Jesus Is King is Kanye West’s record-tying 9th consecutive debut on top of the Billboard charts. Kanye has created a renewed awakening in the culture where the name of Jesus is constantly spoken, and an affirmation of Jesus’s person and work is frequently made. With Kanye’s affirmation of Jesus’s kingship, the church must do what the Apostle Paul did centuries ago and demonstrate how Jesus is not only King of kings but also Lord of lords. This moment is an opportunity to fulfill what the Apostle Paul wrote: “…at the name of Jesus every knee should bend… and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2.8-10, NRSV).
Jesus Walks With Me
Kanye’s prior exploration of the work of Christ was with his hit song “Jesus Walks With Me.” This song, as with many of the most popular songs on Jesus Is King, taps into the power of the African-American religious experience. Among the oldest traditions within this religious experience is the ring shout. During the ring shout, men and women would gather in a circle and walk counterclockwise while clapping, stomping, and singing through the horrors and pains of chattel slavery. The participants of the ring shout affirmed what Psalm 126 declares “may those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126.5).
This movement from weeping to shouting is what Chris Lambert, a narrative writer, and historian of Kanye’s discography, describes as the structure and linear development of Jesus Is King. In its simplest form, the linear structure is: set up, confrontation, and resolution. Lambert maintains that West uses these stages within a 5-1-5 structure on the album. Each song connects to the themes of the previous with “Everything We Need” being the turning point between the confrontation and resolution. The Gospels and Christian doctrine and theology even use this linear structure in describing the work of Christ: life, death, resurrection with the crucifixion as the turning point in the nature of the relationship between God and humanity.
Don’t Kill the Messenger
As is true for the Gospels and the epistles of the New Testament, so it is true for Kanye’s discography. That is, as Marshal McCluhan wrote, “the medium is the message.” And, the messenger influences how the message is received. Paul, trained among the most prominent rabbinical leaders of his day, was persecuted and ridiculed for changing his message and methods after his conversion experience on the Damascus Road from one of punishing Christians to promoting the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Fans of Kanye join with faithful followers of Christ in questioning the authenticity of Kanye’s conversion experience and rekindled faith as espoused in Jesus Is King. Kanye’s life and work are complex. On “Jesus Walks” Kanye states: “God show me the way because the devil tryin’ to break me down” in the hook, and questions whether the culture would accept and play his record on the radio if he rapped about Jesus. More recently, Kanye has been criticized for being more characteristic of a misogynistic, narcissistic, megalomaniac. His business ventures are as lucrative as they are complex and have resulted in a multi-billion dollar industry.
The Return of the Prodigal Son
There is also much complexity in response to Jesus Is King from faithful followers of Christ. The Parable of the Prodigal in Luke’s Gospel captures the nuances of the divergent response well. Jesus’s audience for the triad of parables in Luke 15 where the Pharisees and scribes who complained of Jesus’s close affiliation and association with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus uses parables, his own unique medium, for sharing the message of his compassion for the lost. In the parable, the prodigal son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. The father grants his request, and the younger son spends the inheritance through prodigal living just as quickly as he receives it.
Kanye’s discography describes the plight of the prodigal well. Pablo, a college dropout, experiences heartbreak when faced with the reality of his beautiful dark, twisted fantasy. He returns to college the fall semester before his graduation during the late registration period. He remembers and longs for the former Life of Pablo, so he returns home to his father’s loving embrace and acknowledges that Jesus Is King. The elder son, who has remained faithful to the father and the family business, says, “Ye.” This kid sees ghosts while losing himself, and you throw a party for him when he comes home. The father tells his elder son what you are seeing with your brother is a late orchestration. All I have is yours, so continue to watch the throne.
Lecrae, Richard Smallwood, Ricky Dillard, and Marvin Sapp have been among those within the Black church and gospel music who have, like the prodigal’s father, welcomed and celebrated the message of Jesus Is King. For them, the good news of the gospel message transcends the personality and polarity of the messenger. Gospel legend Fred Hammond collaborated on the album and serves as another example of this welcomed acceptance. Others within the Black church and the Black community, but mostly outside of Black gospel music, have been as critical and judgmental as the elder son of Kanye’s turn.
Lifeseek, a Christian non-profit organization that seeks to prepare a power generation to engage the culture through the gospel, considers Kanye’s return and the album as an opportunity for further dialogue about how the church is operating and functioning in the 21st century. Kanye’s album and influence challenges us to ask ourselves some questions: Are we open to new understandings and expressions of the faith? Are we creating space for all people to feel safe and welcomed at the party God is throwing not only for the “prodigals” but for all who have been invited? Are we advancing in our faith or are we holding onto old operating systems?
Time for an Upgrade
Just last week Apple warned owners and users of old iPhones and iPads that any devices using older operating systems without updating to the latest iOS by Sunday would no longer be able to connect to the internet. The church would do well to apply this warning to its own devices and operating systems. Kanye is pushing and preparing the culture for the next Great Awakening in which our 3G, 4G, and 5G religious forms and functions will continue to be both outpaced and out of place within a culture that yearns to be connected to something bigger than themselves.
Fans and faithful followers of Jesus encountered him as Lord (which in Hebrew denotes One who is the very foundation of all things) before acknowledging him as King. Therefore, now, is the time for the next generation of faithful followers of Jesus, to tap into he who is the foundation of the faith and practice “traditioned innovation.” For, it is upon this foundation that the church develops innovative ways to accelerate the good news of the gospel, to influence the culture, and to integrate new forms and functions as followers of Christ.
“Every Hour”…seek to “Follow God.” We are “Closed on Sunday” because it’s “On God” to give us “Everything We Need.” Thru the “Water” of our baptism, we experience that “God Is.” With our “Hands On” we “Use This Gospel” to proclaim “Jesus Is Lord.”