Unless you’ve been living under a giant peach the past three days, you’ve probably heard the buzz or seen the memes about Kanye West’s new album, Jesus is King. It’s an interesting dilemma faced especially by Christians as many try to discern the motives and meanings behind the songs on the record.
After all, with the album came a merchandise hock of religious-themed paraphernalia, including a $250 crewneck sweater with ancient icons littered across a lo-fi blue background. So one must ask: Is this authentic worship as West spits actual Bible verses and references over legitimately good beats, or is it just this year’s style as headlined by one of our culture’s kings?
From a celebrity who intentionally works at being unpredictable, this seems like the next shock-factor progression in his career. Near the beginning of his career, Kanye opened up about his “walk with Jesus,” but then clearly departed this paradigm in favor of crowning himself the messiah, so what does this new album mean for the Ye? Has he circled back to the faith of his roots?
While undeniably leading the post-secular shift back to some form of spirituality, is it for money and fame, or is the spiritual shift authentic? West would be far from the first major celebrity to announce an epiphany toward Christ (i.e. Bob Dylan, and more recently Justin Bieber), and every time the motives of the individual have been questioned.
The reason deciphering this issue is so hard is simply looking at everything Kanye has done and created in the past decade, including music released earlier this year. He appeared on a highly explicit Lil Pump track which glorifies twisted sexual desires and how much he enjoys perverted hook ups (despite being a married father…). In the past, West has glorified every form of sin and debauchery, from sexual deviance to drugs to simple self-promotion, money and pride.
The new album, however, swings in the complete opposite direction, with many songs featuring a gospel choir singing simple worship songs. In fact, if you played this entire album for a friend and didn’t tell them who created it, they’d be likely to guess Kirk Franklin or Lecrae penned the words. There is no profanity or explicit language; only seemingly sincere praise songs to God. (Granted, there are veins of liberation theology running throughout, but this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone versed in gospel music tradition.)
All of this brings up a fantastic question which in turn teaches us something about how we read the Bible itself: Does the person creating the piece impact how we interpret the piece itself?
In other words, let’s assume Kanye has not changed at all and is still fame-, money-, sex-, and power-hungry and this album is just a ploy. Does this affect how we listen to lyrics which are genuinely worshipful and relatively true? Can the words on the record lead us closer to God despite the fact that they are being performed by a unregenerate pagan?
This, in essence, is the classic hermeneutical question. Does the source of truth determine its validity, or is truth truth no matter where it’s found?
Let’s apply this to a different source: La Biblia. Could an uneducated person who knows nothing about the Bible or history pick it up, read the words, and walk away with some truth? Or do they need to know about the historical contexts, the authors and the theological implications of each passage in order to rightly read the Bible and receive truth?
One professor at Moody said that the former is actually the best way to read the Bible. His understanding was that the text stands alone and the most accurate reading is to open it, read it, and understand it as you do. You don’t need to know who the Apostle Paul is in order to pull truth out of his letters.
So back to Kanye, this would mean that we can take his words and understand them as they rest in the tracks and take them as they are. If you think about it, you could waste a lot of energy investigating every artist’s motives when they make music, from Hillsong to August Burns Red. Why would Kanye be any different?
Sure, his next album could be a return to debauchery and hedonism, but does that make the words on this album less true? In the book of Numbers, God uses an ass to speak to Balaam, so who’s to say He couldn’t use another one to speak to this generation?
I would even contend that writers of the Bible were influenced by Egyptian and Zoroastrian theology, but they were able to pull the truth from them and leave the lies. Can we do the same with folks like Kanye West? Can we appreciate when he speaks truth and discard the rest of the garbage he has produced?
It’s a question worth considering before pointing fingers or being hasty to judge his motives. I’m not saying we should appreciate West as a man (I’m honestly still very skeptical), or make judgments one way or another about the status of his soul, but when it comes to his creation, he has made a quality album which can be enjoyed by Christians without feeling like they’re betraying their integrity.