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evangelicalism Music pop culture

The Meaning of Kanye

The evangelical blogosphere is already bowed down under an alarmingly large stack of think-pieces on the Christendom-shaping event that is Kanye West’s Jesus is King. For the sake of everyone, I won’t belabor this post either with a detailed summary of What’s Going On (if you don’t know by now, blessed are you and highly favored…please choose another piece), or with a list of admonitions for evangelicals when hearing of celebrity conversion (that work has been done excellently by others). My only contribution to this conversation is not primarily about Ye, but we—theologically conversant evangelicals who may be learning more about ourselves than anyone else.

The widespread enthusiasim for Jesus is King in particular and for its artist’s new platform in general is not, in the end, that surprising. High profile professions of Christian faith have generated buzz among evangelicals for a long time, with the stakes ranging from the fashionable to the political. As Thomas Kidd has pointed out, interest in the Christian utterings of wealthy, powerful people is almost as much a part of evangelical history as the utterings themselves. Thus we ought not get carried away and somehow conclude that Kanye’s Twitter mentions in theological circles is evidence of some kind of transformation of our tribe. It’s rather par for the course.

Another reason the buzz makes sense is that Kanye, unlike many other fellow celebrities who’ve dabbled in Jesus, has been clear, assertive, and unapologetically evangelical in his talking points. A brief sampling of recent interviews makes it obvious why Reformed evangelicals in particular might be excited. Whereas many celebrities openly try to reconcile their God talk with the spirit of the age—this pathetic exchange on The Bachelorette comes to mind—West seems to have embraced the counter cultural implications of the gospel, resulting in some truly unexpected and intimate reflections on everything from his marriage to “spiritual but not religious” Christianity.

So the optimism expressed by many conservative evangelicals that one of the most powerful, visible and influential musical artists in the world may now be one of them is understandable, even justifiable. The evidence is there. Interpreting that evidence straightforwardly is, I think, a better option than retreating into the cynicism that dogs so much evangelical cultural engagement. Better to be found with the love that “hopes all things” and be disappointed than to be a self-protective noisy gong.

Yet the conversation cannot end there. The enthusiasm for Christian Kanye is warranted, but it is also revelatory. We conservative evangelicals have shown yet again that the warmest welcomes in our tribe are often reserved for people who say all the right things about all the right topics, and no, I’m not talking about justification by faith or substitutionary atonement. Perhaps the meaning of the evangelical Kanye moment is not necessarily the genuineness of one celebrity’s confession, but the genuineness of ours.

It is revealing to me, for example, that the Reformed evangelical water cooler could pivot so seamlessly from a dispiriting bout of mud slinging over Beth Moore and John MacArthur to a rapturous, unmitigated welcome for a millionaire rapper whose lucrative career is loaded down with pornography, hatefulness, and extreme delusions of grandeur. What has become apparent to me over the past couple of weeks is that there are more than a few evangelical Christians who already feel a deeper sense of camaraderie and solidarity with Kanye West than they do with other believers who have labored for decades in ministry, avoided both public scandal and theological heresy, but who differ on second-order doctrines of gender roles and the ordering of public worship. To be clear, I have in mind both Moore and MacArthur here, who have each (regardless how you interpret the recent dust-up) borne their fair share of truly discouraging invective from those who claim to believe in the same gospel.

I found myself discombobulated by the sheer speed of transition: One minute, entire tribes of evangelicals were viciously accusing one another of nothing less than rhetoric and behavior that compromised the very message of Christ, and the next, a rich, powerful, politically ambitious cultural kingpin was being extolled as a gospel “wrecking ball.” Does this hierarchy of values reflect the Lord’s warning that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom? Does this mindset amplify the brotherhood and sisterhood that even we who disagree on important topics enjoy in the “one new man” that Jesus has created in himself? Or, does this episode possibly reflect a systemic worldliness in how many American Christians, Reformed and otherwise, think about the kingdom: that it is threatened by complementarians or Bible study writers, but obviously strengthened by the fantastically wealthy and famous?

I don’t want anyone to read me as lamenting denominational divisions or even limits of fellowship within the Body. To say that whether a woman can preach to the assembled congregation is a second order issue is not to say it is marginal; I believe it’s a very significant question, one that has huge implications for the single most important spiritual practice of believers, the church gathering. I cannot see how those who disagree on this question could together lead a church, nor can I see the benefit in trying. As a complementarian, I could not and cannot submit to the leadership of a local church that is on the wrong side of Scripture.

But when second order issues assume a controlling power in how we feel, think, and behave toward one another, it is very likely that those second order issues have been allowed to become first order ones. The results of that confusion are catastrophic, as any visit to an Independent Fundamentalist church can make clear in seconds.

The marks of conversion are not the ability to recite all the theological talking points with which my tribe fully agrees. They are deeper, more intimate, more heartward. It is very, very good to hear Kanye open up about his struggles with sexual sin and his new desires for his daughter. An issue I hope that will be put in front of Ye very soon is what to do with the copious sexually explicit material that he has already produced and released, to critical and public acclaim. Zaccheus’s past was not an argument against the realness of his conversion, but Jesus did wait until the tax collector promised to repay those he had defrauded before declaring that salvation had come to his house.

Kanye’s thrilling sound bytes on the problems of individualistic religion or the delusions of liberals don’t compare in importance to his ongoing repentance and Spirit-empowered willingness to lose gain for the sake of obedience. There is also the question of whether West has been leveraging his new audience with Christians for additional platform and access to power. The evangelical blind-spot toward political manipulation, as old as Nixon and as new as Donald Trump, is not a secret to those who may be counseling Kanye. Will he be willing to settle in as a new Christian, under the authority of a local church, relinquishing any claims to theological authority, per 1 Timothy 3:6? There is much to be seen. Love hopes all things!

And if that is true for Kanye, it is also true for an evangelical culture that looks deeply fractured, increasingly held hostage by trolls and clickbaiters, willing to compromise with worldly means to get desired theological ends. Love indeed hopes all things, and if that affects how we think about the wealthiest and most famous converts, but not the brothers and sisters who have been laboring for a long time, obscure to 99% of the world, then it has not been believed quite yet.

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photo credit: Marcus Linder, Flickr.

Categories
Christianity evangelicalism life

The Outer Ring

The more I read C.S. Lewis’s address on “The Inner Ring,” the more I think it is one of the most important, spiritually helpful things he ever said. It’s not only that he puts his powers of observation to a vice many of us go for long stretches of life—maybe even our whole lives—without even noticing in ourselves. No, not just that. Rather, as is typical of Lewis, it’s as if his thinking about a particular thing in a particular place for a particular audience somehow anticipates the reality of readers 70 years in the future…readers removed about as far as possible from Lewis’s own intellectual and historic context.

What Lewis describes in “The Inner Ring” is, I think, the most consequential characteristic of two institutions of American life: Social media and politics. Without inner ringism I honestly don’t know if things like Twitter or Instagram could exist. The entire infrastructure of those digital platforms depends on the fact that people will do and say and approve of what they see others doing and saying and approving of. Further, social media’s effectiveness is directly dependent on how concentrated inner ringism can become in small doses: a hashtag here, a viral witticism there. The sum of social media is an ambient cry of millions of users saying, “See? I’m one of you!”

There’s a flip side to inner-ringism, though. Lewis’s address mentions it only by implication, but especially in American political discourse, this flip side has a powerful and resilient life of its own. Call it “The Outer Ring,” or outer ringism. The Outer Ring is the logical negative of the Inner Ring. If a person’s behavior or ideas can be conditioned by the desire to belong to a certain group, then the desire to not belong to a different group yields a similar conditioning, but in the opposite direction. Outer ringism is what you see when voters instinctively distrust new information because of who appears to be citing it, or when journalists, weary of thinking, quote-tweet something with, “This is something [person the tribe doesn’t like] would say.”

In his excellent little book How to Think, Alan Jacobs directs readers to a blog post by Slate Star Codex author Scott Alexander. In “I Can Tolerate Everything Except the Outgroup,” Alexander observes that people who score themselves very high on virtues like kindness, open-mindedness, progressive values, and empathy can behave very differently if the recipient of their behavior is the Wrong Kind of Person. Alexander got an illuminating education in this when some of his social media followers rebuked him for expressing relief at the death of Osama Bin Laden, and then those same followers posted obscenely jubilant content a few days later after the death of conservative British icon Margaret Thatcher. Alexander concludes:

“I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous” And that was when something clicked for me…if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.

Of course, it’s not exactly a bold take for a conservative evangelical like me to suggest that progressives aren’t all that progressive. But lest I comfort the comfortable, every single word Alexander writes about the progressives on his social media feeds could apply to more than a few Bible-believing, culture-engaging personalities. Jacobs offers two vivid examples of this from Christian history in How to Think, and I’ve written at length about how “worldview formation” can often undermine thoughtfulness by condensing a Christian’s thought-forms into Good Tribe and Bad Tribe. Hence, evangelicals who are skeptical of vaccinations because the government or Planned Parenthood is in favor of them. When all you see are connections, you can’t see anything clearly enough.

What Lewis understood is that inner ringism is a spiritual sickness, not merely an ideological one. “Of all the passions,” Lewis says, “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” The same is of course true of outer ring-ism. Lewis has in mind the person who is seduced into cruelty or immorality by the promise of belonging, but it’s just as easy to imagine the person seduced into dishonesty or even apostasy by an unwillingness to grant his critics legitimacy.

A complementarian, for example, might so cultivate a distrust and dislike of people who disagree with him on gender roles that he downplays or even ignores when they have an important point to make about abuse. This might be because he’s committing the genetic fallacy and thinks that an egalitarian worldview is invariably tilted toward error. Or it might be because he himself has endured so much opposition or unkindness from feminists that granting a point simply feels like handing his enemy one more idea by which to trap him. In either case, these impulses are unlikely to be checked by his personal inner ring, precisely because our inner rings tend to shape our outer rings. The result is a complementarian who’s right about 1 Timothy but wrong about himself—a trade-off that won’t show up on the debate floor, only in his soul. (Prov. 14:12)

Outer ringism is a spiritual sickness because it, no less than the spirit which abandons the weekly worship gathering, stiff-arms humility, reinforces unearned confidences, and makes us unlikely to receive a word in season. Of the inner ring, Lewis writes:

Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. 

The same is true for the outer ring. Once you’ve settled on deciding who the Wrong Kind of People are and why you won’t hear anything they’ve got to say, eventually all those good reasons for blacklisting them will magically seem to apply to more and more. The group you dismissed for their fundamentalist attitude will give way to the folks you reject for their strange hobbies. You’ll find yourself more and more instinctively looking for why that every so subtly convicting thing you heard from that one preacher or that one woman in church was not legitimate, because after all of course they’d say that. As this habit takes root you’ll eventually be unable to hear whatever you haven’t heard before, and, as Lewis says, you’ll find yourself always only looking.

The worst news is that, since Lewis spoke those ominous words, the invention of the Internet has guaranteed that those of us who only ever look can always have something to look at. Never have inner and outer rings been available in such large quantities.

My guess is the only real way to fight the allure of the outer ring is to stop curating one’s own mind for half a minute, and look at the people that a sovereign God has put right in front of you, right now. Unless you are in a truly exceptional situation, the humans in your direct eyesight are diverse enough that some may be what you feel are the Wrong Kind of People. Those are the people whom our Maker has commanded us to love and teach and learn from. Community can be received, but it’s the outer ring that must be stocked.