God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?Friedrich Nietzsche
Jesus is King is Kanye West’s self-declared redemption arc, his attempt at Pauline conversion in the face of a life of sin, a life of materialism, and a life of vain pursuits. But Jesus is King comes at a pivotal moment in world history and intellectual development, a period of never-before-seen secularization, a period where “God is dead” and the Christian tradition is as unpopular as Kanye’s public persona itself.
Can one even make a Christian album in this time? Kanye answers that rhetorical with a resounding “yes,” for the theme of Jesus is King is a clear message of forgiveness, Christian brotherhood, and a celebration of God’s infinite grace.
And yet both of these themes tangle and twist with a vast amount of profane content (Closed on Sunday / You my Chick-fil-A / You’re my number one / With the lemonade), borderline narcissism (Keepin’ perfect composure / When I scream at the chauffeur), and near-blasphemous doctrinal arrogance (When I get to Heaven’s gates / I ain’t gotta peak over).
But this is the album’s strength. In mixing the sacred and profane, ignorance and the Truth, Kanye has created the conditions for liminality, novelty, and communal-spiritual rebirth. The vulgar lyrics serve as an example of Mary Douglas’ concept of matter out of place; they are lyrics out of place demarcating the album as primarily within the earthly realm.
When Kanye declares “Man, it’s really lifelike, everything in my life” he is acknowledging this; beyond the facade of the album’s spirituality is the mundane, Kanye is just a man living his life like you or me.
However, there are glimpses of the sacred throughout the work– and in this Kanye has succeeded in creating a liminal moment, an artistic expression between the sacred and profane/mundane, a place where he can exist outside the dichotomy of sinner/saint or damned/saved. Through this he has built a powerful work for religious people faced with the onslaught of secularization and capitalist alienation, forces that drag them into this abyss alongside Kanye.
As anthropologist Victor Turner writes on liminality:
The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (“threshold people”) are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.Liminality and Communitas
Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise.The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual
The liminal makes Christianity – and the album – fun. It makes it novel and outside the norms of conventional religious practice, creating a space for innovation. This is an album for both the saint and the sinner; because that’s what Kanye is: a man wracked with guilt and plagued by psychosis-plus-addiction who just wants to live a new life serving God beside his wife and children.
Kanye needs the liminal because he cannot transform from sinner to saved without the moment in between, and this album is that moment.
He stood on the precipice, and made the final leap of faith into the true unknown that is religious experience and union-with-God, something lacking in his earlier thematically Christian songs like “Jesus Walks” and “Ultralight Beam.”
I use here Rudolf Otto’s definition of what he calls the “numinous experience.” Otto contends that religious experience is the domain of union-with-God (“the wholly other”), extracted through prayer, meditation, revelation, et cetera.
The spiritual value of the album is derived from moments where Kanye quite tenderly and personally talks to Jesus in prayer or directly references scripture, thereby reaching this aforementioned experience.
Jesus, flow through us / Jesus, heal the bruises / Jesus, clean the music / Jesus, please use us / Jesus, please help / Jesus, please heal / Jesus, please forgive / Jesus, please reveal / Jesus, give us strength / Jesus, make us well / Jesus, help us live / Jesus, give us wealth / Jesus is our safe / Jesus is our rock / Jesus, give us grace / Jesus, keep us safeKanye West – Water
Won’t be in bondage to any man / John 8:33 / We the descendants of Abraham / Ye should be made free / John 8:36 / To whom the son set free / is free indeed / He saved a wretch like meKanye West – Selah
By superimposing sacredness over the profanity of the album, a scriptural message of forgiveness and salvation manifests itself clearly through the contradictory presence of wrong-action and right-action.
As noted earlier the album is a Pauline work, with Kanye directly referencing Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (But if I try to lead you to Jesus / We get called halfway believers / Only halfway read Ephesians). This line exists to demonstrate Kanye’s Biblical knowledge and as a personal challenge to would be detractors who doubt his bona fides.
Those who read Ephesians halfway will miss Chapter 4 (the book contains 6), a message of unity among those who profess the Faith.
4 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.Ephesians 4:1-7
Paul is also the ultimate convert among the early Christians. A man who persecuted believers and was then called to become an Apostle; he represents God’s infinite grace and is fully aware of this himself.
12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.1 Timothy 1:12-17
Kanye mirrors these thoughts in “God Is:”
You won’t ever be the same when you call on Jesus’ name / Listen to the words I’m sayin’, Jesus saved me, now I’m sane / And I know, I know God is the force that picked me up / I know Christ is the fountain that filled my cup / I know God is alive, yeah / He has opened up my vision / Giving me a revelationKanye West – God Is
Perhaps the only known quality that is not subject to sectarian squabbling among mainstream Christians is the infinite grace of God, and Kanye leans into this message heavily. How can he not?
Kanye’s goal is to force you to acknowledge your own sin by littering his transgressions throughout the work, and for you to then realize personal hypocrisy in your disgust, thus forcing you to focus on your own relationship with God and your fellow man.
1 “Do not judge, or you will be judged. 2 For with the same judgment you pronounce, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3 Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to notice the beam in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while there is still a beam in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.Matthew 7:1-5
Christians are made to sit through moments of profanity and descriptions of sin (Pour the lean out slower / Got us clean out of soda) so that Kanye can enlighten them in a similar manner to the above passage.
Is Kanye an imperfect messenger?
Of course. Are not you? Are not we all?
Have you removed the beam from your own eye?
For the purpose of procatalepsis, I must state one can easily dismiss critical Christians who decry any and all spiritual content in the album by virtue of its creator’s past and present faults. Mark 9:38-41 informs us here:
38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” 39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.Mark 9:38-41
“Miracle” here is interpreted as an “amazing work,” and not inherently as a supranatural occurrence (evidenced by the example of merely giving a cup of water in service of Christ’s mission).
It should also be noted that Kanye himself pointedly rebuts this criticism as well: What have you been hearin’ from the Christians? / They’ll be the first one to judge me / Make it feel like nobody love me.
Kanye has combined sin and salvation in Jesus is King because this is the contemporary Christian experience. We are all hypocrites, we are all sinners in the modern world. From the trads to the lapsed, from the churchgoers to the boycotters, from the faithful shepherds to the diddling frocks. The secular age and the death of God makes living in Christ’s image free from sin nigh impossible.
Do you – does anyone – truly fear God’s wrath on the Day of Judgment?
Do your tithes go to protecting pedophile priests and abuser pastors?
Are the trads sniveling at “cafeteria Christians” and “pew fillers” not partaking in what Jesus chastised the Pharisees for?
1 Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. 3 So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.
4 They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. 5 Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. They even make a big show of wearing Scripture verses on their foreheads and arms, and they wear big tassels[a] for everyone to see. 6 They love the best seats at banquets and the front seats in the meeting places. 7 And when they are in the market, they like to have people greet them as their teachers.
8 But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters. 9 Don’t call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven. 10 None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader. 11 Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others. 12 If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.Matthew 23:1-12
Just as Paul was smote on his horse by the light of Christ, we are similarly smitten by Kanye with a message to return into the fold of loving Christian brotherhood. Kanye does not want forgiveness solely from God, but from the public as well.
And just as God’s infinite grace is humanity’s only route to soteriological redemption, so too is grace, forgiveness, and solidarity in our daily lives the only route to manifesting a renewed Christian brotherhood on earth.
You may argue otherwise, but Kanye is the man (and we are all sinners like Kanye) that the modern Christian must take into the fold and accept unconditionally; for Jesus did not come to call the saints, but the sinners.
To the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers, even the stripper / Jesus walks for them
Do we have the humility to forgive and lift-up those living in sin, those who have left the Church, and those heretics outside our denominations?
Just hold on to your brother when his faith lost
The early Christians like Paul lived as
a singular brotherhood, but Christians now live as economic units
anchored to parodies of the Holy Spirit through memberships to
mega-churches and micro-sects, or an inwardly corrupt Vatican.
Kanye presents the alternative of pure Christian love, no matter the modern landscape: next time you’re in the club, you should be screaming out “JESUS WALKS!”