The idea that Jesus should be worshiped like a powerful monarch is tired and actually antithetical to everything that he was about.
Human beings love having someone or something to worship. It is a way for us to find purpose, a reason to get up in the morning and make it through the day. If things go sideways in life, you can point to the deity to which you have subscribed as a guide for how to overcome and not let it ruin you. A recurring theme in the opinion pages of A/D is that these beliefs aren’t bad, necessarily, regardless of whether or not you value them as accurate. It has been written here a handful of times that plenty of good can come from true world theories. It is, however, problematic to take the message of peace and love espoused by one of the most famous figures in history and turn them into a gold-adorned figure of unimpeded power.
Last week, a very popular musical artist released his first attempt at a gospel record. Musically, it’s really not a bad record. Plenty of artists have drawn upon gospel music in hip hop and other popular music, and I don’t think that Kanye did a bad job with it. He certainly has the resources and clout to put together a group of musicians that will do justice to the genre. He even got Clipse back together, which is pretty rad.
Lyrically however, Jesus is King is an absolute dumpster fire. It is 27 minutes of church cliche’s and incomplete thoughts, grabbing at just about any usable Christianese phrase imaginable to really drive home the idea that the artist behind it has given his life to Christ. My first time through it I couldn’t help but think I was listening to a Free at Last era DC Talk record, or any of the other 90’s Christian CDs that my parents bought me to protect me from what was being played on mainstream radio. I spent a few years booking tours for Christian acts and I’ll tell you that peppering your record with these sorts of quotable church phrases works wonders for ticket sales, absolute money in the bank. I remember once being instructed to tell a small time church promoter that one of our acts had led x-number of souls to Christ on his last tour and that’s why the church should put down $30k to bring him in for a performance as part of his forthcoming tour.
I’m not willing to make a case that all Christian artists rely on these tropes to pay their bills, although I probably could if I wanted to alienate some friends. However, anyone who has been around and is now not around the church and it’s various industries can spot these tactics a mile away. Insulated church folks love it, the Christian music industry loves it, the artists love it, win win win. As a kid, I probably would have been super stoked on what Kanye is doing because all of a sudden I’d be allowed to listen to Kanye instead of whatever Christian version of him existed.
I saw on Instagram the other day someone say something about how Kanye is a modern day Saul/Paul situation and any Christian that isn’t celebrating that needs to check their intentions. For the unacquainted, Saul was a figure in the bible who famously encountered the spirit of the resurrected Christ on his way to Damascus and experienced a transformation of heart and identity. Saint Paul, as he would later be known, is a paramount figure in the promotion of the Christian faith and penned a large number of the books in the back half of the Christian scriptures. Kanye was Saul, now he’s Paul- that’s the argument at least- and if you are at all skeptical then buckle up because it’s going to be a bumpy ride to hell.
This is, of course, very silly. Blind acceptance of any marketing tactic without at least a little bit of skepticism is dangerous and irresponsible. If I were still a Christian, I would be a little concerned about a major public figure pandering to me and my community so shamelessly, but that’s just me. Add to all of this the fact that Jesus never really seemed to want the kind of adoration he has received for the last 2000 years and the whole thing is really a mixed back of bizarre.
The first four books of the new testament of the Bible, known as the gospels, tell the story of Jesus’ life and ministry from slightly different perspectives. One perspective that doesn’t change throughout them is the repeated refusal of Jesus to take the title and position of an earthly king. It simply was not part of his purpose here on earth. Regardless of what you believe about the deity portion of the biblical Jesus, savior of the world, etc.., it’s nearly impossible to argue against his intentions and message of peace and learning how to better care for those around you. Not to oversimplify things, but that was kind of his whole deal. The Golden Rule that you probably learned growing up, to love your neighbor as yourself, that came from Jesus’ mouth and wasn’t just something he casually tossed out once, everything he did was guided by this principle. Through repeated attempts by his followers to grant him power and majesty, he always seemed pretty averse to it.
“Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (John 6:15)
Every Spring, thousands of Christians celebrate Palm Sunday as the beginning of Holy Week. This is the celebration of Jesus riding into Jerusalem for what would be the last time, being heralded as a king with everyone waving palm fronds and other various ways of celebrating his arrival. Some might argue that they welcomed him so because they believed he was there to take his rightful place as a king or ruler… but even in the face of that he chose the most humble mode of transportation possible, a donkey, to tell everyone to chill the fuck out. The historical figure of Jesus simply did not want to be a king, so why do people treat him that way now?
In my view, the answer to that question is intellectual laziness. If you pack 2000 plus years of Christianity and all of it tenants into a sudden belief that your life needs to reflect the life of this historical figure that you only know by proxy, it can be confusing. As I said earlier, it is a lot easier to worship a king than it is to emulate a pacifist who wants you to be nice to people. We are good at following the instructions of how to worship at an altar, and really bad at being kind to each other. Great at saying Jesus is King in the comfortable setting of our church service Sunday morning, but really bad at being decent to humanity or trying to understand the difficulties of people that are less fortunate than we are.
The historical figure of Jesus had a goal, and it was not to be worshiped. The lyrical content of Kanye West’s new record is a perfect summary of how a majority of the modern Christian church has spent generations missing the point. Touting how well you worship the monarch that thousands of years of religious dogma has trained you to believe Jesus to be is rarely anything more than a marketing ploy for your own self image.