Yeezus of Nazareth

Mockingbird has had an awful lot to say about Kanye West over the years. Nothing lately, […]

Jeff Hual / 10.9.18

Mockingbird has had an awful lot to say about Kanye West over the years. Nothing lately, however, which is somewhat surprising given just how prolific Kanye has become in the news cycle. The most recent example was his stunning performance of “Ghost Town” at the end of last week’s SNL, coupled with the controversy of wearing a MAGA hat and staying onstage for a widely reported offscreen rant. It is all the more surprising, though, given that Kanye’s life over this past year or so has turned out to be just the sort of thing we’re usually trying to elucidate here at Mockingbird. For a long while now, Kanye’s life has been a textbook example of the Nazareth principle, writ large.

Let me back up for a moment, and explain the Nazareth principle. This is an idea that comes from the work of Dr. Simeon Zahl, who likes to say that faith can be summed up in something he equates with Jesus’ Nazorean origins. In this, he’s referring to the place in John’s Gospel where Nathanael scoffs at Jesus by asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The idea is that, because Jesus came from such an average, nowhere place as Nazareth, wouldn’t that disqualify him from being the real thing? Wouldn’t we more expect the real thing to come from an important, superlative place, like perhaps Jerusalem? And yet, time after time in life the most important things come from the unlikeliest places.

Dr. Zahl extends this Nazareth principle to the fact that out of trouble and wounds, out of disappointments and closed doors, often come the actual breakthroughs of personal life.

This idea is an outgrowth of Simeon’s Ph.D. dissertation, the subject of which was the 19th-century German faith healer Christophe Friedrich Blumhardt. According to Simeon, Blumhardt came up against the classical Lutheran view that the Holy Spirit is only assuredly present and active in the word rightly preached and the sacraments duly administered, except that his experiences with human suffering led Blumhardt to conclude that there is another place where we can know that the Holy Spirit is present and active. This other place Blumhardt called ‘negative cruciform moments’—moments of suffering, when the ego is thwarted, and we have nowhere to turn but to God. It is these times of suffering that allow us to know the presence and work of the Holy Spirit because all of the manifestations of this world which we parade before our eyes have been stripped away.

That’s the heart of the Nazareth principle, and it’s something that we can see playing out in everyday life. It’s something we can certainly see playing out in the life of “Ye” (the being formerly known as Kanye West) over the past year or so.

According to a June New York Times article by Jon Caramanica entitled, “Into the Wild with Kanye West,” one day last year Kanye arrived home to find the famous motivational speaker, Tony Robbins, waiting for him in his living room. Kanye was going through one of the most toxic periods of his life: after his wife was robbed at gunpoint, followed by a series of noticeably erratic concert appearances, Kanye landed in the UCLA medical center for nine days, the result being a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and a long, often tumultuous adjustment to therapy. Apparently Tony Robbins had been hired by Kim Kardashian to perform an intervention on Kanye. The result was that the Wests packed up and moved to Wyoming for a while. Kanye reportedly spent his time there taking long walks, driving around Yellowstone National Park, and generally trying to get his head back together by way of a change of scenery.

Granted, such a getaway would sound pretty good to most of us, but what was happening in Kanye’s life was potentially career-ending. As our culture has become ever increasingly polarized and less forgiving, Kanye’s famously erratic behavior has become less and less acceptable to the general public. Years ago, such things were largely overlooked as schoolboy antics, and they seemed simply to roll off of Kanye’s back. Just think back to the Taylor Swift incident at the VMAs. Lately, though, things are mostly sticking to Kanye. Society has become less forgiving of such behavior. Add to this Kanye’s headlong dive into partisan politics, and the public’s perception of Kanye has quickly turned from toxic to radioactive. It’s fair to say that, during this Wyoming period of his life, everything that Kanye held dear was in some way on the line. The experience of life for Kanye had become, at least in terms of the life of Kanye West, cruciform. One of the biggest egos in the world was in many ways experiencing what it meant to be thwarted. The result, though, the breakthrough that has resulted from Kanye’s Nazareth experience in the wilds of Wyoming, is something of pure genius.

That result is Kanye’s eighth studio album, ye, which was written and recorded right there in Wyoming, where Kanye’s life was slowly shifting from a Nazareth experience of cruciformity to an Easter experience of new life breaking through. The album cover hints at this shift. It’s a simple iPhone pic that was snapped on one of those healing drives through the wilds of Wyoming. Ye is arguably Kanye’s most stunning work to date, especially the single, “Ghost Town,” which many of us heard at the end of SNL last week. Every song on ye grew out of notes that Kanye had kept since his hospital stay, which compiled his experiences and feelings concerning his diagnosis.

Especially noteworthy in this regard are “Yikes,” which talks about the fear and uncertainty of going on and off meds in the midst of therapy, and in the end defiantly declares the diagnosis to be a superpower, not a disability; “Wouldn’t Leave,” which admits the fear of losing his wife over the controversy surrounding him, then subsequently thanks her for standing by him throughout his diagnosis and recovery; and finally of course, “Ghost Town,” which feels like the plaintive but hopeful cry of someone who has been through the crucible of a Nazareth experience, and who now longs for normalcy, as the song says repeatedly, someday.

To listen to ye is to experience Kanye’s flirtation with the brink of oblivion, to feel Kanye’s walk through the experience of a personal Nazareth, to trace Kanye’s path towards a personal redemption.

This is not to say that Kanye has left controversy behind: hardly. He is definitely back to his old antics, or perhaps we should say new ones, most recently in that final SNL performance. And, fair warning, the album contains explicit language and content, with some of the songs being downright inappropriate. But this does not minimize the fact that, out of Kanye’s recent trouble and wounds, out of his disappointments and closed doors of late, has come what is arguably one of the most important artistic breakthroughs of his life.


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