I arrived at my Theology on Church and Culture class a few minutes late this last week, but I walked into an excited conversation about the importance of Kanye West’s conversion. There seemed to be a central emphasis put on qualifying the validity of Kanye’s conversion, and that it should be validated through external actions. This is true. We cannot simply act like everyone who calls themselves a Christian or claims to know God are being truth, with themselves or those they are telling. Faith is always an enacted faithful obedience to King Jesus, but how do we best understand such gospel truth for the Christian life?
Since Kanye’s newest album is called Jesus is King, and he intends for the message to be his public “coming out” as a committed Christian, I think it would be only fitting to seek guidance from Matthew Bates via his new book on the gospel and faith, Gospel Allegiance. There are just a few points that stuck out to me in class.
First, it seems to me that the most immediate question about Kanye’s, or anyone’s, conversion is, “What is the message the person has converted to?” There is a clear (or blue) indicator about what this message is, and that is his new album’s title is Jesus is King. Separate from if Kanye can articulate what such a phrase fully means, or if he fully conceives what the implications are for himself and the world, is irrelevant compared to the fact that he has come to recognize and dedicate himself to the gospel message that Jesus is King. This is the gospel itself!
As Bates says,
“…the theological point that receives the most emphasis in the Bible’s own description of the gospel, is that Jesus is the Christ, the king.” (40)
There can be no doubt that Kanye has encountered the proclamation of the gospel and has begun to identify personally with it, especially as he puts his public fame and persona in relation to such a proclamation.
But, secondly, has Kanye actually come to faith in the gospel of King Jesus that he has encountered? As said before, faith, especially as allegiance to King Jesus, is always enacted as faithful obedience to him. Therefore, while public statements about Jesus as king, or attempts to say Christian phrases, or attributing successes or wealth or health may all be true and good, they could also be public acts meant to gain attention. This would not be outside of the normally audacious behavior of Kanye West since he has done this in the past. In fact, as I could not name you single song title written or sung by the man, I can tell you I only know of his existence because of his foolish behavior in the past.
Faith is, also, not about a trustful feeling towards God that repels all fear, doubt, or suffering from us. No, faith is more real than that. Bates helpfully explains the meaning of faith in world of the New Testament, saying,
“[The] claim that faith is purely receptive or passive is a philosophical and systematic position about the Bible rather than a straightforward biblical teaching. Faith was relational and externalized. Faith faced outward as displayed trust or loyalty toward [another person] (or toward external objects) more than inward as a feeling of confident reliance or trust.” (155)
“These texts show for Paul, if a person is to exercise faith at all, this cannot be done apart from his or her human flesh. We are not faith-alone spiritual ghosts inside a separate works-doing body machine. A person can only exercise faith while making use of the body, doing something, working.” (165)
Faith is what you do because it reveals what you believe. Claims about belief that are never enacted in the body are just lies we tell ourselves. Under this understanding of faith, we should scrutinize Kanye. And it is precisely here where I am most convinced by his claim of conversion.
Kanye has curated his public persona, and the persona of his family, to be exactly as culture desires him to be in order to earn public favor. He has flaunted his infatuation with pornography, demanded his wife and daughter sexualize themselves for his fame, and made crude and vulgar music for money. Of all of this and more, he has publicly repented over in the last couple of weeks. He has somehow come to recognize the emptiness of fame and wealth without the direction and teaching of Jesus as King. He has realized the foolish and selfish ways he has been using those closest to him. He has come to see all the enjoyment and pleasure afforded to him as a celebrity was a willful enslavement that so many aspire to in our society.
Kanye has not only publicly proclaimed that Jesus is king, but he has begun to allow that gospel to reshape his own life in the most intimate of ways. The way he is a husband, father, son, and friend. Only after these aspects has the Jesus is King album been release. I’m sure there are many more things for Kanye to learn about Christian belief and practice, but such a personal awakening paired with publicly enacting the faith of the gospel inclines me to think the Holy Spirit is likely involved.
Thirdly, Kanye often brings up that he wants to launch a new era of “Christian innovation.” He points out that in centuries past most of the great art was commissioned by and made in service to the church. He thinks it is sad that most art today is made in service to a culture of selfishness and greed. About this he isn’t wrong. In fact, it shows a bit more that his confession of faith is possibly genuine. Once we are filled with truth of the gospel that Jesus is King we begin to embody that gospel in faith(ful) obedience and it is natural for us to seek to do good works in the world that God has made.
As Paul says it in Ephesians 2:8-10,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Referencing these verses, Bates explains the essential place of works in the life of Christian,
“Paul has no problem with Spirit-based saving good works…This does not violate grace. Saving grace is the specific Christ-gift, the gospel. This gospel gift from God requires a return gift to ratify its acceptance, a reciprocating response. This response is faith (pistis) and includes good works within its purview. This is possible because saving faith (pistis)is primarily outward-facing, embodied allegiance to Jesus, the saving king announced in the gospel. The Holy Spirit has colonized human flesh, so that humans can actually perform good deeds that fulfill the law’s deepest intentions (Rom. 8:1-17).” (219)
Kanye’s desire to do work for God indicates he is being deeply moved by the grace of the gospel as responds in faith(ful) obedience. Such hope should not be seen as Kanye doing something for God alone, but as God’s Spirit working through Kanye. Lastly, I’ve seen some version of this idea floated about or said by some, “I do not believe that Trump is a Christian or that a true Christian can support Trump. Kanye supports Trump. Therefore, Kanye cannot be a real Christian.” This would be a possible way to evaluate Kanye’s conversion if any of the assertions were able to be known. As it is, all of these are unknowns other than by the most blind of religious ideologues and bigots.
Either way, the real problem is that this is the actual problem King Jesus had with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were not hypocrites in the way we think of them today when the word is thrown around. They were bible-believing Jews who believed in creating an independent Jewish nation, sometimes through violence but always by means of holy living. They hoped that if common Jews lived holy lives that were similar to the stringent lifestyles as the priests in the temple then God would finally send the Davidic king to liberate the people of God from their imperial captors. While this was a valiant and good goal, their method was a bit exclusive. If a person was a sinner, they would be sociologically “cut off” from the people. They did this by magnifying their own holy behavior (the hypocrisy Jesus decries in Matthew 6) and shunning or shaming sinners in public.
This was precisely the reason King Jesus had an issue with the Pharisees; they did not help sinners repent and live according to God’s teaching. King Jesus was just as demanding about living a holy life as the Pharisees. Sometimes even more demanding! But he did not seek to cut sinners off from the people of God. Instead, King Jesus sought to teach the people how to live the teachings of God fully by caring for the weak, loving the enemy, and learning to make sinners right with God (aka, enacting justice!).
Even if it was taken for granted that President Trump was not a Christian, there is no way to justify the claim that Kanye’s political support of someone who is morally bankrupt means Kanye is currently disqualified from hearing the gospel, responding in faithfulness, and attempting to live accordingly as best as he understands. It seems that the creation of an American political Religious Left by the fundamentalist children of the Religious Right has only led to an increase in the culture of religious intolerance in our society, a new kind of American “progressive” Pharisaism.
All in all, I see no reason to question or judge that Kanye is not or cannot be a Christian. His actions, publicly and personally, seem to show a transformation I do not think should be attributed to his own moral or psychological instability. May we pray that such a conversion takes a deep root in such an important cultural figure so that at least others might witness a powerful transformation in the public square. And, may we also pray that Kanye is discipled well, so that just as any other Christian, he might learn how to reflect King Jesus through his life more and more. Amen.
I am thankful for Matthew Bates’ work in Gospel Allegiance, which gives insightful biblical and theological framing about the gospel and faith. His teaching gives great encouragement on the topic of identifying and displaying Christian life as work of allegiance to King Jesus.