Much to the chagrin of over-earnest theology scribblers everywhere, Kanye West is now one of America’s most well-known public theologians. Some Christians have expressed skepticism about his conversion, others about his qualifications. But the good news for all of us (on my side of the Tiber, at least) is this: The man who insists he’s not a theologian is channeling Martin Luther. To this longtime fan of both Luther’s theology and Kanye’s discography, it seems West has taken a path familiar to totally depraved Protestants the world over: Attempting to justify himself, he wound up condemned by the Law, spiritually desolate, and ultimately saved by Jesus.
Like Luther, but apparently unlike many of his cultured despisers, Kanye was not always familiar with the gospel of grace. On his early song “Jesus Walks,” he sounds like the stereotype of a late medieval monk, apparently thinking he can atone for sin through self-flagellation and a life of poverty: “If I talk about God my record won’t get played . . . / Well if this take away from my spins / Which’ll probably take away from my ends / Then I hope this take away from my sins.” Of course, also like a late medieval monk, his poverty never materialized.
Like other public theologians before him, West has historically oscillated between astonishing self-regard and dejected self-loathing. Whereas on Graduation (2007) he could rap about being “legendary . . . / I’m like the fly Malcom X, buy any jeans necessary,” by My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) he was warning his lover to “run away as fast as you can.” And even though on Yeezus (2013) he provocatively proclaimed, “I am a god,” the 2018 album, Ye, documented his temptations to commit both homicide and suicide.
To hear Kanye tell it, his conversion, like Luther’s, was precipitated by crisis: His life was, he being a good person was insufficient grounds for salvation, and this ultimately turned him to Christ. Accordingly, on his new album Jesus is King (released Friday), he raps with the confidence of one who knows his salvation does not rest in himself: “When I get to Heaven’s gates / I ain’t gotta peek over . . . He saved a wretch like me.” Here, salvation is a gift of sheer grace, and therefore grasped in confidence and peace of mind. As the Judgement of Martin Luther Concerning Monastic Vows taught me, “When a man has both the promise and Christ himself, he is absolutely certain what God thinks about him.”
Moreover, West’s legendary (and admirable) bullheadedness has been transposed into a new key: Christian liberty. “I won’t be in bondage to any man / John eight three-three . . . Whom the Son sets free / He is free indeed.” As ever, West adamantly follows his own path, but now he does so because he is freed by and for God. In Luther’s immortal formulation, “The Christian is the perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.”
There are other ways in which Kanye’s new line of thinking strikingly parallels Luther’s. As a young father and fairly new husband, I take heart in Kanye’s renewed fervor for Christian family life. He raps in “Closed on Sunday” that daughters must be kept safe, sons trained in the faith, and the family protected from vipers. Kanye formerly cared a great deal about what his eldest daughter, North,; now, he is happiest that she Similarly, in A Sermon on the Estate of Marriage, Luther admonishes parents, and especially fathers, not to “have more regard for the bodies of their children than for their souls. . . . It is of the greatest importance for every married man to pay closer, more thorough, and continuous attention to the health of his child’s soul.”
Kanye seems to have imbibed not simply the gospel of salvation sola gratia, but also the entire constellation of transformations the gospel works in one’s soul, vocation, and family life. This is quite a change for a man who converted in April. Nevertheless, Kanye’s fans can be thankful that, while he may be a new man, he is not an entirely different one. In a recent interview with DJ Zane Lowe, Kanye explained how God has been using him and managed to work in that he is “unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time. It’s just not even a question anymore at this point. It’s just a fact.” One can only chuckle and note that grace is healing, rather than destroying, Kanye’s nature.
Onsi A. Kamel is editor in chief of the Davenant Press.