Kanye West’s work is a clear illustration of the cross-pressured life. His music has demonstrated a struggle with faith from his early beginnings, like in “Jesus Walks.” The song begins by describing the life of a drug dealer, wrestling with guilt over his sins and hoping the Devil doesn’t break him down. By the end, there’s almost a conversion. He needs Jesus, and he’s testifying to “hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers, even strippers.” He needs Jesus “the way Kathy needs Regis.”
Faith is a central feature of Kanye’s music. Sometimes it is angry, bordering on imprecatory prayer, like in “Black Skinhead” from 2013’s Yeezus. Sometimes he nods to it quietly while he raps graphically about sex, power, and money.
But “Ultralight Beam” seems to be the most honest and confessional work of faith in his whole catalogue. [Click here to watch Kanye’s February 13, 2016, performance of this song on Saturday Night Live.]
From the beginning of the song, Kanye exposes the haunted fear that his soul might indeed be porous. “We don’t want no devils in this house,” says a little girl’s voice. “We want the Lord.” It is a prayer of both exorcism and invocation. It is as if he’s haunted by faith—a word Charles Taylor uses to describe life in a secular age. Haunted by the dream that perhaps there’s something more.
Looking for More
Because make no mistake, in the rest of Kanye’s life, he’s unapologetically looking for meaning within immanence. He’s married to Kim Kardashian, one of the most famous, wealthy, and pampered human beings on earth. He’s regularly bragging about his greatness on Twitter and on camera. His other songs boast about sex with models, seducing record executive’s wives, and varied expressions of power and wealth. Kanye is not a Christian role model.
That’s what makes “Ultralight Beam” so telling. All the pleasures of life in immanence leave him unsatisfied. “I’m trying to keep my faith / but I’m looking for more / somewhere I can feel safe / and end this holy war.” His buffered self feels fragile and porous. His search within immanence has left him wanting. So he surrounds himself with his own “cloud of witnesses”—Kelly Price, The-Dream, Chance the Rapper, and Kirk Franklin—who offer something akin to intercessory prayers.
Witnesses might be the best word to describe these collaborators, since most of their work is far more overtly religious than Kanye’s. Franklin, for instance, is a giant in the world of Gospel music, and has put faith at the center of his work. Chance, too, is a much more consistently Christian voice. It is hard to imagine Kanye writing “How Great Is Our God,” Chance’s song that begins with three minutes of an a cappella choir singing Chris Tomlin’s praise-and-worship hit of the same name.
Kanye can’t seem to make peace with the world of faith, can’t make sense of it. What does make sense to Kanye is the world of immanence. He gives that away at the end of the Saturday Night Live performance, when he manically leaps to his feet to announce the release of his record. The performance is drama; the sales and distribution of the album is real. Likewise, on the album The Life of Pablo, “Ultralight Beam” is the opener; the next song, “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1,” opens with a vulgar description of sex. It is as though Kanye reaches for repentance and transcendence and immediately returns to the world of immanent pleasure. He repents in the wrong direction.
This is the pendulum of Kanye’s music: movements toward religious hope followed by despair and indulgence.
Breaches in the Immanent Frame
Yet there’s another element of “Ultralight Beam” that resonates nicely with Taylor’s ideas. Taylor speaks specifically about the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (who, we should note, is a very different poet than Kanye West). “Poetry is potentially world-making,” Taylor says (A Secular Age, 756). It creates new symbols and provides new meaning. It can create a kind of breach in the immanent frame, opening our imaginations to the possibility of something more. Something transcendent.
I think this is true of the arts in general. Literature like that of David Foster Wallace or John Jeremiah Sullivan has a way of probing and poking holes in the limits of the immanent frame. Damien Hirst, a visual artist, takes objects from the real world (embalmed cattle, or an embalmed great white shark) and presents them to us in a way that is undeniably transcendent and haunting. The point being, the immanent frame isn’t made of concrete.
There’s a scene in the original Jurassic Park where they’re touring past the velociraptors’ cages. Robert Muldoon, the game warden, notes that they used to attack the fences when the feeders came. Systematically striking various sections. “They were testing them for weaknesses,” the game warden says.
This, I think, is what the arts can do in a secular age. They can test and probe the immanent frame, looking for weaknesses. James K. A. Smith gets at this when, summarizing Taylor, he writes: “Don’t you feel it? Don’t you have those moments of either foreboding or on-the-cusp elation where you can’t shake the sense that there must be something more?” (How (Not) to Be Secular, 137).
This is Kanye’s explicit cry in “Ultralight Beam.” In a secular age, we grasp for concrete reasons why art “works”—how it evokes activity in the brain, the neurosystem, and the body that accounts for the feeling we get when we encounter it. The best artists push those accounts to their limits, and make us question whether they’re sufficient to describe what the artwork has done to us. They push us to the edge of the immanent frame.
“I’m looking for more,” Kanye says. And the opportunity for the church in a secular age is to greet that thought with joy. Because there is so much more.
Editors’ note: This is an excerpt from TGC’s newly released book Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, now available at Amazon (Kindle | Paperback) and WTS Books.