The Curious Case of Kanye West

I’ve given up trying to have hip musical tastes. Life’s too short. I’m a month shy of 40, and I just want to listen to what I like. So, that usually means the Americana stylings of The Avett Brothers, the acoustic-driven songs of Gregory Alan Isakov, Josh Ritter, or Iron and Wine, or the smooth folk-jazz of Over the Rhine. I no longer concern myself with the Top 40 or the zeitgeist of pop, R&B, or hip-hop. As popular as these genres are, they don’t entertain or inspire me.

Hip-hop in particular was difficult to get into. I mean, I like “Lose Yourself,” but who doesn’t? I tried listening to Kendrick Lamar’s Damn after it won a Pulitzer, but it just didn’t resonate. It’s not that I think hip-hop is a lesser genre. It’s just never been my cup of tea.

music taste

The fact that I use the idiom “cup of tea” may be its own indicator.

Because of this, I have little interest in listening to Jesus is King by Kanye West.

Apparently that’s what every Christian under 45 years of age has been doing the last couple of weeks. If you haven’t heard, Kanye West has become a Christian, and he just released an album expounding upon his newfound faith. He has also stated he will retroactively adjust lyrics from past albums to make them less offensive.

As an exercise in theological evaluation, I suppose I am curious how exactly a notoriously narcissistic hip-hop star articulates the gospel after his conversion? Are his lyrics biblically sound or rough around the doctrinal edges? Is Scripture treated with reverence and respect, or culturally proof-texted to make a predetermined point? Then again, these are questions we should be asking of any album intended to proclaim the truth of the gospel.

My musical tastes will likely prevent me from asking Alexa to fill my kitchen with Kanye’s sick-yet-gospelized beats. Sorry, Kanye. However, I’m not wholly indifferent to news of your conversion. In fact, I’m far more curious about how our culture is treating that than the reviews of your latest studio effort.

What’s Really Going on Here?

It’s not Kanye’s new album, but rather his alleged conversion and the Church’s response to it, that intrigues me. I include “alleged” simply because I do not know Kanye, nor do I know the individuals in his life who claim to have witnessed his surrender to the gospel. I hope that his decision to follow Jesus as “King” is genuine. If it is, I believe it should be celebrated. After all, while I’m not hip enough to quote any of his lyrics, I’m familiar with enough pop culture to know Kanye’s reputation has been anything but humble and compassionate. Christians are right to celebrate when the gospel transforms a life, when a once self-involved individual starts serving the local church.

kanyeinterupts

“I’mma let you finish, Pastor, but first, would the parents of Caleb Williams make your way to the nursery? He ate too many graham crackers and got a tummy ache…”

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure we can call what a lot of Christians are doing in relation to Kanye West’s conversion a celebration of the gospel. Perhaps this is a slip toward cynicism on my part, but what social media posts and religious publications are saying about Kanye’s life-change seem more akin to when your favorite sports team acquires a quality first-round draft pick. It feels like some of us are cheering the success of a team, instead of the power of the gospel. Meanwhile, the other side (the skeptical ones) are quick to doubt the conversion based on any number of assumptions.

We do this a lot, actually. For decades, Christians in America (particularly evangelicals) have struggled with the concept of celebrities professing faith. Sometimes this is a known Christian who becomes more active on the secular stage (think musicians like Amy Grant and P.O.D., or politicians such as Mike Huckabee and Jesse Jackson). When this happens, Christians quickly split into two main camps – those who applaud the person’s courageous choice to exemplify faith to a dark world, and those who question the genuineness of the person’s faith, instead labeling them either a sell-out or an apostate.

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“They’re playing “Meant to Live” on the secular rock station. Switchfoot is dead to me now.”

This divide also surfaces when news breaks that a known celebrity has professed faith in Christ (e.g., Alice Cooper, Justin Bieber, the dude from Korn) or has been “outed” as a believer (e.g., Stephen Colbert, MC Hammer, Chris Pratt). Again, the camps form. Some Christians celebrate the person’s radical choice to turn from the wide gate and instead walk the narrow road of faith. Others scratch their heads and question whether the person’s faith is actually authentic. This is what we’re currently experiencing in the curious case of Kanye West.

In Search of Legitimacy

Often, when popular celebrities are revealed to be people of faith, this tends to legitimize them in the eyes of many believers. A kind of “team pride” dynamic emerges within Christian circles. Whether it’s Bob Dylan, Mel Gibson, or Kanye West, a lot of people feel the need to look back over a person’s career and point to moments that seem to indicate faith in the gospel, or at least an openness to it (“C’mon, man. Don’t you remember “Jesus Walks” from Dropout…“). Inevitably, some newfound fans will compare the newly converted to a certain Pharisee who experienced his own dramatic change of direction. They’re convinced that this one-time enemy of the faith is now a child of the light who will quite possibly have the same worldwide impact as the Saul of Tarsus. After all, just consider their well-established platform, and all those current fans ripe for conversion now that their hero has surrendered to the gospel.

stoning of paul the apostle

That’s how things worked out for Saul, right?

While some of these hopes lie in the realm of the possible, there are some troubling implications to them as well. First, it assumes the spread of the gospel is based as much in popularity as it is in relationship. Joe Schmo may be able to win a couple close friends to Jesus, but imagine how many lives will be touched when Bieber brings Hillsong United on his next tour. There’s no comparing which person will spark the next Great Awakening.

Second, we’re quick to celebrate a profession of mind, but are rarely interested in considering a subsequent change of action. Usually, this is because we don’t want to appear judgmental. However, Scripture reminds us many times over that faith devoid of action can hardly be called genuine. Jesus asked, “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit” (Mt. 7:16-17). And James reminded the Church, “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” (Ja. 1:22-24). He would later go on to point out that a profession of belief is not enough. “Even the demons believe,” he wrote (2:19).

Now, I’m not saying we should subject new believers to unreasonable scrutiny – especially those we’re acquainted with only through a pop-culture lens. Formation in the Spirit is a lifelong process. Neither am I advocating we should pounce on a believer’s missteps as proof of illegitimate faith. We must remember, though, that it is a Christian’s life that testifies to the truth of salvation, not just a Christian’s mouth.

When holding out for this form of evidence from an allegedly converted celebrity is considered divisive, we have a problem. But the choice to wait-and-see is very often labeled as cynical, judgmental, or even the biggest insult one can throw at a fellow Christian: pharisaical.

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It’s considered offensive and uncouth for Christians to express skepticism at stories of famous people professing faith. Elvis Presley, Tyler Perry, Deion Sanders, every other country music singer… Questioning the authenticity of a celebrity’s profession of faith (true repentance or just a passing fad) often gets you accused of overly pietistic faith. “Someone has come along who can, by his mainstream appeal, validate Christian devotion!” some say. “But look at all the spiritual party-poopers threatened by what they can’t understand.”

I know I do not feel threatened by Kanye’s profession of faith. I’m not even sure what “side” I’m on. I’m certainly not with the doubters. If anything, I’m cautiously optimistic that his is genuine repentance. What I’m waiting for, though, is spiritual fruit, which Jesus reminds all of us is the evidence of true faith. An album called Jesus is King isn’t enough, just as Slow Train Coming and Saved weren’t enough for Dylan. There is more to following Jesus than writing a handful of Christ-themed songs.

What I am threatened by – or perhaps the better word is “concerned” – are those who defend a celebrity’s conversion not out of any actual familiarity with the person, but rather out of a desire to protect the legitimacy they feel a famous person’s faith now gives their own. If Dylan or Bieber or Kanye can be Christians, that must mean my own faith is not incompatible with the mainstream. Christians can be cool. The Church is back, baby!

pouting

“If Lady Gaga would go to church a little more, maybe Mom would let me listen to her albums…”

The Idolatry of Image

While our first experience of repentance may resonate in our very bones, it remains no simple task to follow Jesus daily. In twenty years of ministry, I’ve witnessed countless conversions – people prostrating themselves before sanctuary altars, teenagers walking aisles in tears, all-night conversations with skeptics who finally, in the wee hours of the morning, bow their heads in humble recognition of the Great Mystery. These were powerful moments all.

And yet, I need only glance at my Facebook feed to recognize not every one of these once-repentant souls are currently bearing spiritual fruit. While many lives were radically changed, others never really were. Some who passionately professed belief and spoke words of surrender returned to their old ways not long after that experience. A few have walked away from faith altogether, chalking up their conversion experience to naïveté or ignorance.

The point of this post is not to dismiss the genuineness of confession, nor is it to ponder whether one can lose his or her salvation. I’m merely pointing out that repentance, while central to our salvation, is only step one. Being remade by the Spirit is actually a lifelong process, and to be a true spiritual leader of others requires a lot more than having a built-in platform. There is good reason why Saul backed away from public life for three years before finally engaging with the apostles in Jerusalem (Gal. 1:15-18). Conversion is a glorious bloom, but if it’s going to blossom a commitment to grow in faith – to be corrected, trained, and formed by the truth – must be joined with it. Saul of Tarsus did indeed have an extraordinary impact on the spread of the gospel, but that impact was not immediate. Several years passed between the Damascus Road and his first missionary excursion.

I have no reason to discredit Kanye’s fervor for the gospel, nor do I doubt the lyrics in Jesus is King come from a genuine passion for his Savior. However, what I know the man needs now is the opportunity and the space to grow in his faith, especially considering the materialistic, self-seeking celebrity culture in which he has lived for so long. Good trees don’t bear good fruit overnight.

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Saul went to Arabia. Maybe Kanye should spend three years in the Mojave.

We in the Church have a bad habit of making idols out of famous converts. To pin our hopes to their redeemed coattails and bask in the glow of our own newfound legitimacy. We would do better to treat these people like the young brothers and sisters in Christ they actually are. We should pray for them, and pray against the onslaught of temptation, the whispers of the Evil One who will try to tell them they were just going through a phase, just experiencing a moment of weakness, when they offered that sinner’s prayer.

So, maybe I should give Jesus is King a listen. Kanye’s beats may not be my cup of tea, but, while I don’t know the man personally, that doesn’t mean I can’t pray for him to grow and to learn and to prosper. And it doesn’t mean I can’t change the way I respond to these reports of celebrities who profess faith – entrusting each one to the Lord, and calling upon his name and his influence to bring about the furthering of his purposes.

It’s in Jesus and Jesus alone I place my trust. After all, as Kanye’s album reminds us, he is the King.

This is part one of a two-part series on the intersection of the Christian faith and celebrity culture. Check back soon for part two.

Whatever Happened to Joy?

When I was attending seminary, I met a recently married couple who taught me something about an often overlooked struggle between ministry and witness.

Both were students pursuing their advanced degrees, and the more I and my fellow seminarians got to know them, the more we could see that they were made for each other. This was not a case of opposites attract. Quite the contrary. Their sameness was impossible to overlook. They spoke with the same quiet tone, they were both obvious introverts, and they were both exceedingly intelligent. But none of these similarities were as noticeable as how equally devoted the two of them were to a plethora of social causes. No matter what the topic of discussion might be in a given class, when either of them contributed, it was always with a fervent passion for justice and compassion. If you saw one’s mouth open, you already knew the gist of what was about to be fiercely spoken. There were a lot of students at the seminary who could be labeled as “activists,” but these two took the cake. They were are own pair of profusely bleeding hearts.

I don’t mean to disparage them for this. In many ways, this couple served as a much-needed conscience for a lot of us who were perhaps far too concerned with our GPA and our exam schedules than we were the problematic issues of our day, which at that time included such troublesome situations as the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the 2004 Presidential election, and ever-escalating prejudices of a society still reeling from 9/11. In many ways, this couple inspired us not to divorce what we were studying from why we were studying it. There was really only one thing glaringly wrong with this couple’s presence in our community.

They were huge bummers.

You see, it wasn’t that their concerns for a wide variety of causes were unfounded, or that their political stances were not legitimate, or even that they chose to spend most of their free time holding up picket signs or circulating petitions. The problem was that the more they went about this dedicated work of social justice reform, the more their attitudes soured. They became the two gloomiest people in the school. They were often far too indignant with the ills of society to constructively contribute to class discussions. They were moody and melancholic. They may have loved each other, but whatever newlywed bliss may have existed between them was overshadowed by outrage at cultural sins. They were overly contentious even with those of us – their seminary colleagues – who held differing views, stances, or philosophies than theirs. They may have been passionate ministers, but their witness was chiefly marked by anger and resentment. They seemed completely unwilling to smile or laugh because there was just too much suffering in the world and how could any of us privileged, first-world Christians dare smile or laugh at a time like this?!

So, yeah, huge bummers.

picketing

Ah, good times. Good times.

Changing Narratives

This is not a post about the pitfalls of social justice reform. In fact, I’m sickened by the way some of my Christians brothers and sisters guiltlessly disparage the so-called “SJWs” of this age. I don’t know what exactly has happened in the last century or so, but there was a time not that long ago when the Church (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox all) was positioned on the front lines of most social justice movements, including issues of equality, education, universal healthcare, and immigration. My own faith tradition, Baptists, were occasionally viewed as dangerous liberals not two-hundred years ago.

Just because some of our modern-day social justice issues may no longer align with a Christian worldview does not mean followers of Jesus (himself considered the equivalent of an SJW in the eyes of the first-century powers-that-be) should throw the baby out with the bathwater. We certainly shouldn’t buy in to every movement getting airtime on the news today, but neither should we allow ultra-conservative pundits to lump all social justice movements together as the workings of sinister agendas of people that hate us and our country. Give me a break!

No, this post is not about the important role played by social justice warriors. It is about the dangers faced by Christians of all stripes – those who embrace social justice movements and those who are fearful of them – when our fixation on these issues begins to change us.

The term spiritual formation refers to how our daily commitment to the way of Jesus gradually transforms us from the sinful habits and compulsions of our old life to a way of thinking, speaking, and acting that reflects the fruits of God’s transforming Spirit and the higher principles of his Kingdom. At the core of this “formation” is a changing of our narratives. In other words, the stories we tell ourselves regarding who God is and what he desires of us, what matters most in life, and our perpetual need of forgiveness.

This is why new believers are encouraged to immerse themselves in Scripture, to pray regularly, and to connect with a local worshipping community. Each of these things foster the good narratives of our holy God. And that’s tremendously vital when we live in a world that is simultaneously feeding us narratives of self-aggrandizement, materialism, consumerism, and individual freedom – narratives that sap our commitment to selflessness, humility, and empathy for others.

It is so easy to spend more time in the narratives of the world than the narratives of Jesus. We can commit half an hour every morning to reading the Psalms and bowing our heads in prayer, but if we then turn around and immerse ourselves in contentious talk-radio on our morning commute, or let cable news blare away every afternoon for hours on end, why should we be surprised when our attitudes and behaviors are defined more by the rotten fruit of suspicion, offense, contention, anger, and fear than by the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness? If the majority of the narratives we’re drinking in every day are born of this world, then we will continue to exhibit the lesser values of this world. Sure, you’ll still have your conversion experience, your church membership, and your claimed relationship with Jesus, but none of those things automatically transform you into a compelling ambassador for Christ.

cable news

We all do, Mr. President. The question is what lessons are being taught to us.

Misplacing Joy

What bothered me the most about the couple I described above was not their commitment to issues of social justice. I know this came from a deep place of spiritual conviction. Their faith had spurred them forward into a life of service, and that was to be commended. Unfortunately, in the midst of this work they had misplaced a fundamental aspect of the life of faith.

They had misplaced joy.

Now, I’m not saying this couple was never happy. That they couldn’t take comfort or delight while singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” or listening to a sermon about the unconditional love of God. But in Scripture the concept of joy is much more than a fleeting sensation. It is a presence of thankfulness and gladness that cannot be shaken by external forces. It is as present in our trials as much as in our triumphs, because the source is not found in present circumstance but rather in the eternal truth of Christ’s forgiveness. Most important of all, this joy is supposed to be noticeably evident in the life of a Christian. The Apostle Paul wrote of it often – both his own joy and the joy he encouraged in his congregations.

“I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy,” he wrote to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 7:4.). Paul was able to claim joy even in the midst of all his many hardships. If anyone had reason to be dreadfully morose, it was the apostle who suffered regular persecution from both his fellow Jews and his fellow Romans. And yet, again and again in his letters, Paul cites a joy that remained alive and well in him. Later in his letter to the Corinthians, he writes:

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. (2 Cor. 8:1-2)

Paul celebrates a generosity that is born from two things: joy and poverty. That was all it took for the churches of Macedonia, even in the midst of severe affliction, to provide for the needs of others in a way that Paul didn’t just appreciate, but was so impressed he had to tell their story. For him, a Christian’s witness was directly tied to one’s abiding sense of joy.

I look around today, I listen to the conversations of other Christians, I participate in Bible study discussions, and one question in particular nags at me.

Where is our joy?

What happened to Christians in America? Why have we allowed politics and cultural touchpoints to rob us of the fundamental joy of our salvation? It certainly seems to be the prevailing image of Christians today. It is as if the majority of Christians have set aside their joy until they see a return to biblical morality or newfound respect for their particular ideology. Do we really believe the alleged seriousness of this cultural moment makes it OK to speak with the same brand of contentiousness and fear-mongering as those who have never truly known this joy? That it’s acceptable to post vindictive statements and acrimonious memes on our social media feeds with as much regularity as we share favorite Bible verses and devotional nuggets? That our preferred political affiliation or our cultural worldview permits us to belittle and vilify the other side?

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Time to take a stand for Jesus!

When Witness Becomes Worthless

When I was a teenager, I remember being told by various camp speakers and ministers that if I lived obediently to the way of Jesus then people would approach me simply to ask what made me different. They would want to know how they could have the kind of joy and peace so clearly evident in my life. This, it seemed, would be the most compelling method of evangelism – simply nurturing the overt fruits of the Spirit in my life.

Looking around these days, that idea seems woefully naïve. Young people are leaving the Church in droves, congregations are shrinking, and more and more people feel like a non-affiliation with religion is the most reasonable lifestyle option. After all…

  • When the majority of our recognized leaders are as factional and cynical as the rest of the world, who would want to continue associating with us?
  • When Christians in America are more interested in discussing all the sinister agendas we perceive to be leveled against us than they are in spurring one another on to love and good deeds, who would want to seek out membership in any of our communities?
  • When there is nothing about our lives that stands out from the masses – that stands above the furious discord of our age – then our witness has become worthless.

I’ve heard believers talk at length about how Satan is at work in various organizations and groups to destroy the Church, and how we need to stand firm because we’re under attack for our faith. But I truly think what Satan is really up to is fostering a defensive paranoia in as many of our churches as possible, in order to hinder any actual ministry from getting done. After all, a church that sets aside its joy is a church that is effectively crippled from representing the way of Jesus.

It doesn’t take an actual sinister agenda to thwart the Church; all it takes is planting a seed of fear that we’re vulnerable. The world is more than happy to do this planting day after day after day. And, soon enough, we start spending the bulk of our time indulging narratives of self-preservation, religious liberty, and unjust persecution above anything else. We read Scripture only through these lenses. Our small group discussions devolve into lamentations about our wayward culture and the precarious position of the Church in America. And as for the narratives of selflessness, peacemaking, and Jesus’ call to take up our crosses (to actually embrace persecution), well whose got time to heed those narratives when our Constitutional freedoms are under attack?!

And, just like that, our joy becomes little more than a dying ember buried beneath the cold ash of our own fiery indignation.

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I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of joyless Bible studies. I’m wearied of conversations that are devoid of the thankfulness and gladness. These are not fleeting sentiments, but core conditions that should reside at the center of our lives no matter how bad things may seem in our world. I’m sick of reading the angry political rants and mean-spirited opinion pieces that litter my friends’ social media profiles. If the joy of your salvation cannot stand up to the rancor of our age, I have to question whether you’ve ever really experienced that joy at all.

This life is hard, and the people of God must walk a fine line between our convictions and our humility. But it is not enough to smile only every once in a while, or to only lift our hands in praise for a few minutes once a week. The way of Jesus is a way of love over hate, peace over division, patience in affliction, and joy amidst suffering.

May we remember this not merely for the sake of our own troubled spirits, but also for all the hurting souls in whose midst God has placed us.