True to form, Kanye West’s latest album Jesus is King is a polarising piece that’s nonetheless got everyone talking. It’s a mix of gospel and hip hop in which Kanye wears his new-found ‘born again’ faith on his sleeve. If a largely secular culture was ever shy in talking about religion, Kanye’s devout declaration that ‘Jesus is King’ has made Christian faith – or at least Kanye’s Christian faith – harder to ignore. So, what does it all mean? What does Kanye’s album tell us about his faith, and what should we make of it? To what extent could – or should – Kanye become a positive role model of faith for the young people we work with?
New, Christian Kanye
Kanye has produced an album so obviously and overtly Christian that if he were a new artist, he would be brandished as a Christian one. He has lyrics that wouldn’t be out of place in a worship album, with lines such as “there is freedom from addiction”; “who the Son sets free is free indeed”; “in our Father we put our faith, King of the Kingdom” and “the storm may come, but we’ll get through it because of Your love” – all of which come from different songs. The songs themselves aren’t controversial or ‘out there’ in a traditional Kanye style, with the exception of ‘Closed on Sunday’. So why is there so much buzz?
Its popularity may owe itself to the rarity of someone of West’s talent, influence and personality making a project so devoted to their understanding of God. This album contrasts starkly with the self-worshipping image he has built up over the course of his career, as does his new demeanour. Kanye is famous for his egomania, having called himself a 'god' and compared himself to Jesus. In interviews, Kanye is now talkative, open, vulnerable, taking any opportunity he can to talk about his faith and the ‘God he serves’.
Kanye already seems aware that his album and sudden change of heart would leave an impact on the Christian community, for better or worse. One lyric explicitly addresses this issue, “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”. This year, Kanye has made a notable shift towards making God part of his life, opening up ‘Sunday Services’, helping start a church, talking about his beliefs more and now Jesus is King. I think the closer we look at our responses to the ‘new’ Kanye, the more it reveals about us and our understanding of salvation and transformation.
When we look to the Bible, we see two types of transformation, the first being the instant transformation, for example, Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. Powerful and instantaneous, this is often how we want salvation to be, and how we often see interactions with Jesus in the New Testament: “go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). The second is the more difficult to spot and more painful, the slow transformation. We see this with the disciples: one moment they have apparently understood who Jesus is and are proclaiming him as saviour, the next they have completely missed the point. In Jesus’ words to Peter: “get behind me Satan”. We see both of these in Kanye’s story. This year appears to be significant, where he seems to have suddenly changed the way he lives his life and uses his talent and stage. But West’s journey with faith has also been a long time in the works, with him growing up in church and even releasing music such as Jesus Walks in 2004 which shows some understanding of who God is.
Is it naïve to think that Kanye has given his life to Christ? The more I read into it, the less I think it is. Yet there are still things that make me feel deeply uncomfortable, like exclusive church services for the rich and famous, his understanding that “God is showing off through him”, or his choirs all wearing designer outfits from his clothing line. But, in his own words, “I’m a recent convert, it means I recently got saved within a year”.
Where Kanye is in his relationship with God I will never fully know, but I think this album, and this moment, speak into something that has subtly been simmering on the side-lines for a while. We may be expecting a different transformation to the one we are seeing.
Role models and celebrity faith
Influential celebrities – people the teenagers we work with may often look up to – are increasingly likely to share their spiritual journeys. I think we are seeing a slow move for musicians and often unlikely role models to revealing or ‘releasing’ their religious beliefs. With the rise of Christian musicians, actors and sports stars like Justin Bieber, Chris Pratt (see video below) and Kevin Durant happy to talk about their faith and what God means to them, does this mean that we now have a wealth of role models that we can point young people to?
Unfortunately, I don’t think the answer is a simple yes. For example, Grime artist Stormzy’s Blinded by Your Grace became his second highest-charting single, where he sings about “the God [he] serves”, with the lyrics embodying an understanding of grace Christians wouldn’t hesitate to align themselves with. Swathes of Christians that I know flocked to the man who put out the album Gang Signs and Prayer. Yet the artist’s next major hit, Vossi Bop, is self-centered and arrogantly boasts about being able to “take your chick” and “finish with a facial” (I won’t explain that one). Stormzy is a confusing example, but one that raises a helpful question. What do we look for in a role model for young people? Are they only as ‘useful to us’ as long as they are living life in a way we agree with?
The tension lies in the fact that celebrities like Kanye profess to serve the God that we want young people to encounter, but still say and do things that we wouldn’t want our young people to do. Their sporadic and unpredictable character make it difficult to ‘join their camp’ as we wait with bated breath for their next public act. But what I think what Jesus is King allows us to do is to highlight someone who has gone on a real faith journey, someone who resembles the flawed characters we read about in the Bible and the imperfect people we see in the mirror. Unlike the leaders the young people meet in us, these celebrities and individuals have pressures we can’t imagine and are people whose lives, often through their talent and career, are under severe scrutiny that would easily expose our own imperfections.
I don’t know whether long term this will promote a superficial Christianity, like a tattoo or accessory that we wear, something that identifies us but doesn’t change every part of who we are and permeate our life. Such a faith is far from the radical, counter-cultural good news that Jesus preached. The alternative is a relatable, non-judgmental faith based on steady transformation, filled with teachable moments for young people to engage with, relate to, and wrestle with themselves.
Ultimately, Jesus is King is just one album, from one artist, at one time. We can overestimate the lasting influence it might have on culture and young people. But at the same time, if celebrities are initiating conversations about faith through their life and music, the opportunity is surely too good to ignore.