MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Friday, November 1st, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s Culture Friday.
LYRICS: Won’t be in bondage to any man
We the descendants of Abraham
’Ye should be made free
To whom the son set free is free indeed
He saved a wretch like me. (Hallelujah 40X, Hallelujah, He is wonderful)
I never expected to be playing a Kanye West song. I have to be honest about that.
BASHAM: Right?! That’s “Selah” from Kanye West’s new album “Jesus Is King.” It’s a sort of Kanye’s public confession of faith and we’ll talk a bit about that today.
EICHER: Actually put on this record Sunday morning, driving to church. It was right on the main page of Apple Music, front and center, so I played it and I was struck by what I thought was pretty robust theology.
LYRICS: … Everything old shall now become new
The leaves’ll be green, bearing the fruit
Love God and our neighbor, as written in Luke
The army of God and we are the truth
Apple Music also featured an interview with Kanye West. It was about an hour and a half. Pretty meandering interview, but I’ll share a couple of moments that were interesting. First, you’ll hear West talking about the change in his life.
WEST: Now that I’m in service to Christ, my job is to spread the gospel, to let people know what Jesus has done for me. You know, I’ve spread it up a lot of things. I, there was a time I was letting you know what high fashion had done for me. I was letting you know what the Hennessey had done for me. I was letting you know all these things, but now I’m letting you know what Jesus has done for me and in that I’m no longer a, I’m no longer a slave. I’m a son now, son of God. I’m free.
I think what he’s talking about, when he says “what the Hennessey had done for me,” he’s talking about expensive cognac, because you’ll hear him say it in the second bit of sound we’ll share with you. He refers to a Hennessey bottle.
BASHAM: Yeah, the interviewer asks Kanye West a really good question here. Let’s listen to that.
INTERVIEWER: But you’ve lived at well-documented life, filled with temptation, and it’s been, it’s all throughout your records and all throughout your music and it’s been quoted. And what’s your relationship with temptation now? How do you process that? Are you able, once you find God to the degree you have to just switch that off? Is that possible?
WEST: I think when people have been addicted to something, like if you asked somebody who’s a drug addict, it’s like you say, are you still addicted?
Well, yeah, you turn it off actually. You’re like, with God, I’ve been able to beat things that had a full control of me. Things that, you know, that that Playboy that I found when I was five years old was written all over the moment when I was at the MTV awards with the Timberlands, the Balmain jeans before people’s rockin’ Balmain jeans, um, and the Hennessy bottle, it’s like, that was such a, a script out of a rock star’s life. My mom had passed a year before and I said, you know, some people drown themselves in drugs and I drown myself in my addiction.
INTERVIEWER: Mm. Which was what?
Trevin Wax joins us today for Culture Friday. He’s a pastor, a blogger, and author. His books include This is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel.
BASHAM: Trevin, good morning.
TREVIN WAX, GUEST: Good morning to both of you.
BASHAM: So last time you were here, we talked about Kanye West, and we’re still talking about Kanye West. But I think here’s what’s different: we actually have something specific to look at. We can evaluate the content of the art.
EICHER: We talked yesterday before going on the air today, Trevin, and so I know you’ve listened to this record. It’s surprisingly theologically rich, isn’t it?
WAX: Well, you know, theologically rich isn’t exactly what comes to mind as much as theologically bold. I mean, don’t you think? When you listen to this album, it is very much “I’m a Christian,” it’s very in your face, here are Bible verses. And I think if you’re an evangelical, you belong to a denomination or churches that emphasize being born again and we love conversion stories. When I’m thinking about this album, I think one of the reasons it’s resonated so widely with a lot of evangelicals who might even be familiar with hip hop is partly just because of the thought of someone who had such a reputation suddenly now devoting their artistic energies to singing praise songs to the Lord and worship songs to the Lord and trying to express his commitment to God through music.
BASHAM: I think what I liked about it was that it falls very much in that tradition of here’s my story. And that’s what we’ve come to expect from Kanye. He never holds anything back and this is just so much about his own coming to faith and it’s inspiring.
WAX: Well, there’s been something of a narrative arc in his music for awhile. I don’t listen to explicit music and so I haven’t really listened to a lot of his albums before, but I’ve read articles about him in the past and in just sort of watching this unfold. I mean, I’ve had friends who really analyzed his work even a few years ago saying, you know, there’s a lot of spiritual energy in Kanye’s music and even saying things like I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually found the Lord. Because you just sense this searching and emptiness that was coming up and all of the kind of things that come along with a sinful, decadent culture and in some of his actions. So, it’s encouraging and fascinating to watch this artist who’s so well-known deliver a powerful message like this.
EICHER: Yeah, Trevin, I’m like you. I never did listen to Kanye West before so the very first song I listened to by him was from the album titled, “Jesus Is King.” So, all that said, I listened to it and I wonder, where’s the repentance? I’m not sure that comes through clearly to me.
BASHAM: See, I feel like I actually did hear that because we’ve all been watching Kanye’s life—at least those of us who sort of grew up along in this generation. Watching him, this feels like repentance to me, him talking about Hennessey and these things that used to be his gods. So, I felt like I did kind of see repentance in this album.
WAX: Yeah, and if you take repentance as a change of direction, a change of heart, then repentance is all over the album. I don’t think it shows up so much in expression of sorrow for his past sins so much as it shows up in the sense of I am on a different road. I have turned around from one way of life and I’m going completely in the other. And I think that is what comes out a lot in the boldness of what he’s putting on this record in terms of lyrics.
BASHAM: How about the music? I mean, did you feel like this is the kind of album or genre that you would enjoy listening to?
WAX: Ok, well, so for me, I have listened over the years—part of this album reminds me a little bit of Kirk Franklin and some of the work Kirk Franklin has done over the years. But I’m not—I listen to a wide variety. I’m very eclectic. If you look at my music playlists, one time I just listed all of the artists on my music playlists and it was very, very eclectic. But all that to say, a lot of people are talking about, in the evangelical world, talking about how artistic this album is and there certainly is a lot of artistry to it. I’m not denying that, but when I’m comparing this to some of the Christian hip-hop and rap artists from the past decade, I’m thinking of people like Lecrae and Shai Linne and Trip Lee and KB and others. There is some terrific work—Flame—just terrific work that’s going on. And so when I compare some of these songs to some of those songs, I think, man, there’s some terrific artistry going on right now in the Christian hip-hop genre that is truly breathtaking. And I’m glad that Kanye is getting this attention. Because I think it might shine light on some of the terrific work done by brothers who have been really working hard at this craft for many years now.
EICHER: Maybe this is a change of gears, maybe it isn’t. But Ross Douthat, writing in The New York Times, talks about a new Pew Research Center survey of American religion titled, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Now, I don’t always agree with Ross Douthat, but I always take Ross Douthat seriously. And in discussing this decline of Christianity, Douthat offers that in his view Pew is overstating things. He offered three qualifications, little dissents from the main point of the survey: number one, Lukewarm Christianity may be declining much more dramatically than intense religiosity; two, The waning of Christianity may be still as much a baby-boomer story as a millennial story; and three, which is important, I think, because Douthat is Catholic, There’s a strong case that any crisis facing Christian institutions is a more Catholic crisis than a Protestant one.
BASHAM: Trevin, I’ve read some of your writing online on this general topic, too, and it’s worth all of us reading and thinking about. Having said that, I’ll place a link inside the transcript of today’s program so you can find it easily.
It had me wondering about your point that a lot of the decline has come from mainline churches, who embrace far more liberal doctrine. It’s counterintuitive to me that we’d expect this from younger generations. Do you think this tells us maybe millennials don’t find orthodox Christian beliefs as offensive as we’ve been led to believe?
WAX: Yeah, I don’t know that we can read too much into millennial attitudes when you’re looking at quantitative research like this, which is basically their answers to survey questions of a wide spectrum, a large number of people. I think you have to look at qualitative research, which means you have to look at actual, what do millennials say. And I think what you’re seeing there are multiple things at the same time. So, yes, it’s true that Christianity is declining at a rapid pace when you’re talking about those who are now claiming to be unaffiliated so those who are no longer claiming Christian as sort of the default option, that number continues to shrink, and shrink rapidly. But if you actually look at millennials who are—and not just millennials. A recent book, for example, called The 20-Something Soul, shows that, well, you’ve got three out of 10 20-somethings today are evangelical protestants. And you have three out of 10 are none. And then the rest are Catholic or belong to mainline churches or belong to another religion. What it shows is you really have this spectrum here of more devout and then you’ve got on the other side those who perhaps have not been as active in their faith according to certain religious practices just choosing to move further and further away.
But if you look at the rate of church attendance, the percentage of the population that is attending worship services, there’s some decline, but not really as much as you might expect. It’s holding fairly steady. Where you do see a lot of decline is in the Catholic church and mainline denominations and it’s—I think when you actually look at what millennials say or what 20-somethings say, it doesn’t always back up some of the doom and gloom headlines that are out there based on just the quantitative research alone.
EICHER: Trevin Wax is a theologian. He’s a blogger. He’s an author. And his latest book is This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths In Light of the Gospel. Always great to talk with you, Trevin. It’s Culture Friday. Thanks so much.
WAX: Thank you guys.