I have my doubts as to whether I am the appropriate person to write a Kanye West post. I do not listen to rap much, and when I do, I can’t say it’s Kanye I prefer.
Same for Joel Osteen. Prosperity thinking isn’t much my cup of tea. I’m more a theology of the cross kind of guy.
Now that I’ve solidly established my Christian hipster credentials, I’m going to attempt a quasi-defense both of Kanye’s new album, and Osteen’s hosting of him.
What I have noticed and would like to comment on is quite simple: If Kanye is good at nothing else (and I think he is a talented musician), he’s great at getting people talking about his creations. No other album of 2019 has created the buzz in all my news feeds that Kanye’s Jesus is King has created.
No other star appearing in a worship service has gotten the same kind of buzz either (with the possible exception of the the bishop of the Episcopal church, Michael Curry, preaching at Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s wedding).
It’s almost over-whelming. Every news feed I see is commenting either on the album, or his appearing at Lakewood Church. So I’ll admit, I’ve gotten where I get reactive to reactivity. I’m skeptical of all the critique. I started wondering if anyone had actually watched the whole service and concert.
This was my ad fontes moment. I decided to re-listen to the album, and then actually watch the concert and interview. Here’s the concert in whole (I’ll let you go and find the interview on Youtube for yourself, because there are mostly various bootleg versions of it):
The concert itself is really fun. I’d love to have seen it in person. So much energy out of the choir and dancers down front.
The interview is a straightforward conversion story, with the one converted declaring they used to be asleep in sin and now are awake to God. It’s a masterful 20 minute evangelical moment (which means as a progressive and Lutheran I had a lot of forehead slapping moments).
That’s about it. American evangelicalism in Houston, Texas.
It just happens to be one of the most famous rappers in the world interviewed by one of the most famous prosperity gospel preachers ever.
So Kanye West and Joel Osteen together (famous as they are) become a platform on which a lot of critics can perform their criticism. Perhaps some of these criticisms are justified. But many of them are either classist, racist, or other forms of cultural superiority, and many of the criticisms seem, frankly, to arise out of barely sublimated envy.
I have a friend and neighbor who posted some early thoughts on Kanye West’s album itself, and they’re much better than anything I would have written, so I offer them here, followed by a bit of analysis:
Jesus is King Thoughts
This album makes no sense at all, and that’s a good thing. Commentators seem to be taking this album as a “Christian” album, sifting through all of Kanye’s lyrics for theological coherency or to identify with something, but the entire album contradicts itself.
Odd Evangelical culture virtue signaling and name dropping is mixed in with the left leaning Christian liberation in “God is.”
Clear health and wealth favor theology sits in “On God.” Yet wealth above faith is dispelled in “Use This Gospel.”
“Use This Gospel” has repentance from arrogance, but when talking about this album Kanye still refers to himself as “the greatest human artist of all time.”
At the end of the day, if you’re looking for even an inkling of coherency in theology or tone, this album has none. It’s humble and proud, contorted and contradicting, power hungry and hungry for justice. And whether Kanye means to or not, he turns the mirror to all his American Christian listeners in “Hands On.”“Nothing worse than a hypocrite. Change, he ain’t really different.”
Whether it was on purpose or just Kanye being a consequence of how insane American Christianity has become, this album is an experience of ourselves. Collectively, we aren’t different. We are just like this release. Our faith is convoluted, confusing, contradictory, and criticizing. And just like this album, that faith is just so entertaining and satisfying that we still choose to experience it over and over, despite itself. (Justin Kaleb Graves)
I think this is why Kanye West so regularly gathers attention. He’s a genius at reflecting us back at ourselves. To a certain degree, much the same could be said of the president he has come to admire, or even Joel Osteen.
It’s hard to say either with Kanye West or Joel Osteen how much of the show is substance and how much is show. Does their performance arise out of authenticity?
With some other great performers, perhaps they are one and the same. They believe in themselves, so it is a kind of ipso facto authenticity.
I’m thinking of another trickster here, one I’m a bit more familiar with than Kanye West: Bob Dylan.
Many similarities here, including Dylan’s teasing and constant reinvention of himself. Remember his Christian phase? Similarly, West frequently uses narrative voices in his songs that ironically allow him to provoke and imagine simultaneously. Think of his song “I am a God.”
And West is a genius at using hyperbole to showmanship effect. It gets a reaction every time.
We’ll have to wait and see what Kanye does next. It’s hard to say. In America, it’s certainly not a bad marketing move to go the Christian route. And such marketing can be justified by reach and impact, bringing so many faithful to the Lord.
It’s even hard truly to say whether that’s such a bad thing, all in all. If all the gospel is is mostly about spreading as widely as possible a gnostic understanding of “yes in Jesus Christ you are saved,” then Kanye West is as well-situated as anyone to spread that message.
Clearly hundreds of thousands of Christians agree. I’m enough of an open spirit to anticipate that’s possible even though I myself attempt to conform to a different gospel.
Maybe that makes me somewhat one with the critics. But I would like to see a lot more attention to the actual content of that which is being criticized, lest all the commentary simply be performative media-surfing.
In the end, we live in a culture that has to a certain degree wedded spectacle to faith, and we cannot dismiss either the one or the other out of hand. We’re given what we’re given, trying to find the faithful in the spectacular, and the spectacle in the ordinary.
And if you do nothing else, at least listen to “Closed On Sunday.”
If I have one frustration, it’s that all the attention to Kanye West steals away attention from other musicians I would love to spend time hearing and analyzing. I’ll admit, as a blogger, I try to surf the trends sometimes, and so I know a blog post about West will be more widely read than a blog post about other bands I’m currently into, like Bodega and Sudan Archives. As a form of reparations, my next post will be a “best of 2019 albums.” We’ll see which post is read.