Kanye West , Big Eva, and the Iceberg of Christianity

Kanye West , Big Eva, and the Iceberg of Christianity October 8, 2019

Have been resisting jumping on the Kanye West train for at least a week, but can endure it no longer. It’s such an fascinating phenomenon. Mr. West, having slipped into the back of a church service several times earlier in the year, finally talked to the pastor, and then, when he moved from LA to Wyoming, flew that pastor to his new house once a week for bible study, because, well, why wouldn’t you. (I mean, are there even any Christians in Wyoming? Who even knows?)

The only way we’ll really know if Mr. West is saved is first if his music becomes awful (that’s just a little Bee joke) and then if he gets into a theological twitter war with Justin Bieber (Matt’s little birthday joke). They will know we are Christians by our angry theological tweeting, by our angry theological tweeting, by our angry theological tweeting, oh yes they’ll know we are Christians…gosh, it really isn’t catchy is it?

Anyway, I confess to watching every clip of Mr. West’s Sunday Service that I’ve been able to find, and then watching them all again. I haven’t been able to see a whole service, but there are lots of clips of singing. Mr. West has organized a very talented music director who has assembled a choir and my goodness are they phenomenal. Makes me even want to be a Christian again. Also puts me in mind of the age-old question of mission/evangelism.

In seminary I had to read a book by a Roman Catholic missionary who went to the Maasai to preach the gospel and determined to do it with as little of his own cultural bias and interpretation as possible. This, he understood, was impossible, but he did his best, and documented the experience in the book the title of which I have absolutely forgotten. The endeavor took him down some questionable paths, over which the church universal would definitely have shook their heads and said, ‘mmmm, no,’ but the business of giving the scripture and the sacraments to a people and letting them move through and reshape their own cultural imagination without outside interference was fresh, and so much less, well, you know, fraught than in usually is.

This paradigm went with us (though I don’t know if Matt read the book) when we moved to Binghamton to be amongst not some other culture, per se, but a place where Jesus is disappearing rapidly from the moral and spiritual imagination of almost everyone. When you open the Bible and offer the text to people who are busy with their own lives, inviting them to read it and consider it themselves, you do get a very fresh, and sometimes surprising expression of Christian faith. We kept strictly to our Anglican tradition, of course, because everyone in church sort of understood that part, but we kept very far away from the usual ‘cultural’ ‘evangelical’ expression of Christianity as much as we could. To put it more plainly, we tried not to use any ‘christianese,’ to use any words without carefully defining them. We tried to encourage people to search through the scriptures to find language for themselves. Over time Good Shepherd developed a truly Christian culture of its own, one to which newcomers bend over time, adding their own nuance and flavor as they come in towards the center.

Watching the Kanye West Sunday Service took me right back to that book. There’s a freshness, a surprising depth to his Sunday music that is so lacking in so much American ‘Christian’ music. The choir moves around in a circle in so many of the clips, with the director calling out from the center. They don’t wear robes, or skinny jeans, but are given almost liturgical garb—monochromatic outfits in white or sometimes in black. Of course the music itself is heavily in the black gospel style, but it is fresh, modern, musically fascinating.

I especially love how plain and clear the sermon is in that link. The preacher walks calmly through the text, defining his terms, letting the scripture stand on its own, not muddying it up with a lot of moralism—or emotionalism. He points to Jesus and then gets out of the way.

It reminded me that this Post Christian Western world should draw forth Christians in enthusiasm and wonder. Without having to go anywhere, we can do the kind of cross-cultural mission work of yesteryear, only with the hindsight to know what to leave aside. We don’t need to fret about the lack of pews and that there’s nobody to play the piano (and goodness, there is no piano) as one poor Anglican did on the frontier two hundred years ago. We don’t need to criticize what everyone is wearing or make everyone learn English. We don’t need to confuse ‘being good’ according to one western-centric point of view, with the gospel itself. We can offer the scriptures, get out of the way, and see what springs forth.

After some chaos, what you end up with is an actual Christianity that is recognizable across the ages. One Word, one Lord, one Spirit, one Gospel, one Bread, one Love necessarily produces One Body. Sunday Morning ends up being weirdly and affectionately familiar no matter where you go. But that is only the shimmering tip of the Christian iceberg. Underneath is the hefty, solid, surprising hunk of cultural engagement with the riches of the scripture, the baptism of a whole world-view that can’t be plumbed by merely sidling up and tweeting at it.

Big Eva has its own kind of destructive colonializing power of the Christian imagination. The Christianese Industrial Complex works hard to flatten any possible cultural distinction and differentiation. It’s not pews and a piano, but it is a big screen and a lot of bad music. Maybe this could be the wake up call, once again, to stop confusing one singular cultural expression of Christianity with the gospel itself. Anyway, I’m rooting for Mr. West. The light in his eyes is strangely and yet familiarly hopeful.

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