and offered no source of hope, no solution to the problem.

Semler was, in a very real way, looking for grace.

Oh, what I’d give for just an inch of your peace
’Cause I wanna fall but I’ve got bruises on my knees
Oh what I’d give for just an inch of your peace
’Cause I wanna fall, I wanna be someone that you’d call

For anyone who has known that extremely specific, very terrifying “casting out” by law-heavy traditions that always seem to “rescue the Law from the jaws of the Gospel,” Semler was speaking directly to them. In her opening song, “Bethlehem,” she wrestles with wanting and needing something — but not being able to name exactly what that is. Or rather, getting close to naming it but being terrified of what has happened when she has named it in the past. The hurt that the church had wrought and its obvious hypocrisies sour her to its message.

I’m more confused than I’ve been, and I don’t think this will pass
And I’m saying your name when I think the plane will crash

At 21, I was an energetic, Evangelical kid, “fulfilling all righteousness” and doing an excellent job of saving myself (thank you very much). By a weird twist of fate (well, the Holy Spirit), I was introduced to Mockingbird and the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, which fundamentally shifted my entire understanding of, well, just about everything.

But it didn’t help me — didn’t really save me — until, like Semler, I needed grace. It’s so easy to get lost in the “meaning” of Preacher’s Kid: its place on the Christian charts; its beautiful, brilliant subversion; its humor, heart, and hurt.

But here’s what I think it’s saying: we have an entire generation of people who’ve been told that the Gospel is essentially Law — about meeting and maintaining an unmeetable and unmaintainable standard. I’ve met countless folks on TikTok who have walked away from the church, from faith, from Jesus because the “Gospel” presented with was almost entirely Bad News.

The reason Preacher’s Kid struck a chord is that I know the feeling she’s talking about. To know that other people are being so utterly crushed continues to hurt my soul. But more than that, as I listened to these songs, this clergyperson felt like screaming: “I’m sorry! This is terrible! But this is not everything. Not the only way.”

There is an answer. There is hope. There is grace.

If the church that Semler mourns condemns her — and rejects anyone who doesn’t meet its standard —Jesus Christ comes looking precisely for the “unholy divine.” Her whispers of God as the plane crashes, her desire to fall on her knees, her longing for a God she was told couldn’t possibly love her — that is a plea and a cry for the balm of grace we all need.

I wish, with all my heart, for Semler, for my 21-year-old-self, for everyone crushed by the Law, for those cast off from the church, for those hiding in it with carefully curated masks that cover what’s really going on, really for absolutely everyone, I wish that they might hear the hope, mercy, grace, and peace of the gospel. I wish — I pray — that they might be met by Christ, who is kneeling next to them, assuring them of a grace for them that is theirs even if the church can’t or won’t give it to them.

The unholy divine is exactly and exclusively the domain of Christ — whether the church knows and sees that or not.