But What if Kanye Falls Away?
Let me set a scene for you.
Think of a notorious sinner. I’m talking about a man who not only lives in rebellion to God’s commandments, but blasphemes God and contemptuously mocks those who preach his word. Someone who says and does things that would make you feel guilty for reading them and make me feel guilty for writing them (for the good of both of our consciences, I’ll leave it to you to fill in the details). Suffice to say, he is not the type of guy your mother wants you being influenced by. This man—yes, this man—attends a church service put on by a well-respected and theologically sound pastor. His motivations for attending are dubious at best—some say he’s there purely for selfish reasons—but he is there nonetheless.
But while this man, the type who can consistently be found committing the four cardinal sins of American fundamentalism (which happen to rhyme)—to smoke, drink, chew, and go with girls who do—is at this church service, something unexpected happens. The choir sings, and the pastor preaches the Gospel with honesty and conviction. This man, this notorious sinner, is cut to the heart by what he hears. He hides it for a while, stuffing the guilt down like I recently stuffed a failed test into my backpack after my 9 a.m. French class—If I don’t think about it, it’s almost like it doesn’t exist. But it does exist, and, like I must face the harsh reality staring back at me from the “My Grades” page on Blackboard, he must face the harsh reality that stares back at him from the mirror. After realizing the depth of his own ugliness, though, he also realizes the beauty and rest found in perfect work of Jesus Christ. By all observable accounts, his repentance and regeneration are genuine. He renounces his former ways (even the ones that rhyme) and proclaims the Lordship of Christ over his life. Queue the celebratory music.
Take that last sentence quite literally, actually.
Driven by his newfound hope, he produces a moving work of music which exalts the character of God, rejoices in the freedom of the Gospel, speaks honestly about the struggles of the Christian life, and cries out to God for the strength to persevere in the faith.This isn’t your run-of-the-mill, poorly-produced, trite-truisms-to-a-beat kind of Christian music; this is art. If I may speak of my personal opinions for a second, it is, as the kids these days say, a banger. This work of music becomes widely acclaimed and known worldwide, heard by believers and nonbelievers alike. It’s so big that if someone, especially someone in the Christian world, doesn’t know it, you’d think they were either living under a rock or, worse, homeschooled (don’t worry, I can make that joke—I was the valedictorian of my grade-school graduating class of one). Anyway, many encounter Christ through the music and many others find their faith bolstered by it.
It’s not without its detractors. People doubt this guy: do you remember what he used to do? Some question whether his conversion is legitimate; others celebrate reluctantly but wait to “see what happens.” For the most part, though, people give him the benefit of the doubt and welcome him into the fold. He even starts ministering on Sundays!
But alas, the worst happens. The naysayers were right. Later in life, this man falls away from the faith. He is taken in by the doctrines of false teachers (if you need me to name names, just email me or keep reading—whichever is more convenient) who exploit him for his talent and influence. He drifts in his convictions and fails to stand for the truth he once hailed boldly. Like an inversion of the Prodigal Son, he returns to his old, scandalous ways of wild living—his skill at composing words that rhyme is once again eclipsed by his propensity for committing sins that rhyme. When asked about the music he once wrote, he looks on it as a passing phase, sighing that he is no longer the man who wrote it.
It is high time for me to be honest with my readers. I suppose I've been a bit of an unreliable narrator. Despite the leading cover art and the even-more-strongly-leading title of this piece, the scenario I just described is not what you (probably) think it is.
It’s not, in fact, a sad, hypothetical parable warning about the perils of putting one’s trust in celebrity converts who may, to the public dismay of fellow churchmen, fall away.
The man I write of is not the winner of multiple Grammys and recent purported convert to the Christian faith known as Kanye West. The work of music is not his recently released, highly anticipated, and hotly discussed album Jesus is King.
The man is actually someone—culturally and temporally—quite different from Kanye. The song? One which the worldwide Christian community weekly sings with much more zeal than has been shown towards Jesus is King. The story? Much less hypothetical than a warning about singing the proverbial or literal praises of Kanye too quickly.
The man, in fact, is 18th-century English pastor Robert Robinson. The song is the beloved, celebrated, and oft-sung hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The story, by consensus of most church historians, is a true one—basically as I told it. Robinson’s conversion occurred at a rally put on by renowned evangelist George Whitefield, a rally which Robinson and his friends attended with intentions to heckle. Robinson repented, converted, and devoted his life to ministry. He spent most of his years in the Baptist church and, partway through his tenure in the pastorate, composed “Come Thou Fount,” which has since become one of the most beloved hymns in Christian tradition. In his later years, he became increasingly unstable, emotionally and theologically, drifting into the company of strange, unorthodox teachers. Historians disagree on just how far this drifting went (see the end of this article for some short reads with more information on Robinson): some insist that he never completely disavowed his faith, while others claim that he fully embraced Unitarianism and denied the full divinity of Christ. An oft-told but undocumented legend holds that Robinson once, near the end of his life, met a woman who asked him if he knew the hymn “Come Thou Fount,” which he himself had written so many years before. He responded, "Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then."
The history books remains closed as to what exactly went on at the end of Robert Robinson’s life—whether he was in his right mind, to what extent his theology actually changed, whether he indeed left the faith. Whatever his degree of drifting, though, it gives a strange, melancholic, almost desperate tint to the plea he penned many years before, and which has been echoed by Christians ages hence:
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it
Seal it for thy courts above.
The history books on Kanye West, however, are just now being written. And I guess that brings us to our final section.
A lot has been written about the conversion of Kanye West—a lot good, some bad. In the modern age, anyone with a Facebook account or editorial access to a college campus publication can share their opinions with the world. The story of Robert Robinson provides us with something often missing in our arena of online discussion: perspective. The reality is that Kanye’s story is not unlike Robinson’s story in many ways, nor unlike Augustine’s or Paul’s, for that matter. I was not an entirely unreliable narrator earlier. Nearly everything I recounted of Robinson’s story is also true of Kanye’s—except for the falling away.
This is why I found the juxtaposition of these figures both poignant and relevant to the ongoing discussion of Kanye’s conversion within the Christian community. Think of the warnings you’ve heard from naysayers and skeptics of the Kanye-West-Jesus-Is-King-Sunday-Service movement. Consider the warnings as to why we, as Christians, should be cautious in our support of Kanye and Jesus is King: What if he falls into sin? What if he comes under the influence of false teachers? (cough . . . Joel Osteen . . . cough) What if he falls away from the faith entirely?
Most or all of these hypotheticals—these worst-case scenarios—of what could be coming on the horizon of Kanye’s newfound belief are simple truths in the case of Robert Robinson. There is a good probability they actually happened. And somehow I have yet to find a so-called “discernment blogger” or Facebook-comment-section rhetorician railing against the potential dangers of pulling up “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” on one’s personal Spotify account, let alone singing it weekly in the communion of fellow believers.
No, I am not here to tell to tell you that you should stop singing “Come Thou Fount.” Personally, it’s my favorite hymn. What I am here to do, put simply, is to preach grace—grace of two different kinds.
First, the age-old theological concept of common grace: that God has generously infused all different parts of creation with aspects of his character. All truth belongs to God, and it remains truth regardless of where it is found. After all, though God speaks directly through his inspired Word, he has spoken through numerous mouthpieces of various moral uprightness throughout history. He spoke through a donkey in the Old Testament; hopefully something similar is happening as I write this article. This means that scientific, philosophical, or even moral truth can be found in the works of believers and nonbelievers alike.
This means that the divide of sacred and secular is not as stable as we might think.
This means that art does not have to be Christian to be good or beautiful.
Or, rather, that by being good or beautiful, it is (even if unbeknownst to its author) in some sense Christian.
It means that even if the worst possible conjecture about Robert Robinson’s spiritual state—that it was complete and utter apostasy—is indeed the correct one, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is still one of the most beautiful expressions of the goodness of God in Christian hymnody.
And it means that even if the Kanye detractors’ worst fears (it’s all a publicity stunt) come true, if Jesus is King turns out to be the so-called “spoils of the Egyptians” (Augustine’s phrase for beauty made by nonbelievers), it is still gold nonetheless—true, good, beautiful, and worth listening to. As Paul says when discussing the less-than-ideal motivations of some of his contemporary ministers, “whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” And in this case, Christ is being proclaimed (in an impressively theologically accurate manner, especially for a young believer) on a vast stage—Billboard-Number-One vast. The declaration Jesus is King is being plastered all over billboards, t-shirts, and Instagram stories throughout the world. Think about that.
Secondly, I refer to grace in the more traditional sense. I ask that we as the Christian community would extend the same sort of free, unmerited grace to Kanye West that has been extended to us. That we would welcome him into the Church in a way that is reflective of our own redemption and adoption, welcome him without caveat and without reserve. Imagine if we treated new converts in our own churches with the skepticism some have been applying to Kanye, notice the inconsistency, and eliminate any such contradiction in our own hearts. He may fall away from the faith someday—but so may any member of the visible (as opposed to the true) Church who is not truly abiding in the vine. He will certainly sin, even after his seemingly miraculous about-face—but so do we all. That does not negate the fact that, by all knowable accounts, Kanye has truly repented, renounced his sin, and experienced the miraculous regeneration of faith in Christ.
As Paster Jonathan Pokluda has stirringly reminded us, the reluctance with which we welcome a celebrity convert is often rooted in simple pride: the simple fear of someday having to admit that we were wrong. Such motivation has no place in the Church. While it is still true that we will know them by their fruit, it is just as true that salvation is unto the Lord. And ours is not to know the true nature of the inmost chambers of Kanye’s heart. Ours is, as Christian brothers and sisters, to love, pray for, encourage, and rebuke as is fitting.
So what now? Like any good Southern Baptist preacher, I will end my long-winded, three-point sermon (the points of which, unfortunately, do not alliterate) with a bit of practical application.
Pray for Kanye West. Pray that the Lord would draw Kanye to Himself, sanctify him, build his faith, and protect him.
Watch your own faith closely—more closely than you watch the faiths of others. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Abide in Christ, the fount of every blessing.
This Sunday, don’t be afraid to sing that old hymn as loud as ever, asking God to truly and irrevocably seal your heart for his courts above. And on the drive home, pull up your Spotify and hit “shuffle play” on one of the best Christian music albums in recent memory—written by Kanye West, no less.
In summary, live your life under the gracious lordship of Jesus Christ. Or, in other words, live as if Kanye is right about one thing: no matter what happens to him, to you, or to the world, now or in the future, Jesus, indeed, is King.
Short Reads on Robert Robinson:
One Hundred and One Hymn Stories by Carl F. Price
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not claim to reflect the opinions or views of the Defendant or its staff members.