It is impossible to go on social media without seeing posts, arguments, and even memes about the latest revelation in the music industry: Kanye West’s conversion and the subsequent release of his latest album, Jesus is King.
Many Christians (and perhaps even more non-Christians) are skeptical: has Kanye really changed? Christians worry publically that this transformation is not what it seems, that Kanye is faking faith to reach a wider audience and increase media attention. Ironically, non-Christians are on the offensive, frustrated that a big-name is not only claiming Christianity but is actually living it, as evidenced by a mocking article declaring that Kanye is “hell-bent” on his new faith.* This article indicates that if this is indeed a career move for Kanye, it is a very poor one, for it risks losing a large part of his typical audience. (Luckily, he seems to have caught the ears of enough families, moms, and grandparents to make up the deficit!)
“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.”
I’d like to focus on the negative Christian response. While I cannot expect those who do not share my faith to respond kindly to Kanye’s conversion, I would have hoped that Christians would treat his professed faith (whether or not they believe it is genuine) with hope and prayer. If justice operates on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” why shouldn’t we consider a man’s profession of faith right and true until proven otherwise? Would not that be the just—or, at least—merciful and gracious response?
To see Kanye speaking out about the sanctity of human life, the importance of family, modesty, and other more conservative values is remarkable and ought to be as celebrated by Christians as it is bemoaned by seculars. I have had quite a few “Amen” moments while scrolling through Facebook and seeing various pastors and theologians calling out Christians for bashing West’s born-again faith. They remind readers that Paul’s conversion was likely met with even more astonishment. I believe that we would do well to also recall the following parable:
“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
‘But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to the heavens, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
– Luke 18:11-14
We have seen Kanye exalt himself, but now we see him in a posture of incredible humility. Who are we to look down our noses and comment, “well, he had to do something for his career” or “hard to believe this will last…”? We might as well say outright, “Thank goodness that we are not like him.”
No, we aren’t like Kanye West because—let’s face it—we are not celebrities. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d look particularly righteous and faithful if my entire personal life were broadcast in the media, and I came to the faith as a child. Are there some terrible things in Kanye’s past? Of course. But what matters is his present posture, which is more similar to the heart-broken tax collector than the pharisee.
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you
will not despise.”
– Psalm 51:17
There is more at play here, though, than a mere skepticism regarding Kanye’s personal conversion. Along with a prejudice based on a hypocritical self-righteousness, there is an aesthetic judgment occurring, perhaps unconsciously. Many of those expressing doubt regarding Kanye’s conversion are also demonstrating a deep-seated suspicion toward not merely the artist, but the entire genre that he represents.
Rap music and the church have a complicated history and I am far from qualified to delve into it.** However, as with most prejudices, it seems that opponents of the genre single out its most profane and most jarring products and form their judgment based upon these. I suggest that if we allowed ourselves to look only at the best and brightest of any genre, we would find little room for such blanket-statement biases.*** For years, I have claimed a dislike for rap based on my understanding of it as incapable of expressing anything other than the profane and worldly. However, I was wrong and admit my bias was formed without enough diversity of information.
Kanye’s music prior to the release of Jesus is King is not, morally, something that I can endorse, nor, it seems, can Kanye. Still, to judge the entire genre on one particular example is also to overlook its potential for beauty and goodness. For instance, due to my high-brow conceptions of music, I somehow managed to grow up as a youth-group teen without ever listening to Lecrae, a Christian hip-hop artist who has done truly amazing things, both artistically and altruistically, for the Kingdom. In my conception of classical music as the exemplar, I remained in willful ignorance, unaware of the quality contributions of more diverse genres and artists.
In Jesus is King, I found myself convicted of my prideful judgment of both the man and his music. In fact, Kanye recognizes and predicts the reluctance of Christians to both accept his conversion but also to listen objectively to his music:
“If they only see the wrongs, never listen to the songs
Just to listen is a fight, but you booked me for the fight
It’s so hard to get along if they only see the slight.”
-“Hands On,” Jesus is King
Not only does this album demonstrate remarkable aesthetic development within the genre but it reveals a humble willingness to engage with both the Christian gospel and also contemporary Christian culture. Fusing hip-hop/rap and gospel music, the album demonstrates a transfiguration of Kanye’s typical genre, maintaining the integrity of his artistic background yet becoming strongly evocative of gospel music.
To judge rap and hip-hop, then, as incapable of gospel work or expression, is a great disservice and only strengthens the stubborn refusal to welcome the artist himself into fellowship. Kanye recognizes this and describes it poignantly:
“Said I’m finna do a gospel album
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me”
-Hands On, Jesus is King
The lyrical content, too, has undergone a total transformation, preaching the gospel clearly and cleverly without being ironed out into a kitschy Wow Hits album. This has led many (especially Christians) to listen who would not ordinarily choose Kanye’s music. Kanye’s faith, then, is altering his art, but still allowing him to continue within his genre, transfiguring it into a glorious means of praise without losing touch with its unique style. Isn’t this the heart of Christian sanctification? That, as we are remade in Christ’s image, we become more like him and, paradoxically, grow into our best and truest selves? Kanye may only have “half-read Ephesians,” but it seems he read far enough to understand this!
More than simply an aesthetic adjustment, though, Kanye’s new album shows a humble and even humorous move to engage contemporary Christian culture. The most catchy example is the refrain of “Closed on Sunday, you’re my Chick-fil-a.” The interspersing of serious lyrics describing what he has learned during his discipleship with Pastor Adam Tyson with the almost cheesy refrain of “Chick-fil-a” demonstrates not only a true willingness to learn (even to humbly begin at the basics of Christian doctrine) but also an openness to joining in the culture of contemporary Christians. After all, we love our Chick-fil-a and Kanye, being a good sport, jumps right in on these jokes about chicken cravings and Sunday closures. Who are we to deny him this fellowship, from the serious to the silly, when he approaches it with humility and repentance? (Not to mention a wholesome need for a chicken sandwich!)
Christians are the first to judge when we ought to be the first to celebrate. We are like the Pharisee, holding a man’s past against him without truly believing he can change. We sing “Amazing Grace,” but if John Newton were to walk into our Sunday service and pound his chest in repentance, we would likely look away, embarrassed, and murmur amongst ourselves, “well, we hear he did some nasty things…”
But more than simply having a prejudice against a fellow sinner-turned-saint, Christians are revealing a lack of graciousness when it comes to genre. I am not asking anyone to give up moral convictions or aesthetic taste and listen to Kanye’s previous albums, but simply because they continue to exist does not mean that they still reflect his heart. As he said in a recent interview, “When you walk into the Apple Store, you don’t see no iPod 4.” Just because his past is downloadable does not mean that it is unforgivable.
“As far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
Furthermore, we must be careful that we do not perpetuate the assumption that those particular songs represent the genre as a whole. Kanye’s conversion is not only revealing deep-seated hypocrisy within our hearts as believers but prejudice toward an entire artistic genre. However, the release of Jesus is King offers the remedy to both biases, for it demonstrates the possibility, through Christ, of a transformed person, as well as a transfigured genre: the secular restored to the sacred through the power of the Gospel.
**The following offers a case for a more “prodigal” (i.e. more open and gracious, especially to genres discounted by religion) consideration of secular music’s sacred potential (Brown, David, and Gavin Hopps. The Extravagance of Music. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.)
***Chapter 7, “Form and Funk: the Aesthetic Challenge of Popular Art” and Chapter 8, “The Fine Art of Rap” are of particular interest and offer an aesthetic (rather than moral or religious) argument in favor of these genres. (Shusterman, Richard. Pragmatist Aesthetics Living Beauty, Rethinking Art. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.)
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