“I thought I was the god of culture but culture was my god.”
Perplexed, I walked out of Kanye’s “Jesus is King” movie. I was perplexed not for the obvious reasons: it was a 40-minute avant-garde piece that had no clear narrative or progression, that switched abruptly between scenes featuring a mostly African-American cast singing modernized Gospel music, that chose a setting made by the equally hard to decipher James Turrell. No, I was perplexed about a specific cinematographic choice that, had it not familiarized itself with the audience through its ubiquity, would have seemed so intrusive and peculiar. In almost every scene, there was a massive circular frame — expanding, contracting, but always present — enveloping the shot. The massive IMAX was pitch black on its borders and corners as we, the audience, were forced to interact with Kanye’s world through the narrow constraints of the circular enclosure in the center of the screen. What is the significance of this choice? Why offer a movie exclusively in IMAX and only use a quarter of the real estate? And can it help us make sense of Kanye’s drastic turn towards Christianity?
The visceral effect of this framing is an intense focus of conscious attention into the area of the circle, so much so that the rest of the screen acts as a blinder. This contraction of focus is similar to the descriptions of hypnosis offered by the French philosopher, Rene Girard. “The subject under hypnosis sees only the brilliant object the hypnotist puts before him. The hypnotist in fact says to his subject, ‘you can hear nothing but my voice now’.” The hypnotist “captures the look” while the hypnotized experience a “contraction of the field of consciousness” just as the movie captures the audience’s look by contracting the field of view.
Because it in some sense limits and restricts our consciousness, hypnosis “is the loss of relativity… And of course, it is also the restriction of liberty.” Girard does not discredit hypnosis for this reason. In fact, he argues that hypnosis, in its most heightened forms, is similar or identical to two activities we hold dear: romance and worship. He compares the relationship “between [the hypnotized] and the hypnotizer” with a mortal and “the god who is possessing him” while arguing “that the passion of love [also] involves a contraction of the field of consciousness to a single object.”
What Girard equates in these three states is intensified desire. The desire for the other in romance, the desire to surrender control in hypnosis, and the desire to merge with god in worship — it is not normal, everyday desire but existential yearning for transcendence. This drive, Girard argues, is not a malfunctioning of our biology but an indispensable piece of the human condition: “The need for direction, the need for a leader… it is the subject’s capacity, even necessity, to enter into a state of hypnosis.”
We are one step closer to answering the original question. The use of this intrusive, ubiquitous circular frame contracts the audience’s attention upon some object evoking an intense state of yearning that is usually reserved for hypnosis, romance, or worship. But upon what object? And for what purpose?
We must search within Kanye’s religious tradition for the final answer. Like Girard, the Christian writer Timothy Keller sees the urge to worship as a necessary and fundamental human characteristic. Unlike Girard, his attitude towards it is extremely cautionary and pessimistic: “the human heart is an ‘idol factory’.” This term is meant to capture the frequency and ubiquity with which humans turn genuinely good external things — children, career, approval, wealth, romance, etc. — into idols which we believe can satisfy this internal existential yearning. These things aren’t dangerous nor bad in and of themselves, but the ease with which we mistakenly conclude “I will be complete if and only if I have them” is. “We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes.”
To direct our existential yearning towards these external objects, to contract our consciousness upon them, to turn them into idols, dooms us in two ways. First, they will never satisfy our transcendent desire, our immense hope for meaning: “counterfeit gods always disappoint, and often destructively so.” Second, because we have not realized the first point, we still place our hopes and dreams for ultimate fulfilment upon these idols. Every inch we move away from the idol, every step we take towards the idol, every demand that the idol makes seems like a matter of life and death, and has ultimate sway over us. “The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by the people he or she wants to please. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our lives.” Keller concludes: “To practice idolatry is to be a slave.”
The next step in Keller’s Christian logic is to say that the only valid object to direct our fundamental urge of worship upon is God. Not only will we receive, unlike from the other idols, “the hope, meaning, and fulfillment that only God can provide”, but identifying with his benevolence and transcendence would also give us the freedom to interact with worldly goods without being enslaved by them. Under this lens, the primacy of the First Commandment and its claims of liberation from slavery become evident:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens above, the earth below, or the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them. (Deuteronomy 5: 6–9)
Put in Girardian terms, Keller urges us to contract our consciousness on God and on God alone, and that is what this movie did. The object which the ubiquitous circular frame contracts the audience’s attention upon is God. One of the only scenes where this circular frame is absent is the only scene where music was absent and, given the undeniable connection between Gospel music and God in this movie, it was also the only scene where God was absent. The scene in question begins with an arrangement of pianos in a dimly lit room. The silence is broken by sounds of sweeping as we briefly catch the silhouette of Kanye with a broom at the edge of the screen. Because there is no music and therefore no God in this scene, there must be no worship of worldly idols, no contraction of consciousness, no hypnotic frenzy. It is only when Kanye reaches the piano and the music begins, does the circular frame appear and slowly contract. The message is clear: worship should be reserved for God.
In an interview that accompanied the “Jesus is King” release, Kanye’s reflections on his recent renewal of faith aligns closely with Keller’s writings. Kanye expressed disillusionment with his old external pursuits: “clothes, cars, accolades, the advent of social media … Twitter account … Paparazzi … going to Paris Fashion Week” that left him empty and unfulfilled. He talked about the liberating qualities of his faith: “I’m letting you know what Jesus has done for me and that, I’m no longer a slave I’m a son now, son of god.” But the key reflection which exemplified Keller’s central claim that idolatry leads to bondage was this: “I thought I was the god of culture but culture was my god.” To be a god of culture is to construct a specific identity around one’s ego and idolize it. This identity comes with its own criteria for success: whether you sell out stadiums, whether you redefine fashion, whether you are famous, etc. To idolize such an identity is to consider the fulfilment of these criteria to be a matter of ultimate significance. It is to respond to its every demand as if it were a matter of life and death, of eternal damnation or salvation. Externally, it may have seemed that Kanye was the god of culture for he dictated culture. But internally, culture was his god for he was dictated by every minute change in culture and what it meant for the identity which he idolized.
To say that Kanye is an unlikely candidate for born-again Christianity would be an understatement. This was a man who crowned himself “Yeezus”, who was hosting the PornHub awards just one year ago, who, even after his humbling renewal of faith, declares himself “unquestionably” the greatest artist to have ever lived. But it is because and not despite his egotism, of the radical unlikelihood of his transformation, that we paradoxically must interpret this transformation not as an isolated event but indicative of a cultural inflection point.
Our culture is within the modern epoch of exteriority. That is to say, the way we conceive of progress is primarily external: science, technology, politics, economics, etc. This becomes more apparent when we compare ourselves with the previous epoch of interiority. A modern reader of Aristotle, Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, or Lao Tze — rough contemporaries of the last epoch — would be astonished by their shared internal conception of progress. Whether it be virtue with the philosophers or transcendence with the religious leaders, the primary mode of personal and societal development was not the acquisition of external things but a radical transformation of character, motivation, and perspective. The internal mode of progress received such priority that it often came at the expense of the external, a phenomenon exemplified by Buddhist forest monastics and Biblical teachings such as:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matthew 6:19–20)
In the interest of space, I have painted with broad strokes a historical narrative that may be lacking in nuance but hopefully not in revelatory power: our culture is obsessed with the external. The old Kanye, with his externalized private life on social media, masterful capitalism, shameless sex drive, radical individualism, and obsession with status was the poster child for this trend of externalization.
Thus, Kanye’s transformation should not be seen as separate from Justin Bieber’s, Selena Gomez’s and other culture icons’ that have recently found themselves in Christ. Kanye’s transformation cannot be understood without Peter Thiel’s observations of the slowing pace of innovation and its decreasing ability to inspire. Kanye’s transformation is not unrelated to an increasing degree of jadedness in Silicon Valley and the public’s newfound distrust of technology. Kanye’s transformation should not be interpreted as a separate movement from the increase in popularity of Ayahuasca, yoga, Buddhism, meditation, and psychedelics.
It is because Kanye was such an exaggerated caricature of the values of our epoch, that we must caution not to read too little into his drastic transformation. Kanye’s drastic turn towards Christianity is indicative of the larger Zeitgeist which is increasingly disillusioned with the promises of exteriority and yearning for a reintroduction to interiority.
The narrow circular frame of culture is panning away from the external and material and contracting upon the internal and transcendent.
Yesteryear’s idols show clay feet.