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On Jesus Is King, Kanye is still king
Jesus has been walking with Kanye for a long time
I remember when I first moved to Philadelphia (August of 2004), Kanye West’s hit single, Jesus Walks, was still on the radio and I was kind of enamored with it. I was still sorting through my faith then, just like Kanye was, but I remember listening to it and genuinely feeling good about it. Kids like me who grew up in Christian households and only bought CDs from Christian bookstores were thrilled when Kanye was rapping about Jesus. My favorite part:
I ain't here to argue about His facial features / Or here to convert atheists into believers / I'm just tryna say the way school need teachers / The way Kathie Lee needed Regis, that's the way I need Jesus. / So here go my single, dawg, radio needs this / They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, videotape / But if I talk about God my record won't get played, huh? / Well if this take away from my spins / Which'll probably take away from my ends / Then I hope this take away from my sins
Kanye’s faith has always been a part of his music, and as a devotee, I have tracked along with his very publicly broadcasted journey. He’s a complicated guy and it’s kind of unfair that we see celebrities the way we do (scrutinizing all their behavior, photographing every moment of their life, and so on)—but they aren’t innocent victims, of course. Kanye West has never shied away from speaking his mind in a way that attracts attention to himself, and that makes for some nice entertainment and plenty of opportunities for rebuking his pathological behavior while still gawking at him (how could I turn my eyes when he grabbed the VMA from Taylor?)
Kanye polarizes on Jesus is King, so true to his form
Kanye has sort of self-documented his life, so it’s not hard to see that there is a lot going on with him. His bouts of mania that lead him to wear a MAGA hat that made him “feel like Superman” or when he says slavery is a choice definitely make me wonder how it’s going with Kanye. His troubled actions and his celebrity make everything a little bit more complicated for Kanye when he releases a very explicitly religious album.
Twenty-seven minutes long, I listened to Jesus Is King several times the day it came out. And it was true to Kanye West’s form: equal parts sincere and endearing but also self-involved and a little out there and also a little lacking.
Some Christians are super excited that Kanye West is “born again.” Here’s Shai Linne’s take. He’s excited for Kanye and his new faith and wants to grow and expand it. I appreciate that idealism. Roby, my brother in Christ, said he’s grateful no one questioned his authenticity when he started following Jesus; I appreciate Roby’s Kanye apologia.
Others have a hard time receiving his message because he’s an unrepentant harmful man who has taken the spotlight—this is a pattern for men in churches, remarked Candice Benbow. Some folks can’t exonerate Kanye because of his support of a white nationalist President and how self-involved he is. Others think they might be exploiting his mental illness. Some people can’t get beyond Kanye’s misogyny and it’s hard to blame them.
And then there is the Trump family. Here's Donald Trump, Jr., ready to use Kanye right in the culture war. Look at how transparent he is:
Do you hear the dogwhistle for white supremacy here?
Of course, Kanye thought he’d get pushback from Christians. He says in Hands On: “What have you been hearin' from the Christians? / They'll be the first one to judge me.” He’s not wrong. Sometimes we are the worst critics, but misappropriating Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 (“Do not judge, or you too will be judged”) is an old Christian defense to never be held accountable.
Kanye is sincerely himself
I admit I’m conflicted when I listen to Kanye West’s music. But I am interested whenever someone is talking about faith and not only what that means for them but for our movement. Is Kanye’s record seeding the territory with faith? Is it tilling the soil? Or it is hardening it and making it harder for people to connect? I imagine a mix of those things. But he’s not responsible for them, nor is he leading.
To me, he seems like he’s experienced something real and he’s expressing it. It’s hard to knock him for that. I’m cautiously optimistic. He’s praising Jesus, he’s quoting the Bible, and he actually wrote a decent Gospel song. Check out God Is.
“He's the strength in this race that I run / Every time I look up, I see God's faithfulness.” Is that fake? I dunno, but it inspires me. And yes, when he utters Jesus’ name, a name above all names, it means something to me too. “You won’t ever be the same when you call on Jesus’ name.” I’m not sure what Kanye means about that—but I know what I do when I sing it!
And he’s really speaking my language when he sings about Jesus bringing a “revolution / All the captives are forgiven / Time to break down all the prisons.” It’s a powerful message I can’t let go of myself. There’s a truth in there that I also know to be true.
Of course, sometimes Ye is a little too revealing: “I can't keep it to myself, I can't sit here and be still / Everybody, I will tell 'til the whole world is healed.” I appreciate the evangelistic fervor, but being still is an important part of our faith. And no, it’s not because God has assigned us rights (of course I balk when I hear Kanye say something about “God-given right.”).
Kanye is as self-involved as he always is, so this record is probably equal parts worshiping God and worshiping himself. Kanye isn’t leading us to worship God, but to worship his experience with God. The songs are fundamentally about him (and God). At its best, his faith may rub off on us; but for Kanye, I think he is narcissistic enough to think of his experience as enough to save the rest of us. So it’s all about Kanye still.
And honestly, who knows if his faith will take? Who knows what it will mean? Is the next Gospel record he produces evidence enough? I still don’t know. I’m not sure if public displays of faith are the best evidence for an interior life. Plenty of pious pastors and worship leaders fall away from their faith, or embezzle money, have affairs, do all sorts of things.
Only Jesus should be celebrated—that’s the issue with Christian celebrities
So I guess that’s the heart of the matter at hand isn’t it? I don’t know Kanye’s heart, but I can judge him by his fruit, and for my part, I can take the good and leave the bad. It doesn’t make much sense for me to knock him as totally inauthentic, but I’m not praising God like the resurgence of Kanye’s faith (which, as I mentioned above, has always been a part of him) is going to change the world. I’m not sure he’s the Apostle Paul on Damascus Road yet.
But I probably shouldn’t pay much mind to it, at all. Kanye’s biggest struggle will be what he does with his own faith when he’s not in the spotlight. And I hope genuine repentance and humility develops in him as a result of his apparent encounter with God. I hope it’s not just the manic side of his bipolar disorder. I hope it’s real.
Here’s where I’m at though: Christians aren’t supposed to be famous. We’re supposed to be self-effacing and self-emptying. New converts of anything being put in the spotlight is a formula ripe for disaster. But that doesn’t just go for black rappers like Kanye who so apparently show us the dangers of such celebrity. White, male pastors are full of that trouble too. Looking up to them is another form of idolatry. We don’t even like the office of the priest around here for that reason! No, Jesus really is King—not us.
When we say Jesus is Lord, we are making a political proclamation against the powers that be, but we are also making a humbling assertion about the kind of people we want to be. The whole point of declaring Jesus as King is that we must decrease. Like John the Baptist says when he introduces Jesus to the world in John 3: He must increase, but I must decrease.
Kanye seems to think he’ll be seated next to the Son of Man in the age to come, which, of course is an age-old problem. The sons of Zebedee seem to have had the same problem and they don’t realize they are asking for death when they long to be close to Jesus. I’m not sure Kanye does either, but maybe he will eventually. But for now, Kanye is King along with Jesus, I suspect.