A-boat Mercy

“It’s the boats!”

On a walk with my mother along the Oceanside pier just a few days ago, we saw “the boats.” I knew exactly which boats she meant as she pointed them out: the boats which taught me mercy.

You see, when I was about three years old, my family vacationed along this exact stretch of California coastline. I remember it vividly. Perhaps it is even my earliest memory. In any case, it had been a long day of driving and playing at the beach, and my dad promised me that if I was very good, he would take me to look at all the boats in the harbour once my brother went to bed.

Well, as is the way with one-year-olds, my brother did not go to bed as early as I’d hoped. And, as is the way with three-year-olds, I was more than a little tired and more than a little cranky. As I already had the vocabulary of a well-filtered sailor (that is, I could speak in full sentences but was ignorant of “bad words”), I sassed back to my parents and was promptly sent to bed.

My dad, sympathetic to the thwarted hopes of an overtired (if much-too-outspoken) three-year-old, came to get me after I’d finished being angry. He took me to see the boats after all.

Now, I have always been stubborn. I have always, admittedly, preferred cold justice to gentle forgiveness. And yet, I believe that mercy cuts deeper than justice ever could. Even back then, I felt my father’s kindness more keenly than his anger; it is possibly more convicting to be permitted what we do not deserve than to be punished for what we do.

We looked at the boats for a while and I thought with all my might, trying to make sense of what had happened. Finally, I came to my first real theological conclusion:

“Dad,” I said, seriously, “You showed me mercy.”

This, my earliest memory, is also my first memory of the Gospel. I understood at three years old that I had been shown mercy and grace, for I did not get what I deserved. Instead, I got to go see the boats.

It is funny to look at the boats now. I laughed to myself as I ran past them this morning, twenty years later. Taking a cranky toddler go to look at the boats seems such a small thing. And yet, it meant everything. In that simple moment, with childlike clarity, I first understood the mercy of a good father.

Unmasking Cognitive Dissonance

It is difficult lately to know which contemporary issue to address. Every morning, I wake to discover another potential disaster. (Today, it was the threat of “meth-gators,” which thankfully do not seem to be a likely threat as I’m pretty sure Steve Irwin would have been the only person capable of dealing with that.)

Today, my hometown mandated mask-wearing in public places and the uproar I’ve perceived—particularly within conservative circles—is frankly astonishing. I myself have an assortment of masks which make me feel like the world’s most floral-printed robber whenever I go to Costco, and I like to think that I’m making the best of it. My concern here, however, is not COVID-19, but cognitive dissonance. Mask-wearing is not the core issue here, but merely another manifestation of the deeper problem of human selfishness.

In more liberal crowds, I’ve seen the phrase “My Body, My Choice” recycled to support an individual’s decision regarding whether or not to wear a mask in public. However, I’ve seen people of the same liberal worldview declare that this mantra does not apply when that person’s choice might put another’s life at risk.

Pro-life advocates will readily see the irony here. (After all, it is human nature to see the flawed logic of the other side.) If total bodily autonomy is not ethical if it harms others, how can we condone abortion, especially beyond the point of viability? If it is not “my body, my choice” in this instance, why is it in another, when the death of a vulnerable human being is not accidentally infected but intentionally terminated?

Vulnerability is another point worth emphasising here. It seems a thing of the not-so-distant past to excuse ourselves from mask-wearing by insisting that only the medically vulnerable are actually at risk. If we are truly caring for “the least of these” in society—as current cultural movements, as well as a Christian ethic of neighbourly love advocate—this ought to move us to exercise even greater caution.

On the left, submitting to mask-wearing in order to protect the vulnerable is an act of great kindness, however, it is also an act of incredible irony. If caring for the vulnerable at the cost of our own bodily autonomy does not extend also to the most biologically vulnerable (e.g. the unborn, the newborn, the differently-abled, and the elderly) then this act of humility and respect toward others represents a cognitive dissonance worth careful consideration.

Now, as I’ve said before, it is remarkably easy to point out the logical fallacies of those with whom you disagree. However, it is vitally important to honestly consider the irrationality and flawed thinking of those with whom we more closely align. Until we examine our own cognitive dissonance, we can achieve neither harmonious dialogue nor rational disagreement.

I have observed many conservatives express anger that mask-wearing has been mandated. The irony here is that the very people who are most often pro-life are, in fact, exercising the same harmful autonomy which they claim to oppose. I am not here to debate the science or effectiveness of mask-wearing. It seems, though, that the refusal or reluctance to wear masks as demonstrated by certain conservatives is evidence of an underlying cognitive dissonance.

Another point worth considering is modesty. Many conservatives advocate dressing with a certain degree of propriety. A popular argument for the fittingness of this is that modesty is considerate of others who may find revealing clothing distracting or discomfiting. For the sake of consistency, these same people ought to endorse mask-wearing as covering-up out of consideration for others’ comfort and well-being.

I turn my attention now to conservative Christians in particular, who hold scripture as their moral authority and yet are subject to the same desire for autonomy as all of fallen humankind.

We all desire freedom, individuality, and comfort. While the Christian Gospel proclaims liberation from sin, is does not preclude liberation from civic and communal responsibility. Indeed, Jesus preaches submission to authorities and humility toward others, except in the case of moral wrong; unless government mandates would force us to harm our neighbour or renounce our Lord—and thus to break the two greatest commandments—we are not to oppose them. Put simply, Christianity does not provide political rights but, rather, bestows spiritual fruits; we are not promised autonomy or luxury, but are instead granted love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

In a way, Christians might adopt the phrase “My Body, My Choice,” inversely. If we are members each of the Body of Christ, our choices impact one another seriously and intimately, and we are called to love our weaker members as ourselves. Whether or not we find mask-wearing effective is irrelevant; what matters is whether or not we make serving our neighbours a priority. I wrote a year or so ago on the “radical” love of 1 Corinthians 10-11, in which Paul advises members of the Church to abstain from certain foods if they cause another member to struggle. The food itself was amoral—neither good nor bad—but caring for others through was and is essential.

The same approach might be taken with masks, which are—in and of themselves—amoral, though much-debated. Refusing to wear a mask in spite of the ethical or physical well-being of others, however, becomes an act of selfishness. Were Paul alive today, I have no doubt that he would wear a mask. To cling to our assumed “right” to wear or not wear a mask is to arrogantly disregard the humility and compassion to which we are called as believers. Regardless of whether or not going without a mask puts others at risk, is it really worth risking our Christian witness to rebel in anger against such a minor inconvenience?

As usual, my only hope with this article is to encourage you, dearest Reader, to honestly examine first yourself and then the culture which surrounds you. I am in no way innocent of irrationality, though I hope that together we can work to combat the cognitive dissonance which creeps into our reasoning, regardless of parties, positions, or preconceptions. Most of all, I hope that we will graciously challenge each other to think critically and to act considerately.

Dear Mr. Potter: An Open Letter on Cancel Culture

Mr. H. Potter
The Cupboard under the Stairs
4 Privet Drive
Little Whinging
Surrey

Dear Mr. Potter,

We at the Ministry of Magic are writing to inform you of a significant occurrence of which it is imperative that you be informed. To put it bluntly, you are now thrice-orphaned.

The passing of your heroic father and mother, Lily and James, is a loss we still mourn here at the Ministry; their deaths represent a sacrifice—a light which guided us through dark days and which continues to inspire us in the growing chaos of this new era.

Now, it is with great sympathy that we must inform you that not only are you parentless, but also author-less. Your single authoress, who so confidently created and raised you and, in so doing, broke ground for women, single parents, and abuse survivors, has been caught in the crossfire of a spell which we never expected to see used in our modern, educated era: the dreaded ignorare vim extermina curse.

While we are all no doubt aware of the evils of the banned avada kedavra curse—we apologise for even having penned it!—the ignorare vim extermina is even worse. While the former leads to bodily death, the latter enacts a sort of “cancellation,” in which the victim is erased from culture but not from existence. It is perhaps similar to the effect of dementors—those horrid soul-sucking beasts which are only unleashed on the worst of criminals. Worse, though, your Author is allowed to keep her soul and her body, she has been denied the exercise of her voice, mind, and pen; she has suffered the most devastating of vanishing spells.

Just think, Mr. Potter, how cruel the fate of an Author who is denied the freedom of her pen! It is worse than having your wand snapped and your tongue tied by a misused hex. You must accept our sincerest condolences.

Doubtless this is terrible news for you; we are assured, however, that although your Author is suffering the cancellation curse, you will be permitted to continue managing mischief as usual. The perpetrators of the ignorare vim extermina spell are, as of now, willing to spare you, though we advise you to exercise extreme caution. One ill-quilled Howler will no doubt send you into oblivion as well. As awful as it is to be thrice-orphaned, it would be undoubtedly worse to also be obliterated.

We want also to leave you with the final words of your dear Author, penned just before she was miraculously erased from societal recognition:

“It would be much easier to tweet the approved hashtags . . . scoop up the woke cookies and bask in a virtue-signalling afterglow. There’s joy, relief, and safety in conformity.”

Clearly, although conformity would be the easy choice, your dearly-disappeared Author is choosing to uphold the courage which she sought to imbue in her children, her characters, and her many beloved readers. Now, we at the Ministry are not entirely sure what “tweets” and “hashtags” are, but believe them to be similar to posting on the Hogwarts notice boards or sending messages via owl. Regardless, we hope that these words encourage you, restoring you to the moral of your own story: to be as courageous as a Gryffindor, as kind as a Hufflepuff, as discerning as a Ravenclaw, and as determined as a Slytherin.

We again express our deepest regrets for having to be the bearers of bad news, but we are choosing to trust that, as your dear Professor Dumbledore once said, “Happiness can be found in even the darkest of times, if you remember to turn on the light.”

Perhaps your Author will return. Perhaps her words will prove stronger than the magic erasers of a culture of cancellation. Until then, Harry, remember to turn on the light.

Yours Regretfully and Respectfully,

Ryanne McLaren

Literary Representative
Phoenix Division, Ministry of Magic
Ravenclaw Class of 2015

Befriending Dante: A Reflection on Readership

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Although I have always been bookish in about every sense of the word, I went through a “rebellious” phase in high school when my AP Literature class was required to read Dante’s Inferno. I was adamantly against it and now, as I reread it for the fourth or fifth time, I can explain away this opposition as perhaps being the fault of a poor translation. Possibly, it also had something to do with the fact that it Inferno not meant to be read in isolation; that popular engagement with Dante’s Divine Comedy begins and ends with hell may be telling of some morbid modern imagination or revealing of a concerning preference for darkness rather than light. Whatever the case, though, I scoffed at Dante without giving him a fair chance and declared that the whole of Inferno was not much more than a fanfiction in which he cast himself as the star. 

Although more nuanced now—having had the privilege of reading the Commedia under the Virgil-like guidance of a world-leading Dante scholar—my basic impression of Dante remains about the same. Laughing into my well-marked copy, I recall my first encounter with Inferno. Such an adorable young hypocrite I was! I belittled this great father of poets and—to think!—without Dante, my beloved Eliot would not have written!

As I mocked Dante for putting himself in a poem peopled with his favorite fictional and real-life heroes and villains, I was at the same time doing the same thing on a much humbler scale. You see, my first real attempt at a novel centers around a girl who is suspiciously similar to myself and who engages vividly in conversation with her favorite book characters: Scarlett O’Hara and Sherlock Holmes being among their eclectic ranks. As I wrote this long-since abandoned draft, I had to address the question which I now realize also occupied Dante: Why am I so compelled to document my own development in the context of people I know not only in life but through literature? 

Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy again, I’ve come up with a few hypotheses as to why this may be: First of all, loneliness. It’s no secret that we introverts often prefer the company of a good book and likely Dante was similar. He was, however, also an exile, reading and writing apart from the home he loved. His Commedia was not only a product of his imagination but of his isolation. In reading and writing, we enter a community no longer bound by time and space. Just as Virgil is able to leap from history to lead Dante on a narrative journey, people from history, myth, and fantasy hasten to meet us in the pages of books. If we are willing, we can still talk to them as though they are flesh and blood, though we must summon them with paper and ink.

Our loneliness finds relief in the company of books, even those of our own making. By engaging imaginatively with the characters I loved most, my novel draft allowed me to get to know them more intimately and to incorporate them into my own little imaginative circle. Through reading and writing, my sense of community expanded vertically throughout time and horizontally across cultures, worlds, and even dimensions. Similarly, Dante incorporates a diverse cast of characters to regain community, to situate himself solidly within his own Italian cultural and historical context, as well as to establish himself in the continuation of a poetic-philosophical tradition.

My second hypothesis is a continuation of this idea. As relational creatures, we come to know ourselves through our knowledge of and interaction with others. A prominent theological emphasis of Dante’s Commedia is that the truest self-knowledge is attained not through stubborn individuality, but in the mutual humility of community and faith. Through his conversations with various people along his journey, Dante becomes more self-aware, ultimately coming to perceive the Triune God as the divine epitome of self-love and self-knowledge. In growing in relation to others and maturing in his consideration of God, Dante himself is remade.

Similarly, readers often piece themselves together through books, stitching words and stories into patchwork personalities. My outlook on life is lovelier thanks to Anne Shirley, my wit sharper thanks to Elizabeth Bennet, and I like to think I’ve gained some gumption from Scarlett. Reading is an act of self-reflection, considering ourselves in comparison to the characters and writers we most admire. Best of all, the books—and, of course, the Book—which disclose something of our own Author lead us to a greater knowledge of our identity as human beings made in the Image of God.

Finally, it seems that reading (and in turn writing about what we read) serves as moral formation, shaping our desires and decisions. Dante encounters many sinners in hell who, through their own devices, get exactly what they wanted. They loved stories that reflected their own flawed desires and pursued these to the bitter end, continuing to desire those same lowly things in death so that these desires fittingly become their chosen punishments. This is a negative example of bad readership. Using books to reinforce or justify vice is a discredit to discernment, that incredible gift of intelligence.

In Purgatory, however, tales and pictures of virtue are presented, spurring penitent souls to better love and pursue all that is good and true and beautiful. Many good books feature fallen characters; in fact, there would be no narrative conflict were all characters and situations wholly good and perfect. However, if we read like the redeemed souls Dante encounters, we will learn from the good and the bad in books. Through discerning readership, we can engage the whole breadth and depth of human experience without leaving our nooks, honing our ambitions and hopes without the inconvenience of real-life consequences. The more excellence we glean from books, the more attuned to truth and goodness our minds and hearts will become. 

Rereading Dante now is supremely fitting. I know that I am not alone in being perhaps more lonely, more confused, and more in need of direction than ever. Dante, rather than providing an escape, has become a way of engaging my own isolation, wandering, and hope in faith and relationship. He has become a very dear literary friend—albeit a chatty one who I often wish would stop talking politics.

When Dante is lost and fearful in the first canto of Inferno, his favorite poet-philosopher appears to restore him to community and truth, and, through these, to himself. In the same way, rereading our own beloved authors might restore us to ourselves, just as talking to a close friend might bring us back to our senses. Engaging authors and characters-turned-companions provides company in loneliness, conviction amidst chaos, and, ultimately, a reminder of not only who we are but—if the books are good and true enough—who we are meant to be. 

I return now to the notes I took only a few weeks ago when I once more met Dante at the gates of Hell: Through literature, we form productive relationships with those who thought and imagined before us, as well as those who continue to think and imagine beside us. If we, like Dante, engage in humble and eager readership, perhaps we will—unlike my AP reading list—transcend beyond the filthy babbling of Hell and look toward the radiance of Heaven. Dante may begin his epic in pride, placing himself alongside the best poets and thinkers of history, but, throughout the Divine Comedy, he allows their wise words—and, indeed, their failings—to instruct as well as inspire him, to help him develop not merely as a poet-turned-protagonist but as a human being on the journey of virtue and faith.

This, my dearest reader, is the essence of readership itself: to develop together as human beings toward the best and truest communication, community, and—when readership couples with faith—communion. 

Whoever you are, I miss you

In this time of isolation, many lovers have been forced into long-distance relationships and many friends and neighbors suddenly separated by an unfeeling six feet. Like everyone else, I miss being close to those I care about. However, I have their numbers for FaceTime and their addresses for letters, and these make the missing easier, for at least I can know that they are safe and sound. Those that I find myself missing especially are the people who gradually became important to my life, significant to me in small, often-overlooked ways.

What has become of the barista who knew me only as Miss Americano? Who always was always there to offer kindly banter and caffeination?

What has become of the cashier at the grocery store? The one who I often chose to talk with instead of using the automated check-outs?

What has become of the janitor who cleaned my church as I practiced organ? The scholar who often studied across the café from me? The man who tended his garden across the street from my flat each morning? Do they clean and study and tend even now?

I am fortunate to know that those dearest to me are safe, but find myself wondering about the unnamed people who yet were so integral to my daily life. They were, in some ways, as constant as good friends: always there to make a coffee, to offer a smile, or simply to make the world feel blessedly-normal by their regular presence.

I suppose all that I want to say to these unacknowledged companions is this: Wherever and whoever you are, I miss you, and—whether you remember me or not—I hope you are well. Perhaps when this is all over we can be properly introduced.

Half Cadence

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Performing in the beautiful St. Salvator’s Chapel, St. Andrew’s

An audio recording of this article is available here:

As an accompanist, one of my favorite things to do when a rehearsal needs some comic relief is to begin a cadence but stop before the final chord. Hearing a dominant chord ringing without resolution drives my fellow musicians insane. I revel in this small rebellion.

Usually, though, I cannot handle the aural discomfort either, and I surrender to the tonic chord. Especially with the added suspense of the unresolved preparatory chord, it is lovely when every tone settles at last into consonance. It’s like a period at the end of a sentence, a bow on top of a present, a fitting simile at the conclusion of a quippy blog post.

Unfortunately, a lot of times life is like an unresolved cadence. The more entrenched in adult life I become, the more complicated the world seems. As an aspiring poet, I allowed myself to lament this in verse. However, I am also a pragmatic soul who recognizes that, while angsty poetry can be beautiful, existential crises can only go on for so long and don’t generally make things better. Eventually, we simply must lay aside our journals and return to our work and relationships, no matter how uncertain we may feel.

Several times before, I have drawn on the two constants in my life—faith and music—to make sense of my situation, and this is perhaps why an unresolved cadence became such a striking idea. Musical analogy often makes clear to me what otherwise seems overwhelmingly complex. Well, right now, I am living in an unresolved cadence.

I cannot rush ahead to the resolution as, this time, I am not the one in control of the keys. Still, as dissonance strains toward resolution, I, too, must move forward in anticipation. Although many things are uncertain, I can sound out possibilities as I continue to work, pray, and hope toward my next steps.

I remember, too, the reality that there will always be tensions and unfinished cadences. Indeed, all of life—and especially the Christian life—is lived in the rest between chords and in the expectation of a final, perfect, triumphant cadence. For now, I suppose, just realizing that I am in a time of not-yet resolved tension is enough to sustain me.

Now, how about some poetry?

I rest in preparation of the final chord,
In the echo of a tonic held within—
Unresolved, hearing not what I strain toward,
Riding inverted waves again, again, again. . .

I rest in the plague of an unsung Amen,
A half-writ chorale lacking its last word.
Unsure of the tune, I struggle through the hymn,
Hoping against harmony for a radiant risen third.

I rest in a cadence not yet concluded,
Awaiting consonance beyond my skill,
Unhearing, all my practiced art denuded,
Trusting deafly to my own Composer’s will.

I rest in accented anticipation:
Untempered dissonance awaiting revelation.

A Lesson in Time

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I posed for this picture without really putting much thought into the words on the wall. Right now, I am where I want to be: at home, writing in my favorite spot with snickerdoodles in the oven. At the same time, though, I am still caught in the in-between. This weekend, I will visit a dear person and place in California. Two days later, I’ll return home to Arizona for a day. Then, I’ll turn right back around and fly to the UK for another semester. I am everywhere and nowhere, yet the words “You are right where you are supposed to be” ring true in my ears. 

“How can this discontent in-between be where I am supposed to be?” I wondered (not for the first time) as I sat down at the piano this evening. I struck the opening chords of Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60, and let muscle memory take over. As I played this familiar piece, I found myself struggling as always with timing; despite grueling hours with a metronome, I still slow down in the bits I really love and skim over the more treacherous passages.

My life (as is so often the case) parallels my musical practice. Before returning to the United States for Christmas, I remember praying that my month at home would feel at least as long as my grueling month of final papers and exams. I hoped so desperately that the unpleasant days before my departure would speed by and that my equal time at home would somehow slow down. Yet, predictably, my final month of the semester felt like an eternity and now—although I feel like I’ve barely touched down—I am preparing to leave once more. Try as I might, I cannot alter time.

Similarly, a superficial manipulation of speed does not improve the music I produce. While it might allow me to linger in lovely passages and rush through nasty technical bits, my inability to keep time destroys the beauty of balance. In his Barcarolle, Chopin writes gorgeous lines that my hasty fingers destroy in their race to the finish. He also includes glorious melodies that my romantic soul savors in excess. Unchecked, I easily make a lopsided, sentimental mess of one of the greatest works of piano literature.

The mantra that “music is in the silence between the notes” is attributed to Mozart, Debussy, and Miles Davis. While its origins might be murky, the quote itself—much like the literal writing on the wall in my photograph—rings true. Without the proper placement of sound and silence, there can only randomness and noise. Music, then, is made by ordering these contrasting elements within time.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
– Ecclesiastes 3:1

Music, like earthly life, is a temporal art. Both are worked out and made beautiful in time. Although I grew to despise the metronome that revealed my faulty counting, it taught me to work through difficult passages and to not cling to smooth phrases beyond their allotted pages. Whether playing an exquisite harmony or a grating dissonance, I was right where I needed to be within the piece and in time. Only by realizing that time is the basis for musical movement and beauty could I begin to submit to the metronome, the composer’s writing, and—ultimately—to the proper engagement of sound and silence, dissonance and harmony, ease and struggle.

In the same way, though I resent the travel schedule that hastens my departure from home, I am thankful, for it is one of the beams that measure my days. In the dissonance of not only being in my early twenties but also moving between continents, I too-often fear that I am not where I am supposed to be. However, while the place may not always be ideal, the timing is perfect.

“O LORD, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!”
– Psalm 39:4 (ESV)

As in a well-composed piece of music, I may struggle with technique or indulge in romanticism, but I cannot skip ahead or return to before. Instead, the order and beauty of the music depend upon recognizing that the present is always moving yet always where it is meant to be in time. In this musical, mysterious way, I am always exactly where I am supposed to be. 

A Little Paper Reflection

IMG_3205Look at that massive stack of books with your little pink notebook on the top, open like the bud of a daisy and crawling with notes. Even those huge volumes by writers with high-brow names like Humphrey and Sacheverell did not grasp everything, nor succeed in having the last word on the subject.

Yes, even the most pompous, satisfyingly-thick, black-bound biographies have gaps in their scholarship and may fade into dust-gathering anachronisms. “Of the making of many books, there is no end,” after all.

But isn’t that comforting, in a way? And wonderfully liberating? If those authors you so admire could not write everything in 500 pages, why do you feel the pressure to do so in 20? Or 30? Even 60?

No, do not worry about saying everything. After all, your paper is only a small daisy in a vast forest of former trees, books upon books upon books that you can traverse by footnote but never fully explore.

But isn’t that exciting? After all, forests need flowers too, and you will never run out of trails to investigate, paths to forge.

So write what you can. Tend to your small bit of knowledge and watch it grow up among the leaves of books and the dust of authors past.

Jesus is King: A reflection on the man and the music

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.” 

-Isaiah 30:18

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.” 

-Psalm 103:12

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. 


*https://www.tmz.com/2019/10/26/kanye-west-jesus-is-king-old-music/

**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.) 

Theme and Variations

Not long ago (though it seems a lifetime), I wrote about modulations. The idea that the dissonance of post-college life would eventually resolve into normalcy was comforting; considering the modulations in music were consoling to me as I felt keenly the sudden transitions I experienced after four years of relatively little change. 

Several months later, I find myself facing another transitional period as I recently moved to Scotland to pursue my master’s in “Theology and the Arts.” Despite my love for this country and its culture, I was nervous: where would I fit in? Back in the States, I had clear roles, routines, and relationships. A creature of habit, I was overwhelmed to find seemingly everything changing, from my time zone to breakfast foods.

Just as a musical metaphor was helpful in reframing how I approached this past summer, I found that the same to be true of settling into a new place and new chapter. In-between, the key is modulation. Now, though, it is theme and variations. Theme and variation is perhaps the simplest musical form to explain: pick a melody or some other musical statement and repeat in different ways until it wears out its welcome. This compositional structure provides the basis for both smaller, stand-alone pieces (such as Mozart’s classic 12 Variations in C Major, K. 265, which most will recognize as “Twinkle Twinkle”) and larger works (such as Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Bach’s Goldberg Variations).

The trick to listening and learning such pieces is simply to memorize the key theme and then discover its subsequent incarnations. Indeed, this is the key to internalizing music of all sorts, for it is difficult to ever truly escape from themes and variations. For instance, during my sophomore year as a piano major, I was assigned a piece that was — so I thought — far, far beyond my capabilities. Near tears, I asked my teacher how on earth I was to conquer it. I could not imagine my hands becoming familiar with and even fond of this monstrous composition.

“Memorize it bit by bit,” was my teacher’s first bit of advice. “Start with the main themes and motifs and then find how they vary and develop.”

Learning this piece was a war won by small battles. Still, I came to know it better than any other, and, though it challenged me with every practice session, it became mine. The professor in the studio next door came to recognize that when he heard its opening theme, I must be at work. That daunting piece went on to earn me my first victory in the university’s piano competition and, more importantly, I found that I was able to play it with surprising joy.

Any modulation, be it a new piece or a new chapter in life, must be conquered the same way: Identify a theme, find its variation, and move on to the next. During my first weeks in St. Andrew’s, I have intentionally sought out the elements that I know to be essential themes in my life and, finding these (though in slightly different forms) I have felt more and more at home.

For example, throughout both high school and college, I was the on-call accompanist at my schools. This is a key theme that makes me feel as though I fit in, as though I have a clear role and am known for my skill set. So, as soon as I could, I introduced myself to the music directors at my new university and, within an hour, had several gigs lined up. As an organist and choral singer, I pursued and quickly found a church music ministry. My community of faith and worship during my undergraduate years was essential to my wellbeing and service. Fully aware of this and feeling keenly its absence, I immediately pursued a new position in the same vein, with similar yet diverse people.

Knowing the themes I relied on for normalcy back home, I ardently sought their Scottish variations, and with each new rendition of a continuing idea, I perceived the puzzle of my life falling more and more into alignment with what it ought to be. 

The same is true of smaller elements, of motifs. Themes, in music, are generally the larger building blocks of composition; they are the melodies that recur and are recognizable no matter their evolving ornamentation or transpositions. Motifs, however, are the smaller elements that, though often only a single chord or ornament, are sure to be felt if missing.

My motifs are running trails. Bookstores to sniff around. A coffee shop to frequent. Possibly a garden with a particular bench. Houseplants on my windowsill. Floral accents to everyday items. These seemingly unimportant things are the glue that hold the larger blocks — the themes — together in harmony. Again, similar to the piece I learned years ago, as soon as the small pieces are in place, the larger ones become more manageable. 

Motifs are often quicker to come than themes, making them the best place to start when feeling overwhelmed in a new place or new stage of life. It is so much easier to thrive in the grand scheme of things when the small details are tidy and familiar. Find them, these little things that bring you back to your senses. Love them and cultivate them and use them to string together longer melodies, making yourself at home again in foreign modes, unknown places, until these new-yet-familiar themes, too, become a part of your life song.