If you don’t pay too much attention to pop culture, you may be forgiven for thinking that the story of the past fifty years in American entertainment goes something like this: Once upon a time, our arts were a verdant and unspoiled Eden. On TV, father knew best. On the radio, Gene Autry rested easy atop the Billboard charts with his sweet rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” And when Americans read—they did, back then, in spades—they turned to soul-improving stuff, like the Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s novelistic adaptation of the life of Moses, a runaway hit that was the third best-selling book of 1950.
And then came the 1960s, and with them the wreckers of civilization.
Boys and girls with loose shirts and looser morals started playing loud guitars and louder drums, exposing themselves in public and singing about drugs and fornication. The hippies begot the punks, who in turn begot the rappers, and with each turn of the wheel our culture got crasser, leading to its logical conclusion in “WAP,” the biggest hit song of last year: The “W” stands for “wet,” and the other two letters for parts of the female anatomy best not discussed in public.
It’s a compelling story, especially for those of us who are a touch more traditional and therefore used to standing athwart history, yelling “Stop!” It’s also—praise the Lord—almost entirely false. Come and hear the good news: American culture is currently in the throes of a religious revival, and its brightest stars are all God-fearing Christians eager to sing the gospel in earnest.
If this strikes you as a preposterous claim, you will find little comfort in learning that the man leading the charge, the Jonathan Edwards of this latest Great Awakening, is none other than the rapper Kanye West.
In late August, West released Donda, his tenth studio album. Named after his mother, who passed away in 2007 of complications from a cosmetic surgery gone awry, the album is to hip-hop what The Seven Story Mountain is to literature: a raw and unremitting account of pure faith forged in grief and doubt. Breaking away from one of the genre’s defining features, West opted to strip most of the album’s tracks of any percussion, often calling on a church choir to command the listener’s ear as he and a gallery of all-star collaborators profess their beliefs.
Here’s a little taste: “This is not about me,” West raps on a track titled “Come to Life,” a surprising statement from an artist who is known for promiscuous self-promotion. “God is still alive / So I’m free.” Any doubts you may have about West’s sincerity are likely to be dispelled by the time you hear “Jesus Lord,” a track that begins with the rapper pleading: “Tell me if you know someone that needs / Jesus Lord.” The song goes on to deliver a harrowing account of modern life, thick with pain and anger, and meaningless without the Redeemer.
Eager to make sure none of this was lost on listeners accustomed to coarseness and curse words, Kanye launched his album in a series of massive “listening parties” held in football stadiums, for which he’d built an exact replica of the front porch of the childhood home he once shared with his mother. It wasn’t an exercise in self-indulgence; the artist insists that his fans see him at his most vulnerable—as an orphaned child, desperately missing his departed parent—and then follow his example and seek solace in God. On August 29, the first day the album was made available on the popular music streaming service Spotify, it was listened to nearly 100 million times in twenty-four hours, with the overall count currently approaching a billion listens. It may very well be the case that no other American popular work of art has grappled so thoroughly with faith on such a large scale before.
And Kanye, thank the Lord, is hardly alone. Kendrick Lamar—selected by the prestigious music magazine NME as one of ten artists who shaped the sound of the past decade, and hailed by former president Barack Obama as an inspiration—raps often about his struggles to become a more worthy believer. Here’s an excerpt from an early song, unimprovably named “Faith”: “I found myself losing focus at a Sunday service,” he raps,
Embarrassed so I start questioning God, “What is my
He said to live the way he did, that’s all he want from me
Spread the word and witness, he rose on the first Sunday
I said alright, enthused that my Lord gave a listen
I opened my Bible in search to be a better Christian
And this from a person that never believed in religion.
If you’re looking for signs that this soul-searching sea change is spreading beyond hip-hop into the wider, bluer ocean of pop, look no further than Justin Bieber, former teen heartthrob and current one-man megachurch. His latest offering, “Holy,” features Chance the Rapper—another deeply religious superstar—and contains lines like these: “I know I ain’t leavin’ you like I know He ain’t leavin’ us / I know we believe in God / And I know God believes in us.” The song’s music video, one of the more moving entries the art form has seen in a very long time, portrays a down-on-their-luck couple (Bieber and Ryan Destiny) who lose their home. They are picked up by a Good Samaritan who gives them food and shelter, a simple yet profound expression of Christian charity.
Sadly, for all their prominence, these artists and their faith are still in the minority. Abortion is now casually played for laughs on hit TV shows like Shrill or GLOW, and your average radio hit is still more likely to deliver profanity than profundity. But, to quote a well-known gentleman who knows a thing or two about shaping American culture, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. For all of its childish attempts at appearing daring and groundbreaking, most of the dross currently produced for our listening, viewing, and reading pleasure is little more than conformist chant, the ululations of tribal warriors dedicated to repeating their cultish mantras to a growingly disinterested audience.
This is why the Oscars, previously a must-see event, recently registered its lowest ratings ever, while the Grammy Awards lost a whopping 53 percent of its viewers in the last year alone. Americans, bless our souls, don’t want another lecture about why gender—literally coded into every cell of our body—is fluid, while race—a complicated concept made endlessly porous by intermarriage—is rigidly fixed. Instead, we want what we’ve craved since the first of us arrived on these shores, seeking the hill upon which to build our shining new city: the love and grace of the Almighty. The artists that deliver this good, old-time religion are flourishing, while those primarily interested in virtue-signaling to the applause of their peers are losing their star power.
Which brings us back to the 1950s. Just as the mainstream scene dominated by smooth and staid singers like Perry Como and Patti Page awoke one morning to find long-haired guitar-wielding barbarians at the gates, so are today’s uber-progressive entertainers discovering, to their great horror, that they are the squares, and that the cool kids are all talking about Jesus and God and church. The creative energy, the divine spark without which art is either junk or propaganda (or, more often than not these days, both), is entirely on the side of the faithful. I dare say we’ll see more stirring masterpieces like Donda—and also, eventually, maybe soon, a society increasingly ready to live by the Bible’s timeless truths. Amen to that.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.
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