Written by Ben Sixsmith
Given his erraticism & penchant for stirring controversy, there was room for scepticism when Kanye announced that his latest album would be titled “Jesus is King”, but it would have been unfair to be totally cynical. Kanye’s religiosity is nothing new. On “Jesus Walks” he raps: “ God show me the way because the Devil’s trying to break me down.” A Christian might have justly said that the Devil hasn’t been without success, but let who without sin cast the first stone — and especially he who is without sin and with tens of millions of dollars, international fame and every temptation that the Dark One could imagine. Kanye’s newly vocal Christianity, too, has not been without substance. He’s spoken of his addiction to pornography, his opposition to abortion and his belief that “Rome is the Silicon Valley of humanity.” His album, Jesus is King, is the most explicitly religious album by a mainstream artist since Bob Dylan’s Christian phase.
It’s tempting to see this phenomenon as a reflection of spiritual yearning in modern society. Kanye, who more than most people has enjoyed the fruits of Western individualism and materialism, with his hyper-sexual lyrics and his hypebeast sneakers, has an appetite for something deeper and more meaningful.
This yearning can be seen elsewhere. Jordan Peterson, Canadian psychologist, might be so ubiquitous that his fame is taken for granted, but it’s still worth re-stating how extraordinary it is that platforms which were dominated by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have been reigned and ruled by a man who says such things as:
…[Christianity] is essential to a deep understanding of Western culture, which is in turn vital to proper psychological health…and social stability.
Western culture is more than Christianity, and Christianity is more than Western culture, but it is true that one could never understand Western family structures, common law and humanism without reference to the Christian faith, and nor could appreciate the works of Dante, Caravaggio and T.S. Eliot without appreciating the beliefs that inspired them.
But renewed attraction to the Christian faith can be a negation, not an affirmation, of the modern West. It is to escape a atomising, shallow materialism — with less marriage, less childbirth, more loneliness and more addiction — that many have been drawn to Peterson and religion more broadly.
While worlds apart in form & style, Jesus Is King and the record breaking film, Joker, resonate to the extent they do by building on the same fundamental premise. Existence feels transient wand meaning hard to come by. In the decline of religion and family formation, the only apparent mission in the day to day is raw economic output. The sense of nihilism and lack of belonging is made worse by the reality that jobs are only becoming more rootless. In Joker, Arthur Fleck says he’s not political — that his despair stems from a feeling of being forgotten, a sense of loneliness and desolation. The parallel drawn here is obviously not that the character is aligned with any political sentiment — he even says as much. Joker, as a character, isn’t confined to political actors and their disputes, even if they connect with it in their own way. It strikes at the more existential anxiety felt around the world: the crisis of meaning. In the end, we watch Arthur Fleck abandon meaning altogether and embrace the character of Joker — the ultimate embodiment of gleeful nihilism. West begins at a similar premise, but points his audience to Christ.
The Christian-curious come in other forms. Leftists who dislike the selfishness and irresponsibility of capitalist economic systems are drawn to the idea of Jesus as “an anti-capitalist insurrectionist murdered by law enforcement” as Alana Massey writes in the Washington Post. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” Christ said, and so young leftists feel he would be standing side-by-side with Bernie Sanders against the 1%. Some leftists, however, don’t necessarily project politics onto their religious interest. Dasha Nekrasova, a prominent left wing podcaster most widely known for her confrontation with an InfoWars reporter, has been open with her interest in religion as a means of forming community in an increasingly atomized world.
On the other side of the political spectrum, nationalists are drawn to Christian imagery from a time when Europe was a more exclusive and self-confident power: the times of the Crusades, the Reconquista and the Battle of Vienna. Nationalists cite the Tower of Babel as proof that God stands for the separation of different peoples.
All of these tendencies are somewhat opportunistic — the faith bolstering the politics and not the other way around. Allof us in the abstract can appreciate the rituals and parables of Christianity without considering a relationship with God. But “is it true?” wrote John Betjeman in his poem “Christmas”:
For if it is… No love that in a family dwells
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells,
Can with this single truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
Jesus Is King can be viewed as a breath of fresh air in a culture monopolized by self-indulgence and a bold shift from an artist who once thrived in that culture, but it alsoseethes with a genuine evangelical passion. Christianity, he reminds us, is not just a dry intellectual exercise but something its believers experience emotionally and viscerally. Still, Kanye, like many of us, has gone through phases of enthusiasm and disaffection. This is not said to criticise him, but to make the point that religion requires commitment. If we look to faith simply for what it can do for us and how it can make us feel, the chances are we’ll be disappointed when we hit hard times. We should ask, first and foremost, whether it is true — and if it is true, what it demands of us. Otherwise we are just Albert Camus’ Sisyphus — pushing our boulder up our hill, whistling “Jesus Walks” to ourselves.