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.) 

Poetic Love

A year ago today I picked up a copy of Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey in a Waterstones in Cambridge. I read it cover-to-cover without sitting and — admittedly — without purchasing it. I was intrigued, but, when I closed it and placed it back on its display, I realized that the fascination I’d felt with Kaur’s poetry was no different than the sensual interest I might have felt for a moody text post on Pinterest or Tumblr.

Now, I am thrilled to see poets gaining recognition at this level. Miss Kaur’s books are New York Times Bestsellers and clearly they speak to a lot of hurting people. I am pleased to see them promoting empathy in their expression of sensitive subjects such as emotional and sexual abuse. However, as a literary critic, I must raise some concerns.

Are these poems surviving on their merit as well-crafted works of art? Or, conversely, are they selling because of their sensualism and apparent relevance? Can we expect them to endure the test of time to rest beside the Dickensons, the Frosts, Eliots, and Wordsworths?

Perhaps it is unfair to ask that final question. I like to consider myself a fair poet, but I am also realistic; I am no literary giant and my poetry will not likely be studied in schools or mounted on plaques. Still, though, I think it is a duty of discernment to consider whether modern poetry such as Rupi Kaur’s is actually succeeding due to its artistic merit or whether it simply appeals to the emotionalism and liberalism of the current age.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

Free verse is like free love; it is a contradiction in terms.

I understand the thrust of this statement. Free love denies the fidelity of monogamy, the bonds of family, and the commitment of friendship. An idea that sounds like the multiplication of a good thing (love), in actuality leads to a devaluing of its virtue. Without a sense of consent, commitment, and collaboration within a loving relationship, there is no security and envy, competition, guilt, and distrust will inevitably rear their ugly heads. Free love in this sense is no longer love.

Applying this idea to poetry is, on the surface, a pleasing parallel. Without structure, a poet might think she has more freedom. However, these very boundaries are what force creative problem-solving, clever turns-of-phrase, and focused expression. Shakespeare’s sonnets might have been written without their characteristic structure, but they would have become a formless, romantic soup rather than the noble, innovative works of literary architecture we know today.

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate” could never have endured had Shakespeare taken a more Rupi Kaur-esque approach and penned something along the lines of:

You were the summer
hot and wet:
my sun
and yet
you burn.

Now, this is a poor translation between styles and it sorely abused the subject matter. But doesn’t it feel almost painfully forced? The lack of structure made the poem spineless, all emotion and self-expression and with no creative, rational thought or construction.

In this, I can understand Chesterton’s point. Without the commitment to structure and poetic rules, there is less of a chance of the poem making objective sense; it becomes too subjective to be understood and to endure beyond the self and those like that self. It becomes like free love: a delicious idea that is not built to withstand the hard truth that human beings crave consistency and order.

However, I do believe there is a unique beauty and purpose to free verse poetry. Free love in the sense of love without any sense of confines or commitment is certainly an idea doomed to fall into license, but love that operates solely by rules and requirements becomes legalism. The heart of it will either be poisoned by total freedom or hardened by lack of genuine affection.

This brings us to the idea of poetic license, which might more properly be defined as poetic love. For the love of the poem, a poet chooses to follow structure to support its subject, but also to deviate from that structure when necessary to support the poem’s affection. In this, both reason and emotion are given enough elbow room, and are brought into cooperation with each other. For the love of this literary art, we poets must carefully and intentionally choose where we will follow the rules to give our poem a sturdy skeleton and where we will bend them to make its flesh more alluring.

This can, believe it or not, be accomplished in both the strictest of sonnets as well as the most seemingly free of verse. However, sonnets must sometimes compromise an exact rhyme here or a little inflection there to avoid becoming mechanical, whereas free verse must invoke some sort of internal structure to prevent becoming a milksop.

I can think of no better example of this than T.S. Eliot, who is a master of metaphor and theme and uses both as unifying devices so that even the most abstract of verses retain a resounding echo of purpose, sense, and decision. There is not a half-hearted word or phrase to be found in Eliot.

For the sake of ease, however, I will use a collection of my own poems as an example. A few years ago, I wrote my first collection of free verse poetry based on the healings in the Gospel of Mark. (These can be found at https://inkarnationpress.com/2019/07/10/immediately-eight-poems-on-the-gospel-of-mark/)

As a dogmatic, conservative soul, I admit that free verse has always made me uncomfortable. (Sylvia Plath and I have just now started to get along, whereas good ‘ole Robert Frost and I have been childhood friends.) However, the sense of spontaneity — of utter brokenness being drawn back into wholeness and life — in these stories of healing demanded freer form.

Still, these are stories of disorder being reordered in Christ, so it would have been almost blasphemous to write them without any sense of structure. Stealing from the scriptures, I employed the recurring word “immediately,” as well as the inherent parallelism found in the gospel accounts to stitch my poems together and give them both arc and depth.

There is value in poems such as Rupi Kaur’s in that they provide their poets a way of healing, just as writing my Mark collection was an exercise in devotion and wholeness. However, what is lacking in these popular poems is a sense of internal unity and apparent structure. Themes of brokenness and resilience are found throughout, but is that enough? Within the individual poems, I only seem to find random line breaks and sentences that would have made more sense left in a single line and pasted across an angsty Pinterest photo. It seems that the raw thrust of Kaur’s emotion is the only thing keeping her books selling. And, just as in love, that first burst of emotion cannot endure. As in any relationship, mutual understanding and effort are what produce lasting love. It is the same with poetry, which is so often born of love. Without a skeleton, flesh will eventually fold away; it is easy to write superficial, fleshy verses, while constructing and beautifying a skeleton meant to last takes skill that I am yet practicing.

For instance, I scribbled this fleshy bit of poetry in the span of a second:

Knock knock
I never said come in
but still
you
did.

I’m not even sure what it’s about, but it feels sensual enough to sell if I were to slap a badly drawn broken heart on it. In contrast, to write a sonnet of brokenness is not only to express the hurt, but to rebuild it into something ordered and beautiful. A lament is a far cry from a complaint. (Consider the Psalms, which are authentic in brokenness, but continually return to order and trust.)

Poetry today is often used to express anger, sorrow, and ache and I do not want to devalue this vulnerability. It takes courage. It takes widening wounds to share them with others and this opens doors for empathy. In this, modern poetry such as Rupi Kaur’s is potentially helpful. However, art is — at least for the Christian —  fundamentally about order; it is about expressing, but also recreating and reorganizing. Writing broken lines and hastily-scribbled complaints may have value as self-expression, but without returning — both literally and literarily— to a balance of emotion and reason, heart and mind, there is little hope for redemption in both poem and poet.

Romeo and Juliet at the Globe 2017: A Review

 

Last night I had the opportunity to attend Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre in London. Having read it not long ago, I arrived expecting heartrending professions of love, stately background characters, comic relief now and then, and period costumes. I also half expected to fall asleep as it has been a long week of traveling and I have seen various similar versions of RJ since my birth (the daughter of an English teacher, I likely was hearing it read aloud before I was even born.)

Well, I certainly was in no danger of falling asleep and was in fact on the edge of my seat for the entire production, from its disturbing opening in which two clownish figures representing Ladies Montague and Capulet gave birth to coffins to its sexually-charged dance scene (also featuring the Shakespearean equivalent of the Village People singing YMCA) to its gruesome ending in which, rather than uniting the two households, Romeo shouts “bang” as he pantomimes killing everyone.

Shocking is perhaps the most mild word to describe this production. Others had called it “rubbish” or, less gently, “poop.” But although it ruffled my moral feathers and baffled my literary mind, I cannot dismiss it so easily as a piece of mere modern, avant garde trash. Was it likely crafted with the intent of upsetting Shakespearean purists? Yes. But was there no value at all in seeing it? That stands to be decided.

When it comes to anything that even vaguely might be considered art, I am of the firm opinion that it must be evaluated according to the triangular concept of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. I say “triangular” to indicate that these three abstracts cannot be separated from each other without severely degrading themselves as individuals and thus the work of art in question. (i.e., a beautiful painting that does not inspire contemplation of truth or practical goodness, is beautiful in itself but lacking in ultimate and lasting impact, thus making it a lesser work of art. But that is another blog post- or perhaps thesis- in itself.)

In discussing the play afterwards with the brave souls who stuck it out, we thoroughly examined its every aspect according to these three ideals, which happen to comprise the motto of our honors institute.

The Beautiful: 

First and perhaps easiest, was this production beautiful? Regardless of personal taste, was this a well-crafted show? Were the costumes done with excellence? Was the staging effective? How were other art forms incorporated? Was the acting convincing? Did it authentically communicate the original text?

Overall, yes, I would say there was a great deal of beauty within this production. Was I a fan of the male stripper character who showed up just in time for an odd dance party scene? Not particularly. Not at all, actually. Did I understand why ballistic missiles were hung above the stage without any explanation? No.

However, the costumes (besides Speedo-pasty guy) were done with a great attention to detail. While the entire cast besides Romeo and Juliet were dressed in harlequin attire to match their ribald and careless personalities, the young couple were dressed in an elegant and simple suit and dress, complete with foreboding and fitting Mexican death masks. This was a beautiful choice for it highlighted that amidst a chaotic and pointless world, serious love might might still bloom, albeit for a short time.

Similarly, the staging was magnificent. Scenes such as the death of Tybalt and the anticipation of the newlywed Juliet upon her bed were layered to show the intricate weaving of death and life which characterize this play, no matter the version. I grant that the staging of nearly every scene (I can never forget the YMCA dance party disaster) was stunning.

Other arts such as music were also incorporated, featuring the stellar vocals of the Mercutio. The song itself was cheesy, but it did serve well to enhance the drama of the ending and tug at the audience’s heartstrings. Well done. Still, I have to take some points off for the other main song being YMCA sung by a rowdy Lord Capulet dressed in a dinosaur costume.

The acting was convincing. That much was clear to everyone. While I do not necessarily like the way certain characters were portrayed, such as Friar Laurence who seemed crafted specifically to mock all religion, they did well in their assigned roles. The stand-outs were certainly Juliet, whose intentionality shown in every phrase, Romeo, who was simply adorable, and Mercutio, who was disturbingly impactful.

As far as communicating the original text…I could rant forever about how the ending was cut so that no reconciliation was truly reached and thus the near-comedy ending of the original was tossed carelessly away. But I will restrain myself…for now. The original was most clearly expressed in the scenes between Romeo and Juliet themselves; these sweet, intimate moments were a refreshing contrast from the raunchy update of the rest of the play. I would like to believe that this tension between the loud pursuits of the majority and the confused love of young people is true to what Shakespeare must have intended.

Oh, and let’s not forget the double entendres. Every single one (and then some) that Shakespeare wrote was emphasized as a crude joke. So there’s that.

Beautiful? In many ways, if surprising in light of my initial shock and disgust, yes.

The True: 

Did this production effectively communicate a message of truth? Was this message what Shakespeare would have intended? Did the audience leave with new ideas and questions worth pursuing? Did it lend itself to discussion and a greater understanding of any concept? Did it speak to any realities that need addressing?

These questions were the most troubling. While my mind has come up with multiple messages that could have been communicated by this production, I cannot settle on any one in particular. To me, this is a fault of the direction. With Shakespeare, there are so many themes worth highlighting that choosing one to focus on should not be a difficult feat. However, this production was so scattered that it was impossible to truly know what it was attempting to convey.

I hypothesized that it was highlighting the idea that genuine love between a young man and woman is doomed to die in light of a sexually-charged, consequence-free society. Others speculated that it meant that this love was worth dying for in the light of cheap physical pleasure. One friend brought up nihilism. Another thought it was a statement in favor LGBT living while still another thought it was an argument against this. Some thought perhaps it was to promote feminism or unveil abusive parental relationships. Theories were wide-ranging to say the least.

While I value ambiguity in art for the purpose of leading to discussion, I still find it immensely troubling when a piece has so many messages that it ultimately has none. This version of RJ was so varied in its potential messages that I fear it ended up saying nothing. Any truth discovered by viewing this was only achieved after hours of speculative conversation rather than simply individual contemplation of the work itself. Thus, in touching on so many different potential messages, I believe it failed in communicating fully a single truth of any kind.

In its defense, it lent itself well to discussion, but I am afraid this is more because it was a scandalous spectacle than a work of true philosophy. Any truth discovered was achieved through our own mental efforts to understand something, anything of what we just watched rather than through the production itself.

True? Nada. Discussion and thought-provoking due to utter confusion? Yes. I suppose that is a small point in its favor.

The Good: 

Did this production highlight good, even if doing so by portraying darkness? Did this play have the effect of catharsis, portraying wrong and death so that we might purge our inclinations/emotions and live rightly instead? Or, rather, did it draw us into its moral degeneracy? How did our consciouses react during and after? Was it edifying?

Romeo and Juliet is certainly not an example of how we should live; it is full of contention, deception, murder, offense, etc. However, the same could be said of a tragedy such as Macbeth. Plays such as this seek to direct audiences toward better things by demonstrating graphically the consequences of vice. However, this production fell short, for the characters who lived most wrongfully ended with the fewest consequences, perhaps deceiving less-discerning viewers into believing this makes these poor choices acceptable.

In Macbeth, the characters who commit sins end up devising their own downfalls. However, in this production, the characters who are most clearly shown to be abusive, lustful, and prideful survive while the two characters who pledge fidelity end in death. This does not redirect our hearts toward good by demonstrating evil, but rather excuses evil at the expense of good.

At first, I was disgusted by some of the things I saw on stage, as I would be in any production that features characters filled with such lust, pride, and hate. This was no different than I would likely feel watching Lady Macbeth declare that she will “unsex” herself and commit murder to achieve power. However, while I would have continued to be repelled by Lady Macbeth’s degeneracy, I become slowly more drawn in by what I was consuming in this version of RJ. This is dangerous, for rather than highlighting light by darkness, which may well have been the original intention, this production more and more pulled me into its darkness.

That said, while my mind enjoyed the challenge of analyzing and seeking some excuse for this production so that I might exalt it as art, my conscious warned during and after that it was simply not edifying.

Was this production good in the sense that it promoted contemplation of and practice of right morality? Not really. I concede that I adored the contrast between what was portrayed as real and gentle love between the married Romeo and Juliet and the unrestrained and rough lust of the other characters. However, this is the only edifying facet of the production as a whole.

Conclusion: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful…

This production was good in that it emphasized (contrary to many versions) the sanctity of the marriage of Romeo and Juliet amidst the callous affections of the other characters. However, overall it left me reeling as I sought after any other thread of morality and was, in my thoughts, instead dragged downwards into its degeneracy.

This production was true only in our own analysis and conclusions, not in its own effective communication of a reality or even an opinion. We arrived at many interesting ideas and interpretations, but it failed to convey any one clear message.

This production was beautiful in that, though stylistically opposite what I would have chosen and purposely offensive to conservative Shakespeareans, it was crafted with exceptional intentionality and detail. As an artist, I appreciated this immense care and attention to all facets of presentation.

I hold to the idea that to be a genuinely valuable work of art, something must be good, true, and beautiful in some sense. It is a performance that toes the line not only between shock-factor and authenticity but between that of good art and bad. It is up to the individual viewer to decide his or her stance on this. My own opinion? It has its virtues but its vices detract from it so much that it becomes a lesser work of art than it ought to have been had it more firmly founded upon goodness, truth, and beauty.

For more info, here is the link to the Globe Theatre’s synopsis: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/globe-theatre/romeo-and-juliet-2017