I once saw Kanye West in concert. He performed with his face hidden behind a chainmail mask for most of the show, until an actor dressed as Jesus appeared on stage to remove it. At one point, the crowd held its hands up in prompted prayer, as Kanye preached (and auto-tuned) the virtues of gratitude, authenticity, and faith, all while still promoting his shoe line. It remains one of the best concerts, and church services, I’ve ever attended.
This was not the first, nor final, time Kanye took his fans to the mountaintop. Recently, he’s gained attention for his Sunday Services, a series of intimate, invite-only performances featuring gospel renditions of his music. Despite the private nature of the events, video clips posted on social media have given the public glimpses into this musical mash-up of the sacred and secular. Then, this past Easter, Sunday Service came to Coachella and offered more than a glimpse to attendees of the annual art and music festival. On the surface, Coachella may appear an unlikely venue for traditional liturgy, with its prohibitive-for-many price tag, pop music celebrity, and potential for decadence. Kanye West may seem an unlikely liturgical leader for the same reasons. And yet, a look back reveals that this spiritual conflict has always informed Kanye’s music; a look back even further suggests that this conflict is often part of any spiritual journey.
Kanye’s music remains his best testimony. His debut album reflects the naivete and energy of sudden spotlight. It’s brash and petulant, openly challenging conventional wisdom. Even its title, The College Dropout, mocks the rigidity of the traditional path. At the same time, Kanye touts his (and our) need for divine guidance (“Want to see Thee more clearly / I know He hear me when my feet get weary”). Indeed, much of his earlier work revolves around the tension between freedom and independence, asking what we ought to do once the chains come off (“What [did] I do? / Act more stupidly / Bought more jewelry”). On later albums, we hear Kanye assuming the responsibility of his new status (“‘Malcolm West’ had the whole nation standing attention”), while still succumbing to constant temptation (“In that magic hour I seen / Good Christians make rash decisions”), declaring himself a “scumbag” one moment and a “God” the next. As he states on the anthemic “Jesus Walks,” “We at war with terrorism, racism / But most of all, we at war with ourselves.”
The Bible is a chronicle of people similarly reconciling human wants with the will of God—often stumbling along the way. Sunday Service at Coachella, which I watched via a live stream, brings to mind one such people who also found themselves seeking God in the desert. The book of Exodus presents the story of Israel in the wild, wandering for decades following their emancipation from slavery under Egypt. Along the way, they fall prey to petty vices; though they represent God’s chosen people, they also frequently prove themselves a “stiff-necked people.” They complain often about their conditions, their discomfort, and what they deserve, despite their freedom from bondage. “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt!” they grouse. “There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” Once they are given access to food, they fail to follow God’s instructions for how to handle their windfall; even the site where they finally strike water is named for their thirsty griping and doubt. And of course, there’s the golden calf, which they fashion from their jewelry and worship out of frustration, arrogance, and spite .
And yet God walks with them, nonetheless. He does so via the tabernacle, built by Israel at God’s behest. The elaborate mobile house of worship comes with a list of intricate instructions that would rival any Kanye stage design: details on dimensions, materials, set-piece arrangement, wardrobe changes for the priests, gold threads, bronze bowls, anointing oils, and alters, engraved plaques declaring God’s holiness, and a suspended stage to float across the audience throughout the show (alright, that last one is from a Kanye concert). In building the tabernacle, Israel ensures God’s presence while they wander through the wild. It provides a context for community and serves as a regular reminder to God’s people to take a break from their dissatisfaction and recognize their blessings.
God walks with them, nonetheless.
Perhaps Kanye’s Sunday Service accomplished the same feat at Coachella. The Easter morning gathering called a reported 50,000 people to worship in person. The staging did not include ornate structures, but the show was elaborate nonetheless: a choir of more than 100 singers; a live band heavy with drums and keyboards; dancers scattered throughout the audience, forming a giant eye visible by aerial camera; special appearances by Kanye’s friends and frequent collaborators who, like Kanye himself, spent much of the service enjoying the show rather than “working” it. In fact, what was surprising was that the usually hubristic West took a relative backseat and allowed the praise to speak for itself. And as rap icon DMX led everyone in prayer, Kanye and several others around him broke down in tears.
Toward the end of the show, members of the crowd were told to “hug someone and tell them you love them in the name of God”—and they did. It didn’t matter what each of them believed before coming to the service, about themselves or about Kanye West. It didn’t matter the high price they paid for admission or for event-exclusive Kanye apparel, including $50 socks that read “Jesus Walks.” It didn’t matter that they couldn’t ever be sure of Kanye’s motivations for this platform: was it praise, self-promotion, both? What mattered at that moment was the fellowship provoked by the overall service and the love generated by those in attendance.
Perhaps this is the purpose of tabernacles, even those erected by imperfect people: they provide a respite from our own imperfections, help to build a community of God’s people, and allow us to take time away from our wandering to acknowledge his presence in our lives.