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