I once went to a church service with one of my former students. As a cradle Catholic I grew up with a very formalized kind of religion that has often been critiqued and misunderstood so I kept an open mind as I experienced a very different way of connecting with God. After a reading from the Bible and a few words from the minister the people began praying aloud, sending their petitions to God all at one time in a confusing mix of sound. I was not quite sure how to react so I simply attempted to quiet my mind. That’s when I began to hear the profound beauty of their individual prayers and their deep faith that God would somehow comfort them and ease their pain. Before long the sounds of their very personal pleas brought tears to my eyes and a realization that each of us longs for hope and peace in different ways.
My mother was a confirmed Catholic. She believed in its teachings and traditions with all of her heart. Nonetheless she was quite open to other religions and often voiced her philosophy that her main hope was that each person would find a relationship with God in the manner that worked best. To that end she was just fine with the idea of people following their own hearts in deciding which kind of religion worked best for them. She believed that God comes to humans in many forms. She had great respect for the beliefs of others but was always troubled by those who thought that the very idea of a
God of any kind was a human myth. She prayed that each person might find the goodness and power that she felt from a closeness with a personal God.
I watched my mother’s faith and prayer life take her through challenges that might have defeated a lesser person. There was nothing easy about her life and yet she was known far and wide as an optimistic and happy person, someone who gave when she had so little of her own. I witnessed her love of God firsthand and I saw the incredible strength that it gave her. It convinced me that she was not just experiencing some human fairytale. What she felt was unexplainable in the scientific sense but nonetheless quite real.
Religions of all kinds have taken heat in the long course of history. My own Catholic Church is a target for derision these days because of scandals that shake the very foundations of belief. Other sects sometimes appear to be far less kind that they ought to be. The human discussion of all things spiritual is often fraught with anger and hypocrisy and yet at the heart of the matter is the idea that there is a being much bigger than our humanity upon whom we should depend. For some this is the stuff of legend and a source of ridicule, but for people like me and millions of others it is a deeply held conviction.
The most recent class that I have been taking at Rice University School of Continuing Education centers on the Stuart kings, the monarchs who took the throne of England after the death of the childless Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudor rulers. That particular moment in history was marked by sometimes violent religious struggles between the Church of England, more fundamentalist sects like the Puritans, and the Catholic Church. At that point in time the tendency was to attempt to eliminate any group of believers who did not concur with the monarchy and the national church. Strict laws prohibited true freedom of religion and in many ways served to influence later attempts to form fairer democracies, including the one that resulted right here in the United States of America. By law we are supposed to be as tolerant of all faiths as my mother always was.
I bring up all of this because I see so many instances of derision and sometimes even hatred being aimed at various religious groups and individual beliefs. We all too often presume to understand what is in the hearts of people who profess particular philosophies. We judge in places where we have no business to do so.
A perfect example of this is to be found in the person of Kanye West, a brilliant and talented musician and master of words who has by his own admission led a troubled life. Much like my mother he is challenged by the sometimes crippling mood swings of bipolar disorder. He has courageously admitted to having this terrible illness even knowing that it is so misunderstood. We are still in the dark ages when it comes to tolerance and compassion for the mentally ill, and so Kanye has been ridiculed and sometimes even spurned in his journey to find peace of mind. Along the way he has experienced a seemingly dramatic conversion to the Christian faith.
His enthusiasm for Christ has been mocked by those who think that perhaps he is just going through a manic phase. They call him crazy and joke about the strange twists and turns of his life. Others cynically suggest that he has just found a new way to make money. They see his foray into religion as nothing more than a scheme. Thus his new album Jesus Is King has been panned by many of his critics as little more than the mad ravings of a diseased mind.
I have listened to Kanye’s songs that praise the glory of Christ and I hear instead the work of a genius who has found a power that had previously been missing from his life. I applaud his courage in putting his entire career and reputation on the line with such a daring project. He will no doubt be questioned and misunderstood by many but the message in each track tells the story of someone who truly believes. He has taken his God given talents and used them to shout the good news that he has found. Jesus Is King is a gloriously creative gift, not the ravings of a madman and it is impossible and even wrong for any of us to question what truly lies in the heart of Kanye West. Instead we should celebrate the happiness and comfort that he appears to have found in God.
Liturgical music has included the compositions of giants. There have been Gregorian chants and litanies, symphonies and gospel pieces. Now the voice of Kanye West uses rap to tell of the glories of Jesus. It is both brilliant and lovely. His is a new way to praise. We should all celebrate that he has found a way to ease the tempest in his mind by sharing his genius with those of us who believe.