Christians in America- This is a post about Kanye that isn’t really about Kanye. It’s about us.
For as long as I can remember we have had a fascination with celebrities who become Christian. Not Christian celebrities who become famous for doing “Christian” work, though we certainly fetishize that as well, and I’ll talk about that later. But, rather, Big Names that appear to either have a conversion experience, or reveal that they have been a Christian all along.
In spite of our persistent claims to not really care about the personal lives of celebrities, we eat that shit up.
Of course there are conditions. The celebrity in question has to be a part of our particular brand of Christianity in order for it to matter to us. I’ve seen more social media space given in the past 24 hours to Kanye’s spiritual journey than I’ve seen given to Lady Gaga’s faith, another devout Christian, in the past few years that she’s been in the public consciousness. And arguably the greatest Christian album I’ve listened to in the past decade, (though I admit I’ve yet to have listened to Kanye’s album all the way through,) is Brandi Carlile’s “By the Way, I Forgive You,” a work of pure art that is all about the Christian concept of forgiveness, and inspired by the forgiveness Carlile (also a devoted Christian) extended to her Baptist youth minister who refused to baptize her because she was gay. I bet we can all guess why she’s not being invited to our megachurches like Tim Tebow and Kirk Cameron, though I’m certain her cultural influence will outlast their’s by generations.
I don’t know exactly what it is that makes us so giddy about celebrities converting to (our brand of) Christianity, but I have a couple of guesses. The first one is that it feeds our growing sense of tribalism. It seems that we no longer (if we ever did) congregate around shared values or beliefs, but around our “teams.” The possibility that a top-tier celebrity might want to be a part of our tribe is too difficult to resist. Who knows, they may even show up to our potluck?
Second, we love power. And in our cultural context, there are few vehicles that mediate power more than celebrity, and it’s twin brother, wealth. That power is intoxicating and regardless of how much you recognize its dangers, it is so hard to resist when we come in close proximity to it.
There is such a chasm between this way of living and the cross, not to mention Philippians 2 and then entire book of Revelation, that it would not have been recognizable to the first Christians. This is not in any way meant to cast dispersion on Kanye’s faith. (Or Gaga’s or Carlile’s, for that matter.) It’s simply meant as a word of caution for us to step back and ask why this matters so much to us.
One reason for this is to protect us from disappointment. Anyone who has been around a celebrity long enough, even, and maybe especially, Christian celebrities, will tell you that that “thing” they have been given by the Spirit, that thing that makes it obvious that they are operating on some different wavelength than the rest of us, and that mediates something true and good and holy to us from God, is sometimes the same thing that makes them narcissistic assholes. The gift that sparks songs that speak deep into our souls can also be the burden that can keep them from being their best selves.
There was a controversy in the early years of Christianity, the name of which has escaped me. It essentially posed this question: If it was revealed that a priest was a fraud, did that negate all the baptisms and ministry done by that priest? Most of us, I think correctly, would answer “Of course not!” The real work was the grace given by God, not the imperfect human vessel it operated through.
I think maybe this is instructive to us in the Christian Kanye moment. He may end up being a fraud or a devoted believer, or, like most of us, a little bit of both. Maybe we shouldn’t spend our time caring about which he is, and just enjoy what he’s given.
(If that’s your thing. I’ll stick with Brandi Carlile.)