Kanye West in concert. (AP Photo/Nousha Salimi, File)
Kanye West’s new album, available June 18, is expected to be called “Yeezus.” The title may be a riff on the artist’s nickname, “Yeezy”, but it is certainly a play on the name Jesus as well, and will certainly raise questions as a result. Is this title a tribute or a travesty?
As a rabbi who is endlessly fascinated by the historical character called Jesus, and genuinely moved by some of the teachings attributed to him in the New Testament, I remain calm as these questions begin to swirl as whatever I think about Jesus and his story, he is not a divine figure for me. That said, the place of faith in popular culture, even other peoples’ faith, affects us all regardless of what faith or even no-faith we follow.
We have to wonder, is this artist’s work a tribute to Jesus, or is it irreverent to the point of being offensive? Could it actually be a bit of both? Could it be that what borders on the offensive, or even crosses the border, for some, is actually a deeply spiritual message for others?
To be sure, Kanye’s career is marked by moments of acting badly in public, often disregarding the feelings of others. Perhaps the most famous such moment was his interrupting Taylor Swift during her award acceptance at the 2009 VMA awards, but there are plenty of other examples both before and since. So perhaps “Yezuss” is simply one more act of provocation, be it strategic attention-getting, or simply thoughtless disregard of other people’s feelings. Or perhaps it is something more.
This is hardly the first time that West has used religious words or images. Perhaps most (in)famous is the Rolling Stone from 7 years ago the one picturing West wearing a crown of thorns. So does Kanye West think that he is Jesus? Does he mean to suggest that he is the Messiah? If so, it’s not hard to see why many people who think of Jesus as their Lord will take offense, and not without good reason.
On the other hand, the notion that we are all images of God is a notion that goes back Genesis 1:27 in which we are told that the first human, and by extension, all subsequent humans are created as images of God. And while there is certainly a vast difference between thinking that one is God, and that one is an image of God, it is certainly not crazy to hold out the notion that all human beings are worthy of bearing God’s name and living lives that mirror Divine attributes.
In fact, the Hebrew name corresponding to the Greek “Jesus”, and probably the name that would have been used by a 1st century teacher from the Galilee, means “God saves” or “God’s salvation”. It was a popular name among 1st century Jews as were many other names that included riffs on the name of God. So in that sense, naming his new collection “Yeezus” has plenty of biblical precedent, let alone the precedent set by the popular tradition in some Christian communities of naming kids Jesus.
So whatever West’s intentions are, an album called “Yeezus” could actually be not only a tribute to past and present religious practice, but a genuine spiritual opportunity as well. Perhaps this title invites us all to do two things we do too little.
First, perhaps it reminds us that we are all images of God, and should take seriously the opportunity to live lives that make that an increasingly credible claim. And second, that we need to work hard to see not only ourselves as images of God, but others, especially those who we may not like, or whose art we may not like, as equally created in the image of God.
I never though these are words I would be writing, and there remains plenty about Mr. West’s behavior and work which I really don’t like, but you have to give it up to him for reminding us all of those two very ancient and yet never more important teachings found in all three Abrahamic religious traditions.