Kanye West and Sincerity

I have a healthy mix of left and right Facebook friends and Twitter follows. It makes it pretty interesting to compare the reactions to culture war events.

There has been a pretty stark contrast in reaction to Kanye’s new album which dropped this week: Jesus is King. It is quite explicitly Christian.

This review from an Evangelical Christian of Kanye West’s album was “shared” many times by some social conservative FB friends. Quoting:

Welp. It wasn’t a marketing stunt.

Kanye West has finally released his new album “Jesus is King” and it is an explicitly, unabashedly, amazingly Christian album. Like, a legitimately Christian, Bible-verse-packed, cuss-word-free, not-heretical, seemingly very sincere work of art. Like, more Christian than the stuff you hear on K-Love.

The only thing not Christian about this album is the super high production quality.

That last line made me laugh.

The reaction from my left-leaning social media follows has been scathing disdain and ...hurt? Betrayal? I’ve been taken aback a bit by some of the vitriol.

Personally, I thought the album was not his best but certainly his best in quite a while—since Yeezus, perhaps. Jesus is King feels a little slight (just 27 minutes!) and yet also still a little bloated. Some good stuff, though—“God Is,” in particular, is a great track.

I suppose my key reaction, though, is that it feels really brave. It is hard to imagine a sincere theme that would be riskier.

I see Christian Rock as mostly a bastion of anodyne mediocrities who can’t succeed in the larger market—it is hard for me to see much sincerity in that music. (Anecdotally, I know a guy who used to be a roadie for major Christian Rock bands, and he told me that the offstage levels of carnality and drug abuse with them were exactly the same as secular rock bands.)

But Kanye was established. Kanye was already a legend. He has very little to gain and much to lose with a strong Christian stance. I’m still astonished by it.

I think our culture lacks sincerity. As we retreat into ourselves, it becomes more difficult for us to express ourselves to other people. We lack intimacy and so crave it even more. The problem is that as we satisfy our own needs we become even fussier about letting other people satisfy those needs. Who else knows what I like as well as I do? So we spent more time alone at home, eating by ourselves, playing by ourselves, pleasuring ourselves, living by ourselves.

I imagine it going something like this:

"I want sincerity, real human emotion, to feel something real." "Ok. I'm really Christian and I believe Jesus is King." "No! Not like that!"

It says a lot that we treat celebrities as reflections of ourselves, it matters that they dress and think and talk like us. Kanye serving up Godpills feels like a betrayal to many people because they thought they could see themselves in Kanye -- and now they can't. Of course, celebrities will always reflect the public at large, they have a platform to promote with, people will always get upset when this platform is used poorly, and many people no longer think Christianity is a good thing. So for these people there's a pragmatic sense of rejecting Kanye because he now promotes bad ideas. But if that was all it was: how would Kanye rank compared to other rappers? Would anyone bother?

None of this is specific to Christians, you could just as easily apply this analysis to any other flash point. (Why does it matter if LeBron James does or does not support the current president?)

But I would note that, when we Christians talk about feeling under attack by the culture, this is the kind of thing we're talking about.