Kanye West performs in Inglewood, Calif., on October 23. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for ABA)
Chapter and verse on the rapper’s new verses
Kanye West is going to embarrass the Christians who have recklessly embraced him as a mascot. That much seems inevitable. But that’s okay: There are worse things than embarrassment, and Kanye West is an embarrassing guy — needy, arrogant, compulsive. His insecurity is as epic as it is perplexing in a man who by all appearances has everything. He is fabulously rich (though not quite as much so as his wife’s half-sister, Kylie Jenner, a billionaire at 22), and he is married to a woman who is widely considered (de gustibus, etc.) the great sex symbol of her generation. They seem reasonably happy, and they have four children with goofy celebrity names — North, Chicago, Psalm, and Saint. He sells truckloads of expensive sneakers in collaboration with Adidas and has designed clothes for Louis Vuitton. All that and a measure of artistic respect, too — his musicianship and his verse both are deft and accomplished, widely admired even among those of his peers not well disposed to him. And the people line up behind the critics: Kanye has had four No. 1 hits, 17 in the top ten, and 96 songs on the Billboard Hot 100. He is 42 years old.
And he is kind of a mess.
Until West’s recent foray into MAGA politics and evangelism, what people who are, let us say, outside of the rap-music–reality-show–sneakerhead demographic knew him best for was being married to Kim Kardashian and having been rude to Taylor Swift at an award presentation, making “Imma let you finish” a meme and a catchphrase and leading Barack Obama, who apparently had a lot of spare time on his hands as president, to dismiss West as “a jackass.” It was not the first time West had done something like that, in fact. After losing out at an earlier awards ceremony, he threw a fit, concluding: “If I don’t win, the award show loses credibility.” He is not shy about asserting his importance: He titled one album Yeezus (another one, Yandhi, didn’t make it out) and has declared: “I’m unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time.” Some readers of this magazine will know him mainly for his having stood next to a very uncomfortable-looking Mike Myers at a fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina and announcing: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Some of that nonsense is self-conscious marketing, a kind of grandly inflated version of the clickbait economy that keeps the gurgle churning, assembling a hectomillionaire’s fortune a fraction of a penny at a time. And that works: Kanye West’s Life of Pablo went platinum in the United States and gold in the United Kingdom on the strength of streaming alone, the first album to do so.
Maybe it is all part of a grand plan. Or maybe he just says the first thing to come into his head — which, lately, has been: “Jesus Is King.”
Jesus Is King, Kanye West’s new Christian album, is a big deal. Within a few minutes of its release, its songs took up nine out of the top ten spots on Apple Music. It was, of course, all over the pop-music press, but it also was the top item on National Review Online and widely remarked upon throughout the conservative and Evangelical media. Writing at NRO, Andrew T. Walker, a senior fellow in Christian ethics at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, asserted: “West has the anthropology of C. S. Lewis, the economics of Wilhelm Röpke, the cultural mood of Wendell Berry, and the defiance of Francis Schaeffer. In Jesus Is King and in interviews, we see a Kanye West upholding what Russell Kirk referred to as the Permanent Things. . . . His religious conversion could spark a revolution in morals, similar to what the conversion of 19th-century abolitionist William Wilberforce helped foster in England.”
Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A. You’re my No.1, with the lemonade.
Not exactly Augustine. And it would be too easy to simply poke fun. But the song in question, “Closed on Sunday,” is of some interest. It is a meditation on the Sabbath. (Chick-fil-A, a Christian-owned business, is famously closed on Sundays.) In the song, West advises (hectors, really) the listener to set aside social media and other technological distractions for the day and to turn instead to family and prayer. That is not the usual feel-good, milk-and-water, love-songs-to-Jesus style of pop-music Christianity. The Sabbath is about giving things up as well as enjoying them. Sohrab Ahmari, quondam antagonist of “David Frenchism,” has spoken wistfully about the possibility of reviving the so-called blue laws, which forbade certain kinds of commercial activity on Sundays. Taking the Sabbath seriously would represent a genuinely radical development for American Christianity, an assault on sensitive progressive cultural norms that would no doubt prove as controversial as homeschooling and abstinence advocacy. The rest of the album is similarly direct and uncompromising in its conception of Christian life and witness.
Is the album any good? It is the sort of thing you’ll like, if you like that sort of thing.
In any case, West is not soft-pedaling his Christianity. Walker was not wrong to write that “West’s first Christian album is arguably more Christian than what most contemporary Christian artists could similarly muster,” though it should be appreciated that blunt Christianity and strident Christianity are not necessarily “more Christian” than other expressions of Christian belief. You will not find very much Kanye West–style confessional material in the deeply Christian poetry of T. S. Eliot, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or in The Screwtape Letters, and there are many who enjoy the compositions of J. S. Bach without being even quite aware that they are listening to Christian music. What there is in Jesus Is King and in the prefiguring single “Jesus Walks” is a kind of plainspoken charm. Charm with its limits, inevitably.
The way Kathie Lee needed Regis, That’s the way I need Jesus.
And here in a sense is where Kanye West’s political coming out as an admirer of Donald Trump is linked, at least temperamentally, to his newly outspoken Christianity, which follows what he describes as a radical conversion experience. Both men are marked by a compulsion to say things that are best described with an adjective that the partisans of the counterculture used to admire above all others: “transgressive.” West is critical of some of the Left’s sacred cows, from abortion to certain aspects of identity politics. He believes that the political posture of African Americans has served them poorly, and has attempted to say so — stupidly, with a half-baked remark about how 400 years of slavery was a “choice” made by black Americans. If you squinted at it a little bit, you could kind of see the point that West seemed to be trying to make and would later elaborate on. “The reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can’t be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years,” he wrote. “We need free thought now.”
Kanye West needs to be talked about. He obviously enjoys the feeling of being the one who is willing to say, heedlessly, what needs to be said but others are afraid to say. That is an addictive pleasure, as many political writers know from personal experience, and West has a natural vulnerability to that which is addictive. The desire to punch through “political correctness” is in fact a major force in American rhetoric and discourse today, one that is probably more powerful, more pervasive, and more animating than is political correctness itself. (The habit of mind and the vindictive, homogenizing, repressive project that we call “political correctness” takes its power from occupying a handful of important cultural chokepoints, namely corporate human-resources departments and universities, whereas the countervailing tendency is much more widely dispersed and popular.) The content of Donald Trump’s tweets is not in and of itself very interesting: the expression of a mediocre mind that is high on rage, petulant, and liable to fall for conspiracy theories and flattery. The attraction of Donald Trump is not so much what is in the tweets but in his willingness to go off — his insistence on going off — half-cocked, sneering at and ignoring the finger-waggers and tut-tutters. Those who are shocked that Kanye West ended up being a Trump guy ought to ask themselves how on earth he would have ended up being anything else. If ever there were two peas in a pod, they are they. That much is certainly obvious to the conservative Christians who have embraced the both of them.
And so it is that many American Christians — with white, Evangelical-leaning, traditionalist Christians prominent among them — have elevated Kanye West for approximately the same reason they elevated Donald Trump: He is, in their view, a useful (and amusing!) ally who cuts a very substantial figure in a public square that is not exactly jam-packed full of advocates for their cause. “Kanye West is cracking the cultural code,” says Donald Trump Jr., approximating a thought. No doubt there are many men and women of similar outlook who see West the same way. On the other side of the great cultural divide are black critics, including Christians, who are skeptical of West’s embrace by “white Evangelicalism,” a phrase that ought to be without meaning but is not. West’s religion is, unhappily, inescapably bound up with his politics, and both of them are of course racially inflected, a near inevitability in this race-haunted country. Because of the way in which the black church was central to the civil-rights project, for West to lean so heavily into his Christian identity while allying himself with President Trump is, to many black observers, wildly offensive. But West’s conception of himself is very large and cannot be contained by black solidarity — or, indeed, by any solidarity.
(Given his estimate of himself, it is surprising that Kanye West joined a religion rather than starting one.)
It is not only West’s politics that lean (or seem to lean) in a conservative direction. His theology, to the extent that he has a theology, seems to skew conservative as well.
Prior to the release of Jesus Is King, Kanye West toured the country with a series of “Sunday Service” concerts, invitation-only affairs at which he tried out some of his new material and his new message. (West has performed his Christian music at other prominent venues, including an Easter concert at Coachella with a gospel choir.) To these pop-culture events, West brought along the pastor who has been leading him in Bible study and who advised him throughout the making of Jesus Is King: Adam Tyson, of Placerita Bible Church, in California. (West flew him back and forth between California and Cody, Wyo., where he was holed up working on the record. Some kinds of missionary work are more pleasant than others.) Tyson is not a goo-goo New Age celebrity evangelist but is instead part of the intellectually rigorous conservative Reformed tradition, which puts a heavy emphasis on scripture and its inerrancy. Placerita Bible Church, according to its doctrinal statement, “is deeply committed to the absolute authority of the Bible. We are convinced that the Bible is the only trustworthy standard of what we should believe and how we should live. Our ultimate priority is to glorify God by faithfully proclaiming the truth of His Word so that people can clearly understand it and practically apply it to their lives.” That is the kind of Christianity in which West is being instructed.
West is ecumenical: He was married by a Pentecostal minister, while his wife and his children have been baptized in the Armenian Orthodox Church (at the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, in Vagharshapat, Armenia). And he does seem to be taking the moral part of his Christian instruction seriously, with occasionally comical intensity: He is said no longer to permit profane language in his presence (which is going to constitute a challenge in the rap world), and he apparently asked those working on his album to abstain from premarital sexual relations during the course of the work. Like that of the recently reformed Justin Bieber, whose conversion led him to the celebrity-friendly Hillsong Church, Kanye West’s catalogue is going to be a fraught testament to what came before — and one that cannot be easily set aside. Not that it should be.
There are indeed second acts in American lives, and third acts, and encores. Especially for celebrities. Celebrity is a kind of electricity — it does not matter what you plug into the outlet, the juice is the juice. Among conservatives who (rightly or wrongly) feel themselves pushed to the margins of popular culture, and especially for cultural and religious conservatives, any association with celebrity, however wan and moldy, is met with rapture. The misadventures of Ted Nugent in Republican circles are too well known to require revisiting here, but also consider the partial resurrection of Scott Baio and the zombie celebrity of minor has-beens and never-quite-weres suspended in the aspic of the right-wing chicken-dinner circuit. The worry among some of West’s admirers — among Christians who genuinely mean him well and care about carrying their faith into the culture — is that he is going to end up being the Ted Nugent of early-21st-century Evangelical Protestantism. The kind of celebrity that Kanye West has is the real thing; cleverly weaponizing a much less concentrated version of it launched Donald Trump to the White House. The power of pop-music celebrity unleashed can be awesome to behold. There is a reason that when young William Michael Albert Broad embarked on a career of simultaneously mocking and personifying the object of worship at the center of the Dionysian rock-god cult, he took the name “Billy Idol.” He knew what he was doing.
And if Kanye West has been careful with that Bible study, he must know, too.
‘Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first, rock-’n’-roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.” Excepting the sung ones, almost every word that ever came out of John Lennon’s mouth was insipid and banal. And some of the ones he sang, too: Is there a modern pop song as willfully stupid and indefensibly trite as “Imagine”?
But in the arrogance, shallowness, and titanic egotism of his pronouncements, Lennon was only a faint precursor to Kanye West.
Christian works were, in the not too distant past, deeply embedded in the main stream of popular culture rather than contained in ghettos exterior to it. Films such as Becket and A Man for All Seasons (two King Henrys, two martyred Thomases) were frankly and emphatically Christian (and, in those two cases, unreservedly Catholic) but were not culturally loaded happenings in the way The Passion of the Christ was. Even something as slight as A Charlie Brown Christmas could segue into a reverent reading from the King James Bible. (As Lee Habeeb later told the story in National Review, CBS executives tried to bully Charles Schulz into mutilating the now-beloved program.) Christianity was not weird — it was life.
But maybe it should be weird. It asks of its adherents that they believe a story that is, on the merits, very unlikely. It asks them to live according to an ethical code that is at odds with a great many permanent human instincts. It asks them to take up their crosses and follow Jesus. And a surprising number of unlikely men and women have done that: Pontius Pilate’s wife and the centurion, according to legend; Saul of Tarsus; et al. Kanye West says he is committed, “even if I take this walk alone,” but he is far from alone and is not the first pop star to go down this road: Bob Dylan walked the path long before him. And if Kanye West’s spiritual questing is from time to time cringe-inducing from the lyrical point of view, it is not any worse than George Harrison’s, Cat Stevens’s, or Krishna Das’s. It is bolder and more interesting than Madonna’s trite efforts to eroticize Catholic imagery while reliably failing to account for the eroticism that already was there.
In many ways, West’s story is conventional and predictable: He is in the mature (it would be unkind and possibly untrue to say late) stage of his career and is not long removed from a mental breakdown precipitated by drug abuse, in this case opioid painkillers to which he took habitual recourse following a liposuction procedure. (West comes from a comfortably middle-class background, and it shows even in his vices.) But not every conversion story is interesting from a literary point of view. Kanye West needed Jesus Christ, and found Him. He once was lost but now is found. Ordinary grace is amazing enough.
Of course he wants to talk about it, as converts do.
But combining the convert’s zeal with Godzilla-scale celebrity presents spiritual dangers of its own, not only to Kanye West but also to those who look to him for inspiration and, unwise as it is, for an example. Jesus stumbled three times on the way to glory — we should expect a few missteps from Kanye West, too. Yes, he is rich and famous and insufferable and a little bit bananas. But his cross is as heavy as anybody else’s, and Christians are called to bear one another’s burdens. The temptation will be to set him up as an idol on Tuesday in order to enjoy the sport of knocking him down on Wednesday. He is going to need excellent spiritual direction. The scope and weight of his fame will ensure that his slips and errors will be covered like the Hindenburg disaster. Going it alone would be dangerous for him.
“I am not ashamed of the gospel,” Saint Paul wrote, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Kanye West is not ashamed of the gospel, either, and he has the tracks to prove it. You can fault him for a goofy Chick-fil-A line every now and then, but you can’t fault him for lacking boldness.