Christians today face challenges unique to the contemporary social climate. This week: Music.
“God show me the way because the Devil trying to break me down.”
Do people even remember that Kanye West once rapped these lyrics sincerely, in a song written in 2003 called “Jesus Walks,” written as a defiant defense of his faith in the face of a money-and-sex obsessed hip-hop scene? Do people even remember the Kanye that tackled social issues like poverty and crime with dignity and courage in his first album The College Dropout, back then known more for his creativity and production skills than for his merc-mouthed provocateurism? Because I remember. I remember 808s and Heartbreak, when he turned hip-hop into distorted electro-synths and static-driven, autotuned voices, all working in melancholic harmony. I remember the lyrical rush of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, when he rapped with dripping, self-aware, genius: they say I’m the abomination of Obama’s nation. In Kanye, I see the epitome of artist-king, a man so indescribably creative you could almost forgive how in love he is with himself.
Almost. Like a voyeur I watched painfully and awkwardly as the man who pushed the limits of musicianship pushed also the limits of my faith. Away from the music, he became a self-inflated animal, starting with the horrific interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs, moving on to Photoshop himself to a cross to promote Yeezus (which sounds like a certain other guy), culminating in the infamous “Famous” video where he poses naked with a bunch of celebrity lookalikes (including George W. Bush?!!?), a piece of media of such utmost ridiculousness it pretty much erases half of his career. And the other half is fading fast.
I want to reformulate a question long-dismissed by Christians as ultraconservative, backwards, and irrelevant: how does your faith inform the artists to which you listen?
You may scoff and consider me a curmudgeonly old patriarch. I did too, for several years: each time Kanye would say something outrageous in his music, such as “I AM A GOD… HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN CROISSANTS!” something so obviously a product of the Trumpian-size head he’s got teed up on his fat neck, I would just say: “freedom in Christ!” and keep listening. But the tension has started to build up as of late. As I listen to him, I find myself desensitized to his egoism. While he celebrates leisure and luxury, his Gucci and his many chicks, I soak it all in and do homework. Now, I listen to a variety of artists, from Christian bands like NEEDTOBREATHE and Switchfoot, to pop-country boys like Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts, to rock stars like Linkin Park. Not every band I listen to spouts crystal-clean morality. But Kanye has recently become a uniquely toxic personality not simply because of his music, but because of his off-field antics. His musical egoism, combined with his diva and me-me-me attention-seeking attitude in the public sphere, has singlehandedly recreated in me this dilemma of faith, freedom, and values.
On one hand, this realization has steeped upon me intense discomfort over the self-idolizing message being preached by Kanye in his music and personal life. In fact, the analogy I pulled to Trump just then can be extended to this Chicago arse. Kanye is now totally bereft of any kind of metaphysical guiding principle in his life – the only thing in which he believes is himself. How can I, in good conscience, listen to music like that? And by the way, “freedom in Christ” or “I can handle it” is not a satisfactory answer. With Kanye, It’s not a question of freedom or ability. With Kanye, it’s a question of worship – it’s a question of man who is trying to preach to you to the theology of himself – and you nodding your head to it.
But on the other hand, Kanye is one of the most brilliant artists of the 21st century. Every album of his is groundbreaking, even as he has publicly declared “the death of the album.” You may not agree, but you’re wrong. Listen to “Runaway.” 9 minutes of sheer brilliance. The critics have agreed. He pushes the boundaries of music and creatively like never before.
Thus, I struggle with a debate I never wanted to have with myself. This idea that I have to choose between staying true to my faith and staying true to myself as an artist who appreciates art.
In this time, a popular Christian phrase streams in my head: “we’re in the world, but not of the world.” That is to say, we should stay relevant in our communities while understanding and staying true to our character in Christ. It seems like a nice compromise: basically, Kanye West will help us “relate better” to our fellow brothers and sisters in the world.
It’s too nice. It’s too lenient.
John Piper in Desiring God looks at the scripture in which this phrase takes its root, John 17:14-19:
“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
He argues that the phrase is misconstrued. Jesus did not mean to mingle around the world and stay relevant in any secular sense. He said to go into the world, as if commanded by a higher power. Thus, the phrasing should be: “I am not of the world, but I am sent in the world by God.” In contrast to the last phrase, this one signals proactivity rather than passivity in everything we do – yes, including listening to music.
How, you may ask, may the Christian proactively listen to music for the Kingdom of God? Isn’t listening to music an inherently passive affair?
Let me ask you: when you worship God through music, are you being passive?
No. You are actively responding to the praise, reflecting upon your life, and shouting to the heavens. In every piece of music we listen to, we are called to respond. In worship, with praise. In secular music, with evaluation and reflection – what is this music I am recommending and endorsing? And for what reasons? What part of me is being affected by this music? We are call to self-awareness as a proactive act.
Finally, I want to come back to Kanye West. How can a Christian proactively listen to an artist who preaches the Gospel of himself in both his music and his public life, even as he brings such creative vigor to the table?
I can’t answer that for everyone. But for myself – I have engaged with his music in an attitude of critique. I have decided to examine him in an intellectual, distanced manner, appreciating him for what he’s done for music, but refusing to get into it like I had before, refusing to channel him passively. I must make an active effort to be on my guard. And if an artist espouses sick lifestyles without any semblance of creative thinking – I will refuse to listen. Millennials need to actively engage with the music, become aware consumers of what’s streaming on into our heads. We need to think about the music we listen to. Doesn’t mean we need to censor everything that has one lurid reference in it. But it does mean that we need to reflect back, relate it to the reality and relate it to our faith. We need to say: this lyric bothers me. This personality is unsuitable for the personality that I want to be. In this way, musicians like Kanye, who ooze with such talent but tramp with such poor taste, can even help build our faith rather than tear it down.
Follow me on Twitter: @kennymxu