So at first I wasn't sure what to make of Kanye's new album #JesusisKing. This is Kanye West. Kanye who said that slavery was a choice for people of colour rather than a crime imposed upon them by white slave owners. This is Kanye, hero of the alt-right and friend of Trump. This is Kanye, who throughout his song "Jesus Walks" cries out to God to listen to him, to show him the way because the Devil is out to bring him down.
However, suddenly, Kanye has brought out a Gospel Album with tracks which seem to be openly worshipping Jesus and celebrating Kanye's new found faith. The album has broken all the records with almost 200million streams on Billboard in the first week and dominated both Christian and secular markets. Moreover, Google released the news that the record had led to a massive surge in questions about what Christians actually believe.
The press are not convinced. Rod Little's (paywalled and vitriolic and thus unlinked) review in the Spectator sneeringly talks of the album being "patently insincere".
Michael Arceneaux, in a thought piece for NBC News, says that Kanye's conversion is simply to right-wing evangelism. Arceneaux is infuriated by West's apparent racism and failure to reject prosperity doctrine. In a way, he argues that West has more in common with Trump's spiritual mentor Paula White than he has with what we might think of as more authentic Christianity (I know some readers will really disagree but Paula is quite a character!).
Shane Claiborne says that Kanye needs to surrender his bank account to Jesus before he will believe he has converted. Of course, Kanye retorts that God has led him out of debt and even have him a $68million tax refund last year. He attributes this directly to God as a reward for Kanye's work/praise/devotion for him. We might all wish for such recompense from the Lord! But at the same time, do we expect everyone who comes to faith to surrender their bank balance to the church? If someone came to your church saying they had been converted, I am unsure that we would immediately retort with questions about whether they had surrendered their bank balance, their everything to the Lord.
A more favourable background to the album can be found in James Corden's Airpool Karaoke interview with Kanye (currently with 12.3m views). Corden asks some good theological questions while also getting caught up in the musical talents of the Sunday Service choir. In the interview, Kanye refers back to "Jesus Walks" but also to a period of ill health when he felt God telling him to start a church in his home in Calabasas - the beginning of what is called the Sunday Service - a rather celebrity styled version of church apparently good at music but somewhat lacking in Bible, teaching and sacraments. Was this the opening of his conversion - an encounter with God in the hospital? Through the interview with Corden, and especially through the songs, West seems genuinely connected, this does not seem to be a publicity stunt at all. Although perhaps I'm too gullible.
Since the launch of the album, Kanye has run Sunday Service in Baton Rouge and the 2 hour film of the the proceedings start with a statement that this is a way to connect with God rather than a concert. It's a full on proclamation of the Gospel with Kanye openly joining in the praise (see around 30mins in - in fact keep watching it all the way through). In fact, the album makes much more sense in the setting of worship because the choir slides from worship to praise, from confession to celebration rather than each song seeming disrupted by the album format. Hence the argument that this is indeed worship rather than rap.
But at the same time, it is a strange form of personalised, individual worship where we are encouraged to make an altar right where we are - at the same time wrapped up in the Gospel community singing. It may just be that the genius behind #JesusisKing is the choir master, Jason White, and the Sunday Service choir who bring Kanye's words to life and faith. The development of the service is told from White's perspective in a great article in RollingStone magazine.
Indeed, it also shows that there is a considerable amount of Bible with BibleGateway releasing a blogpost by Jonathan Petersen arguing that there are 85 bible references in the lyrics of the songs on the album. Although, there is a more right wing and prosperity centred Gospel here than many in the UK could tolerate.
But, those lyrics are not just founded in the Bible, they are founded in worship - often giving glory to God, often seeking God's presence, often attributing salvation to our God. "Water" is probably my favourite song on the album - talking of us as water, but also of our creativity as water. The song asks God to take "the chlorine out of our conversation", "let your light reflect on me". There is a long section of the song which is a prayer to Jesus asking repeatedly for Jesus to act in our lives. "God is" is a litany of what God has done not just in Kanye's life but also throughout history. It is, in itself, an interesting piece of doctrinal theology.
Whatever, you make of the album, the music, the hype, there is something of God happening around and, almost undoubtedly, in Kanye West's life.
Pray for him whether or not you like his music or his politics.
(I still abhor his comments on slavery, on purity culture, on the diminished role for women in his lyrics, on prosperity Gospel, and his support for a brand of politics predicated on lies, misinformation and immorality).
Pray that this work of God might be sealed in his life and in those around him - among his family and friends. Pray for Stormzy and Snoop Dogg, for Justin Bieber and others in the music industry who seem to be choosing to follow Jesus as part and parcel of celebrity culture.
Pray that God is indeed working in his life, in the lives of all celebrities turning to follow Jesus, and that ongoing years will see the fruit of their conversion, the fruits of salvation, the growing development of Kanye West's holiness. For that is what we would expect of anyone who proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord.
Pete Phillips, November 8, 2019