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My name's Clifford Stumme, and I explain the deeper meanings of popular songs. Let's have a conversation about what you think about the songs and go deeper together. Feel free to email me at clifford@popsongprofessor.com with questions or ideas!

Deeper Meaning of Twenty One Pilots's "Heathens": Witnessing and the Church?

Deeper Meaning of Twenty One Pilots's "Heathens": Witnessing and the Church?

Edit: Since I wrote this post, I've done some thinking and research and actually found what I think to be a much closer explanation. It's in the video above or the podcast below, which you can listen to here or on iTunes

Yesterday, I did something foolish. I explained a Twenty One Pilots song and then "closed the book" and told myself, "Well, it looks like I covered just about everything." Yeah . . . I was wrong.

I explained the meaning of Twenty One Pilots's new single "Heathens." My argument was that it addressed new fans of the band, telling them to be careful around members of the Skeleton Clique (Twenty One Pilots's VERY enthusiastic fanbase). I thought Tyler Joseph, the lead singer and songwriter for the band, was maybe even telling people to be careful about being judgmental towards those they didn't understand.

I was really impressed by the song and can't stop listening to it.

But I think there's more.

Ex-Writing-Coach-Who-Worked-in-My-Writing-Center Tyler M. set me onto this idea (and it was corroborated by four very intelligent commenters on the last post and on Facebook). Tyler says, “I can’t help but believe the line ‘Wait for them to ask you who you know’ is referring to how he would prefer to wait for people to ask him about his beliefs or God rather than going straight at it, instead taking it slow. . . .”

FB-Commenter Paulo agreed, and Madison, Emma, and Isabella started an ENORMOUSLY deep conversation on my first “Heathens” blog post about the exact same thing.

Apparently, other people agree that there’s something else here.

Where I Stand Now

I think “Heathens” applies to both what Tyler M. mentioned and to the idea judging people (particularly people in the Skeleton Clique) but in a unique way. The people that are being judged and that Tyler wants people to be careful around, he describes as “my friends.” These are the “heathens.” So, he (who we know is a Christian) is friends with people that self-righteous Christians might consider “heathens.”

But who is he singing to and what does he mean by “who you know” when he asks people to “take it slow / Wait for them to ask you who you know.” My first idea was that this was about when music fans list the bands they listen to, but now I think it’s about Jesus.

Tyler’s friends are “heathens”; defined very literally this means they are not Christians and do not know Jesus. Christians will sometimes refer to Christian faith as “knowing Jesus,” so there is a precedent for referring to Christian faith as “knowing someone” or talking about “who you know.” Thus, perhaps the song is about evangelization.

Faith-Sharing Styles

I think Christians look at telling others about our faith in one of two ways: evangelically or relationally. (Trust me: It all connects back to “Heathens.”)

A large percentage of American Christians put a lot of stock in the first style. They tell strangers about Jesus, applaud the not-jerk street preachers, hand out tracks, and invite people to church. These people tend to lean heavily on dramatic salvation experiences (like an altar call) or a simple process (like the ABC’s of the faith–admit, believe, confess) to tell others about God.

People who share their faith relationally are less dramatic and more passive. They believe people should build relationships with people first and then tell them about God or let the truth about God shine through how they live their own lives.

I’m a member of the second group though I used to be a member of the first. I switched because I kept asking myself why people would care to hear about something like this from a stranger and kept asking if I’d ever take or had taken seriously someone who had done something similar to me. The more I thought about it, the more I felt like the first style felt too emotional, too hyped up, and too much like advertising. And I’m not saying it’s not effective; I’m saying that I felt insincere participating in it–like I was in a pyramid scheme or something.

I think it’s better to build relationships with people you like and to trust that God will lead you into friendships with people who need to hear about Him. Let Him do the hard work and simply obey Him and try to be more like Him (Ecc. 12:13). People will understand that there is something different about you, and they may ask why. But it’s not up to us to try to sell Christianity.

I don’t know who did, but someone once said that the best way to love someone better is to understand them and to try to get to know them better. And Jesus told us to love our “neighbors as ourselves,” so I think it makes sense that I would spend time getting to know someone better (and thus growing in love for them more) before I shared really deep stuff. Besides, does most people really want to hear about super deep stuff from complete strangers or people they don’t trust?

Tying it Back to the Meaning of “Heathen”

I think Tyler agrees with me about witnessing styles and is using “Heathens” to encourage the Church to approach Tyler’s non-Christians friends with extreme respect. He doesn’t want “preachy” Christians to jump right in and start giving the five steps to salvation. Tyler, Twenty One Pilots’s music, and the Skeleton Clique don’t work that way; they question, they doubt, they think, they wonder, etc.

Tyler wants Christians to realize that they don’t “know the half of the abuse” these people have suffered and to realize that Tyler’s friends aren’t going to accept any “magic wand” fixes of their lives that Christians sometimes seem to hint at when they talk about salvation.

This also makes sense in the context of the first verse where Tyler sings, “You’ll never know the psychopath sitting next to you,” and, “You’ll think, ‘How’d I get here sitting next to you?'” Tyler worries that these witnessers don’t really “get” his friends, and knows that if they think quick fixes are going to help, they’re wrong.

Similarly in the second verse, Tyler sings, “We don’t deal with outsiders very well,” and, “They say they can smell your intentions.” His “heathen” friends don’t automatically open up to people just because they have “good news,” and they’re suspicious of anyone who comes sharing Christ without actually caring about, knowing, or loving the people they’re talking to.

In the outro, the message gets deeper as Tyler sings, “Why’d you come? You knew you should have stayed.” This seems addressed to a Christian who really does just want to love people or to get to know specific “heathens” better. Tyler tried to “warn you just to stay away / And now they’re outside ready to bust,” because getting to know someone is difficult and can be painful when you start to share emotional baggage together. And the “they” outside could refer the other Christians who don’t get it or could refer to difficulties or temptations that this Christian is admitting he/she experiences alongside the “heathens.” Tyler finishes by singing, “It looks like you might be one of us,” to show that this Christian has integrated him/herself into the group correctly.

(Oh, also, in the middle of the outro, Tyler whispers, “It’s blasphemy,” perhaps to suggest how he thinks strongly evangelical Christians may respond to what he writes here.)

In Closing

Whether the meaning of “Heathens” is really about the Skeleton Clique, Christian witnessing styles, or just judging and accepting others in general, it’s a powerful song.

Twenty One Pilots’s song operates on several different levels and contains lyrics that feel like they can accurately be applied to several different situations. And I think that’s the mark of real truth.

I’m going to get a little bit abstract here, but you’ll be able to follow me: I think when a song like this applies to so many different situations it means that the writer acknowledges the deeper logic of how the world works.

There are patterns all over the world that are repeated over and over: Jesus using marriage as a metaphor for the church’s relationship with God, the ways that certain consequences always seem to follow naturally from certain wrongdoings, Fibonacci numbers, the way that people who care too much about something (whatever it is) always seem to be the last to get it, etc. You’ve seen patterns like these. My favorite is watching how really good swing dancing follows the same principles that a good marriage does.

When a song hits on one of those patterns and has lyrics that fit into so many different circumstances and interpretations (judging, witnessing, social groups) so well, I think there’s something special about that song, and I think it’s worth our time to continue studying it.

If you have thoughts or questions about this song, please comment below–I always respond. I’m excited to discuss! Also, make sure that you read the first blog post I wrote about “Heathens.” I’ve changed my mind a little, but it’s still really good. And you can read tons of other Twenty One Pilots song explanations I’ve done too! 

Podcast: What does "Heathens" by Twenty One Pilots mean?

Podcast: What does "Heathens" by Twenty One Pilots mean?

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