Category Archives: Spring 2020

Kanye West and the King

By Jason Lee, TD ’22. Jason is majoring in Global Affairs.

I want to start by saying that my good friend predicted that Kanye West would put out a gospel album long before we heard anything about “Jesus is King”. I was blindsided. We were, after all, talking about a person who sloughed off his “slave name” for his “god name” just a handful of years ago. So to hear first the friends in my ministry, my home pastor, then my parents talk about Kanye West’s new album was, simply put, rather jarring.

I’m not here to talk about quality. The general verdict seems to be that “Jesus is King” is a refreshing “Christian” album but a mediocre Kanye album that speaks more to the scope of contemporary gospel music than to anything else. The point is that whatever artistry Kanye commands, he’s had a tumultuous relationship with his faith. Among his most acclaimed works is “Jesus Walks”, in which he espouses a deep devotion to Christ amidst life’s many maladies:

“(Jesus walk)

God show me the way because the Devil’s tryna break me down

(Jesus walk with me)

The only thing that I pray is that my feet don’t fail me now”

Yeezus’s “I am a God” is (despite the title) more ambiguous, featuring the rapper simultaneously claiming both his own divinity and his surrender to the Lord in a way that still leaves me with a vaguely heretical aftertaste. In between and outside these two songs, sexism abounds, as does a marked irreverence for the civil rights movement — both on and off track — and a, let’s say, superfluous amount of self-love.

It’s difficult to suppress a giggle whenever anyone brings up “Jesus is King” because it listens like an unequivocal declaration of repentance and rebirth from a man who, lyrics aside, seems to have lived much of his life as his own idol. It seems absurd. Perhaps it is only an ingenious marketing ploy, a sharp musical inflection to enliven his work as Kanye has done in the past. If so, it’s been a roaring success. We have Christians talking about Kanye West at the mild expense of Tim Keller, whose book, also Jesus is King, has been exiled to somewhere beyond the 15th page of search results. As much as we now play him, West has played us.

But then, we have seen genuine dramatic conversions before. So say it is genuine: if Kanye truly has reformed, is it any more dramatic of a return than our own conversions? It’s dangerous to treat divorce from God as a matter of degrees. We too, once lived lives separate from the Lord. For me at least, it isn’t fair to say I was not, or do not at times continue to be, as hypocritical, erratic, or mercurial in my commitment to the Lord, or as allured by the temptations of my own environment as any artist adrift in wealth and fame. This would be nothing more than a masked type of pride.

Still assuming this is indeed a true turn to Christ, while we have much to praise, there is also much to pray for. Kanye is still saying things like “I’m the greatest human artist alive” in the same breath he thanks the Lord for humbling him. Kanye still very much loves Kanye. Even setting matters of pride aside, his recent comments describing American slavery as “a choice” ensure the road to public redemption, and any serious attempt at advocacy, remain arduously long.

But this isn’t really just about Kanye. Rather than just talk about one artist, I feel this could be an opportunity to reevaluate what we mean when we say “Christian” music. While “Jesus is King” is unique in its authorial context, I wonder to what extent it differs from what other secular rap/R&B/hip-hop artists (or at least, artists not thought of as primarily Christian) have been doing for a while. Or rather, do we lose anything when we distinguish between music that is gospel/gospel-adjacent (that is, 2019 Kanye), and music that engages gospel, say, Kendrick Lamar?

Surely the work of Kendrick Lamar who, despite the agitation of the rest of the album, opens good kid, m.A.A.d city with a prayer— 

“Lord God, I come to you a sinner

And I humbly repent for my sins

I believe that Jesus is Lord

I believe that you raised him from the dead

I will ask that Jesus will come to my life

And be my Lord and Savior

I receive Jesus to take control of my life

And that I may live for him from this day forth

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for saving me with your precious blood

In Jesus’ name, Amen” 

–can embolden us in our own agitated commitments, just as well as any gospel of hope? From DAMN., the track “FEAR.” weighs upon one’s throat like any lamentation of Job’s. Perhaps To Pimp a Butterfly’s “Alright” delivers a blunt statement of hope — 

“Nazareth, I’m fucked up

Homie, you fucked up

But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright” 

–that resonates better than other hymns with certain defeated spiritual states. If nothing else, surely the rest of the album with its turbulent, furious search for higher meaning as it relates to identity, trauma, resilience, race, death, hope, sex, mortality, and the fallen world — 

“He looked at me and said, “Know the truth, it’ll set you free

You’re lookin’ at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power

The choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit

The nerve of Nazareth, and I’ll tell you just how much a dollar cost

The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss—I am God”

–surely this mirrors and engages our own desperate pursuit of the Lord?

So to answer my own question, “Do we lose anything?”, I’d say: not necessarily. However, it helps us to keep in mind that traditional “Christian” music doesn’t hold a monopoly over either the desires of faith or bearing witness to God’s glory. Until now I’ve focused on rap, but I’m sure an argument can be made for “Country Roads” as a celebration of creation. Secular music that sings to our souls can, in some sense, be just as Christian as any “Christian” song, and nourish our faith accordingly. 

This isn’t to say all such distinctions are meaningless. I’m hardly advocating for Sunday Lamar in the cathedral, or Kanye during communion. Acknowledging that Kendrick’s purposes extend beyond solely the expression of his faith, while by no means detracting from his work, illustrates the need for some sort of delineation. Our methods of worship and praise should be reserved to those wholly devoted to such a purpose. 

I am speaking rather to our own listening habits. Whether or not you buy, in both senses of the word, Kanye West, “Jesus is King” has already served its purpose by getting us to review, faithfully, our musical intake. If you don’t buy anything I’ve said thus far, that’s okay — take this then as a reminder to seek the Lord even in the most unlikely of places, even our playlists. I leave you with this benediction-adjacent passage from BROCKHAMPTON’s latest album, Ginger, song “NO HALO”:

“Used to fight all my night terrors, now I smoke through the dreams

Depression put me into places where I’m stuck in the seams

They sealed my mouth and said the only way to breathe is to scream

Pop the stitches from society and fall to my knees

The machines weavin’ our fate are gettin’ harder to please

But I believe to an extreme

(That we all can find a way)

To anybody listenin’ that’s in between

(That we all can find a way)”


Dante and Desire

By Joe Brownsberger, SM ’21. Joe is majoring in Physics & Philosophy.

We live in an age of unprecedented liberty. The sheer number of choices available to us is staggering; we desire things that people in former ages never thought of. Along with these desires comes the power to satisfy many of them. Although this represents progress in many senses, the liberty that we have inherited has also been in large part squandered. We who have been given the ability to do anything have chosen instead to indulge in the pointless, “insipid pleasures” and extravagances that even luxury-loving Hume recognizes as worthless.[1] The Enlightenment, promising “man’s release from his self-imposed tutelage,” has instead culminated in a new and more degrading serfdom, a bondage to the god of Entertainment.[2] Like the decadent imperial Rome and the corrupt medieval nobility before us, we have been given the liberty to desire anything and fulfill those desires—and we have desired wrongly.

I argue that for liberty to be justifiable, on the societal level but perhaps to a greater degree in the individual, it must be ordered towards an end, and this end must be the Good (which of course for religious people is synonymous with God). In place of our many conflicting and pointless desires that point every which way, we must strive to wrestle our often-errant will into conformity with the Good so that our desires all point in a unified, positive direction. In this way, the fulfillment of those desires also brings us closer to our goal. Desire simply as an inclination to do something is a fundamentally good thing; it is in fact the way we draw closer to God and become better people. It is only when our desires are bent and misdirected that we find ourselves dissipated and unsatisfied.


No one speaks of this “wrestling of the will” more beautifully or with more insight than Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy. In the beginning of the poem, Dante (appearing as a character in his own work) finds himself in a dark wood, having lost the “diritta via,” the straight and right path. And as a result of his faulty inclinations towards pride, lust, and greed (symbolized by three beasts), he is unable to climb the mountain that would bring him to virtue and happiness. Instead, then, Dante turns towards the poet Virgil, who guides him through the realms of the afterlife. Circling down through the rings of Hell and circling up around the mountain of Purgatory, Dante untwists his warped will and gradually rids himself of his vices. At long last, in Canto 27 of Purgatorio, Virgil addresses Dante with the last words he will speak in the Comedy. As Dante is more eloquent than I will ever be, I encourage the reader to meditate on his words and to pay more attention to them than to the rest of this essay.

Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno;

libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,

e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:

per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio.


Do not any longer expect my words or advice; free, right, and healthy is your will, and you would be foolish not to do as it commands: over yourself I crown and mitre you.

Purg 27.139-142

In touching and beautiful verse, Dante makes clear the true essence of liberty: to be lord over oneself and to will the right. As described above, his desires no longer pull him in unproductive directions, but his desire is simply to do that which will bring him closer to God. Therefore, he is not only good but also happy, walking once again on the diritta via.

Over the next thirty-nine cantos of the Comedy, Dante grows stronger in his new, sanctified identity, gradually gaining the ability to realize the good intentions that he has been given. At last, he is able to gaze straight into the supreme Light, the Good from which all good things derive not only their goodness, but their very being. The final words of the Comedy run thus:

A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa;

ma già volgeva il mio disio e ‘l velle,

sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

Here I lack the force to describe the high fantasy, but already my will and my desire was turned, like a wheel which is evenly moved, by the Love that moves the sun and other stars

Par 33.142-145

Dante here ends his magnum opus with a simile of a rotating wheel: the edges of the wheel move exactly in accordance with every other part of the whole, around the central point that itself does not move at all. In the same way Dante’s desires conform to the greater scheme of the universe, which like the wheel moves around its Unmoved Mover in perfect harmony. Dante takes his place in the order of the cosmos and is truly free.

My humble suggestion is that for us too, true liberty is achieved when our desires conform to the Divine Will, when we take our place in the order of the cosmos. Our obsequious servitude of Entertainment and other vain pursuits puts us at risk—to borrow a phrase from St. Augustine—of finding ourselves “scattered out over multiplicity” instead of self-possessed, ordered by and ordered towards “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

[1] Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[2] Kant, Immanuel. An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?