It’s been 15 years since Christianity Today reviewed Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout—quoting verses from “Jesus Walks” and other God-tinged tracks, while warning that the release overall is “far from pious, with an array of expletives and lyrical undesirables.”
“One wonders why West so adamantly makes a case for Christ in ‘Jesus Walks,’ yet quickly dismisses him via duplicitous party rhymes,” wrote Andree Farias. “The answer is probably in the album’s liner notes, where West openly declares that he’s not where he needs to be, despite still being on God’s side.”
Christian fans have asked questions about Kanye’s relationship with God over and over since then (as they do with many other celebrities who reference faith in their work and interviews). What does it mean for him to make a “gospel album with a lot of cursing”? What’s up with the Yeezus nickname and Christ imagery? Is Kanye’s discussion of his spiritual life sincere or just part of an act?
For followers of Kanye—who’s now also a designer, shoe mogul, husband to Kim Kardashian, and friend of President Donald Trump—the questions around his Christianity have compounded lately.
While Kanye has referenced God and Jesus throughout his career, back to the “Jesus Walks” days, the 42-year-old has begun to make more overt remarks about God’s work in his life and ventures, including his much-talked-about “Sunday Services,” weekly gatherings for family and celeb friends to fellowship and sing together.
Plus, he’s publicly discussing topics like the role of the church, passages of the Bible, and obedience to Christ.
“As always with Kanye, it’s hard to discern with precision where he’s at,” said Cray Allred, a Christian writer, podcast producer, and hip-hop fan. “While he has moved away from relying so heavily on gospel sampling in his music (an early trademark of his sound), Kanye seems to feel much more like an insider to Christianity now.”
Christian writer Tyler Huckabee joked this week that “Kanye’s transformation into dorky youth pastor is nearly complete” upon reading that he started including Christianized versions of Nirvana songs in his Sunday Service lineup, including a rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” rewritten as “Let your light shine, it’s contagious / here we are now, inspiration.”
While Kanye doesn’t belong to a traditional congregation, his outdoor Sunday Services have begun to host preachers, including friend and Miami church planter Rich Wilkerson (who officiated Kanye’s wedding) and Hillsong New York pastor Carl Lentz.
When Forbes prepared a recent cover story on Kanye West’s “creative mind” and “billion-dollar sneaker empire,” the Yeezys creator called up an editor at the magazine, concerned that the reporter hadn’t understood the religious influence on his business.
In the piece, which Forbes titled “Kanye’s Second Coming,” he credited God with his personal and professional turnaround. He said he is “just blessed through the grace of God” to be in the place he is now, after his reputation and business took a hit a few years back, and that “being in service to Christ, the radical obedience” transformed him after a mental breakdown. (He says he has also been treated for bipolar disorder.)
Plus, Kanye cited Scripture as an influence, saying he reads the Old Testament for inspiration as he designs.
“A lot of my creative friends, I tell them the Bible is better than Pinterest. You can bring something into space and time we exist in, while reflecting thousands of years of truth,” he said, pulling out his phone to read Leviticus 19:19: “You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material” (ESV).
“It’s gratifying to see a cultural giant like him create things out of a place of respectful conversation with the Bible,” faith-and-fashion writer Whitney Bauck, an editor at Fashionista.com, told CT. “Though West has done plenty of subverting Christian motifs throughout his career—i.e. posing as Jesus for a Rolling Stone cover and describing himself as a god—his attitude toward Leviticus here seems to be one of genuine delight and respect.”
Kanye smiles with an “aha!” look in his eyes as he explained in the Forbes video that his apparel team sticks to single-material garments, and he has gone as far as calling out someone for wearing a wool jacket with leather sleeves. “I remember sending a manager I used to work with a really rude email about how … he set culture back by ten years,” he said. “So now I can send him the verse from the Bible that says, ‘You should not wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.’”
But again, more questions: “How does Kanye decide which parts of the Bible to bring to bear on his work? Here he’s zeroing in on an Old Testament verse that the majority of Christians treat as a mandate intended for a specific time and people group that's no longer applicable today,” Bauck said. “It’s not totally clear … whether Kanye’s using the verse merely as an inspirational jumping-off point to help him approach design differently, or whether he believes that’s what the God of the Bible still wants and asks of God-followers.”
This has been a major year for Kanye. He and wife, Kim, welcomed their fourth child and named him Psalm. (A source told People that Kanye has been reading the poetic books of the Bible over and over.)
Months ago, he launched Sunday Services, weekly spiritual singalongs turned into a Coachella performance, which have drawn choirs and celebrities to gather for fellowship. On Keeping Up with the Kardashians, he said, “I had the idea of making a church before but I really was sketching it out. Then in 2019, I was like ‘I’m not letting a Sunday go by without making this.’”
Kirk Franklin—who had been in touch with Kanye for years before their collaboration on “Ultralight Beam” in 2016—has applauded the Sunday Services as a genuine expression of Kanye’s faith and evidence that he is willing to invest time, money, and effort into it.
He told Beats 1 Radio in May that he has seen Kanye’s walk with Christ progress. “There’s a respect and a love. When I say something to him, I’m now seeing the response,” he said. “People are on their journey, and when they fall, we need to hold them accountable, but let’s hold them accountable [by] loving them back to health.”
Kanye’s long had ties to artists in gospel music, hip Christian pastors, and believers in the industry, and he seems to be building on those relationships, like his collaborations with “Fear of God” label creator Jerry Lorenzo, who also designed tour looks for Justin Bieber.
Wilkerson, the Miami pastor who texts Kanye encouragement and appeared at a recent Sunday Service gathering, previously told CT: “There’s not a strategy or a network. It’s just, ‘Let’s befriend people. The goal is to be like Jesus, and I think Jesus would show love and grace to anybody in his path.”
Kanye himself is not a pastor or Christian leader, so the faith he practices and preaches as a rapper and designer will likely continue to defy believers’ expectations. And that’s not a bad thing, according to Katherine Ajibade, who wrote about Kanye’s influence while a researcher at the British think tank Theos.
“I would like Christians to deter from thinking of Kanye as a celebrity Christian, only using his faith to further his career. I think what is particularly wonderful about West is how he is using his artistry to offer a version of Christianity that is not only culturally relevant, but innovative, intricate and forward facing,” said Ajibade, who will study the anthropology of Christianity at the London School of Economics and Political Science starting this fall.
“It is here that Kanye West is pushing the boundaries of how Christianity is represented in contemporary culture. And yet, he is doing so in a way that grounds it in his personal understanding of what it means to be a Christian.”
Even among those who hope and pray that Kanye’s transformation is sincere, there are some concerns about the version of Christianity he represents at this stage in his walk.
“The caution I would give is that a new age-y, celebration-of-self vibe seems to be resonating with him more so than the historic tenets of redemption and the cross of Christ,” said Allred. “He’s much more self-aware than most give him credit for (e.g., proving, tongue-in-cheek, the merits of his fashion designing impulses with an out-of-context Levitical passage), but being drawn only to the images of God that flatter us is something that has driven shallow belief for millennia, and not just among egomaniacs.”
“Where I would hold out hope is that Kanye has, by his own accounts, fallen deeply into the unfulfilling pit of fame and success and come up desperate for genuine love and purpose.”