Kanye West has been getting attention for more than his music recently. In addition to the revelation that he has become officially engaged to his celebutante girlfriend Kim Kardashian, with whom he has a daughter named North, West pulled virtual ink by inviting a cliched Jesus look-alike to come onstage during his Oct. 19 concert performance of “Jesus Walks.”
In a radio interview, West explained the decision and offered this take on Christianity: “…you can have a relationship with Jesus … you can talk to Jesus … In the same way as someone can have ‘Jesus Is My Homeboy,’ that is the way I would express it. In the way I create it is that you can have a relationship with Jesus. You can talk to Him.”
On stage, according to MTV News, West talked to God this way: “White Jesus, is that you? Oh sh*#!”
Considering the normal language employed by West, it’s hard to understand if that expletive was intended as a warm welcome, an enthusiastic burst of praise or the sort of outburst that might accompany hitting one’s own finger with a hammer or getting one’s hand stuck in a forbidden cookie jar just as Mom, or Jesus, walks into the kitchen. What it does seem to indicate, though, is one of the potential downsides of the modern American evangelical obsession with the concept of a “personal relationship with Jesus.”
For West and many others, I suspect, such a “personal relationship” implies that each of us has the authority to relate to God in whatever way we see fit. Do you want Jesus to be your surfer buddy? Your boyfriend? Your bodyguard? Your pimp? Your political candidate? Sure! No problem. And once you have re-cast the Messiah however you see fit, you’re free to treat Him that way with impunity. It seems West has revealed the dangerous tendency of people to assume that they can have a “personalized” relationship with the Son of God. The concepts of being members of a family or participants in a community subjected to the Lordship of God become so back-burnered they fall behind the stove.
Don’t get me wrong. I firmly and enthusiastically believe that we as individuals have direct access to God through the atoning work of Jesus and that we need not jump through ancient hoops in order to approach Him. I also understand that how we personally respond to the invitation to follow Him is absolutely essential to our salvation. Our membership in any particular church or denomination is peripheral at best. I am not made right with God by the religious heritage I come from, but by my own acknowledgment of His lordship in my life.
But that does not mean that I get to sketch a personally preferable caricature of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords and then put Him in my pocket to use as I please. However, I fear I have done exactly that time and time again. West is useful in that he seems to lack the self-control or self-awareness that prevents most of us from so publicly revealing our own idolatry. In his words we notice the sort of narcissistic “me and Jesus” nonsense that evangelicalism’s well-intentioned appeal to the personal nature of God has wrought. How to articulate the personal aspect of the Gospel in a way that still acknowledges the Lordship of the one true God may be one of the great challenges of evangelism in our current era.