S. Joseph Scott
Special for News Talk Florida
“Jesus is King.” The latest album released by Kanye West is a confession of faith and a spiritual plea for grace. Here is a man whose life is defined by celebrity, fame, luxury, and excess. He is married to the ultimate celebrity for the sake of celebrity, Kim Kardashian West. He is legendary for erratic and unpredictable antics; think the decade long feud between Kanye and Taylor Swift beginning with his insertion of himself into her acceptance speech at the 2009 VMA’s. He is reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Forbes magazine, whose cover he graced earlier this year. He drives a matte-black Lamborghini. He obsessively designs shoes that are too expensive for most.
And now this. “Jesus is King.” A set of songs that any soccer mom could crank up with the kids in the car. Some have suggested it is simply another stunt to grab headlines, create controversy, and ultimately, make more money. Given the broader context of his public life, lifestyle and behavior, it is hard to think one might look to him for spiritual guidance. But, if we take his lyrics at face value, there are motifs present which reflect realities common to anyone who takes their faith seriously.
Every person who seeks to follow Christ understands that one cannot serve God and money. And yet, that is a war. Jesus is King. That is the most basic confession of lordship. It means Jesus rules and reigns. It means no other gods before me, including money. Jesus taught, “you cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). Jesus also warned that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). Kanye is at war. He confessed to Forbes magazine, “I am a product guy at my core.” He laments in the song “Selah,” a term used repeatedly in the Old Testament Psalms, perhaps meaning pause and reflect, “When I scream at the chauffeur, I ain’t mean, I’m just focused.”
“Closed on Sunday” captures the clash between commercial success with all its temptations and seeking to be a true disciple of Christ. The refrain brilliantly illustrates the tension between the Lordship of Christ and economic prosperity repeating, “Closed on Sunday, you’re my Chick-fil-A.” Sunday is “the Lord’s Day” in the Christian tradition.
The commercial success of Chick-fil-A in spite of being closed on Sunday is an exemplar to Kanye. “They say the week start on Monday,” reflecting a secular point of view, “But the strong start on Sunday,” he gainsays in Selah. In “Closed on Sunday,” he goes on to warn of the dangers of living in a material world. “When you got daughters, always keep ’em safe, Watch out for vipers, don’t let them indoctrinate.” And, “Raise our sons, train them in the faith. Through temptations, make sure they’re wide awake. Follow Jesus, listen and obey.”
In short, he opines, “No more livin’ for the culture, we nobody’s slave.” Anyone professing to be a disciple of Christ and has a chauffeur to scream at is at war with the temptations of wealth. He captures the essence of the struggle for every follower of Christ when he says, “l’ve been lookin’ for a new way, I’m just really tryin’ not to really do the fool way.” The way of wisdom over against foolishness is the essence of following God through the course of this world.
Those who choose to confess Jesus as King publicly inevitably fight the fear of rejection and judgement for their inconsistencies, which are inescapable. Kanye articulates this battle clearly when, In “Follow God”he confesses, “I was looking at the ‘Gram and I don’t even like likes.” Again, one sees the struggle every teenager with Instagram experiences. “I don’t like likes.” But I cannot help continuing to look at my Instagram longing for affirmation. He goes on, “Screamin’ at my dad and he told me, ‘It ain’t Christ-like,’” But, he laments “nobody never tell you when you’re being like Christ.” And what child growing up in a home where faith is a priority has not had this experience:
I woke up this morning, I said my prayers
You pray in the morning and before leaving the house the conflict begins. You just want to scream, which is how the song ends. He, like everyone limping toward obedience, longs for affirmation from the critical parent.
“Hands On”wrestles again with the reality of criticism, now from within the community of faith. He explains,
But he goes on to admit candidly,
To sing of change, you think I’m joking
To praise His name, you ask what I’m smoking
Yes, I understand your reluctancy, yeah
But I have a request, you see
The song culminates with the plaintive plea, “Please, pray for me.” There seems to be honesty, even humility, represented here.
Centrally, the album is a cry for grace and mercy. Yes, Jesus is King, but he is first Savior. Kanye confesses, again in “Selah,” “To whom the son set free is free indeed, He saved a wretch like me.” In “Follow God”the soulful background voice sings repeatedly the simple prayer, “Father, I stretch, Stretch my hands to you.” And in the pointedly chosen, single word song title “Water,” he expands the plea for cleansing grace to include, in the repetitious, pithy style of the gospel music tradition:
Jesus, flow through us. Jesus, heal the bruises. Jesus, clean the music…please use us…please help…please heal…please forgive…please reveal…give us strength…make us well…help us live…give us wealth…Jesus is our safe…is our rock…give us grace, Jesus, keep us safe.
If these lyrics are something more than a commercial grab for headlines, it might well be described as Kanye’s “Confessions” after the early church writer Augustine’s model.
In “Use this Gospel” he admits,
A lot of damaged souls, I done damaged those
And in my arrogance, took a camera pose
And just as Augustine famously prayed in his “Confessions,” “Lord give me chastity, but not yet;” Kanye confesses in “Follow God,” “Wrestlin’ with God, I don’t really want to wrestle.” He sums up the whole of the struggle that every professing Christian faces by saying in short, “All my idols, let ’em go.” The most basic issue for every human being is always the first commandment, “you shall have no other gods before me.” That is what “Jesus is King” captures. Who is Lord of one’s life? Thankfully, Jesus is Savior-King who is full of mercy toward hardened sinners. In what may be the best line of the collection, Kanye captures the mercy of Christ toward broken sinners with the laconic expression, “From the concrete grew a rose.” Only God knows the heart, but to that line we who understand grace and mercy can shout, amen!
S. Joseph Scott has a Ph.D. in theology and has served in leadership positions in both higher education and religious institutions. He has published in both academic and popular journals and has a special interest in the intersection of faith and culture.