"Not Afraid" Vs. "Love the Way You Lie": Eminem and the Limits of Pelagianism

What I’ve never figured out is if everyone hates Eminem, how’d he sell so many […]

Ben / 7.7.10

What I’ve never figured out is if everyone hates Eminem, how’d he sell so many records? Somebody must have liked him. So I’ll confess first—I liked him enough to bleach my hair blonde my freshman year of high school (yeah, I’m just that cool.) While never a huge fan of rap, I (secretly) resonated with Marshall Mathers’ rhymes. His lyrics weren’t limited to sex and money and so I took interest. As a young, nervy kid, who needed a way to deal with his manufactured angst, I could throw on a track and decompress.

But that was a long time ago. My interest in the “white rapper” waned around 2003, and I haven’t kept up with his career until recently. About a month ago, I heard his new single on the radio and it reminded me of his early stuff. I’m sure that ten years ago, I would have loved it, because “Not Afraid” is all about “manning up” or picking yourself up by your own bootstraps. You might be in the dumps, but all you need to do is have the courage to “take a stand,” and try a little harder.

Having experienced complete failure in all my attempts to perfect myself, all I could do was roll my eyes when I heard this song. I mean if anyone should understand the bound will, “the fact that we are not nearly as free as we think,” it is the self-proclaimed screw-up that is Marshall Mathers—the man who has alienated himself from his wife and child, time-and-time again.

Needless to say, the public ate it up. The track became a #1 hit in no time. And I would have been happy to go the rest of my life without hearing another song from the prince of controversy.

But the other day, during a six hour trip back to Ambridge, PA, I put on some top-40 radio and heard his latest single, “Love the Way You Lie.” This time around he was rapping alongside pop-star Rihanna. While I expected the typical rap duet proclaiming the glories of money, power, and sex, to my surprise there was a different message altogether–one that contradicted the Pelagian self-confidence of the first single.

“Love the Way You Lie” is an inside look at an unhealthy relationship. Its reflection on love in the midst of domestic abuse is haunting, and yet deeply human. It’s a picture of a man who “does not do what he wants, but the very thing he hates,” and he knows he can’t-just-change. While all the lyrics are worth checking, here is a particularly troubling verse:

“Maybe our relationship isn’t as crazy as it seems
Maybe that’s what happens when a tornado meets a volcano
All I know is I love you too much to walk away though
Come inside, pick up the bags off the sidewalk
Don’t you hear sincerity in my voice when I talk?
Told you this is my fault, look me in the eyeball
Next time I’m just gon aim my fist at the drywall
Next time there won’t be no next time
I apologize even though I know its lies
I’m tired of the games I just want her back
I know I’m a liar if she ever tries to f****** leave again
I’ma tie her to the bed and set this house on fire”

The characters in “Love the Way You Lie” suffer from what theologians call the bound will. Whether or not this song is autobiographical, it would appear, based on his first single, that the only way Em’ knows how to deal with addiction is to try harder. But what is he to do when he can’t help himself? When fighting only leads to failure and despair.

Eminem (and those like him) are so ripe for the Gospel, for what the Rev. Paul Zahl calls one-way love. People like him have exhausted their own inner resources and desperately need external help. They need Christians who will point them to the Cross, and tell them about the radical grace of a relentless Savior—one who loves sinners, screw-ups, addicts.