Pandemic, Pedals, and Pentecost

I celebrated this Pentecost Sunday with a virtual Evensong service. While it is certainly not the same from behind a screen and 5,000 miles away, singing together remains a reminder of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives as believers. As choral composer John Rutter notes, Christianity has always been a “singing faith,” and theologians explain that this is because Christianity has always been a Spiritual faith; the movement of the Holy Spirit as the breath of God is manifest in the breath of believers in unified song.

In Ephesians, St. Paul encourages us to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with [their hearts]” (Ephesians 5:18-19). In this, the unity of believers in the Spirit is manifest in the harmony of song; furthermore, song serves to reinforce the communion and fellowship of the saints as a vital form of proclamation and encouragement.

My favourite part of being an organist is facilitating the song of believers. It is my greatest joy to provide the harmonic foundation upon which singers rejoice. Perhaps the reason the organ is so effective for accompanying choirs is that it has the capacity to breathe. The pipes of an organ are themselves similar to members of a choir, each singing with a unique voice and yet all attuned to the same song. Even the name “organ” indicates a sense of its being alive and active, perhaps as intrinsic to liturgical life as our own lungs are to singing. The organ, which breaths out in a mighty wind, is also analogous to the movement of the Spirit.

The organ, however, is also otherly. There is an eery quality to it, for its timbre is at once like and unlike any other instrument; for instance, the viol stop sounds vaguely like a string instrument yet maintains the unique character of being also a wind and keyboard instrument. This is perhaps analogous to the God we worship; He became like us in the person of Jesus Christ and breathes his Spirit into us, however, He is also other. Although we speak of God anthropomorphically and even familiarly as Our Father, Spirit, and Saviour, we must also remember His omnipotent and provident otherness as we worship.

The organ thus provides a foundation for our song, intimately supporting our breath with its own, while also reminding us that the One we worship is far greater than we. This Pentecostal theme is particularly prominent in one of my favourite pieces to play: Bach’s Chorale Prelude, Fantasia on “Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott.”

This piece provides an extended introduction to a Lutheran hymn for Pentecost, the text of which translates:

Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God,
fill with the goodness of your grace
the heart, spirit and mind of your believers,
kindle in them your ardent love !
O Lord, through the splendour of your light
you have gathered in faith
people from all the tongues of the world;
so that in your praise Lord, may there be sung
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

You holy light, precious refuge,
let the word of life enlighten us
and teach us to know God truly,
to call him father from our heart!
O Lord, protect us from strange doctrines
so that we may never look for any teacher
except Jesus in true belief
and may trust him wholeheartedly!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

You sacred warmth, sweet consolation,
now help us always to remain

joyful and comforted in your service,
do not let sorrow drive us away!
O Lord, through your power make us ready
and strengthen the feebleness of our flesh
so that we may bravely struggle
through life and death to reach you!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah

Although the organ prelude does not include words, it prepares the mood and melody for the choir, much as the Holy Spirit brings with it renewed speech and song.

Right now, although many churches are gradually reopening, it is difficult to celebrate Pentecost Sunday musically; choirs are an at-risk category, for although breathing together is intrinsic to Christian life, it is dangerous in the midst of a health crisis. I believe that we can take heart in the message of this chorale, though, which speaks of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, guiding believers to live courageously as they move through time.

Although the words of this chorale are encouraging, listening to the prelude can be, ironically, a breathless experience. The music is in constant motion, sixteenth notes passing fluidly and quickly between hands and only ceasing after five minutes. It can feel like movement through time: busy, prone to rushing, and overwhelming.

There is hope hidden in the bass-line, however, The melody of the hymn is found in the pedal line and remains a steady foundation for the upper voices. In using the chorale tune as the cantus firmus (the musical layer upon which all else is built), Bach makes a deeply theological statement through music: the truth of the Holy Spirit as proclaimed in the hymn is the essential foundation for all else.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote something similar, using musical analogy to explain the goal of the Christian life:

“There is always the danger . . . that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love Him eternally with our whole hearts—not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going.”

Bonhoeffer here speaks of our proneness to get caught up in earthly pursuits, just as in Bach’s music we may be distracted by the intricate counterpoint. However, by seeking the foundation of our faith, everything else begins to make sense, just as listening to the chorale tune in the pedals draws the rest of the fantasia into harmony.

Theologically, God gives His Spirit to guide believers through life and death; musically, the cantus firmus provides a foundation to all other polyphony. As long as the pedal line remains secure, the upper voices will interact in a clearly-choreographed relationship. Just so, believers can move through time and all that it contains—the “polyphony” of life—in the clarity of faith if they hold fast to their eternal foundation.

Right now, we cannot sing together in person but we may choose to rejoice together in Spirit. The world is buzzing in a ceaseless counterpoint which may feel chaotic and deafening. This Pentecost Sunday, however, may we remember the foundation of our faith and the Spirit which sustains us. May we continue to sing from wherever we are and to listen attentively to the cantus firmus who will never fail to “tune our hearts to sing His grace.”

The Word Kept: a reflection on John 1:1

“IN PRINCIPIO ERAT VERBUM”

The Latin for “in the beginning was the Word” is inscribed on the gates of my college at St. Andrew’s. Each day, I was reminded as I walked beneath them why I was studying, why I am a writer, and why I was in that particular place. After all, what is my vocation of writing and reading if not to better contemplate and communicate the Word Himself?

Now, far from the gates of St. Mary’s College, these words call out to me with a stronger voice. Even here, far from the libraries and authors I loved, the Word remains my companion and guide. Even in this dark season, the Word continues to illuminate my path, to be present in my thinking and my speaking. The darkness can not overcome Him, nor the noise drown Him out.

Amidst a continuous newsfeed of conflicting perspectives, in the heartbroken lines of my journal, and in the straining sentences of papers I no longer want to write, the Word endures as He has from the beginning and ever shall.

More beautiful yet, this Word is not separate from our confusion and suffering; He is not some divine-yet-impractical platitude nor a hollow prayer. Instead, He became flesh, entering into the world of noise and broken trusts to recreate it through proclamation and compassion, to suffer alongside us as assurance made action.

He is the first and final Word, the eloquence I cannot achieve and the work I cannot perform. Best of all, He is a promise of love fulfilled.

Two Poems for St. Andrew’s

When I moved to St. Andrew’s, Scotland to pursue my master’s degree, I was convinced that I would love that little town of stone and sea with my whole being. I was sure that falling in love with its historic ruins, its adorable streets, and its rain-purified air would be simple. Yet I found myself struggling to feel that the town loved me in return; I felt that it was too old and beautiful and historic to care much about insignificant little me and so I composed this lament in the darkness of its second winter:

Under your fast-burning, crystallised veil
I was convinced for a moment
That I was—
I am
—the only one you’ve ever loved.
But you sucked premature kisses
From my chapped lips
In cold plumes which vanished all-too-fast.
Ah. So you’ve been loved before.
All who came before and beside me
Have felt the same,
And you have been too-oft beloved
To love me alone
Unique.

And yet, one morning, the voice of the sea called me to the crumbling altar of the cathedral and forced me to my knees. In an instant, I fell into a long-sought love. In a sudden sunburst, St. Andrew’s sang its love to me in the dawning of a longed-for spring:

I followed a gentle roaring east
And, warmed by the first true morn in months,
I slowed my walk from its rushing stride
To the timid tread of a spring-time bride.

For this one moment,
Wind-rocked and still,
I felt the touch of an unseen warmth
And the strengthening sun
Burned bright my veil away…
And an untied shoelace brought me low
And made me a muddy homage pay.

 

Lack to Love: a sonnet

Inspired by C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves:

My moon-sick eyes I turn from Sun above;
Too brilliant, let me see yet silhouettes
And trace them on my heart lest I forget
These shades that show the shape of Light, my love.

Permit that I might feel those phantom limbs
Of One I neither see nor now embrace.
Create in me a longing for that Face
That when at last we kiss I’ll know ’tis Him.

Oh, that I might half-wake to know I sleep,
To, restless, recognize the Morning Star
And by the dawn-dew dripping through His scars
I’ll find my shallows swallowed by His deep.

In learning lack let Charity consume
The loves I’ll fuller find in her Bridegroom.

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.

Rejoicing in Repetition

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“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” – 1 Thessalonians 2:13

My current favorite song—“Shape of Love” by Passenger—keeps popping up in my Spotify playlists and I never skip it. Its opening chords make me smile no matter how many times it has played today already. Similarly, as I said in a previous post, I eat the same breakfast every day and have not yet grown entirely tired of porridge.

Often I run the same trail, and my legs rejoice at cresting its hill, no matter how many times I have done it before. Likewise, I have been known to pick a favorite café and show up every day in pursuit of a honey oat latte. (If you are ever in Gilbert, AZ, do visit Mythical Coffee, or Enchanted Coffee Bar in La Mirada, CA.)

And yet, while there are these things which I seem never to tire of, I am perpetually restless in my devotional life. From flipping open my Bible at random to reading straight through without really taking in its words, I am guilty of every single sin of inattention. For a theology student, this is an area of weakness, but for a Christian, this is critical. It should be deeply concerning to any Christian who grows bored in his or her engagement with the Word since it is that very Word which promises eternity. Yet, even knowing this, I never fail to fall behind in those “read through the Bible in a year” plans, and my hodgepodge hoping-the-right-passage-will-fall-open-in-my-lap plan is even less effective at holding my focus.

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”

– 1 Thessalonians 2:13

For two summers as an undergraduate student, I did a study abroad trip in Cambridge, England, and was required to read the books of Ephesians and Colossians, respectively, every day for three weeks. This immersion method sounded tedious at first, but after only a few days, my natural craving for regularity kicked in and I found myself delighting in the Scriptures in a way I had been missing for years. Soon, I was memorizing passages without meaning to, finding new insights with each reading, and even discovering the value of comparing various translations and reading the books themselves in different orders.

Recently, however, I went through another Scriptural-drought. In bored surrender, I decided that I would just reread 1 Thessalonians every day, as well as pray my way through the great Puritan Prayer Book, The Valley of Vision. And, while the repetition at first seemed as bland as having my morning porridge without heaping spoonfuls of honey, I am slowly realizing the truth of the Psalms:

“How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.”

-Psalm 119:103-104

Not only am I finding that I crave the sweet familiarity of the Word with each new day, but I am also rediscovering its nourishment. Each rereading, beyond merely bringing delight, grants new understanding which then develops into practical application, just as the Psalm proclaims.

Savoring a tenth rereading of Thessalonians this morning, I wondered why more believers do not practice this method and, indeed, why I was so initially resistant. I am now reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s words:

“Children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged . . . grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

– Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland”

We are told by Christ that we must become like the little children to inherit the kingdom of heaven (Luke 18:17). Perhaps we must repossess that childlike love for repetition without boredom in order to truly inherit the Word as well. Indeed, Chesterton attributes this virtue of children—to delight in apparent monotony—to their “fierce and free” spirit. Even and especially as grown-up Christians, however—as little children adopted by God through Christ Jesus—we ought to live in this Spirit of such ferocity and freedom, such strength and grace.

Indeed, this is the maturity of believers, that we experience afresh the joy and confidence of children, all while growing deeper and truer in our faith and understanding. We cannot grow in these without Scripture, and so, just as the sun insists on rising each day, we must steadfastly return to our morning routines—our daily porridge and honey lattes—and to our regular re-immersion in the Word, one book, over-and-over, at a time, all the while learning to pray:

“Form my heart according to the Word,
according to the image of thy Son,
So shall Christ the Word, and his Word,
be my strength and comfort.”

The Valley of Vision, “Christ the Word”

 

Question and Answer: Anticipating Christ in the Book of Job

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In rereading the Book of Job, I once more find it both wonderful and troubling. Job is, at its core, a terrifying book: a man is selected for the worst trials imaginable (loss of family, livelihood, and health) not because he is wicked but, indeed, because he is faithful.

The Book of Job is, in this sense, a 40-chapter refutation of “prosperity preaching.” However unfair this seems, it reveals the justice of God; as supreme in goodness and the Creator of all, even apparently righteous men are unworthy of His favor. In recognizing this, Job reveals the true source of his righteousness as his faith in a Redeemer and Mediator.

Before declaring this faith, though, Job first presents a case in his own defense. It is important to note that, while Job does question God, he never curses Him. To engage authentically in prayer and lamentation is a marvelous privilege of God’s people and, throughout, Job seeks to “speak to the Almighty” and to “argue [his] case with God.” (13:3). While God does respond to Job’s cries, the ultimate answer to his charges and the resolution of his suffering is ultimately found in the Incarnation of Christ. If Job is an agonizing question regarding God’s justice, Jesus is the final answer proving God’s grace. 

In the ninth chapter, Job laments that due to God’s infinite perfection and power, not even the righteous can justly stand before Him and, in the tenth chapter, Job asks the following of God:

“Does it seem good to you to oppress
to despise the work of your hands
and favor the designs of the wicked?
Have you eyes of flesh?
Do you see as man sees?
Are your days as the days of man,
or your years as a man’s years,
that you seek out my iniquity
and search for my sin,
although you know that I am not guilty,
and there is none to deliver out of your hand?
Your hands fashioned and made me,
and now you have destroyed me altogether.”

– Job 10:3-8

Job asks what anyone would in such a situation: How can you—You who are immortal, and all-powerful—understand what it is to be human? To suffer? To submit to the will of another? And yet, while God does not directly answer these questions in this book, He responds conclusively in His Word become Flesh: the Incarnation of Christ.

Job continues on to describe the care with which God brought him into being, which seems contradictory to his current suffering:

“You clothed me with skin and flesh,
and knit me together with bones and sinews.
You have granted me life and steadfast love,
and your care has preserved my spirit.”

– Job 10:11-13

This parallels Psalm 139, in which David writes of the Lord’s constant care from the moment of his conception and both Job and David declare this a mystery “too wonderful” to truly comprehend, although both also question God in lamentation. These descriptions of God’s personal care for His creations also foreshadow the incarnation, in which Christ—the fullness of God knit together with human flesh—is miraculously conceived of the Virgin Mary. Like Job and David and every other human being, Jesus is clothed in skin, flesh, and bones. When Job asks, then, whether God has “eyes of flesh,” the initial answer is that God, as the creator of flesh, has proper authority over it. However, Job’s question foreshadows and is fulfilled in the Son of God made flesh: human eyes born of divine sight. 

Job does not stop there, though, but further qualifies his question, asking whether God’s time is as that of man. This, too, receives the answer of the Creator, who reminds Job that He created the days of man and holds them under His proper power. Again, the Psalms provide further insight:

“For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.”

-Psalm 90:4

In short, then, the eternal God is beyond the temporality to which mankind is subject. However, the Incarnation serves again as the consolation and answer to this cry. Christ’s life on earth marks the intersection not only of divinity and humanity but of eternity and temporality. Luke writes in the second chapter of his account that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” In this, we find that the Gospels not only proclaim Christ’s birth but mark his growth according to normal human physicality and aging. In being born, Christ consents to live according to human time, including its mundanity, growth, suffering, and—ultimately—its end.

Continuing to contemplate death, Job laments in the fifteenth chapter, “If a man dies, shall he live again?” Now, this appears to be a rhetorical question and its answer is obvious to Job; nobody who dies lives again. And yet, a completely opposite answer is also obvious to those of us living today: Jesus Christ, who suffered, died, was buried, and yet rose again on the third day. More so, Christ’s followers are promised future resurrection as well. Although Job is caught in a seemingly hopeless situation and has not yet been provided the full answer to his suffering—the Incarnation of Christ—he yet anticipates this resolution by faith:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shal see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!”

– Job 19:25-27

Job knows and hopes in a Redeemer who has yet to be born on earth and yet is the Word that spoke from the beginning. Job, crying and questioning from the depths of his suffering, yet looks toward the redemption and resurrection that will ultimately be realized in Christ.

When God speaks in the later chapters, He responds in questions that parallel those posited by Job. When Job asks how God can empathize with man, God demands that Job rightly express what it is to be God.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—
surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

-Job 38:4-7

Of course, in the face of such enormous questions of authority, Job can do nothing but declare God’s supremity as Creator and his own lowliness as creature. However, Job looks in hope toward a “witness in heaven” who “testifies for [him] on hight.” (16:19). Again, we find glimmers of anticipation, of hope in an intercessor who will speak for both man and God. We find then, that both Job’s questions of God and God’s questions of Job are answered and fulfilled definitively in Christ the Mediator.

Even these apparently rhetorical questions find their solution in the person of Jesus Christ. Only Christ, the Son of God, can answer that He was not only there with God in the beginning, but He was the Word that sang the stars into being. Indeed, He is the Morning Star and Cornerstone Himself, the Mediator through whom all that is made was made. Christ can truthfully answer that He not only took on flesh and endured the hardships of time and suffering but that He was and is and will ever be, for He is One with the Creator.

“But he knows the way I take;
when he has tried me,
I shall come out as gold.”

– Job 23:10

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. 

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.) 

Hallow Hill

The hill was ghostly. Even before finding an old sign revealing its history as an early Christian burial site, I could sense the tension between life and death in the air that chilled my face. It was a place pulsing with potential, yet quiet and lonely as a sleeping giant. Insignificance and eternity confronted me as I felt at once my own smallness amidst the swirling mist and the faint-but-discernable presence of those sleeping beneath the grass and dirt.

And so, here is a poem.

On Hallow Hill the lichen grows
On trees far, far too young to know
That ‘neath their root-laced, grassy shroud
There lies in loneliness a crowd.

O’erhead crows caw continuous gloom
As doves pray peace for th’unseen tomb.
Such sombre birds of ghostly air,
The only pilgrims passing there—

There where the earth, a swollen bride,
Still nurses those that testified:
Expecting, under dust and leaves,
The birth toward which her babes believed.

Listen! She lulls with willow song:
“Though ages pass, it shan’t be long!”
It shan’t be long ’til these hills cry
As Light tears through their cloud-hung sky.

So tune to joy, you mournful dove!
As bones reknit themselves in love
To stretch, to stand—to kneel—toward
The One who wakes them by His Word.