I've listened to Kanye West's new album Jesus Is King a couple of times through. So have you. And if you haven't, several people you know, several people in your church, probably have. Yeezus' surprising (but not totally unforseen) turn toward Jesus in recent months has galvanized much online chatter. The album and accompanying film have amplified the conversation. Understandably so. When mainstream pop culture celebrities make public shifts toward Christianity, the evangelical masses typically have strong opinions. Some applaud while others are a bit more acrimonious. Many in the middle vacillate between curiosity and confusion. This latest example is especially revealing – not in what it exposes about Kanye or celebrity culture at large, but in what it exposes about us.
A quick scroll through Twitter threads commenting on West and his new album makes it clear that for many evangelical Christians, establishing clarity on the authenticity of his new commitment to Jesus was of first and foremost importance.
"See! Kanye's a genuine Christian!"
"See! Kanye's an out-of-control narcissist and this is all a marketing ploy to sell albums!"
Which is it?
Problem is, it's not that simple. As recent high-profile falls-from-grace of several prominent Christian leaders have made clear, one can be a Christian and an out-of-control narcissist all at the same time. Human beings are complex and personal narratives are never as linear as we'd like them to be.
"Which is it?" shouldn't be the first question we ask. Instead, the first question should be, "Why does it matter?" Not as in, "It doesn’t matter" but rather, "Why does it matter?" For most, the honest answer – the reason it matters to us, specifically and individually – is because it's human nature to want to simplify and neatly categorize people we don't know well, or at all, and to fix them into said categories in perpetuity. It helps us to make simple sense of a complex world. This isn't to say that the big categories are inconsequential. If we don't care about whether a particular person is or is not a genuine follower of Jesus, then evangelism and mission lose their all-important place in Christian life and practice. But what I do mean is that when it comes to public figures like Kanye West, with whom we have no personal connection, no opportunity to walk alongside on the long journey of faith, positing our opinions on what their faith may or may not be from a relational distance is a fruitless endeavor. Even the common justification that correctly categorizing them from afar is necessary to accurately deem their work "safe" or "unsafe" for consumption is a miscalculation of responsibility.
This tendency to categorize public figures this way, without so much as a second thought, is due, at least in part, to one of the cunning deceptions of the digital age – that we know and understand one another far better than we actually do. We might follow Kanye West and other public figures on social media. Our feeds might constantly and consistently be bombarded with the highlights of their seemingly spectacular and interesting lives. We might read tidbits about their personal lives in tabloids and on Twitter. We might watch them on "reality" television shows. All this can lead us to thinking that we know these people intimately, that we somehow understand their motivations and intentions. But in fact, we don't. Not even remotely so. Therefore, we ought to relinquish our incessant need to categorize from afar; instead, if so moved, we should spend that energy praying that these public figures who display a turn toward Jesus might be surrounded by other Christians who will actually walk the path of faith with them, away from the bright lights and film crews, in the raw and honest proximity of people living in real community with one another.
I've been encouraged to read that Kanye West is regularly meeting with a pastor named Adam Tyson, who serves and leads a church of about 400 people in Santa Clarita, California. From the outside looking in, this looks like the early stages of the sort of real community I'm talking about. Tyson is not a celebrity pastor (although that may change now) and he doesn't speak at mega-conferences (unless you count his sermons at Kanye's Sunday Service events). Although I don't know Tyson personally, from what I've read and seen, he seems genuine in his desire to simply be a pastor and friend to West. He didn't seek out this relationship. West walked into his church, unannounced, several months ago and kept coming back. Tyson seems to be doing what all of us who follow Jesus should do any time a person in need steps into our community in search of answers – be faithful. Faithful to the call to shepherd, guide, and love the people God brings into our care.
If it wasn't Kanye West, no one would be writing about it. But we all have stories like this. People walk through the doors of our church communities every weekend, broken and lost, seeking hope, purpose, joy, etc. And what do we do in those situations? We do what Adam Tyson is doing. We seek to be faithful. We give our best energy and effort to embodying God's love to those he brings into our midst. We are not primarily fascinated by these people; we're primarily seeking to be faithful. As we get to know them and their stories, fascination may take hold, or, it may not. On the surface at least, their personalities might be ho-hum and their stories might be drab. They may not be Kanye West. But we pursue faithfulness nonetheless. Our temptation when we come across stories of celebrities and public figures expressing faith in Jesus is to be fascinated and this is to be expected. But our fascinations must never distract us from or take priority over the call to faithfulness. While it's normal for some attention to be given to the headline-grabbing, click-baity news of famous people finding faith, for those who serve and lead in the local church, the most important people in the world are the everyday, blue- and white- and no-collar folks who find their way into the spaces we actually occupy. For some of us, that person might be Kanye West one day. For most of us, it will not. But that doesn't matter, because that person matters. Every person matters. And we must be faithful.