The good sauce: Preaching, Kanye, silver bullets, and the living and active (s)word

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. — Hebrews 4:12

I love this picture of God’s word. The Bible. Chuck in a couple of other ideas from Hebrews, Paul in 1 and 2 Timothy, and John in John’s Gospel and you’ve got a pretty good rationale for any Christian ministry being about opening up God’s word and hearing him speak; having him do something to us. More on these ideas a bit later…

But for now, lots of Christian Twitter TM (and Facebook) is overjoyed by Kanye West’s public celebration of ‘expository preaching’ in a podcast. Stephen McAlpine has a good take on this over at his eponymous corner of the internet. I’ll give you a couple of minutes to open that in a tab and go read it.

Kanye said:

“One of my pastors, pastor Adam, who is, the way he preaches is called Expository, it’s like one to one by the word. I like all different types of preachers, but there’s some types of preachers, they have the Bible in their hand and they close the Bible and they just talk for two hours. And. Some do have annointing. But the expository preachers go line for line. And for me it’s like, I come from entertainment, I got so much sauce. I don’t need no sauce on the word. I need the word to be solid food that I can understand exactly what God was saying to me through the King James Version, through this translation, or the English Standard Version.”

Cue rejoicing not so much in the heavenly realms, but certainly amongst the reformed evangelical Christians who jumped hard onto the Kanye bandwagon last year. It’s instructive that when I watched this clip on YouTube, the next clip autocued for me was Kanye on stage with Joel Osteen.

Look. Expository preaching is better than the sort of preaching that Kanye describes where a person shuts their Bible and just starts banging on about other stuff; BUT, expository preaching is not a silver bullet or an iron clad guarantee that someone is actually treating the Word of God as it should be treated. Expository preaching is also not made any good-er or true-er because it has been endorsed by Kanye…

In fact, I’d argue that rather than being a silver bullet for faithfulness, or even the best form of preaching, expository preaching is a tool that we might bring to a text only when the genre of the text we’re reading supports the use of an expository model to unpack the meaning of a text.

When Paul talks about the task of the preacher, he says:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. — 2 Timothy 2:15

This was a favourite idea banged into us by our principal at Bible college, especially in the slightly more accurate representation of the Greek, that the ‘worker’ is meant to “rightly divide the word of truth.” Expository preaching takes a particular approach to ‘dividing the word’ — typically working verse by verse, line by line, or sentence by sentence, or phrase by phrase, or word by word. It atomises. It treats the truth of Scripture as being found in the detail, properly understood. It weighs all words of scripture equally because one spends time unpacking the meaning of each phrase. A verse by verse exposition of Job is going to get interesting if one fails to acknowledge that the vast majority of the text in Job is bad advice from unwise friends.

At it’s worst (and possibly even at its best, where it is appropriate because of considerations like genre), it sees the task of ‘dividing the word’ as ‘pulling it into pieces to understand them’ not necessarily as ‘seeing how all the bits fit together.’ Exegesis, the work of interpreting every word and every phrase in a passage you are preaching on is vitally important, exposition that simply replicates your exegesis is not; in fact, exegesis needs to balance the atomising of the text into clauses and ideas with understanding the function of a text in its context; sentence, paragraph, idea, book, and canon — and it should ask questions about rhetorical purpose, not just content.

I’m mindful that one could tilt at all sorts of windmills by extrapolating a short quote from Kanye West about the goodness of expository preaching, and using that to critique not just those who’re on the Kanye bandwagon, but to use his definition to misrepresent expository preaching and so critique the whole thing, so here’s a quote from John Stott (quoted in this journal article) about the absolute importance of expository preaching for faithfulness, that contains, I hope, the best definition of what expository preaching is, or isn’t. Stott, up front, is opposed to exactly the sort of exercise this little(ish) blog post represents.

“I cannot myself acquiesce in this relegation (sometimes even grudging) of expository preaching to one alternative among many. It is my contention that all true Christian preaching is expository preaching. Of course, if by an ‘expository’ sermon is meant a verse-by-verse exposition of a lengthy passage of Scripture, then indeed it is only one possible way of preaching, but this would be a misuse of the word. Properly speaking, `exposition’ has a much broader meaning. It refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style (a running commentary). To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor prys open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed. The opposite of exposition is `imposition,’ which is to impose on the text what is not there. But the `text’ in question could be a verse, or a sentence, or even a single word. It could be a verse, or a paragraph, or a chapter, or a whole book. The size of the text is immaterial, so long as it is biblical. What matters is what we do with it.”

I’m going to suggest that there is more to faithful preaching than simply exposing the text, that is, that preaching is not just about making plain the meaning of the text, line by line, but it involves trying to produce the same impact as the text — that the meaning of a text rests not just in its content, but in its function or purpose. And so, that ‘exposition’ itself, as a technique is sometimes an ‘imposition’ on texts written, as they were, to be read in particular ways and to achieve particular ends.

Here are three reasons I’m not sold on classic ‘expository preaching’ as the only, or most, faithful version of the preacher’s task — sorry Kanye — not just why sometimes you might need sauce (thanks Stephen McAlpine), but why sometimes a burger needs a bun, and lettuce, and sauce to be a burger, not just the meat patty (that I understand some places sell as ‘burgers’). If you don’t bite into the whole thing, you’re not really eating a burger, you’re just chewing on some meat. You’re not ‘rightly dividing the word’ but distorting the ultimate meaning of Scripture-as-Scripture.

It’s a ‘technique’ that we often treat as a silver bullet

Though my talks are often ‘expository,’ or at least parts of them are, I’m not sold on ‘expository preaching’ as the Holy Grail or silver bullet or absolute model of faithful proclamation.

Faithful proclamation is important; and for mine, faithful proclamation involves a faithful proclaimer, faithfully understanding the text and re-presenting its meaning. Faithful proclamation is about more than technique or method; and, inasmuch as it is about content, faithful proclamation — specifically preaching — of God’s word will proclaim Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s revealing act through the Scriptures.

The catch is, we live in an age that is obsessed with technique. We want to reduce faithfulness, often, to bringing the right tools to the job. Expository preaching is a reasonable modern tool, when you look at 2,000 years of preaching.

Histories of preaching, like this article, that champion expository preaching, often see a long dark ages in the church starting in the post-apostolic period with true ‘Biblical’ preaching then emerging with the Reformation. What’s interesting to me is that there isn’t a huge amount of evidence in the New Testament that the preaching of the apostolic age looked ‘expository’ (think the sermons in Acts, with their sweeping big picture story-telling of the Old Testament, or from creation (eg Paul in Athens), or the way the epistles use the Old Testament, and especially Hebrews, which plenty of scholars see as a sermon transcript — it might be that it’s a new medium that arrives with a Protestant understanding of Scripture (including the printing press and the Scriptures being available in the vernacular), the church, the nature of truth, and the task of the preacher. This doesn’t make it wrong, it may be that it is a faithful way to proclaim Biblical truth, it just means it might not be the way to proclaim Biblical truth.

Other ages may have brought bits of the world into the pulpit — the article linked above is critical of Augustine and his ilk for emphasising rhetoric and other Greek forms of speech; but that critique also needs to apply to our own modern sensibilities; our fusion of certain forms of speech or persuasion with ‘faithfulness’. Any critique of expository preaching as a product, mostly, of the Reformation — an approach unfamiliar to the people closest to the time the text of the Bible was produced, and the sermons of the first century preached — could equally apply to the historical-critical method of exegesis, and our rejection of any prior model; there’s a sort of chronological snobbery at play in some of our thinking about ‘faithfulness,’ so in that history of expository preaching article, the writer also throws Augustine under the bus because “his interpretations were usually allegorical and imaginative, as was true of others of his day.”

But, what if being imaginative is a legitimate approach to the task of preaching, and perhaps, within some boundaries, the task of interpretation? What if we have to attempt to imagine ourselves into the ancient worldview of the author and audience, not impose ourselves and our modern obsessions on an ancient text?

One of our modern obsessions, described by Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society, and rehearsed by others who think about communication mediums from oratory, to the alphabet, to the printed word as technologies, is with finding the right technique. When we drop this emphasis on technology and technique into the church ecosystem informed by the modern world, we get a belief that ‘faithfulness’ looks like employing the right techniques. Expository preaching becomes a particular sort of ‘technology’ or technique we turn to to shape the church, and shape us as people. Here’s Ellul:

“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.”

What if we view the expository sermon as a technique and ask how it has modified our very essence? Our understanding of the living and active word of God? What if we were made for something different and this technique, as a medium, imposes something on us as a ‘force of the modern world’?

If Ellul’s critique of the technological society was on the money in 1954, and others like Neil Postman took up his critique in works like Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly, then we moderns need to be careful to identify where our particular socio-cultural moment is shaping the way we approach the living and active word of God. We should avoid the mistake of thinking that our particular moment has either the ‘silver bullet’ methodology, or a monopoly on ‘faithfulness’ because we can defend our technique.

The expository talk, with its propositions and focus on the detail, often comes at the expense of sweeping narrative (like the sermons in Acts). It, like the linear nature of the printed word (and how it changes the way we speak and remember), is actually a modern technology that has penetrated and reshaped our psyche.

Expository preaching often treats content — not content, form, and intention — as the essence of the text (and so, the sermon). 

Here is an exposition of a sword. It’s an exploded diagram that names and labels every part.

If a sermon did to a passage what this diagram does to a sword it would leave you with a good understanding of the composite parts of the sword, and maybe even the building blocks to allow you to jump to the concept of what a sword is for. But it’s not going to cut you. Or move you. Or penetrate into the centre of your being.

What if faithful preaching isn’t just a description of a sword, but the swinging of a sword?

What if we were made for the sort of communication that resonates not just with our rational brains, but our hearts, emotions and experience as well; for Logos, Pathos, and Ethos, in the Greek rhetorical schema; or for ‘locution, illocution, and perlocution’ in modern speech act theory? In speech act theory an act of speech is broken down into the content (locution), the delivery (illocution), and the intent (perlocution).

Sam Chan’s Preaching As The Word of God (reviewed here) digs in to some of the issues with robbing the word of anything but the bare ‘locution’ (the words themselves), because to do this limits the communicative act to only its content. It’s a fascinating approach to any sort of media; and not the approach you might learn in an arts degree, or something literary. It feels like a method of preaching divised by engineers who want the Bible to act as something like a manual for life, rather than something like a sweeping piece of artistry; a narrative, or cosmic drama, or even a persuasive text (and, for example, John’s Gospel is up front about its intent — it is written so that we might believe). Sam quotes Bryan Chappell’s Christ-Centered Preaching, which defines the technique of expository preaching, or ‘Biblical exposition’:

“Biblical exposition binds the preacher and the people to the only source of true spiritual change. Because hearts are transformed when people are confronted with the word of God, expository preachers are committed to saying what God says.”

Sam Chan, in a work outlining how speech-act theory might help us approach preaching faithfully, identifies a few issues with this approach (one of these I’ll unpack a little more below). First he acknowledges a strength, one that resonates a little with Kanye’s appreciation of exposition.

“Although proponents of this approach would never suggest that preaching should be the mere quoting of Scripture passages verbatim (which would be akin to a “dictation” theory of preaching), they are not too far from asking a preacher to merely paraphrase a Scripture passage. The merits of this approach are that it is founded upon a high view of Scripture—for Scripture is the word of God—and it emphasizes the need for objective controls in preaching, namely, Scripture itself.”

One of the problems he identifies is that the nature of exposition inevitably breaks down the text into chunks that are then explained, particularly as ‘propositions’; there is nothing inherently wrong with propositions (that statement, is in itself a proposition), but “much of the literary genres of the Bible are not easily reduced to propositions or principles.” I’m not convinced, for example, that exposition allows the faithful re-presentation of narrative, or poetry.

Part of the issue I have with ‘Biblical exposition’ that focuses on taking up the ‘locution’ of a passage, rather than the preacher faithfully reproducing the illocution and perlocution (or even adapting the ancient model of perlocution with methods that achieve the same outcomes in a different context) is that it has a truncated picture of who we are as humans. It is the product of a particularly modernist anthropology; the sort of thinking about what it means to be human that has reduced the path to formation to education, and that sees education not as an apprenticeship built on life together and imitation, but on getting the right information. We’re not simply computers who need the right data downloaded into our mental hard drives, or brains on a stick who need the right information  in order for transformation to occur. Faithful preaching will recognise the nature of God’s word (as living and active), and the nature of people as living and active, and work to bring the word of God to bear on living and active people — not killing the text, or the hearer.

If Scripture is living and active, we understand it best when it is unchained to do its work on us, not when it is dissected. Dissecting scripture is like trying to understand a lion by dissecting it, you might get some sense of how sharp its teeth are by holding them in your hands, but a greater sense if the lion bits you with its powerful jaws. We can provide diagrams of swords, or textbook descriptions of how swords work, and call that preaching, or we can swing them.

The Bible, God’s word, is God’s word about Jesus — exposition won’t always get us where we need to go

Once one acknowledges that expository preaching might not do justice to a passage of narrative, it also opens up the possibility that expository preaching is an insufficient technique if the Bible has a metanarrative; a big story that each part contributes to. If expository preaching involves an explanation of the particular text and its particularities, then the move to connect the text not just with the immediate, but the canonical, context is already a move away from pure exposition. Without that move one ends up weighting all parts of Scripture equally, and while all of Scripture is God’s word, all verses are not equal in significance.

So, for example, Deuteronomy 14:19 should not receive as much weight, in the diet of a church, as a verse in a Gospel or an epistle. Being good readers, and so good preachers, of God’s living and active word involves understanding how his word fits together. There’ll be more fruit in digging in to a verse by verse treatment of Romans, for example, as a result of its genre, than a verse by verse treatment of Job.

But also, the Bible provides us with an interpretive grid, in the words of Jesus in Luke 24. The Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets are written about him; our job as interpreters (and preachers) is incomplete if we have not connected the text to this context. Pure exposition of, for example, Isaiah, is not a faithul presentation of the living and active word of God if it does not connect us to the living Word of God, Jesus. And it’s actually this sort of preaching, rather than line by line exposition of the Old Testament, or the words of Jesus in the Gospels, that we see modelled by the Christian preachers in the New Testament. Where expository preaching can essentially be traced back to the Reformation (even by those who believe it is the faithful model), there is a sort of preaching that is faithful to the Old Testament scriptures modelled in the New Testament that looks a whole lot more like swinging the sword around than death by 1,000 propositional cuts.

Faithful preaching properly understands God’s word, and so proclaims Jesus as saviour and king, and calls for a response to him — for repentance and faith; for hearts and minds changed so that we become more like Jesus as we are called to love and worship God, and see our lives the way his story calls us to.

This is the pattern of the sermons we find in the New Testament — whether the teaching of Jesus (repent for the kingdom of God is near — and the Old Testament is being fulfilled), the apostles in Acts (repent, for the kingdom of God has come with the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Scritures), and in Hebrews — which is soaked in Old Testament quotes and imagery, and shows their fulfillment in Jesus as saviour and king.

An expository sermon can do this, absolutely — but the sermons in the New Testament aren’t line by line expositions of Old Testament passages, they are deep reflections on the entire weight of the Old Testament testimony about Jesus — the law, the Psalms, and the Prophets — being brought to life in order to call people to repentance and faith; they often cut to the heart of the people listening (this is the explicit description of the response of the audience in Acts 2 to Peter’s sweeping re-telling of the Old Testament narrative (quoting Prophets and a Psalm).

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” — Acts 2:36-38

Faithful preaching is preaching that moves people towards faith in Jesus because it does what the Scriptures do, aiming for what the Scriptures aim for… sometimes that will require exposition, other times it will require other techniques. Don’t chop up the living and active (s)word into little bits. Swing it like you mean it.

Fame does not qualify you to be a preacher

There’s a worrying trend developing amidst the church around a desperate bid for us to be ‘relevant’ and ‘change the culture’ of the world. A trend that is having the opposite effect of changing the culture of the church.

This trend is a through line that runs in the U.S evangelical church’s obsession with Trump, the Aussie church’s obsession with Israel Folau (until this week), and everybody’s new obsession with Kanye West. We want to be noticed and normal. We want to restrain the excesses of our society and we’re so used to the levers of power and cultural influence ‘from above’ — from ‘influencers’ being pulled, that when an influencer becomes a Christian we thrust them off their pedestal and behind a pulpit as soon as we can. We also keep building pedestals and pulpits for fame adjacent Christians — like CEOs of lobby groups who build political platforms for their video “preaching” — but neither being famous, nor fame adjacent, qualifies a person as a preacher or teacher.

Both Israel Folau and Kanye West have pivoted from very public expressions of their Christian faith to the pulpit. Both are now operating as teachers in communities; neither is qualified in any way to do so. The apostle Paul says teaching, or being an overseer, is a noble task but is not for recent converts (1 Timothy 3:6)… or lovers of money (1 Timothy 3:3).  Both Folau and Kanye run the risk of damaging the witness of the Gospel if they keep functioning as preachers without being trained or qualified, and we run the risk of damaging the witness of the church to the crucified king if we keep treating celebrity itself as a virtue and so trading on celebrity for our own relevance, or the proclamation of the Gospel.

Character, gifting, and calling qualify a person as a preacher. The ability to ‘rightly divide the word of truth’ qualifies a person to be a preacher. Unfortunately it seems that neither Izzy, nor Kanye, nor Martyn Iles (or the Australian Christian Lobby) are equipped to lead the church theologically, as teachers or preachers. And this matters — because both our politics and our witness to the Gospel are actually profoundly theological exercises. We evangelicals, in our desire to win people to Jesus (and to follow Paul in ‘becoming all things to all people’) have somehow baptised pragmatism — the getting of ‘results’ — measured in converts, over the substance of the Gospel message and the way it produces a certain ethos, or virtues, that are to be part and parcel with Gospel preaching.

There’s a deep irony that some of the justification for cultural engagement comes from 1 Corinthians, where Paul starts by outlining how the content of his message is the foolishness of the cross of Jesus, which is the power of God — not worldly power or status. The city of Corinth was obsessed with fame; especially with famous orators; sophists. People who valued style over substance and ability and results over character and conviction. Paul smashes this. He comes to the Corinthians embodying the Gospel of the crucified Jesus; when he writes to them again about their obsession with the ‘super apostles’ in 2 Corinthians, he gives a long list of his foolishness and suffering and being unimpressive as the resume for a Gospel preacher. When he describes himself in 1 Corinthians and his social position as a preacher he says:

For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. — 1 Corinthians 4:9-13

This is him imitating his crucified king. The one who died a humiliating death reserved for slaves; the scum of the earth, to show God’s upside down world altering kingdom. The power of God is not found in fame. Being famous is not a qualification for being a preacher; our bizarre desire for famous Christians to represent Christianity publicly as though they are preachers, and to not call out the problems that come from that public representation turning into occupying a pulpit and so, potentially, speaking the word of God to his people and the world is a reprehensible departure from the Gospel that mirrors the situation Paul addresses in Corinth.

Stop it.

I understand Kanye’s desire to preach about the grace that it appears has been given to him. But there is no way he is ready for the task of preaching yet.

I understand Izzy’s passion to save people from God’s wrath; but he is not just unqualified as a preacher of the Gospel, he is disqualified because he explicitly rejects the Trinity.

And yet preacher after preacher, for who knows what reason beyond — rejoicing that Christ is preached by a celebrity — have joined the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles in lionising these two figures. Martyn Iles even doubled down on Folau’s faithfulness this week when everybody else in the world was realising that Folau’s brand of religion is a long way removed from the Gospel of Jesus. He did this just weeks after celebrating Kanye’s conversion. The same Kanye who in an interview last week said he’s considering changing his name to “Christian Genius Billionaire West,” and running for president — hardly the response modelled by Zaccheus and promoted in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus explicitly says “you cannot love both God and money.” This week he appeared at Joel Osteen’s church proclaiming himself the “greatest artist God has created” and saying that God now has him on his side. His sermonettes that you can watch online are mostly expressions about him, and the influence he will now bring because he is on God’s side. None of this means Kanye is not a Christian; what it does mean is that Kanye is not qualified to be a preacher of the Gospel, especially not simply on the basis of fame… The rapid endorsement of these famous people as preachers might mean that there are lots of preachers out there whose qualifications need some renewing.

Perhaps the only thing worse than famous people who become Christians who have the task of preaching thrust upon them by a celebrity-infatuated church, is those who cynically resort to the tools of fame and power to build some sort of preaching or teaching ministry. The only thing worse than preachers or leaders getting photo opps with celebrities (think Osteen and Kanye, or Iles and Folau), are preachers who seem to just perpetually post glamour shots of themselves or photos accompanied by pull quotes from Sunday’s sermon. These are the antithesis of the Gospel and the ministry it should produce as we follow the example of Jesus.

We could do worse than looking to the example of Paul as he followed the example of the crucified king. Who was careful to ensure that the ‘noble task’ of leading and teaching be passed on to those recognised by the church communities they taught as ‘reliable people’ who were ‘qualified to teach others’ (2 Timothy 3:1-3), who charged Timothy to “preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction,” and to do this because “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

Those teachers might just be celebrities who say that the Gospel is just about personal salvation from hell, or about political victory over the immoral leaders of the ‘gay agenda,’ or about all manner of things that we give a pass simply because it seems good to us that “Christ is preached.” This Washington Post piece on how Kanye, like Trump, has embedded a certain form of ‘evangelicalism’ that focuses on individual salvation and self-improvement, in the black Gospel music tradition, is worth considering. Kanye’s conversion, so far, certainly hasn’t looked like doing anything but switching the market he sells his clothing line and music to — and talking an awful lot about having met Jesus. Our hope for Kanye is not that he might make the Gospel relevant by converting lots more celebrities to bring a revival (as he’s expressed his mission), but that he might be surrounded by faithful witnesses who model humility and the power of the crucifixion to him such that his future suggestions about name changes don’t run completely at odds with the virtues that come from a life led imitating Jesus.

We’ve got to stop expecting celebrities to jump on the celebrity preaching circuit; how much greater a witness to the crucified king would it be for Kanye, or Izzy, to submit to years of training in interpreting the text of the Bible, and years of character formation reflecting on the character of Jesus and keeping in step with the Spirit (as Paul puts it in Galatians 5), before opening the mouth. Silence from Kanye right now would speak volumes; it would perhaps speak louder than his brash, enthusiastic, embrace of the Gospel.

In all this I’m reminded of the strength of the testimony of another celebrity convert. Aussie actress Anna McGahan. McGahan has just, after years reflecting on the experience of meeting Jesus as Lord, released a book called Metanoia — which is the Greek word for repentance. The absolute change in one’s life that happens when we turn from the dead ends of relevance, fame, power, and personal glory, to worship the crucified and living God. McGahan writes beautifully. She has been a faithful member of a church community for years, she has turned down the sorts of roles and trajectories her acting career had her on before her conversion and devoted herself to imitating Jesus in ways she describes in her book. She is qualified, in these ways, to be a trusted witness to the Gospel. A preacher. And her book (and her online writing) are a powerful testimony of one who has rejected fame for the sake of the name of Jesus. McGahan does, by conviction, have a ministry with creative people — some of who are famous — she describes the ethos in her book as: “Fall at the feet of Jesus, fall at the feet of Jesus, fall at the feet of Jesus.” She describes how this emerged out of realising that she wasn’t whole as a celebrity, out of being broken and remade by Jesus, not just having her fame baptised and turned towards the ends of making Jesus known, but having her life turned upside down because she is now known by Jesus.

We could do lots to learn from at least one Christian who has experienced fame, and experienced the call of the Gospel, so that we stop acting as though fame qualifies someone to preach the Gospel. The results of our pursuit of relevance through Kanye and Izzy will keep coming home to roost if we don’t.

Jesus is Lord and the danger of fame adjacent Christianity

I spent the day today listening to Kanye West’s new album Jesus is King and watching its social media mentions go gangbusters amongst a subset of my social media feed; typically these were male, members of the clergy, and seeking to share the good news that yes, Jesus is King, but also, yes, it appears that Kanye West has come to put his faith in Jesus as his king.

I don’t want to sell this short; it is a miracle that Kanye West has become a Christian. Or at least that by the sorts of external measures we use to assess a conversion he has; he’s provided a credible public testimony and his new album certainly articulates the content of the Gospel. That Jesus is both Lord and Saviour — it’s hardly a theological treatise that covers the full substance of Christian belief; but it is still a miracle.

Not because nobody converts to Christianity in this hard, secular, frame we live in. People do. Lots of them. Still.

Not because Kanye is rich and famous — though Jesus did say it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Not because Kanye, and his wife, Kim Kardashian, have operated and promoted lifestyles that seem like the antithesis of the Christian life.

Not because Kanye as a very powerful and influential celebrity will have an incredible platform to promote the Gospel to others as though he’s some sort of Gospel mule we can use to smuggle Jesus into the houses of those who only listen to rap from the most famous rappers in the world.

It’s a miracle because any time any body — rich and famous, or poor and downtrodden — puts their faith in Jesus Christ we are witnessing early onset resurrection. A person who puts their faith in Jesus moves from death to life, a person who trusts in Jesus receives God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in them where God’s Holy Spirit did not previously dwell. A person receiving the good news, believing the Gospel, is good news precisely because it is a miracle. And I’m thankful for what appears to be, for Kanye, a genuine transformation (his interview with Jimmy Kimmel is a good place to get this sense).

This is a miracle. His album, though not an amazing piece of musicology or theology contains some beauty, some truth, and no doubt will be on rotation on church spotify playlists.

The last track on his album, the title track, Jesus Is Lord, is a pretty straight forward articulation of the most basic articulation of the miraculous, life-giving, message of the Gospel. Jesus is Lord

Every knee shall bow
Every tongue confess
Jesus is Lord
Jesus is Lord
Every knee shall bow
Every tongue confess
Jesus is Lord
Jesus is Lord

In Romans, the apostle Paul says: “ If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9). Kanye seems very much to be making such a declaration; and I have no reason to believe he’s not believing in the resurrection; he’s certainly been enforcing a Christian moral code on those working on his album and documentary, and seeking to uphold similar standards in his home life (with less ability to influence proceedings, according to his wife Kim). This sort of lip-service is not a guarantee that Kanye is a Christian (though my point here is not to rain on that parade). Jesus himself said “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21). It’s great that Kanye now sees himself working for God, that he’s not just a Christian musician but a “Christian everything” and that this is transforming how he lives and does business, and let’s pray it continues… 

What might not be so great is a sort of ‘celebrity adjacent Christianity’ that plays out on social media. There’s a challenge for us Christians to walk a line when the rich and powerful put their trust in the crucified king who brings an upside down kingdom, we’re so attracted by the idea of not being totally removed from the centre of power, hipness or hopness (look, that sentence pretty much guarantees I’m not those things…)… we might, for instance, celebrate that Kanye has apparently come home to Jesus and neglect to celebrate the miraculous in our own communities, and we might do this justifying it because we can leverage his coming home for the Gospel and market Jesus by promoting Kanye as a picture of miraculous repentance and the resurrecting life of Jesus… we might think that credibility for the Gospel comes from pointing people to the lyrics of the track God Is (which are great)… we might think Jesus needs the street-cred Kanye offers (or that, in this secular frame, we need that street cred), and we might even ironically disavow such street-cred as a way of building our own at the expense of those who seem to crave it (and this post is now walking a very fine line, I know). It’s so easy for us Christians in a celebrity obsessed age to want a fame adjacent Christianity; if not a Christianity that allows us to actually be famous (and there’s, of course, the Christian celebrity machine of pastors and bloggers and podcasters and worship leaders and contemporary Christian artists building platforms and reputation). It’s easy for us to want to leverage Kanye’s fame for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel, as if that works better with a celebrity endorsement. A “church communications” group I’m in has a thread trying to work out how to capitalise on the “POSITIVE WORLD WIDE publicity” that comes from Kanye’s album dropping.

This is a bad idea.

For starters, in Australia McCrindle Research studied the factors that make Christianity attractive or repellant for non-churched Australians, and one of their top ten most ineffective methods for promoting the Gospel was celebrity endorsements. 70% of Australians are repelled by celebrity Christian endorsements (source).

It’s also a bad idea because Jesus doesn’t need celebrity to be compelling. And celebrity itself, wealth and power, in Jesus’ own words, don’t necessarily line up with the kingdom of God; the kingdom where our king is famous for being executed in a humiliating way by the rich and the famous. They go together like camels and needles; which means, when a rich and famous person does come to put their faith and trust in Jesus it is a miracle, but also, that it’d be a mistake to make something exceptional seem normal or appealing.

But it’s also a bad idea because there’s always been a problem with God’s name being attached to representatives who take it up for personal gain and then drag it through the mud.

It’s so easy for us to feel legitimised by someone famous for something else being also famously Christian. I remember collecting basketball cards as a kid (never having watched an NBA game in my life, and being semi-obsessed with collecting cards featuring the Spurs’ David Robinson, because he was a Christian (he even appeared in a sports star Bible I enjoyed for a while). Now I just wikipediad him and it turns out he’s still a pretty all-round decent guy… but just imagine I’d been obsessed with, say, Jarryd Hayne as a young teenager in the last ten years, or Israel Folau as a middle aged, white, politically conservative pastor (you knew that was coming). The danger of attaching Christianity, or worse, Jesus to some celebrity brand is the same danger that comes for companies who attach their names to toxic celebrities (and we do a good enough job in house, as the church, of trashing the reputation of Jesus).

In 2016 Jarryd Hayne proclaimed publicly that his Christian faith shaped him; he became a Christian almost ten years earlier through his time with the Fijian Rugby League team. He said his faith helped him cope with the ups and downs of his career and the criticism he wore from the media, especially after he returned to Australia from his NFL adventure in the U.S.

He definitely read the Bible; he even proclaimed Jesus in this article: “You do read articles and you get upset and you want to get fired up but when you read the bible you realise, everyone hated Jesus, so you’ve got to put that into perspective as well and realise how much he stood up and was still him.’

This was also after some questionable sexual ethics saw Hayne become a father for the first time. What wasn’t public when this article went to print was that Hayne, in 2015, has allegedly (in a case now settled) sexually assaulted a Christian woman in the U.S, during his time there. In 2017 Jarryd Hayne was baptised in the Jordan river in Jerusalem (apparently rich and famous people don’t get baptised in the church community they belong to), by now, Christians weren’t trotting him out as a poster boy, which was probably a good thing given he’d then be faced with very similar accusations and charges back here in Australia. The upside to this story is that, while awaiting a trial, Hayne is studying at Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Bible College in Perth. Celebrities disappoint; all the people who got excited — whether teenage boys, or Christians on social media who love a good high profile Christian — were disappointed by Jarryd Hayne’s public expression of his faith. If he’d been put on any posters for any presentation of the Gospel (or social media posts), those posting might want to distance themselves from him in order to distance him from Christianity. Celebrities can drag down the cause, and probably do that disproportionately to their ability to lift the cause.

Look, like Kanye, Hayne is redeemable, he is not beyond the reach of the resurrecting king. Whether or not he’s a follower of Jesus who just, because of the lifestyles of the rich and the famous, doesn’t do a particularly good job of doing the will of his father in heaven, while calling Jesus Lord, is not for me to judge — nor is it for me to judge whether Kanye is a Christian or not. That’s ultimately up to God. It is, however, up to us Christians to get it right when it comes whose name gets attached to whose…

We don’t need to ride the Kanye wave and post links to his music and lyrics on Facebook to attract people to Jesus; or point people to the miracle of his conversion.

We don’t need Israel Folau to champion the cause of religious people. Or to have him, with his heterodox views, sharing the platform with us to make our political cause relevant.

We don’t need Jarryd Hayne as the poster boy of Christianity.

We don’t need to be celebrity adjacent as Christians for Christianity to be miraculous or life changing good news. We don’t need wealth and power and a platform for Jesus to be Lord.

Fame adjacent Christianity can quickly pull us away from Jesus and towards the world; away from the cross and towards glory. Away from representing God’s name, and towards representing our own name.

We need Jesus.

Jesus is Lord; and the miracle of the Gospel is not that we attach our name to his as an extension of his brand — a way to make him popular in the world as we leverage our influence; it’s that in the Gospel he attaches his name to us, and he stands before God in heaven and intercedes for us saying ‘this one is mine.’ We do, in this process, become his image bearers in the world again; his representatives in the world — but that representation has to be shaped by the story of the Bible, a story of failed representatives who got a bit too close to the sun (literally in the case of Babel, where the people building the tower wanted to make their own names great, rather than God’s). Israel was meant to honour and uphold God’s name in the nations, not take it in vain and drag it through the mud. They wanted to be like the rich and powerful nations around them, they were too attracted to the ancient equivalent of celebrity, both their own kings (like Saul) and the kings and princes of the nations around them.

The story of the Bible is the story that Jesus is Lord. Jesus the new, true, Adam, and the new, true, Israel. It’s the story that God is represented by an image — the image of the invisible God — who reveals the nature of God when he is crucified and then raised from the dead. Not in celebrity, not with an album launch, but on a cross. When Kanye has demonstrated, from a lifetime of being shaped by the cross (rather than telling Jimmy Kimmel that Christianity has his business growing, and that he’s a billionaire) then maybe he’ll be worth holding up as an example. Until then I’ll heed the words of this ancient song, and join Kanye saying “Jesus is Lord…” and celebrating that he sets prisoners free.

Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
    on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God.

He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them—
he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free. — Psalm 146:3-7

Image Source: Pitchfork story about a golden statue of Kanye called “False Idol” that appeared in Hollywood a few years ago.

Kanye meets the orchestra

This is pretty cool (though not a great recording).

Apparently this original video can trigger epileptic episodes – so don’t watch it if that will happen to you. This is the song that orchestra is covering. This is a rap video, so the obligatory warnings about scantily clad ladies dancing apply.

Charlie Sheen’s Tweets New Yorker Style

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First it was Kanye’s outrageous and outlandish claims, brought to the world via Twitter, that received the New Yorker treatment. Not it’s Charlie’s turn.

Via Buzzfeed (some rudity at the link).

Josh Groban sings Kanye’s Tweets

I’m a sucker for stuff related to Kanye West’s Twitter presence.

So this video that has been doing the rounds gets stamped “worthy of posting” and now, sits amongst the other webtritus (thanks Arthur for the term) posted here…

It’s been everywhere already, but I think I saw it first at ChurchCreate.

Kanye: The Saviour of Twitter

I confess, yesterday, while sitting in Greek and waiting to hear which way the independents would swing (in favour of democracy or broadband flavoured pork) I was relying on Twitter. Mainstream media is great for fact checking and objectivity – Twitter carries the can for immediacy (you don’t have to have your stuff approved by an editor). Because most of Australia was glued to live coverage anyway the pressure for news sites to post the info first was pretty low. So 1 point for Twitter.

By my count twitter is up 2 points currently – because they boast another scoop on mainstream media – the stream of consciousness rants and thoughts of one K-West. They’re needlessly and pointlessly interesting. In the last couple of days he posted a stream of stream of consciousness (a river of consciousness perhaps) thoughts that cobbled together (let Gizmodo do it for you) amount to a lengthy apology to Taylor Swift for last year’s Grammy interruption, and an apology to his fans who had to leap to his defence as a result.

An excerpt:

“The media has successfully diminished the “receptive” audience of KANYE WEST. Taking a 15 second blip, the media have successfully painted the image of the ANGRY BLACK MAN, The King Kong theory. I’m the guy who at one point could perform the Justin Timberlake on stage and everyone would be sooo happy that I was there.

People tweeted that they wish I was dead… No listen. They wanted me to die, people. I carry that. I smile and take pictures through that. I wear my scars. It’s almost like I have to where a suit to juxtapose my image and I won’t lie: IT WORKS!

I wrote a song for Taylor Swift that’s so beautiful, and I want her to have it. If she won’t take it then I’ll perform it for her. She had nothing to do with my issues with award shows. She had no idea what hit her. She’s just a li’l girl with dreams like the rest of us. She deserves the apology more than anyone.”

Aww. Shucks.

You might remember Tea Party Jesus, words from members of the new “conservative force” in American politics in speech bubbles on pictures of Jesus. Well, Jesus Needs New PR has gone one better. Kanye West Jesus.

Further proof, if required, that Kanye is not the messiah, just a very naughty boy with a palpable messianic complex.

An interview with Kanye

Kanye West doesn’t really do interviews. He doesn’t like journalists much. But his recent foray into Twitter has created some interesting opportunities for journalists to quote “on record” comments from Kanye. Here, Slate takes his comments on Twitter and builds an all access interview around them.

The summary of the method of putting this interview together is as follows:

“West has agreed to speak candidly to me on a wide variety of subjects, to run his mouth but remain pithy at the same time, and to grant me virtually round-the-clock access to his life—no publicist popping his head in and telling me there’s five minutes left. As conditions go for writing a profile, these are extremely favorable. No, I don’t get to ask any questions, but I do get a constantly updating record of West’s thoughts, whereabouts, cravings, jokes, meals, flirtations, bon mots, and on and on. In the face of a mountainous info dump like West’s, isn’t the basic work of profiling—building from the raw material of everything someone says and does toward a more focused sense of who they are—as relevant as ever?”

Here’s a sample of the “interview”…

“Flying back from Silicon Valley to New York, West wanted to show me images of some recent kingish purchases he’d made, along with various treasures he had his eye on. It was a giddy tour of ancien régime-looking finery that didn’t end until well after the plane had landed. There were two golden goblets—thin-stemmed and etched with an intricate floral pattern—that West said he planned to use for drinking water. He was particularly excited about a bowl that squats regally on a gold base. The bowl is made of milky, hand-painted porcelain, with two grippable gold lions curling up its sides. “I copped this to eat cereal out of,” he said, adding that he’s been fantasizing about buying a horse. It’s hard to say exactly how much, if at all, he was joking.”

Kanye gets New Yorkered

Kanye West joined Twitter a couple of weeks ago (I think I mentioned it at the time). His Tweets have been, shall we say, over the top. So over the top that a few people decided they would make nice captions for cartoons from the New Yorker, sparking possibly the funniest internet meme ever.



A bunch here at Huffington Post, and some at urlesque, and at BuzzFeed.

Banning social media a band-aid solution

The Penrith Panthers have joined a bunch of other major sporting teams (including Manchester United) in banning their players from having a presence on popular social networks Twitter and Facebook. I can’t see, from a branding point of view, how this is a good thing for the club – surely having the players use these mediums productively, for the benefit of fans, would be a more beneficial long term strategy.

There is, of course, the danger of players being people. Being a bit too human. Airing dirty laundry. Or, doing what LeBron James just famously did in the U.S – using the medium to generate buzz around their playing future and leveraging up their salary and status. I can see why clubs would want to stop that sort of behaviour.

But the Panthers say they are doing this to “protect the players” essentially from themselves. Here’s what the Panthers have said about the policy (from FoxSports):

“We don’t want our players using these social networking websites. They are an invasion of privacy. They can be dangerous.”

Well, not really, they’re not an invasion of privacy but a forum where you can voluntarily make parts of your life unprivate. Nobody is questioning the capacity for these platforms to be misused. But dangerous? Not really.

Brisbane seem to have a more measured (and reasonable) approach:

“The Broncos have added a clause to their code of conduct that states any player posting a detrimental comment on Facebook or Twitter could be fined or suspended.”

My former employers had a policy along similar lines – with instructions not to engage in narky online flamewars (a paraphrase) we were to participate in online discussion in good humour, while recognising privacy and confidentiality concerns.

The FoxSports story, I think, hits the nail on the head when it comes to the motives of these moves:

“NRL clubs are deeply concerned about what players post in their status bar and whether their party photos are a “bad look”.”

It’s ultimately not about player safety – but about managing the NRL’s brand. And at this point I think the heavy handed “no go” social media policy is treating symptoms of the problem rather than its root cause. If players weren’t doing anything (in public, or private) that could be posted online in an embarrassing way – then there wouldn’t be a problem. Keeping the players off Facebook doesn’t stop photos being put up, nor does it stop those photos being sent to a journalist.

The real key to not damaging your brand via social networks is to not be doing stuff that would damage your brand. That’s where clubs should be directing their energy and attention.

There’s a further danger, which this story picks up, of players not present on Facebook being impersonated by people with less than optimal intentions. Apparently it’s happening with superstar Jarryd Hayne right now – and previously it has been an issue on Twitter for people like Kanye West (who apparently joined up just to avoid being impersonated). You can read his expletive laden all-caps tirade at Twitter impersonators from last May here at TechCrunch (I can’t find it on his actual blog)…

“THE PEOPLE AT TWITTER KNOW I DON’T HAVE A #%$@@# TWITTER SO FOR THEM TO ALLOW SOMEONE TO POSE AS ME AND ACCUMULATE OVER A MILLION NAMES IS IRRESPONSIBLE AND DECEITFUL TO THERE FAITHFUL USERS. REPEAT… THE HEADS OF TWITTER KNEW I DIDN’T HAVE A TWITTER AND THEY HAVE TO KNOW WHICH ACCOUNTS HAVE HIGH ACTIVITY ON THEM… IT MAKES ME QUESTION WHAT OTHER SO CALLED CELEBRITY TWITTERS ARE ACTUALLY REAL OR FAKE. HEY TWITTER, TAKE THE SO CALLED KANYE WEST TWITTER DOWN NOW …. WHY? … BECAUSE MY CAPS LOCK KEY IS LOUD!!!!!!!!!”

Is West the new McCartney

One wonders how rumours of the demise of celebrities spread and conspiracy theories were hatched prior to the internet. I’m pretty surprised by the heights reached by the McCartney theory, and we have our own present day equivalent. Kanye West is apparently dead. And autotune is being used to cover this up…

The rapper’s next release, “Love Lockdown,” displayed a major idiosyncrasy. No rapping is audible, only auto-tuned singing, which is supposedly the Viking symbol of death.

Then came the rapper’s latest album: 808s and Heartbreak, with even more auto-tune.

Twitter is abuzz with #ripkanye buzz – which is what Twitter does best.

Pardon the interruption

This is the funniest Kanye joke yet

Kanye and Genesis

Here’s another one… knock knock
Who’s there?
Interrupting Kanye
Interupting Ka…
Yo, doorman, I know you have to welcome me, and I’m going to let you finish, but Beyonce told the best knock knock joke of all time…

I made that one myself. Can you tell?

Speaking of which, I’m always on the look out for knock knock jokes – tell me your favourites in the comments.

YouTube Tuesday: Kanye do this?

The second PR lesson we can learn from celebrities is courtesy of Kanye’s now infamous crashing of the stage at the MTV Awards. Stupid thing to do really.

The silver lining came from Beyonce – who Kanye was advocating for – when she showed how to act with grace, and class, and brought Taylor Swift back on stage.

And now, Kanye has gone “viral” with spoofs already happening.