Thursday, January 26, 2006

Take up Your Cross and Follow Kanye West, the Hip Hop Jesus?

You can see the cover for yourself. There on the front of Rolling Stone is Kanye West, which is no surprise since he is a hip hop/rap superstar, but he is wearing a crown of thorns and spattered blood. According to news reports the Catholic Church has branded Kanye West as a "moron" after this 'stunt', and other religious leaders have been quick to condemn this act as sacrilege. In the same issue he poses as Muhammed Ali as well. West, you may remember, is the person who had a mega-hit with his rap/hip hop song "Jesus Walks".

Not surprisingly the press has jumped all over this story, and the comments have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Kanye West is without question an interesting chap. He has, for example, a painting of the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of his dining room in his home, and at times he seems to want to be viewed as a Christian person. Certainly, he does not shy away from controversy.

Leaving aside West's or Rolling Stone's motives for a moment, one of the questions we should ask about this is--- Does the outrage about this have anything to do with the fact that many people find a black image of Jesus troubling? Before you too quickly dismiss this notion, consider that we also now have a film entitled "Son of Man" from South Africa, which is making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. In it Jesus is depicted as appearing on earth as an African revolutionary fighting apartheid, racism and the like. People in America have found that idea troubling as well.

The issues I want to probe are twofold: 1) the problem that we all see Jesus from our own anachronistic point of view; 2) why is it that a black image of Jesus troubles some white American Christians so much, when they were certainly not much troubled when various white folk have portrayed Jesus in film and on TV, since Jesus certainly wasn't white (despite the best efforts of some to argue for an Aryan Jesus).

Let me start with a quotation from a wonderful and stunningly beautiful Christmas song, on the James Taylor Christmas CD he did for Hallmark. It is entitled "Some Children See Him"

"Some children see him lily white
The baby Jesus born this night,
Some children see him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.

Some children see him bronzed and brown
The Lord of heaven to earth come down,
Some children see him bronzed and brown
With dark and heavy hair.

"Some children see him almond eyed
The Savior whom we kneel beside
Some children see him almond eyed,
With skin of golden hue.

"Some children see him dark as they
Sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray
Some children see him dark as they
And oh, they love him too.

"The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus' face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace
And filled with holy light.

"Oh lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering
Come worship now the infant king
Tis love that's born tonight."

Lyric by Whila Hutson and Alfred Burt (Hollis Music Inc. BMI).

This song reminds us poignantly that we all have a natural tendency to see Jesus in our own image, rather than seeking to see ourselves in his image. If you simply look at the history of Christian art you will see Jesus being indigenized for every culture--- dressed in Italian style, looking like an Englishman, portrayed as Oriental, looking like an African and so on. This is only natural. We all desperately want Jesus to be one of us, to be approachable, to be someone we can identify with. In the case of Kanye West, who does see himself as something of a prophetic figure, I think the more charitable interpretation of what he has done, since he also posed as Ali, is that these are persons West would like to emulate, would like to be like. And that, in the end is a good thing. But lets probe these two issues a little further.

Just for the record, Jesus was indeed dark skinned. Probably not as dark as those who come from sub_Saharan Africa, but nonetheless very brown indeed with dark hair, and dark eyes. How do we know this? Its not hard to figure out from archaeological work, the digging up of graves and ossuaries. In this respect he would have been like others in that region who lived in a sun-baked land where it does not rain between May and October. He would also not likely have been more than 5 feet 5-7" tall. If you go to Israel today, you will discover that most of the natives who have lived there for generations are also of similar hue, whether they are Palestinians or Jews or something else. So clearly the blond haired, blue eyed fair skinned Jesus with an impeccable Oxbridge accent is not the real Jesus. One of the better aspects of Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of Chrst" was Jesus actually spoke Aramaic-- a language almost none of the audience could understand.

And here we are getting at the root of the matter. A Jesus who does not look like us, doesn't talk like us, doesn't dress like us, and lives according to a different culture is alien to us. He is very hard to identify with. Instead of changing ourselves into an image more like his which requires hard work and not a little imagination, it is so much easier to mentally change him into the image of ourselves. And this domestication of Jesus if taken to an extreme (for instance with the Aryan Jesus concept) becomes in fact idolatry--- the attempt to recreate God in our own image. But for most of us, it never goes that far. We just desperately want Jesus to be approachable, someone we could actually imagine emulating.

I would like to suggest that the outrage at Kanye West's act, which was of course meant to be provocative, may indeed have surfaced the obvious fact once again that racism is indeed still an issue and indeed a besetting sin in our culture, no matter how much we would like to stick our head in the sand and say it is not. I do not say that all or most of the reaction was caused by racism, but those who were affronted simply because West is black do have issues to deal with. For those who take seriously Gal. 3.28 which says that "in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, no male and female" cannot ignore knee-jerk racist reactions to things. The church needs to look hard at itself and ask questions like--- "Why is the eleven o' clock worship hour the most segregated hour of the week in America even in 2006?"

I was preaching last November at a church outside the suburbs of Philadelphia to a truly multi-racial congregation (it was about 50% white, 30% black and 20% India Indian), and it struck me how very different this church was from most of those I preach in throughout the country. The ones I am invited to tend to have congregations that are either almost entirely white or almost entirely black. The reason this church was not that way was in part because it was a Pentecostal Church, and churches like that which are Spirit-drenched and full of enthusiasm and exuberant praise and preaching tend to attract all kinds of persons, right across racial lines. The Holy Spirit is dangerous. When the Spirit is allowed free reign, the Spirit tends to break down cultural and racial barriers.

So perhaps we can take the Kanye West tempest in a teapot episode as a teaching moment. Perhaps we could ask ourselves why multi-cultural images of Jesus disturb us, if they do. Perhaps we could ask--- Shouldn't we be getting on with trying to conform ourselves to Christ's moral image, not conform him to our physical one?

As Fredrick Buechner once said "He had a face" but it was not a face defined by the color of his skin. It was defined by the content of his character and his mission. It is not an accident that the NT nowhere describes the physical appearance of Jesus. The Gospel writers clearly did not believe that "image is everything". They believed rather that being in God's image, and being reformed in Christ's image is what its all about. Think on these things.


Unknown said...

I am not sure about your interpretation of some christian's reactions being racist, but your grace towards Mr. West, and looking at his actions as an emulation, as opposed to reckless pomp is refreshing to hear. I was initially offended by his actions, not because he was black, but due to his being a pop star. I despise when pop stars use his image strictly for shock or entertainment purposes. You have reminded me to give someone the benefit of the doubt, and to try and see a situation in a more patient Christ-like light. Thank You.

Gordon Hackman said...

Thanks for this excellent and thought provoking entry.

I concur with what Michael says. I think a lot of the angry response from the Christian community will be not so much because West is black, but because he is a famous pop-star posing as Jesus on the cover of a magazine that is largely seen as being antithetical to Christianity. I think it will be seen as an intentional act of sacrilege by many.

A large portion of the conservative Christian community feels continually under attack from mainstream pop culture (sometimes for good, sometimes for bad reasons) and tends to view all pop culture with a great deal of suspicion, even paranoia. This often translates into an immediate tendency to react with outrage and condemnation to anything even remotely controversial done by a pop cultural figure, especially when it directly involves some aspect of our faith or some important religious symbol.

Also, don't forget that some Christian groups and ministries practically define their entire existence in terms of being against certain things and therefore, are almost always likely to react negatively to anything controversial, if only because it justifies their own existence.

Nevertheless, I concur with you that the church in general still has a lot of work to do in overcoming discrimination within its own walls and in our own hearts. It could be that after all the smoke clears and we ask ourselves exactly why West's posing as Jesus outrages us so, that we find that racism is indeed a factor. Unfortunately, however, many will never get beyond the immediate and visceral reaction. I agree that in general Christians should try to engage in more thoughtful responses to pop culture, rather than simply angry reactions and knee-jerk condemnations.

Christian Prophet said...

I'm beginning to think that focusing on the historical Jesus is a device used by the ego to avoid feeling the presence of the living Jesus. Messages directly from the Holy Spirit on both the Christian Prophet blog and the Holy Inheritance blog seem to indicate that the important thing is joining with Jesus in spirit and becoming one with Him.

Ryan said...

I actually featured this story on my blog yesterday as well. My righteous anger had nothing to do with Mr. West's race. If Marshall Mathers had been the offender, my hurt would be no less stinging. It is the use of Christ and the symbols of the crown of thorns in particular in such a mocking way that offends me. For any of us to put on the "garb" of Christ and imply that somehow we could identify on a real level with the suffering he went through is blasphemy. We can never no the spiritual separation much less the full wrath of God he endured for us. It's not the same as a movie such as Passion which is aiming to present a true portrayal of Jesus. This is for pure shock value--It's what keeps Jan Wenner and his agenda on the radar of the masses.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ryan:

Unfortunately, despite Mel Gibson's intentions his portrayal of the flaggelation of Christ and various other things was far from accurate or Biblical. Indeed one third of his movie was drawn from Anna Katherine Emerich's mythological visions about Christ, visions which often were grossly anti-Semitic in character (remember the Jewish children with kepas on their heads that morphed into demons badgering Judas into hanging himself).

You may be right, and you may be wrong about Kanye West's motives for doing what he did--- but how exactly do you know what was in his heart anyway? If indeed it was an attempt to mock Jesus, that would be one thing. But it is certainly not blasphemy to emulate Jesus in this respect--- remember "take up your cross and follow me"?

Which is worse, the shock value of West's portrayal, or the deliberate distortion of the Gospel by medieval (and later) Catholic tradition which suggests that suffering in itself, even without an atoning death, is redemptive?

BTW the Gospels only mention Jesus' flogging in passing, do not make much of it, and Luke is perfectly clear that it was the sort of light flogging Romans used when they intended to teach a person a lesson and then release them, as Luke says was Pilate's intent. It was not the viberatio which we saw go on and on in Gibson's movie.

I wonder which portrayal does less justice to history and Jesus?

Matt said...

Great entry Ben.

And your question is dead on: The church needs to look hard at itself and ask questions like--- "Why is the eleven o' clock worship hour the most segregated hour of the week in America even in 2006?

I'm not thrilled with West's stunt, but I am thrilled that God might use his stunt to afflict the comfortable.

Anonymous said...

I saw thepicture they other day at the RS site. I think the negative reaction has to do with:
1) ANYONE posing as Jesus seems nearly sacreligious. If Bono had done it, I would feel the same sense of shock.
2) KW is associated with the rap world. And whether black, white, or latine it is associated with the "gangsta", "pimpin'" lifestyle. He may not be part of that, but he's in the same genre and that's what people see.

As far as KW doing it... I don't really care. It's on the cover of a magazine that's known for its outrageous covers and photos, so its obvious its just meant to sell and make $$.

Often the segregartion goes beyond racial lines, but also inlcuded economic lines as well. I diverse church is an asset and unfortunately a rare find.

Marc Axelrod said...

I liked your post on the Kanye West picture. I think he makes very good hip hop music, the song he sang for the victims of Hurricane Katrina on TV was fantastic, I wish I could remember the name.

I have had numerous subscriptions to RS through the years, but it is not the beacon of music journalism that it used to be when Paul Evans and J.C Considine and Kurt Loder and Mark Coleman were writing for them.

Having said that, I do like Elysa Gardner.

Now, I prefer Stephen Thomas Erlewine is one of my favorite music reviewers, he writes in that old engaging style that Considine had.

Anyway, back to Kanye West. He reminds me of a young Prince, a talented artist who tries to blend his sexuality with his spirituality (Prince was much more talented, though). Hopefully, he will discover the same thing that Prince discovered, that the answer is to live for God.

Marc Axelrod

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for this post Marc, very helpful and directive. I will have to check out this site which you cite....


Questing Parson said...

This business of tending to see Jesus as we would have him be is goes well beyond the question of racism.

I once pastored an intown church in a large city. Across the street from the church was a city park. The park was home to several homeless folks. One couple, Ron and Barbara, lived there in a small tent which they hid on the church property during the day. I'd made arrangements with the police of that precinct to not run any homeless folks off if they had my buiness card and the date written on the back in my handwriting. One particular evening I gave another homeless fellow, Henry, the card and told him he could sleep on the porch, out of the rain.

The next morning Ron and Barbara approached me (they attended the worship services at the church and, praise God, they were welcome). Barbara asked, "Pastor, did you let Henry sleep on the porch last night?"

"I did."

Ron immediately confronted me, "Pastor, we don't need his kind at our church."

Those offended at the cover are uncomfortable with certain kinds at our church.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks so much for sharing Questing Pastor.....we all have our blind spots, not to mention our pride and unwillingness to see ourselves as we are.

Christopher said...

Thinking about the idea of a Black Jesus etc. I think of Stephan King’s Green Mile. The first time I saw the flick it didn’t register to me that John Coffee, aka JC, was necessarily Jesus. Now I’m pretty good at picking up Jesus narratives (though I still have a hard time believing “Cool Hand Luke” was a very good one) When I read Grapes of Wrath I knew Jim Casey was Christ. Heck, I’ve even wrote a Christ narrative about the current Iraq war. Still, maybe it was because King’s JC was black that I didn’t immediately catch the connection between him and Christ.

::aaron g:: said...

Good point about Pentecostal churches. For all the social justice rhetoric offered in some mainline churches, the
congregations' demographics are quite bland. For all their excesses in other areas, many Pentecostal churches do provide a telling example of inclusivity and embrace.

Wayne H. Stapleton said...

I think your point about Pentecostal churches was well taken and a sad indictment of less charismatic churches.
I also think that the evil of racism is so broadly acknowledged that many are loathe to consider the possibility that it still exists.
Thanks for your irenic and refreshing take on this.

JJ said...

Dr. Ben,

I disagree with your assessment of Kanye West’s “Jesus” picture. I think more people would be offended because West's lyrical content. Consider the following lyrics:

Now even though I went to college and dropped out of school quick
I always had a Ph.D.: a Pretty Huge D***
Ladies tired of gettin' ripped off by guys like this
And givin' h*** is like a whale, using the toothpick'

This is from the same album as “Jesus Walks”. Furthermore, often when rappers reference other noted personalities, it is not to say that they would like to emulate those personalities, but rather to put themselves on the same level as those personalities. For instance, you often hear rappers make comments like, “I got more rhymes than Muhammed Ali.” This is not merely lifting Ali up on a pedestal, but lifting the rapper up on a pedestal as his equal, or even his superior.

With references to Jesus, sometimes rappers compare themselves to Him with regard to the persecution He endured. Hence, years ago, in a Public Enemy song, Chuck D. complained that he was being persecuted and noted, “They got me like Jesus.” Likewise, Tupac Shakur, who never tired of talking about how everyone was out to get him, featured a picture of himself crucified with a crown of thorns on his head on an album that was released posthumously. These are not attempts to lift Jesus up on a pedestal or to honor Him as someone they would like to emulate. Rather, they are pathetic attempts to liken the “suffering” they go through as world-renowned multi-millionaire rap superstars to what Christ endured on the cross.

So while the song “Jesus Walks” does seem to be sincere, I would question his motives for the Rolling Stone picture. I don’t know his intentions anymore than anyone else, but I would be suspicious.

As far as “outrage” is concerned, I haven’t heard anyone specifically say they were upset because he is portrayed as a black Jesus, nor have I heard anyone specifically complain about this aspect of the South African film. As for my own opinion, I would not waste my time being angry about it, but I do think it is rather moronic.

rev-ed said...

I don't see the racist angle on West's cover, although I know for a fact it still exists in many churches (Still I don't agree that the ethnic makeup of a congregation is an accurate indicator of racism). Personally, I saw the cover as an act of glorifying self over glorifying God. True, I don't know West's motives, but perhaps if he was sincere he'd work a little harder to make his motives clearer.

Anonymous said...

Of course there is a serious problem with racism in the Church! The fact that people (in or outside of the church) prefer to usually be surounded with others just like them does not make that practice right. We cannot define what should be by what is! We need to remember we are taking our observations from a fallen landscape.

However, I do have a bit of a problem with Mr. west posing as our Lord, For the same reasons I had a problem with Mel Gibson's Movie. As Mr. Witherington points out here, that film caried with it some very negative baggage. It was influanced by the thinking of Anna Katherine Emerich as well as Gibson's own Undersatanding. I would add the problem that there was Jim Caviezel playing our Lord - who we had already seen in other films plotting revenge or romancing Jennifer Lopez.

Whenever we put a human in the garb of Jesus - whether in a film or a picture - it will cary with it at least some of the artist's fallen perspective and/or reputation. In the case of Kanye Wes ' not an anti-Semitic Jesus that we get but rather one who is Okay with calling a woman a B#*@h.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks to all of you for this useful discussion. I tooi have problems with Mr. West, despite his occasional professions of faith. And his egoism is transparent, but unfortunately so is the racism that still exists in the church today, which cannot be excused with the notion that we "all tend to gravitate to our own sort of people". This is exactly what Jesus did not do. He hung out with sinners, tax collectors (and shock, horror), women and Samaritans. Of course there are cultural differences which is all the more reason we should get to know how the other half lives and relates--- it might be better than our own 'natural' inclinations.


Dan said...

What's interesting to me is that, unless I've missed this, nobody seems seems to be connecting this story with the one coming out of the Middle East of thousands of Muslims rioting over cartoons that they deem "inappropriate." We have a man dress as Jesus on the cover of a major mag, and here we sit having a nice discussion about it. A Danish paper prints a couple of cartoons of Muhammed, and embassies start to burn and people protest in the streets. It seems to me there is an amazing cultural indicator taking place in front of our eyes.

James Gregory said...

Ben, I have been taught differently regarding Christ's scourging. Since it isn't mentioned how severe or to what extent he was scourged, then wouldn't we have to go off of the records we have of similar scourging, if we have any at all? And don't those, if I remember correctly, identify a whipping so bad and brutal it brought the person within an inch of their life?

And, I see your point regarding Luke's mention of a flogging meant only to instruct and to bring them to discipline, but what of the difference in words in Matthew, Mark and John? While Luke does use paideuƓ, mastigoƓ is used in Matthew, Mark and John, and phragelloƓ in Matthew and Mark. Is there a difference in meaning and/or intent regarding these three words in reference to the severity of the scourging that Jesus incurred? Do the other gospels aside from Luke indicate a harsher beating and thereby permit to a degree what wee see in the Passion film by Mel Gibson?

I do know that there were no metalic blades on the cat of 9 tails, and also it was probably a full-sized poll Jesus would have been chained to rather than one he could lean on (mid-sized), and I am pretty sure that there was probably one soldier doing the scourging as opposed to two. Other than that, the scourging would have been pretty severe, right?

James Gregory said...

if Jesus would have incurred a light scourging as you say, then how are we to understand Is. 52:13ff? Was Jesus beaten and tortured to the point that he was unrecognizable as the text prophesied? Or was it a light whipping? What can be said here?

Mickaela said...

I must agree with curtlove, First off it is not just Kayne West that does this sort of thing, there is also Marilyn Manson, Cradle of Filth, and many more secular artists that attempt to degrade Jesus Christ.

When you think about it, it should never be about us, but Jesus Christ himself, as a recently born again Christian I do not look to people because my eyes are on God. I see no color or race in God or man but that God is truly beautiful in love and mercy.

Pop Stars are just that, Pop Stars and they enjoy doing things that shock the Christian Community just to get a reaction from them, so why let them? It is something they have to answer for, not me. But every man is held accountable for his own actions till the time of judgement.

Matthew 12: 36 - 37 "But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgement. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned."

Matthew 12:32 "Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come"

But even God loves those who hate him, because God knows that we allow and invite spirits of hate into ourselves, it is our flesh and it is our weakness of nature to be that way.

That is why Jesus Christ went to Calvary to take on this hate, sin, racism, and nailed it to the cross so that when we come to him in humbleness God who is swift in mercy covers us in his blood so that all the old things are passed away and we become new creatures in him.

One day, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is above all, what we need to do is pray that these people will be reached in time for the throne of judgement. Quit wasting your time and breath on things that are not important and look to things that need to be done for God's coming.

As a Christian I don't put my head in the sand and ignore the things going on around me, I mearly do not give glory to where glory is not due.