Christianity Has a Kanye West Problem

Now a professing Christian, many people are ignoring a massive issue with Kanye’s “gospel” message

Kanye West during his Yeezus Tour in 2013 | Photo by Peter Hutchins on Wikimedia Commons

*This is Part 3 of a 4 part series of personal essays on faith and spirituality. Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4 also available.

The burning albums people tossed into the bonfire popped and hissed. Their bubbling surface reminded me of the way the T-1000 from Terminator 2 melted in vat of molten steel at the end of the movie. A group of us watched the bonfire transfixed.

“You can hear them demons hissing,” one boy mused in a southern drawl. He stood next to a pretty girl many of the boys followed around camp like lost puppies. My eyes flitted toward his direction and I muttered under my breath. I thought about reminding him that plastic hisses when burned, but I was already the outcast. I tried to recall my school history lessons while I held my tongue. Didn’t the Nazis smash Jewish albums or something? Or was that from the Christian Bale movie, Swing Kids? I let those comments slide too, then turned and walked off down the path.

Keeping my eyes on the dirt in front of me, I glimpsed the popular kids sneaking into the woods to smoke weed and make out while they left me alone with my “devil music.” I was a middle schooler at church camp, and the pastors had just encouraged everyone to burn their secular albums. Mine were the worst though. Metal was strictly forbidden in Christian circles and Metallica would earn you a one-way ticket to hell. That was after you murdered your parents and did meth, of course.

Not long after this experience, I discovered the band Nine Inch Nails and resonated with Trent Reznor’s lyrics from the smash hit, “Head Like A Hole.” On line in particular struck a nerve. Reznor growls:

“God money, let’s go dancing on the backs of the bruised”

This lyric hit home because of my religious experience where pastors often preached morality and profiteered off their flocks. The Word of Faith movement — a doctrine that taught Jesus wants you to be happy, healthy, wealthy, and privileged — was the secret sauce of large congregations during the 1980s and 90s. Politics and preachers mingled, lines growing blurrier, while the Moral Majority and conservative voter values swept the church and pocketbook of the average American. At the church I attended, our lead pastor also flashed his wealth. He owned several cars — including a Ford Saleen Speedster signed by Steve Saleen, complete with a chrome undercarriage. Yet, the Jesus I read about seemed so different from the version they presented on stage with their fistfuls of cash, flashy grin, and power suit. It was as if Patrick Bateman was hiding behind the pulpit, with all the allure of power, but ready to murder you with his words.

We like to think things are different now, but we need only look at our newly minted spokesman to confirm wealth, power, and blessing are the marks of what gets Christians giddy.

Kanye West is the new messiah and his flashy brand of faith is already spellbinding the inquisitive masses.

For the few uninitiated and unaware, Kanye West has become the hot buzzword among Christian circles. West, whose long time theatrics have fascinated the public, had a very public conversion to Christianity in the past year and dropped a gospel album in late 2019.

When I first heard the news, I remained skeptical given his tendency for publicity stunts, but from what I could tell, he also seemed sincere. As a Christian, I had to remind myself that the main tenet of the Christian faith is that regardless of behavior or background, all are welcome and can become followers of Jesus.

Kanye, for his part, seems to have reconsidered old aspects of his life. However, anyone watching still can see the same boastful Ye appear in almost every news clip. From stating that “Jesus has won the victory, because now the greatest artist that God has ever created is working for Him” to telling an interviewer he should change his name to “Genius Christian Billionaire” one can’t help but roll their eyes. But I’ll also be the first to tell you change takes time. When I first became a Christian, I was still out getting hammered each weekend and hooking up. So Kanye and his behavior isn’t the point. The problem is Kanye’s message about Christianity.

Kanye’s current gospel is one of money and influence, which has attracted the eyes of vultures already. Ye boasts of God blessing him and removing hardships. This style of faith is known as prosperity theology and has led to many disillusioned men and women walking away from their “faith,” because — with time — they realize it’s a sham. Any sane person reading the Bible can tell you Jesus was a homeless man constantly at odds with the wealthy and influential. Eleven of the twelve disciples ended up brutally tortured and executed (tradition holds the surviving apostle, John, was boiled in oil but survived, then exiled to Patmos). We must not also forget that the early church faced mass executions and persecution — but sure — God is all about that paycheck and making sure you don’t suffer despite evidence to the contrary.

Even more telling is that the modern Christian and Average Joe think Jesus didn’t talk all that much about wealth and money. However, Jesus spoke more about money than Heaven and Hell combined. Eleven of the 39 parables are about finances.

Why would this matter so much to Jesus and what does this have to do with Kanye’s message one might ask?

Often when Jesus tells these stories, a key group of influential men sat among his crowd looking for a way to kill him and his message. These men were known as the Pharisees and Sadducees and were an elite religious — and political — ruling class. While they varied in belief, both sets made a habit of snuggling up to Jewish and Roman power.

In Kanye’s current world, he’s promoting the age-old message of the Pharisee and Sadducee, as well as wealth and influence. This became most evident during his latest Sunday Service with prosperity preacher, Joel Osteen. Osteen is known for his feel good messages that teach worldly success as proof of God’s favor. This isn’t a debatable point, as numerous journalists have covered the problems with his message (as have psychologists). Osteen has also been repeatedly condemned by Orthodox Christians as a charlatan. Taken at face value, Kanye’s basic message is simple — God blesses you when you turn to him and Osteen is the epitome of that message. For anyone watching Kanye’s gospel message the key take aways are that God will show you off, give you your 15 seconds of fame, make money magically appear in the form of tax breaks, and convince you you’re super special because God is now lucky to have you on his side.

This message feels good to the average man and woman. Who wouldn’t want those things? But the message Christ most often reiterates is one of dying to self and taking up your cross, the exact opposite of Ye’s message. When wealth, favor, and influence invade the heart, the average man revolts and crucifies the man bearing a message of peace. I’ve long wondered just how far the mob and Pharisees went to ensure this was the case, and in studying an obscure passage from the Gospel of Mark, I finally found my answer. It illuminates how we often want to kill the version of Jesus that offends us and instead embrace our wealthy and powerful overlords claiming to bring us closer to God.

Most scholars and commentators now believe the Gospel of Mark to be the Apostle Peter’s eyewitness account, though it’s been historically credited to John Mark. Because of the tradition, many commentators have written off an odd passage during which Jesus is betrayed and arrested. The passage in question is Mark 14:51–52 which states:

”A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.”

Most commentators state that this utterly bizarre passage is nothing more than the apostle John Mark following his rabbi after the arrest, but there are several problems with their theory. The verse prior (50) states that “everyone deserted him and fled,” therefore this cannot be a disciple of Jesus. Additionally, why on earth would this disciple — if it is John Mark — be wearing such odd clothing easily stripped of him only to run off naked? Wouldn’t John Mark be wearing normal clothing like the other disciples?

To figure out what’s going on, we must look to history and other Gospel accounts. Prior to his betrayal and arrest, Jesus is on the Mount of Olives praying and then descends to the base where the Garden of Gethsemane lies. There, Judas — also in the game for power and money — greets him with a kiss and the chief priests and a mob arrest him. What people fail to recognize is that the Mount of Olives is a graveyard with the Garden of Gethsemane serving as its base. In fact, Jews have used it as a cemetery for over 3,000 years. Why is the fact that there’s a graveyard nearby significant? Because the person following Jesus is wearing a burial shroud — hence why he’s naked underneath. The Greek word used to describe this “linen cloth” is σινδόνα and also used in every instance when Jesus is wrapped in a linen cloth for his burial after the crucifixion. The Greek Lexicon dictionary states that the cloth in question is one that was “fine and costly, in which the bodies of the dead were wrapped.” This knowledge only deepens the mystery. What was this fellow doing wearing a burial shroud and following Jesus?

The Gospel of John records an aspect of the betrayal and arrest of Jesus that also gives us insight. When the priests, soldiers, and mob surround him and ask if he is Jesus of Nazareth, he responds “I am He.” The account then states the crowd draws back and falls to the ground. In other biblical accounts there are other odd moments like this where a woman touches Christ’s robe, and he states power went out from him. Another time he speaks similarly and tells a dead man, Lazarus, to walk out of the grave. However, when Christ states “I am He” he is asserting his divinity and power, and in response, the power overwhelms the group. Think about the connections then:

  • He’s at the base of a graveyard
  • The person following him is in a burial shroud
  • Jesus releases so much power when he asserts his divinity, it knocks down the crowd

After Lazarus’s resurrection, the Pharisees and Sadducees begin a plot to kill the formerly dead man because he’s a direct threat to their power and influence (John 12:9–11). It stands to reason then that the man following Jesus is another dead man now resurrected. This would explain why he followed Jesus, and they tried to arrest him. A formerly deceased man would be a direct threat to their plans to regain power with the arrest of a man who just performed the impossible.

It is here in the face of the divine, we see what matters most to these men — power, influence, reputation, wealth, and prestige. It is not God they worship, but “god money.” They are not concerned about “the sick among the pure” as Reznor would croon. They do not marvel at a resurrection, but seek to destroy the source.

There’s a reason wealthy mega-church pastors and Kanye’s message is so popular. They’re a reflection of what we desire. They are spiritual versions of kings and influencers, although the man they claim to represent lived an unbelievably humble life of servitude. And we serfs love to have a King to worship, just not a fair and wise one. We’ll take the one that devours our land, hopes, and any money we have on hand.

Most people reading this will probably agree that promoting prosperity and a lack of hardship are not even close to the historic Jesus. Yet, this is the Jesus most Americans worship and Ye reminds us of that. If God does not provide the finances we want, we grow bitter. We deserve our blessing because we’ve been good little boys and girls. After all, Kanye got his as did Osteen. Then we want preachers to deliver messages that make us feel good, but don’t remind us that “blessed are the poor in spirit.” If God asks too much of us — like the rich young ruler — we go away sad. Churches are laser light shows with fog machines and entertainment as opposed to quiet places of contemplation. Oh, and please teach our kids about Christianity and morals too, because we certainly won’t.

After all these years, Reznor’s chorus continues to connect with my soul. Throughout the song he reminds his listeners to “bow down before the one you serve, you’re going to get what you deserve,” and he’s right. If you worship power, you’ll promote oppression. If you worship money, you’ll never have enough. If you worship comfort, you’ll fall apart when the storms come. You will get what you deserve.

But blessing and wealth is the message we’re being sold as the pinnacle of Christianity. No one cares that the message is wrong though, because Kanye’s now one of us. But sometimes it’s important to remember that if you truly experience a resurrection, you’ll know when to run away naked from those trying to seize you with alluring tales of endless power and comfort.

Bow down indeed.

Storyteller | Combat wounded veteran | Metalhead | Designer | Bleeding on a page just makes it more authentic: https://benjaminsledge.com

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