Jesus is King: A reflection on the man and the music

“We must be careful that we do not perpetuate the assumption that those particular songs represent the genre as a whole. Kanye’s conversion is not only revealing deep-seated hypocrisy within our hearts as believers but prejudice toward an entire artistic genre. However, the release of JESUS IS KING offers the remedy to both biases, for it demonstrates the possibility, through Christ, of a transformed person, as well as a transfigured genre: the secular restored to the sacred through the power of the Gospel.”

A Bookish Charm

It is impossible to go on social media without seeing posts, arguments, and even memes about the latest revelation in the music industry: Kanye West’s conversion and the subsequent release of his latest album, Jesus is King. 

Many Christians (and perhaps even more non-Christians) are skeptical: has Kanye really changed? Christians worry publically that this transformation is not what it seems, that Kanye is faking faith to reach a wider audience and increase media attention. Ironically, non-Christians are on the offensive, frustrated that a big-name is not only claiming Christianity but is actually living it, as evidenced by a mocking article declaring that Kanye is “hell-bent” on his new faith.* This article indicates that if this is indeed a career move for Kanye, it is a very poor one, for it risks losing a large part of his typical audience. (Luckily, he seems to have caught the ears of enough…

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Shining New Light on the Dark Ages

The classic British comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail illustrates the perception that most modern people have toward the Middle Ages.  In the film, King Arthur, driven by a false sense of chivalric machismo and misguided religious fanaticism, goes on a search for the Holy Grail.  Along the way, he encounters a witch-burning, a learned knight who tells him that the earth is “banana-shaped,” and a self-governing commune whose inhabitants confound the backward king when they discuss individual rights and popular sovereignty.

As a cinephile, I like The Holy Grail.  It is whimsical and funny and something I find myself returning to repeatedly.  As a medievalist, however, the inaccuracies and anachronisms are as breathtaking as they are humorous.  For one thing, medieval people had a very complex notion of basic human rights; Europeans, especially Britons, had a well-developed sense of limited government, often defending those rights in armed rebellions, most notably the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.  Furthermore, no educated Medieval person ever thought that the earth was “banana-shaped,” or even flat for that matter, and some would have even been able to calculate the earth’s circumference. Perhaps most embarrassingly of all, the Medieval Period did not see a particularly high number of witch burnings.  Despite the fact that the terms “witch hunt” and “Middle Ages” are almost synonymous, kings, councils, and popes passed numerous injunctions against “witch hunts” based on the (at that time ubiquitous) Christian belief that witches did not exist. 

I do not want to lay the blame for these errors on Monty Python.  They are comedians, not historians. The movie is funny, not because it’s true, but because it plays on the conceptions that modern people already have of the Middle Ages.  The average modern person believes that the Middle Ages were a uniquely backward, dirty, ignorant, superstitious, hypocritical, moralistic, theocratic period whose offenses were unprecedented at the time and have not been equaled since.  

Yet this is a caricature of the period and a rather bad one at that.  To see the actual achievements of the Middle Ages, one need only peek into a medieval cathedral. Among the tall stone pillars, stained glass windows, and vaulted ceilings—placed there by generations of nameless workers—one would find a world that defies belief.  At the lectern, a priest (who spent years training in one of the planet’s first institutes of higher learning) would read from a hand-written Bible or Psalter that some highly-literate monk spent a year of his life writing and illuminating. At the Quire, they would be singing complex harmonies and reading music notation that was a precursor to modern scores.  When the priest delivered his homily he would speak in one of a number of Latin-based languages which, when counted together, are spoken by almost half of all people on Earth in the twenty-first century.  One of the reasons we don’t have as vivid a picture of the Medieval cathedral as we do of, say, the Greek gymnasium, is because the names of the artists, and singers, and cathedral builders rarely survive to the present day.  Medieval man preferred this, wishing to give the glory of his greatest works to God rather than himself.  

This can be contrasted with the period which was to come.  Many of our misperceptions about the “Dark Ages” can be attributed to one man, Francesco Petrarch.  Petrarch was an Italian poet who pioneered a way of looking at the world that he called “Humanism.” Emphasizing the importance of the individual over institutions like the Catholic Church, Petrarch encouraged artists, scholars, and politicians to work for the glory of humanity rather than purely for the glory of God.  Because his way of viewing the world represented a distinct philosophical change in the West, Petrarch needed to demonize the epoch that he found himself in. He wrote, “my fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. [However, this] sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.”  The “born-in-the-wrong-time” cliche was around before Petrarch and survives to the present day. We should not blame Petrarch for this, but we should blame ourselves for defining the Middle Ages according to the angst of a fourteenth-century humanist poet. Calling the Medieval Period the “Dark Ages” uses the vernacular of a historical crusader, not a chronologist. It would be the equivalent of asking Thomas Jefferson to write a biography of King George III or asking Martin Luther to recount the history of the Papacy!

One of the reasons that Petrarch’s light-dark dichotomy lives so large in modern times is because of its blissful simplicity.  Partially because of our difficulty with the all-important art of chronology, the historical imagination of the broader public seems to have divided all of history into periods of enlightenment and of darkness.  Into the period of enlightenment go the ideas of Voltaire and Montesquieu, but not the Reign of Terror they inspired; the brilliance of Martin Luther but not the antisemitism endemic to his work. Into the period of darkness goes the prudish Victorian Period but not the revolutionary writings of Dickens and Hardy; the fanaticism of Oliver Cromwell but not his patronage of Milton.  This darkness “bin” seems to have received the haphazard title of “medieval,” even though the superstition, inequality, and moralism that define it are not unique to that period.

The Middle Ages were not perfect, yet to judge them by modern standards would be anachronistic and unfair.  We excuse our modern faults because they are the oxygen we breathe. We treat ancient people like infants, telling them how smart they were to have invented the wheel and the plow.  Yet, because of their unique position between “Ancient” and “Modern” times, Medieval societies are almost expected to achieve modern results with ancient tools; to be measured against the standards of modernity without experiencing the grace shown to the past.   The churches, songs, manuscripts, and languages of Medieval Europe survive to the present day, even if they lie in ruins like the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Scotland. Those who care enough to look may find that our modern perception of the Middle Ages is—as Monty Python so brilliantly pointed out—simply laughable.

Up the Ladder, Down the Ladder

“He now is struck with wonder by
what’s wonderful in him. Unwittingly,
he wants himself; he praises, but his praise
is for himself; he is the seeker and
the sought, the longed-for and the one who longs;
he is the arsonist— and is the scorched.”

The Metamorphoses of Ovid

In his Metamorphosis, Ovid paints a poignant picture of unrequited love: Echo desires Narcissus, who desires the beauty of his own reflection. This tale demonstrates that to love in vain is to love too little too much: to love the particular rather than the universal, the carnate rather than what is being incarnated. As creative and intellectual beings, we must not devolve to prefer images to realities, but rather to use earthly glimpses of beauty to turn heavenward. 

Plato, in Symposium, discusses the love of beauty, and, in particular, the proper ordering of this love toward its highest form: loving the Beautiful itself. He concludes by introducing “Diotima’s Ladder,”a tool for understanding the progression of love from common to virtuous, mortal to immortal.

“First, [the Beautiful] always is and neither comes to be nor passes away… Second, it is not beautiful [in] this way and ugly that way…Nor will the beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing…but itself by itself with itself… always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that.” 

Symposium, Plato 

Diotima’s Ladder (so named for the prophetess who supposedly first explained it) emphasizes that love is fundamentally driven by the desire for immortality. According to this idea, human affections ought to strive rung-by-rung from what is beautiful yet earthly to the Beautiful: that is, the highest form of beauty, which is eternal, objective, self-sustaining, and preeminent. Beautiful particulars partake in this formal Beauty, which is manifest in but not lessened by their various incarnations. 

By learning to love beautiful things, lovers may ascend Diotima’s ladder to love the Beautiful itself. First, they love the beauty of a single body. Then, this love expands to many bodies before blossoming into a love of the customs and laws which bind people together in harmony. Next comes the love of knowledge, revealing the progression from the physical to the philosophical. Finally, through their developed powers of affection, lovers will ideally come to perceive and adore the Beautiful itself. 

In this philosophy, physical beauty can become a mediator by which admirers might ascend to higher forms of affection. Humanity, though, tends to love too lowly, becoming fixated on the glimmers of beauty found in lesser things instead of turning towards the greatest Beauty. Mankind is moonstruck: content to praise the dimmer beauty of the moon and to forget that its light is a mere reflection of the sun’s. Perhaps it is because the Beautiful is, like the sun, too much for mortal eyes. Mannkind has acclimated to the climate of lowland loves, eyes too weak to look heavenward. 

In his allegory, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes of a painter who suffers from this sort of disordered affection. As an artist, the painter ought to have a better understanding of beauty, but by his own pride, he descends Diotima’s ladder and renders himself incapable of loving neither beauty as manifest in creation nor the Creator Himself. Eventually, he falls in love with his own skill and material subjects—and out of love with the Light itself: 

“‘You’re forgetting,’ said the Spirit. ‘…Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’

‘Oh, that’s ages ago,’ said the [Painter]. ‘One grows out of that…one becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.’

‘…It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all, but only in what they say about Him.’

The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis

All lovers of beauty are in danger of becoming like this painter. Often a philosopher or artist will, like a Slinky toy, begin at the top of Diotima’s ladder and tumble his way down. Like artists who come to love their craft above their calling, philosophers and even theologians may cease to love God Himself and settle instead for talking of Him, preferring the study to the Person

Creative and thoughtful people are especially gifted with the ability to capture what is good, true, and beautiful in God and to communicate it with others. To paraphrase Lewis, they “catch glimpses of Heaven in the earthly and […] enable others to see the glimpses too.” Unfortunately, while this powerful ability may lead others to perceive and pursue beauty, the artist himself may come to lose sight of his initial end. 

Almost inevitably, artists like the painter in The Great Divorce will topple from the highest to the lowest of loves. It is the same with a bookworm who begins by loving stories for their wisdom and imagination, then loves books for their stories, then eventually loves books for no further reason; eventually, he is destined to become a hoarder rather than a reader. 

Recall the words of Ecclesiastes: 

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

-Ecclesiastes 12:12, ESV

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes, ironically, made a book. In fact, he did so with words of both truth and delight (12:10).What the Preacher warns against, then, is not making books, but making them for their sake alone. 

Like the painter of Lewis’ allegory, these verses warn that is unwise to become interested in the act of creating for its own sake or for the sake of reputation. Artists and philosophers can too easily fall from the truest love of Light and Beauty to the lowest pandering. They can sink from gathering glimpses of glory to glorifying the self alone. 

Readers, I too want my words to be read; I want my stories to be shared and my songs to be heard. However, we must remember why we began creating in the first place; we glimpsed something enduring and radiant that we wished to capture, communicate, and, hopefully, commune with. We wished to clothe the divine so that we might better grasp and share it: to incarnate the invisible through our art and study. 

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” 

Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle

If to create is, at least in part, to image Christ’s incarnation, we must learn to love the words we pen because they are shadows of the Word Himself. We must  pursue art only to increase in ourselves and others an appreciation for beauty and, through this, to draw closer to the Source Himself. We must refuse to grow out of our first love of Light in favor of shadows. 

So, reader, lay aside your “ink and catgut and paint” and let an adoration higher and more overwhelming than your own dictate your smaller affections. Let us not become like Narcissus, in love with the beauty we reflect, nor like Echo, chasing a beauty that will not love us in return. Rather, in turning to the true Light, let us learn to love beauty better and better until we can see its fullness face to face; let us incarnate it in our art and study so that others might see and believe in the Incarnation Himself. 

Works Cited: 

LEngle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2001.

Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Ovid. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Plato. Complete Works: Symposium. Translated by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2009.

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