This past week, the artist formerly known as Kanye West—who now goes by “Ye”—was suspended from Twitter after an unhinged rant. He posted comments using antisemitic tropes about the “influence” of Jewish people, followed by an almost incomprehensible threat to go “death con 3” on Jewish people.
Twitter and Instagram, too, were right to take these comments seriously. We’ve seen how antisemitic threats of violence can incite terror—in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting and beyond. The lead-up to the suspension, though, followed a kind of publicity tour punctuated by deliberate controversy.
West appeared at an event with the contentious media figure Candace Owens wearing “White Lives Matter” T-shirts. During an interview with Tucker Carlson, he spooled out conspiracy theories to such a degree that he stopped to ask if he’d landed in Alex Jones territory yet. Then Vice posted additional video of him being even more explicitly antisemitic and even more open about bizarre conspiracy theories.
Instability from this artist is hardly surprising. Several years ago, I noted that I was worried for the rapper—not because of his mental health challenges but because of what American evangelicals often do to celebrities who profess faith. Too often we claim them as, at best, mascots for “our side” and, at worst, as trophies from the culture wars.
Over and over, the church has expected things from these figures that they do not have the maturity, wisdom, or even stability to handle.
The issue is in part that a celebrity is saying something insane (and highly offensive). But it’s equally problematic that we have an entire media ecosystem willing to exploit him when he does. Within days of his antisemitic Twitter rant, Owens was defending Ye, saying “death con 3” should be interpreted as a move to protect the Jewish people. After all, she reasoned, DEFCON is a defensive military category, not an offensive one.
It's hard for me to imagine anyone taking that argument seriously. But even so, another social media flurry began right after she spoke. “Can you believe what Ye said?” morphed into “Can you believe what Candace Owens said?” and so on.
Long after we’ve forgotten the names of Kanye or Ye or whatever comes next, that conversational reality will stay with us, including and maybe especially within the church.
My friend David French wrote last week about the “gutter” levels of cruelty and character assassination he and his family have experienced from some sectors of the online world. When David’s wife, Nancy, bravely came forward about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child from a predatory pastor, one commentator said that Nancy “screwed around with her pastor when she was a teen.” Another publication blasted their family with a poem too vile for me to even quote.
David wrote about the very real struggle of deciding when to deny these purveyors of hatred the attention they deserve and when to respond. In most cases, the first is better. But sometimes, we have to point out what’s happening right in front of us and ask, “Where is this coming from?”
The short and ultimate answer, of course, is that it’s coming from the human heart and from a fallen humanity giving itself over to the passions of the flesh. But there’s something else at work too.
For years, Neil Postman and other media critics warned that we were moving into a time of vapidity, propelled by social media and other forms of communication. We were becoming the societal equivalent of Kim Kardashian—famous for being famous.
If only that were the case. It seems that we’ve ended up in a much bleaker place: at the societal equivalent not of Kardashian but of her ex-husband, Kanye West. What we see is less empty vanity and more active hostility, combined with what appears to be a mass-level mental health crisis.
We’ve moved into a time in which many clamor for the fame that comes with outrage, cruelty, or craziness. As I’ve written before, in some places, crazy has become a strategy for expanding church congregations. But church-growth really isn’t the goal in most cases. For many of them, the shock is the point.
Someone recently sent me a Twitter thread by a pastor named Trey Ferguson. I gather from his tweets that Ferguson is decidedly not an evangelical, and maybe his critique is much broader than I would make. Still, his basic point is hard to refute:
There is an entire, self-contained, self-sustaining, conservative evangelical complex where conservative evangelicals say outrageous things, wait for the inevitable reaction from people who are not conservative evangelicals, and then point to that reaction as confirmation that they are doing God’s work.
Ferguson then pleaded with his followers to be free from that cycle.
The basic thrust of it does in fact describe what’s often happening in our evangelical spaces. Someone will post an incendiary statement. As Ferguson points out, that person can count on a multitude of quote-tweets denouncing them. Someone will then respond, “I’m just here for the ratio,” referring to the ways people object to a tweet they don’t like. But the author of the original tweet is also there for the ratio.
To a certain kind of angry person, all controversy is good controversy. And to a certain kind of needy person, all attention is good attention. Like an obscene crank caller in the days of landlines, shocking the recipient is the twisted goal. They want to be hated by one tribe so that they can be loved by their own.
Ordinarily, these dynamics might not be worth mentioning—if they were only about social media. But increasingly, our real-life interactions are being affected by the online world. The more a person lives behind screens, the more their character is shaped “out here” by who they are “on there.”
These trends are bad for society, bad for democracy, and bad for the church, but they’re maybe worst of all for those finding attention and identity through social media.
For some of them, creating shock culture is the result of a breakdown. For others, it’s a business model. We should provide help for the first group and work hard not to be the second. It’s no way for anyone to live—especially a church charged with telling the world that Jesus loves you, and me, and Ye.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today.