I spend a lot of time thinking about religion, spirituality, and art. These thoughts are often unorganized, but today listening to Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book I had (what alcoholics refer to as) a moment of clarity. In Rock and Country I can only point to a handful of songs that seem to grasp for the transcendent: Relient K’s “Deathbed,” ELP’s cover of “Jerusalem,” and Garth Brook’s “Belleau Wood” stand out though I admit there must be more.
However, in the past few years, a proliferation of powerful religious music bled into the mainstream on the back Kanye West.
I didn’t understand the importance of this record when it was first released. I was 10 and Kanye was not exactly allowed in my Dad’s record collection. While it may be a little on the nose at times (e.g. “But if I talk about God, my record won’t get played?”) it broke ground on how pop music could reflect a Christ that is not comfortable. He followed this with songs like “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” “Homecoming,” “Lost in the World/Who Will Survive in America,” “No Church in the Wild,” “Bound 2,” “Only One,” and most vulnerably in “Ultralight Beam.” These songs give you a glimpse at Kanye’s experience of God, though I would suggest that you need to hear his albums in whole to really grasp where he’s going. Kanye’s is a black American liberation theology and he now shares that stage with others that are creating a Catechism for this age.
I didn’t get Good Kid, M.A.A.D City on its release either. This time there was no excuse, I was just pig-headed and refused to lean in and hear what Kendrick was saying. Luckily, To Pimp a Butterfly connected with me immediately, in large part because of “Alright.” This is an anthem of hope, creating space for life on the margins to see a world that is better. If there is anything that Christianity inspires in the faithful, it is hope. Kendrick uses this album to take the listener through the experience of black life from the historical context that informs contemporary liminality through to how black culture envisions itself moving forward. He’s speaking both to the world at large and to his community; “we have hope” as a statement of fact and “have hope” as a statement of faith. If Kanye is trying to understand God, Kendrick seems to be trying to find God in the world around him.
Then we’re back to Chance. The fact that Chance The Rapper is as celebrated and popular as he strikes me as miraculous. How does an album like Coloring Book, a fully religious record, become this popular? I think academics would throw words like post-secularism around to describe the phenomenon, but I think it’s simpler than that. Chance published an authentic witness to God and religion; the spirit moved through this witness to move a world that hasn’t heard an authentic witness in decades. Above is just one song that moves you, but again I highly suggest you listen to the whole record.
(I should also say that R&B and other black genres have also been contributing to this catechism with Beyonce and D’Angelo coming to mind immediately.)
Yet what I find more interesting about this phenomenon is how the most ardently and publicly “Christians” ignore it. Racism obviously plays a key role in this chosen ignorance, but I think it’s actually a competing Christology creating this distance. If life is more complicated and sinful than you want to admit, then any Christology that points towards that becomes a threat to your worldview. And it is a shame because this could be so transformative if white evangelicals would give it a chance.