How we can think about celebrities, conversion, and sanctification

October 25, 2019

While we await the official release, anticipation surrounds Kanye West’s first Christian album, “Jesus is King."

A lot of news has circulated around Kanye West’s very public conversion to Christianity. Though we should be overjoyed at the news that Kanye West has become a born-again Christian, history should tell us that we should be cautious in putting too much faith in a celebrity’s conversion. We should be neither cynical nor seeking validation in our social standing because a celebrity has become a Christian. Nor should we make celebrities into Christian heroes, something I think there are echoes of in Paul’s concerns about a young believer becoming puffed up with pride (1 Tim. 3:6).

Learning what is true, unlearning what is false 

With all the precautions of celebrity conversions being duly noted, there is a particular angle to the Kanye West saga that I think could help us think about conversion and its relationship to discipleship and sanctification—or, to use a similar word, “ethics.” Ethics looks at a person’s conduct and measures it in light of a particular standard. Discipleship and sanctification, then, are ethically-shaped insofar as our faith in Christ results in a new pattern of obedience (Rom. 12:1-2). 

Discipleship and sanctification are a “putting on” of Christ (Col. 3:12-7) and a “putting off” (Eph. 4:22) of the old man. This means there are rhythms and patterns to learn as a person understands what discipleship and obedience means. It certainly means that a person’s ethics are expected to undergo a transformation. But what does that “transformation” look like for people who may have little to no familiarity with Christianity? The language of “putting on” and “putting off” is illustrative because it implies learning what is true and unlearning what is false.

Kanye West’s conversion has made me stop and think about what it means for a person, not just celebrities, to learn what obedience to Christ means when the person who comes to Christ may not yet know that certain actions are sinful. When the subject of West’s conversion comes up, there are immediate—and legitimate—hopes that his faith bears fruit (John 15:8). What could this look like for West in particular?

For starters, it could mean that his music would no longer be laced with expletives or crude sexual innuendo. It turns out, in fact, that West’s new album, “Jesus is King,” has no explicit language. While the album has just dropped, The New York Times reported that this was the case, which we have to accept on basis of journalistic integrity alone. Anyone familiar with rap or hip-hop music knows it’s a genre particularly laced with expletives. As language gets used, its shock value wears off, to the point that the culture of a given music style simply speaks a vernacular where expletives are routine. In that sense, it is no longer offensive or explicit; it is simply expected.

Now imagine you have someone like Kanye West who has grown up in a music scene where certain language and innuendo are no longer considered edgy. And then this person becomes a Christian. Immediately, we in the Christian community expect that person to talk, think, and behave a certain way, forgetting that the person who has become a Christian has, for their entire life, been a creature of learned cultural habit. I understand this expectation impulse, but underneath is an assumption that Christian morality is the understood morality of the world. The problem, though, is that for a person like West, his music is part of an ecosystem that does not consider expletives actually explicit; he’s simply speaking a language native to his industry. 

So what does sanctification mean for someone like West? While we should expect no unclean language to come from his mouth (Eph. 4:29), can we expect him to immediately abandon language that he does not consider problematic? Sanctification means that West comes to grips with the language he’s accustomed to using is not actually sanctified. It means that through the act of “putting off” and “putting on,” West’s conscience is being awakened and activated more and more in tune with the Spirit of Christ.

And yet, according to a news report, West’s new album is freed of any explicit language. We should praise God for this. While we can praise God for this seeming turn in West’s album, would it not also have been progress for West had his future albums had less explicit language, evidencing that he was, in fact, coming to grips with the Lordship of Christ?

Initiating something new 

I don’t write this in order to give a pass to new believers to go on sinning (Rom. 6:1). What I am trying to demonstrate is that conversion is iniatory. It begins something. While conversion is instantaneous, calling someone to repentance for sin that a person does not know is a sin is like asking the color blue to repent for not being red. What may be the case as our culture secularizes is that people will have to learn of the need to repent of sins that they did not know were sins. Repentance will be a process of learning a new grammar as a person is conformed more into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).

Who among us does not need to learn repentance as we become more aware of just how deeply sin has nestled itself in the crevices of our hearts?

This can work for other examples, too. Imagine a male, working professional in a coastal city. He’s 31. He uses a hook-up app impulsively. A new woman every weekend is his expectation and the goal of all men in his social strata. This approach to dating is backed-up by a culture that sees nothing wrong with casual-but-consensual hook-ups. That’s why the apps exist in the first place, right? They are there to facilitate what everyone agrees is good.

Then, this man becomes a Christian. He hears a message of his guilt before a holy God. His conscience is guilty because he knows he’s a sinner. His conscience aches, but he does not have the wherewithal to understand the full depths and consequences of his sin. He knows he’s a condemned sinner because he understands he leads an imperfect and even selfish life, but he does not know that sleeping with multiple women is wrong because, well, everyone around him is doing the same thing, and the culture around them is cheering it on. 

He might observe that the hook-up culture is killing real relational intimacy, but he does not have the moral grammar to think that monogamy is the solution. Maybe, he thinks, he should sleep with fewer women, but does not yet know the biblical portrait of monogamy. Of course, a faithful pastor or friend should be there to disciple him, but it would be inappropriate for this pastor to smugly scoff at a person who is accustomed to believing that sexual conquest is a basic part of human appetite.

Or what about the transgendered person who comes to Christ? Imagine it is 200 years from now. That person may know of their need for Christ for a number of sins they know they are guilty of, but because they’ve grown up in a culture that encourages surgical intervention for someone with a gender conflict, it could mean they are coming to Christ without an awareness that their attempt to alter their gender was actually born of rebellion. Is this person not a Christian because they do not yet know of their need to repent of a transgender identity? Of course they are, and we would pray and expect that the Holy Spirit would illuminate this person to ever-growing areas of their life in need of repentance. 

How true should this be for mature believers just as well? Who among us does not need to learn repentance as we become more aware of just how deeply sin has nestled itself in the crevices of our hearts?

Think for a second how revolutionary something like this can be, especially if you’ve grown up with a Bible-belt morality—where you expect everyone to oblige your Christian morality, where even non-Christians are expected to conform to the dominant language of their Christian surroundings. Why, then, of course someone who becomes a Christian should get with the program and lead a moral life—they should know better, shouldn’t they? 

But what if the dominant culture around the new convert is not in any sense recognizably Christian, and being Christian means learning what a whole new morality and ethical system entails. Now, this is not to say that Christian morality is irrational or sectarian. The opposite is true. Christian morality inheres within the created order as a part of general revelation. But rebellion against creation and general revelation results in a devolution of a person’s understanding of what is natural about Christian morality. The gospel of grace will mean learning what true, creaturely righteousness was intended to be all along.

My plea in all of this is for grace. It’s for patience for the new believer. It’s for us to understand that we should expect as a part of someone’s conversion that they have a “de-conversion” from the sinful patterns of this world and learn, perhaps for the first time, what righteousness really is. It’s to understand that obedience is learned; not simply deposited.

I did not really intend for this post to be about Kanye West in particular. But it seems clear that the Lord is moving in his life. So on that note, let’s pray for continued fruit in Kanye West’s life. Let’s pray that he has people in his life who can help him walk this new path of Christlikeness, who are helping him as a new convert to learn what it means to be a disciple.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More