How the rapper went from revelling in sin to echoing Benedict XVI
Ex occidente lux? Christians looking to Kanye West for guidance are bound to be disappointed. He is not the sort of nice, respectable person who flatters his audience by saying what it wants to hear – that is, he is not Taylor Swift. Sooner or later, Kanye will declare his independence from the approval of nice Christian people. And good for him when he does.
His new gospel album, Jesus Is King, is precisely about defying worldly authorities. Kanye seeks liberty from lower powers by submitting to a higher one. In doing so, he has unexpectedly become the foremost advocate of the social kingship of Christ. It turns out that Kanye West is a better theologian than many members of the Catholic academy.
Benedict XVI showed that all Christian social thinking begins with the Sabbath. The day of rest is an “anticipation of the society free of domination, a foretaste of the city to come”. The nature of the seventh day is revealed most profoundly in the biblical notion of the Jubilee year, which came after “seven Sabbaths of years, seven times seven years”. At this time, prisoners would be released, slaves freed, debts forgiven. Accumulations of capital would be broken up.
With a remarkable intuition, Kanye has proclaimed Christ’s kingship by talking about the Sabbath. People have mocked him for singing about stores closing on Sunday (“Closed on Sunday / You’re my Chick-Fil-A”), but this practice is connected to ideas for which people have less contempt – freeing captives, overcoming addiction, getting out of debt. “They say the week start on Monday / But the strong start on Sunday / Won’t be in bondage to any man,” Kanye sings. “All the captives are forgiven / Time to break down all the prisons / Every man, every woman / There is freedom from addiction.”
Allowing for the differences between theological essays and rap lyrics, Kanye is making the same point as Benedict XVI. The rap star rightly stresses the importance of Sabbath observance while linking it to the end of imprisonment, slavery, and debt peonage. As Benedict put it: “The Sabbath is the heart of social legislation. If all social subordinations are suspended on the first or the seventh day, and if all social arrangements are revised in the rhythm of seven times seven years, then they will always be relative to the mutual freedom and common ownership of all.”
If you went back 10 years and told me that Kanye West would one day be releasing profanity-free Christian LPs featuring Clipse and Kenny G and echoing the thought of Benedict XVI, I would not have believed you. But here we are. And in retrospect, Kanye’s evolution is not so surprising. He has been Christ-haunted from the beginning.
One could see it in early gospel-ish numbers such as Jesus Walks. But it was also present in less wholesome songs such as Devil in a New Dress (a typical lyric: “we love Jesus but you done learned a lot from Satan”). There was always a kind of inverted piety in Kanye’s partying. Contrast him with his “big brother”, Jay-Z, an aspiring Warren Buffett whose raps were more Horatio Alger than Pilgrim’s Progress.
Kanye was always a bit more spiritual. He reveled in sin rather than mere sensation. He was drawn to wealth as a sign of wickedness (“I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven / When I awoke, I spent that on a necklace”). Other rappers celebrated copulation; he celebrated fornication. It was not a mere animal pleasure, but a transgression he would need to confess.
Perhaps, then, Kanye’s Christian turn isn’t so surprising. He has always been a hip-hop Des Esseintes or Durtal, an eccentric dandy who must go against the grain into the underworld before finding God. Kanye has taken this turn only after being reviled by progressive writers and the black community for his surprising support of Donald Trump. Many people have dismissed Kanye as simply crazy. He has responded by saying, not without reason, that the real craziness is in our society.
In a sense, Kanye is a man come back to warn us that the world we are trying to create is a hell. He has lived to the fullest a life of sexual freedom, credit-card consumption, Instagram exposure, gender crossing, and unceasing pornography. Last year he told Trump that he admired him in part because he felt a lack of “male energy” in his own family. His father left his mother, and his father-in-law, well … now goes by the name Caitlyn Jenner.
Living in a world as insane as the one Kanye inhabits might lead a man to make some drastic choices. They won’t always be sound. But even those who disagree with his taste in presidents should join Kanye’s praise of the King.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things