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.) 

Consumption

I fear we are dying of consumption…

It’s 2019 and it seems that everyone seems has some sort of food sensitivity. (Someone recently suggested that I cut gluten, which nearly made me cry as I reached for another slice of bread.) Our nutritional awareness is becoming more and more acute and, on the whole, I’d consider this a generally good thing. The fact that we have the information and ability to choose what will best nourish our bodies is a blessing we ought not take for granted.

However, it is sadly ironic that this nutritional awareness only extends so far; what we choose to eat is important, but our discernment must not stop at physical consumption. Mankind, created in the Image of God, is rational, imaginative, and decisive. We are more than mere flesh. While it is vital that we steward our physical wellbeing, our consumptive wisdom cannot cease there.

In the Gospel of Matthew, when the Pharisees saw that Jesus’ disciples ate with unwashed hands, they were flabbergasted. (Finally, I get to use the word ‘flabbergasted!’) Calling the people together, Jesus says:

“Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:10-11, ESV)

And when his well-meaning but thick-headed disciples (sound familiar?) do not understand the meaning of these words, He continues to explain:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Matthew 15:17-20, ESV)

There is obviously a wisdom to washing one’s hands before eating, just as it is advisable to pursue bodily health. However, the greater weight of morality lies in what pours from our lips, revealing what is digesting in our hearts. What and how we eat is a minor issue; what we contemplate and communicate is much more dire. 

Due to one fateful bite of fruit (ironic, since we are discussing nutrition…), our hearts have a great propensity for evil all on their own. However, as with dietary choices, what we choose to feed upon has an incredible impact on what we crave. After all, I cannot have a cookie or cup of coffee without immediately wanting another.

These habitual cravings have potential for benefit or detriment. For instance, when I am daily in the Word and worshipping weekly with the people of God, I find that I am more prone to speak and live in truth and grace than when I forgo devotions for sitcoms and skip church on account of some other occupation. Not to be nasty, but anyone with a food allergy knows that eating that offending ingredient will lead to quite terrible, pungent results…on the other end… and it’s the same with our hearts as it is with our stomachs.

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 1914, ESV)

How we speak and act is determined by what we hold in our hearts. Therefore, if we desire to proclaim the wonders of our Lord, serving as instruments tuned to His most glorious song, we must be cautious about what we choose to consume and contemplate. A devoted athlete will eat only what aids his ability. Just so, if we are to “press on toward the goal…of God in Christ Jesus,” as Philippians reads, we must be discerning about what we feed our souls. We must, like John the Baptist, be “filled with the Holy Spirit” above all else (Luke 1:15, ESV).

Philippians not only offers the charge to pursue Christ as an athlete pursues a prize, but a list of ingredients, if you will, to help in this aim. To best glorify our Lord in word and deed, we must train our hearts to crave whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8, ESV).

My brother is allergic to nuts and, as such, my family has become hyper-sensitive to ingredients. Even seemingly harmless dishes such as a green bean casserole have been subject to scrutiny— and for good measure, as that dish nearly sent him into shock! As Christians, we are liberated from the law, but called to live in accordance with our recreation in Christ. That said, while it is not inherently wrong to enjoy aspects of culture, media, etc., we are expected to engage with heightened discernment.

Ultimately, the deciding factor for anything is: does this hinder or help my heart in its relationship with Christ? 

I recently saw an article about a celebrity who claimed something along the lines of: “My faith in Jesus is not a religion, but a relationship, so I can do whatever I want and He will still love me.” But, in actuality, the fact that the Christian faith is relational elevates it to an even higher standard.

The church and its members, as the bride of Christ, are united in the exemplar of marriage, and, as the only one worthy of complete and utter devotion, Christ has every right to be a jealous husband. While a Christian’s relationship with Christ is not a marriage of legalism, neither is it one of licentiousness. If we truly love and know Him, we will earnestly desire to keep His commandments. This is not because we must earn our salvation, but because, having experienced His love, we realize that He is deserving of our fullest affection. Being in love with Christ necessitates forsaking all hinderances. 

We love my brother, so we watch for foods that could be his undoing. If we love Christ, we must be constantly vigilant, ensuring that what we consume will pour forth in witness rather than worldliness. In all areas, what we choose to consume must not become a stumbling block to our devotion or to the consciouses of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is so easy to become complacent, to pursue relevance rather than righteousness. However, if we truly love our Savior, we must dwell on that which is glorifying to Him and will prepare us as His witnesses. In a culture ironically fixated on physical consumption while ignoring spiritual malnourishment, we must actively choose to satisfy our hearts in the Lord and to desire that which is pleasing to Him.