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

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24