The Crown at Glastonbury
On Sunday, June 26th Kendrick Lamar stepped out on stage at the Glastonbury Festival wearing a dazzling crown of thorns. As the fans loudly cheered, Lamar spoke to the audience before performing his final song of the night, “Savior.” Pacing back and forth, the acclaimed artist shared how this track is his favorite from his recently released album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.
In his own words, the song represents “the true meaning of imperfection, and that’s beautiful.” He further stated that “no matter what you’re going through, imperfection is beautiful.” The onlookers shouted in affirmative agreement.
Lamar then turned the attention of the viewers to the crown on his head. “I wear this crown,” the artist stated. “They judged Christ. They judge you, they judged Christ.” Repeating the phrase several times, Lamar explained that “I wear this as a representation, so you’d never forget one of the greatest prophets that ever walked the earth.”
After pausing and looking into the crowd, he concluded his remarks by stating, “we gone continue to try our best to walk in His image.” He then took to center stage. The auditorium darkened. The performance began.
Lamar delivered a power-packed performance with an equally jarring stage presentation. As dancers circled him, his appearance changed. Blood-like liquid dripped from his crown and flowed passed his face onto his white shirt. By the song’s nearing conclusion, Lamar was covered in crimson. It is here that his song took a unique turn.
Before finishing the song and leaving the stage, the artist voiced a final message. With eyes closed Lamar chanted a familiar phrase, only with an added proclamation, “they judge you; they judge Christ. Godspeed for women’s rights.” The chant continued in a rhythmic cadence that increased in energy. The audience rumbled in response as fireworks illuminated the night sky. Onlookers waved flags and ruptured into ringing shouts and cheers. The crowd was completely impassioned by the time Lamar walked off stage. His message stuck. The crowd was pleased.
Christians and Kendrick Lamar
But not all viewers are in favor of Lamar’s performance. Christians are especially offering critical responses to the bold act, and some have already voiced concerns regarding the explicit and implicit imagery and articulation of the performance. And the responses seem justified. For one, Lamar outwardly assumed the image or role of Christ, which perhaps comes across as a skewed irreverence to the person of Jesus. Additionally, the artist positions Christ in a pantheon of great prophets. This departs from Christian orthodoxy which proclaims Christ to be the son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, and from who are all things and through whom all things exist (1 Cor. 8:6).
Not only that, but Lamar also spoke out against the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding Roe v. Wade. This final message was especially upsetting for Christians upholding the sanctity of life
Lamar’s message went out to the world, but how should Christians respond to it? Should it be cast down as blasphemy, labeled as godless art, or perhaps ignored altogether? After all, how can a Black man reciting profanities and siding with women’s rights be a representative of Jesus? Perhaps, in the opinion of some, there are no grounds for discussion between Lamar and Christian orthodoxy, theology, or even the church.
But I wager there is something to gain or at least something to problematize. Rather than write off Lamar as Lucifer, there might be truth in the fire, so to speak. Lamar’s performance may require critique, but it may also offer some helpful considerations.
The theologian James Cone once stated that “artists force us to see things we do not want to look at because they make us uncomfortable with ourselves and the world we have created.”1 Lamar’s performance certainly unearths deep discomfort for many Christians. But the immediate discomfort should not necessarily be met with immediate dismissal.
Art or Theology
In a recent video, Ruslan offered a thought-provoking critique against Lamar’s choice of art, encouraging Christ-followers to steadily think about how they produce their own art. Ruslan suggests that Lamar is dying on the hill of art, authenticity, and transparency. But what if Lamar’s performance is more than mere art. What if it is theology?
Theology is more than creeds, catechisms, and confessions. Theology is also performed. Whether we like it or not, whenever art says something about God it offers something theologically, and usually, it attempts to problematize dominant theology.
In his book titled The Christian Imagination, Yale scholar Willie James Jennings offers a unique perspective on Christian theology that extends beyond the pure discussions of confessed or believed doctrine. As he writes, “I am attempting to do theology in a different modality—theological analysis of theology’s social performances.”2 According to Jennings, theology is performed in the social arena. This lens of social theological interpretation might prove useful when engaging Lamar’s choice of art. Assuming this position, Lamar’s art suggests an implicit performance of theological reasoning.
Lamar’s performed theology takes two modes: the written and the embodied. The written mode represents the lyrical style and articulation in the actual song “Savior.” The lyrics are suggestive of Lamar’s own theological positioning. The embodied mode is representative of Lamar’s live performance of the song. His monologue preceding the song, his choice of dress and body language during the song, and his rhythmic chant at the end of the song all reveal the embodiment of a performed theology.
Interestingly, both modes of expression contradict and affirm each other at the same time. For instance, the embodied performance seems to position Lamar in the place of Christ, yet the opening lyrics of his song—the written performance—state that “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior.” Toward the song’s conclusion, he similarly states that “the cat is out of the bag; I am not your savior.” In one instance he seemingly affirms a Christological representation. Yet at the same time, he also denies it.
A Martyr for Truth
Amidst the inconsistencies, Kendrick Lamar also presents harmony between his lyrics and his performance. His entire presentation appears to be a public crucifixion of himself. This is in tandem with his own lyrics. In the second verse of “Savior,” he raps that “scared to be crucified about a song but they won’t admit it.” It seems that Lamar is not afraid to be “crucified,” so to speak, about his own song. More than the song, he is crucified for the ideals, the stances, and the grappling with truth that the song presents.
“Truth, it resides in the fire
The need of it’s dire
Deceiving the lies, I know”
To some degree, Lamar is mirroring the dialogue between Christ and Pilate. It was Jesus who said to Pilate “I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.” To that Pilate responded, “What is truth?” And perhaps this is Lamar’s understanding of himself. He sees himself, perhaps, as a witness to the truth. As he claims in “Savior,” “independent thought is like an eternal enemy.” Lamar positions himself as a truth-teller at the cost of being crucified for the truth he proclaims. And he certainly is receiving his fair share of rebuke, especially from religious leaders.
Knocking on the Door of Truth
Lamar’s theological performance may not agree with traditional Christian orthodoxy, but he certainly is knocking on the door of truth. Elijah Matos’ especially insightful article on Lamar’s new album unpacks certain elements of this truth. In any case, Lamar isn’t all too far from certain theological traditions alive and well today. In fact, his performance is heavily reminiscent of Black theology, a particular theological interpretation that sees Christ as standing among the oppressed with a particular emphasis on the struggles experienced by Black bodies throughout history.
It was James Cone who stated that “the gospel of Jesus is not opposed to blackness. On the contrary, Christ is black! – that is, identifiable with the black struggle for justice and dignity.”3 Expounding further on Black theology, Oxford scholar Anthony Reddie writes that “in effect, blackness becomes the prime interpretative framework for reinterpreting and reimaging God and the Christian faith.”4
In Lamar’s theological performance, we are offered a new “interpretative framework for reinterpreting and reimaging God and the Christian faith.” Lamar’s written and embodied theological performance places Christ, the truth-teller, in the social location of the suffering. Lamar doesn’t merely offer a vague image of Christ, he offers an image of a Black suffering Christ, and he displaces this Christ within the context of more current events. As he writes in his song, “one protest for you. Three sixty-five for me.” And he also highlights “the struggle for the right side of history.” At the center of Lamar’s theological performance are themes of Blackness, injustice, and truth.
His performance as a Christ-like figure works to place Christ among the oppressed, which is entirely in lockstep with Black theology. To some extent, this helps us make sense of Lamar’s concluding chant, “they judge you; they judge Christ. Godspeed for women’s rights.” Lamar places Christ not only among the oppressed; he places Christ among oppressed women.
What is Truth?
It is at this juncture that theology, both Lamar’s and any other becomes problematized. It is here where we might find both critique and conviction. When we see Lamar on stage dressed as Christ, what do we actually see? Does our theology push him away? Does our theology reject the people he seemingly represents? Lamar’s performance, however flawed and uncomfortable it may seem, requires us to perhaps challenge our own theology. Because Lamar might not be far from the truth, even if his conclusion seems problematic.
I think we have to ask ourselves, does Christ really stand with the oppressed? Lamar’s performative theology seems to think so.
But of course, there is room for critique. Because even while Lamar may show us something of Christ, maybe he loses something of Christ. In his attempt to make Christ relevant to his own message, maybe Lamar distorts Christ. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who once stated to his seminary students that “wherever the question of contemporizing is taken as the theme of theology… we can be sure that the substance has already been betrayed.”5
Lamar certainly offered a performative, contemporizing theology, but at what cost? Was the true substance of Christ betrayed? Did he hold to ideals more than to Christ? Did he attempt to make Christ relevant to the crowd at the cost of dismissing Christ altogether?
But maybe Lamar cared little for Christ and more so for what Christ represents. Christ is the representative and defender of truth, and for truth, He was crucified. Of course, we must ask, what is that truth? It is here that Lamar and many believers are locating opinions of difference.
1. James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 117.
2. Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 10.
3. James H. Cone, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018), 16.
4. Anthony Reddie, Black Theology in Transatlantic Dialogue: Black Theology, Womanist Thought, Social Justice(London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 17.
5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Lecture on Contemporizing New Testament Texts,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 14: Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937, trans. from the German ed. (ed. Otto Dudzus and Jürgen Henkys, in collaboration with Sabine Bobert-Stützel, Dirk Schulz, and Ilse Tödt), ed. H. Gaylon Barker and Mark S. Brocker, trans. Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013; first published in German: Gütersloh: Kaiser Verlag/Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1996), 415-416.