Christians Need to Think Before Criticizing Kanye West

What should he be saying?

Gospel star Kirk Franklin recently found himself in the middle of a controversy, all because of a collaboration with Kanye West.

When a photo of Franklin hanging out in the studio with the controversial hip-hop star was shared to social media prior to the release of West’s new album, there was an immediate backlash against the gospel singer, who is a successful crossover star with millions of Christian fans.

After all, though Kanye’s early career breakout single “Jesus Walks” was a ballad to conflicted Christian faith, since then, he has been as known for outrageous statements and controversial (frequently explicit) lyrics as he has been for his music. Some of his recent comments have been totally indefensible: He’s been openly misogynistic, he’s defended Bill Cosby, he’s been just plain rude. Those behaviors have rightly been criticized.

But for Franklin, the backlash wasn’t unwarranted because of the content of Kanye’s music or his online behavior; it was misdirected because, as Franklin sees it, Kanye’s imperfections shouldn’t exempt him from hanging out with Christians. He wrote on Facebook:

Kanye is not me. I am not him. He is my brother I am proud to do life with. No sprints, but Marathons; like most of us are on. Before one song was released, I was crucified because my brother asked me to take a picture. Again, "No Kanye, you're not good enough"? No. That is a dangerous message I believe we send to the world when our posture is they have to meet certain requirements before they are worthy to kiss the ring. It says people are not redeemable, forgivable or candidates for grace. That my friend is religious. I will not turn my back on my brother. I will love him, prayerfully grow with him. However long he'll have me, and however long the race takes. To a lot of my Christian family, I'm sorry he's not good enough, Christian enough, or running at your pace...and as I read some of your comments, neither am I. That won't stop me from running. Pray we win.

Franklin acknowledges that both he and Kanye are different artists and different people. He doesn’t attempt to defend Kanye’s music or persona.

Instead, he warns Christians against requiring that certain qualifiers be met before engaging with people we don’t always agree with.

Mixed Messages

Kanye West has said his latest album, The Life of Pablo, is actually about the Apostle Paul. During his recent SNL appearance to promote it, he had even had Franklin close the song "Ultralight Beam" with a prayer, as he does on the album.

He’s called the album “a gospel album, with a whole lot of cursing on it.”

For many Christians, the statement seems like an oxymoron. Songs that talk about “God dreams” alongside explicit lyrics aren't exactly “gospel” album fare.

Kanye West isn’t a teacher or a leader. He’s an artist wrestling with ideas.

But criticizing the merits of the Christian content misses the point. It can also be a trap that unintentionally disqualifies us from a bigger conversation.

No one (or at least no reasonable critic) is suggesting that Kanye West is actually a credible theologian. No one is suggesting his words should be held to the same standard of a pastor or a Christian leader. But when we criticize the orthodoxy of what are essentially artistic choices, we elevate the words to a higher level than they are meant to be held.

Kanye West isn’t a teacher or a leader. He’s an artist wrestling with ideas and emotions. It’s OK to disagree with them—but we shouldn’t automatically criticize him for expressing them, just because they mention our faith.

A Spiritual Journey

In many ways, Kanye West’s music—and public persona—have become a sort of documentation of a spiritual, personal and artistic journey: College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation are thematically tied to the beginnings of his career: going from a minimum-wage, literal college dropout struggling musician to a full-fledged pop star with an evolving style and influential platform.

808s & Heartbreak is a solemn reflection on loss, broken relationships, loneliness and the sadness associated with decidedly adult problems, all wrapped in a completely different kind of electronic R&B sound.

My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne and Yeezus represented a hard thematic turn: They deal with the opulence of celebrity culture and the intoxicating power of wealth and fame—as well as, ultimately, all of the inner darkness they can bring forth.

The Life of Pablo is maybe Kanye's most complex album to date: It’s a mashup of spiritual wandering, manic venting and confessional narratives. Even the release and all of the hype surrounding it seemed like it’s own sort of cultural commentary:

Would it be better if he didn’t mention his struggles with Christianity at all? Does the fact that he openly discusses Christianity along with any number of unsavory things make the lyrics more offensive?

Is the fact that he released an unfinished album (that’s essentially an ongoing work-in-progress) commentary about the concept of an album itself (or really any piece of artwork)? Or is it just a frantic mix of perfectionism and unprofessionalism? What’s performance art and what’s social media trolling meant to simply elicit a reaction? What’s an intentional artistic statement and what’s meaning simply projected on him by critics? Are we supposed to be laughing at him or with him?

But, through the entire journey, Christianity has been a constant theme. Many Christians, who (at times rightly) have had concerns about Kanye's explicit lyrics, conflate criticizing the vulgarity itself with a sense of duty to also criticize mixing references to faith along with it.

In other words: Would it be better if he didn’t mention his struggles with Christianity at all? Does the fact that he openly discusses Christianity along with any number of unsavory things make the lyrics more offensive?

Ultimately, is criticism from Christians more directed toward his vulgarity, profanity and outrageousness or toward the fact that he is mixing questions about faith with them?

Engaging Culture

Too often, Christians have taken only two courses of action when it comes to reacting to statements about Christianity in culture that they don’t agree with: A large portion of Christian culture either chooses to completely ignore it, or to tear it down while warning others to avoid it.

Intentionally avoiding music, art or entertainment that you personally find repugnant is reasonable. Many people will choose not to listen to Kanye West or other music they find offensive. That’s a personal choice—one everyone is free to make.

But, taking the other position—that of being proactively critical and hostile toward Christian references you don't agree with—can cause you to fail to miss the larger point being made.

Great art isn’t always about truth, but it is about honesty.

Kanye West, like countless artists and provocateurs before him, presents a persona that has no filter. His art offers a lens to see the world through the blunt, non-politically correct perspective of someone who’s lived through his experiences.

On Twitter he wrote, “The world needs somebody to not be scared and tell his truth.” Kanye doesn’t claim to have the answers. But he does say he’s looking for them. And for him—and other artists—that search often takes the form of albums, stories, songs, movies and shows.

When those things actively discuss faith, Christianity, the Bible and Jesus, it’s our job as Christians to point culture in the right direction by engaging the difficult conversations—not criticizing someone for having them.

Great art isn’t always about truth, but it is about honesty.

Even if his statements about faith don’t measure up to a traditional Christian standard, the fact that Kanye is making them should be seen as an opportunity to talk about real biblical truth in honest ways and be a part of the cultural dialogue.

Our main concern shouldn't be criticizing people we see as distorting the truth. Our concern be getting so caught up in “defending” truth that we miss the opportunity to reach people with it.

We don’t have to endorse someone like Kanye West, but we shouldn’t just dismiss him either.

Top Comments

thomAS

11

thomAS commented…

Relevant's love for Kanye is confusing. Is their anyone more vulgar and explicit in their lyrics and gets promoted in the same way? Is Kanye's calling himself "Yeezus" blasphemous? I appreciate Relevant's mission and subscribe to magazine, but tell me how to absorb kanyes incredible art - as the podcast crew labels it- and not feel dirty and gross. Gratuitously explicit tracks one after the other. Not just one or 2 swear words that could be argued appropriate.

Trista Cooper

9

Trista Cooper commented…

It's not just a few explicit words that make Kanye West's albums inappropriate. He makes constant sexual, misogynistic and violent references throughout his albums. I've read the lyrics to most of his new album, and as a Christian, I don't feel that I could support or put my name on any of it, which is why Kirk Franklin's participation is so disappointing. Pray with Kanye. Counsel Kanye. Be a shoulder for Kanye to cry on. Don't collaborate on an album with Kanye.

13 Comments

Dominic Jackson

9

Dominic Jackson commented…

Lyrics to “Father Stretch My Hands”
Now if I F*ck this model //And she just bleached her *sshole // And I get bleach on my T-shirt // I’mma feel like an *sshole."

This is the same album Kirk is on. This is the same album the author here is defending. This is the same album Relevant takes issue with me taking issue.

And a second look shows that an Editor of the magazine wrote this? I'm done with Relevant.

Jelly Kelly

3

Jelly Kelly replied to Dominic Jackson's comment

You may want to revisit the song. I don't really defend his persona but with Kanye's work, its often needs to be understood as a whole. In Father Stretch My Hands pt.1, Kanye talks about having intercourse with a model that bleached her butthole. The joke is probably directed to Kanye's lust for pornstars who often use bleach such an area. Kanye knows it wrong to have sex with her and that's where the inappropriate joke comes in as he calls himself an a-hole for wanting it.

The rest of the song seem to break into three parts. Kanye's desire to wake up next to a model in the morning despite feeling like an a-hole, his desire to feel "liberated" or free to do what he wants and the chorus in his mother's perspective telling Kanye she loves him even though he wants to feel "liberated" to live a sinful life.

pt.2 of the song comes in as Kanye reminiscence the broken relationship his parents have and how he has "the same problem [his] father have." Out of his insecurities, Kanye wants to be rich to avoid his parent's problems and the song ends with the bridge in pt.1 of Kanye's desire to be "liberated" but this time with money. The song ends with Kanye asking where he can find God as he isn't finding the freedom in the models he f*cks or the money he makes. He turns to the Father and says "If I don't turn to you. No other help I know, I stretch my hands."

I think a lot of people misunderstand Kanye's music a lot, because though Kanye has his own issues, he is often quite self-reflecting and open to use music to explore his own sinful desires. As a Christian I can respect his honesty and hope that one day he will be able to fully reflect stronger Christian morals in his search. Just my two cents but I can break this theme down the entire album and in all his previous albums. He may be a d-bag but his 7 critically acclaimed albums were not for show.

Lars Josias Hofstetter

2

Lars Josias Hofstetter replied to Jelly Kelly's comment

thank you so much for your explanations! would love to hear more about his others songs and albums!

Heather Gacey

1

Heather Gacey commented…

While I find many of Kanye's songs too gross lyrically to listen to, I respect Franklin for recording with him and speaking such words of love. And how great is it that people who listen to Kanye can be introduced to Franklin's music? Not to mention that Kanye can probably really use some good friends. I know I do :-)

Jelly Kelly

3

Jelly Kelly replied to Heather Gacey's comment

With Kanye's albums, he is often putting on a persona of an a-hole to tell a story. His albums are often only understood when you listen to every word from start to finish. For instance, people don't really realize Yeezus was actually an album about a man's path to redemption and love. I agree Kanye's been a bit aggressive and crazy so I hope his friendship with Kirk will slowly to change that. :)

John Powell

56

John Powell commented…

Standing by a friend struggling with their faith, even publically = fine. Praying with, encouraging, being faithful to = all fine. Choosing to overlook gross character issues and sin, not calling a brother to task on self-control, humility, faithfulness = not fine. What does light have to do with darkness? When does it become compromise and enabling? Everyone will have a different answer here, but to judge (wrongly called criticism in this article) is fully appropriate between brothers in the faith. The Apostle Paul himself does this in all of his writings as he exhorts, admonishes and even calls out some by name in his letters for their behavior and beliefs. Still, Franklin's position is a tough one to judge from afar, but we do look for fruit in the lives of others, and this is fully biblical. Franklin too needs accountability from the church regarding his relationship with Kanye. This is proper and necessary for the purity of the church and for the character of Christ as we reflect that to a watching and needy world.

Glenys Esther Hernandez

1

Glenys Esther Hernandez commented…

2 Timothy 2:23-26English Standard Version (ESV)

23 Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 And the Lord's servant[a] must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

Brendt Wayne Waters

6

Brendt Wayne Waters commented…

"The world needs a guy like me. The world needs somebody to not be scared and tell his truth."

You've just invented a new game: Trump or Kanye?

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