Currently circling the country is one of the world’s most loved/hated figures: Jesus. No, wait: Yeezus. But I saw it with my own eyes: the new Yeezus tour features Kanye West’s very own personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Move over Bono, Christians have a new spokesperson.
Kanye’s depiction of Jesus may seem, at first, like farce or mockery—a caricature with the aims of postmodern indulgence or a racialized political statement. But, while iconoclasm and activism may be present, they do not dominate. Instead, the performance is a theological rap opera where religion and entertainment are weaved together in the imagination of the believer—and yet, completely conflicted—Kanye West, who inhabits the role of performance artist and, dare I say, evangelist. Yeezus is a Christian of the 21st century.
At the show’s climax, a white-robed, white Jesus saunters onstage to tell Kanye some very important things. As I looked around the crowd it was clear that people were confused. The teenager in front of me sipped a drink, the white-collar bro next to me thoughtfully bobbed his head, and others were passed out by this point. And all the while I thought, “Okay, where’s the joke?” The exchange went something like this:
KW: Holy S***, Holy F*** it’s Jesus! Oh no, I just said s*** and f*** in front of Jesus…
KW: (child-like) I’ve been looking everywhere for you, Jesus.
JC: I have always been here, Kanye.
KW: (pause) Jesus, I’m sorry I’ve been so bad.
JC: I did not come to make bad people good. I came to raise people from the dead.
At this point, my memory recalled these kinds of dramas and skits at church camps and Advent services that are cheesy but done with complete sincerity. The tone is authentic, almost child-like, not at all condescending. After this exchange the first beat of “Jesus Walks” drops and the crowd goes wild. The skit is finished, the show goes on, and Kanye West smuggled in a theology lesson, as if it were a Sunday morning.
As a performance artist, Kanye is unrestricted by doctrinal codes and as such, he can apply and contort the form of religious symbols as he pleases. But nevertheless, the center of the show is Jesus: yes, Kanye played fast and loose with Jesus in a drama, but he concludes with a profoundly Christian statement of grace and faith. Talking to Jesus onstage, Kanye teaches that it is not piety and legalism that shape faith, but a relationship with Jesus that is personal. As unsophisticated as this comes across from Kanye West, it also happens to be a basic evangelical message to a large, culturally diverse crowd unsuspecting of a sermon. Billy Graham would be proud, recent motorcycle rides notwithstanding.
So kudos, Kanye, you have been redeemed! No longer do songs like “Monster” and “I Am A God” represent an entirely self-absorbed ego, but instead claim that people are sinners, capable of foolish and destructive things—and Kanye is first among them. It is the overwhelming grace of God in relationship with Jesus that has the final say on one’s fate and identity. The platform of celebrity is an evangelical tool, in the same vein as Tebow, Rev. Run, and Kirk Cameron.
But this is never cool: proselytizing, regardless of its sub-culture cache, doesn’t work on a mass media scale. Popular Evangelicals are always represented in unappealing caricatures. Osteen will only preach health and wealth, Bell will only be a Universalist, and Driscoll will only be a bully (even if such caricatures are not entirely inaccurate). Evangelical figures tend to be one-dimensional and culturally problematic until some controversy drifts them into media obscurity and irrelevance. But this will never be a problem for Kanye West, whose multifaceted, even schizophrenic, approach that mixes of religion, politics, and art cannot be pinned down, and therefore cannot be ignored.
As an artist of the planet’s most marketable medium, Kanye remains the prototypical postmodern evangelist precisely because of his paradoxical ego, unpredictable evangelism, and unrelenting genius rooted in aesthetic virtuosity. Love or hate him, Kanye has never been one-dimensional, and this will keep him at the forefront of culture because his art–like his faith–will always be mixed, messy, and, most importantly, sincere. The artist and evangelist converge each night that Jesus accompanies Kanye on his international arena tour.
At the end of the concert, Surfer Jesus ascends a mountaintop the likes of the Nickelodeon Guts Aggro Crag or Mount Sinai, depending on your tradition. The final scene of the theological rap opera is set as Kanye and his fellow dancers turn about-face and fall to their knees as the beat of the final song loops. On their knees with heads hung low in the posture of worship, the lights go dark after several minutes and the show ends. No encore. The crowd is left with the image of devotion and adoration, not to Kanye West, but to an actor playing Christ. It is a theatrical move that transcends the ordinary rap concert for one that can be interpreted a million ways, but with Jesus clearly at the center. Not only was it beautiful, but it also made me think a lot about Jesus. Thanks be to Yeezus!
Erin S. Rodenbiker
Erin writes cultural criticism, short stories, and humor from a children's Sunday school room in a Presbyterian church. He is a graduate of Seattle Pacific Seminary.
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