- - Sunday, November 24, 2019

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars.” So said Dostoevsky, and as the nation gropes through the murky era of recrimination marked by presidential impeachment, Kanye West’s invitation to join in his dazzling affirmation of faith is lighting up the buzzsphere. Detractors, perhaps blinded by the light, say it’s all about the Benjamins. To the contrary, it’s all about new beginnings.

The mega-rapper brought his worship concert series to mega-pastor Joel Osteen’s arena-sized church in Houston on Sunday. The all-day event filled the 17,000-seat Lakewood Church more than twice over with separate morning and evening audiences. The price of admission — nothing (shady scalpers notwithstanding) but a thirst for a chance to experience the duo’s double-barreled ministry.

Not forgotten were those still reaching for the bottom rung of the ladder of success. Inmates at the nearby Harris County Jail found themselves face-to-face with the singer and his choir during an impromptu performance Friday night. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez tweeted a spare report: “On this date, @kanyewest visits @HCSOTexas jail system. ‘This is a mission, not a show’ Kanye.”

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During a morning on-stage conversation with Mr. Osteen, the rapper explained how personal turmoil that included a mental breakdown resulted in a transformation that has redirected his talents for a higher purpose: “All that arrogance and confidence and cockiness that y’all see me use before God is now used for him.” The packed evening concert featured Mr. West and his 100-voice “Sunday Service” choir performing songs from his most recent album, “Jesus is King.”

Mr. Osteen’s televised prosperity gospel sermons are viewed by millions of avid worshippers each week, but critics warn that too many find an endorsement of crass materialism in his message. Mr. West’s success in the music and fashion industries have earned him similar typecasting and some see his Osteen link as a wrong turn. “Affiliating with Joel Osteen is Kanye’s first big blunder,” tweeted CityboyPA2. “I hope he figures this out soon.”

Artists are difficult to pigeonhole, though, and their knack for blazing trails to fresh ideas wins them both admirers and adversaries. It’s no surprise that in drawing crowds of irreligious millennials as well as regular church-goers, the singer is opening new doorways to spiritual experience.

It’s particularly noteworthy that Mr. West is sparking heightened interest in Christianity at a time when the nation’s religious landscape is undergoing a rapid shift. Recent surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018 and 2019 found that 65 percent of adult respondents identified themselves as Christian, a decline of 12 percentage points during the past decade. The proportion of those identifying themselves as religiously unaffiliated rose from 17 percent to 26 percent.

The hunger for transcendence is as old as recorded history, but it’s no exaggeration to conclude that in America, the 2,000-year-old faith is in danger of a freefall. The success of a rapper-entrepreneur-fashion designer from Atlanta in pulling crowds back into church suggests that the messenger is just as crucial as the message.

Above all, Mr. West has proved himself to be an iconoclast. Last year, he needled his fellow African-Americans, comparing their cultural conformity to 400-year history of slavery. “It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned,” he told the celebrity publication TMZ. Later explaining his provocative and for some, incendiary, statement, he said: “The reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can’t be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years. We need free thought now.”

That’s a no-brainer. It’s the reason Mr. West has further jarred the sensibility of black Americans by embracing Donald Trump’s presidency, even donning a red Trump “Make America Great Again” hat. Racism is one of many charges hurled at the president by a determined media opposition. But with black unemployment falling to 5.4 percent, the lowest ever recorded, the criticism has the ring of a Democratic talking point rather than reality.

It takes fortitude for someone who makes a living delighting audiences to risk their wrath. By all accounts, the songster is following the example of his savior, whose provocative behavior cost him his life. In the process, he changed the world with a simple principle: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

If Kanye West’s journey ignites renewed reverence for that commandment, he may accomplish more for the nation than the finger-pointers who believe their mission is to drive their nemesis from the White House. It’s a journey worth joining.

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