John L. Crow
I am a god. What now? —Kanye West
In high school I came to love what is now called classic rock. My favorite groups included Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, and the Who. My absolute favorite was Led Zeppelin. I had all the albums, read the bios, collected bootleg concert recordings, and much more. They were rock and roll gods. That said, I never thought of starting a religion based on them. They were just entertainers I liked a lot. Earlier this month, however, a fan of Kanye West debuted his new religion based on Kanye’s newest album, Yeezus. With songs like “I am a God,” and Kanye calling himself Yeezus, talking to Jesus, this anonymous fan took it upon himself to bring to life the song lyrics and founded Yeezianity.
With a hodge-podge theology, derivative of Christianity, Islam, and the New Age, this anonymous fan calls everyone a God, and advocates for universal creativity. His “5 Pillars” include “Man possesses the power to create everything he wants and needs” and “All human suffering exists to stimulate the creative powers of Man.” It also has socialistic leanings stating “All things created must be for the good of All” and, perhaps in an attempt to lessen the value of money, “Money is unnecessary except as a means of exchange.” In his “Dogma” section, he announces that humanity is oppressed and that it is time to “break free of this slavery” and Yeezus, i.e. Kanye West, is going to “usher us into a New Age Where we all control our own destinies.”
One could place Yeezianity in a long line of recent, Internet spawned traditions which include a variety of Star Wars-Jedi based religions (examples can be found here and here), or Pastafarianism (The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster), but I wonder if that is giving this so-called new religion too much credit. In the section of the website entitled “Declarations of Faith,” one learns that to join the Church of Yeezus and become a “Ye’ciple,” one must only post an anonymous picture with a sign declaring “I Believe in Yeezus.” With such low demands and a declaration custom made for social media, I wonder if it would be more appropriate to call the First Church of Yeezuz a meme instead of a religion. Moreover, when interviewed, the creator admitted that one of the reasons he made the church was to get Kanye’s attention.
I'll be honest, if I had to go with what the ultimate desire was, first and foremost, and what stimulated the inspiration, it was that. [Meeting Kanye.] I don't want to take the whole thing to a personal level, but there's no one out there doing what Kanye is doing. And how do you get someone like that's attention? I hope that's not selfish. (The interview can be found here.)When asked if he saw Kanye on the Yeezus tour, Yeezianity’s creator admitted he could not afford it, although he states definitively, “If you study the positive laws of attraction, if you really need money, and that's really the limiting factor, it's going to come your way.” So perhaps he will meet his newly minted God in the future, if only he concentrated hard enough on that goal.
But for me, as a scholar of religion, I wonder how best to categorize Yeezianity. Is it a religion? Is it a meme? Is this just some ploy to get an entertainer’s attention and get a back stage invitation? With such a low threshold of membership, the posting of a picture, is the whole thing a joke? What is at stake for scholars of religion to call this new creation a religion? What is at stake if we don’t? In many cases we have allowed our subjects of study to determine the answer for us. If they call themselves a member of a religious tradition or call something a religion, we accept that. But is that abdicating our analytical responsibilities, especially in a case such as this? Moreover, with the scrutiny of those outside our discipline ever increasing, do we risk ridicule by accepting this as a religion, or do we defend it as such, explaining that it has beliefs, dogma, a messianic figure, and even a ritual. I know it is a well-worn and even trite conversation regarding the definition of religion. As the new semester started a couple of weeks ago, I once more trotted out the various definitions of Durkheim, Geertz, Frazier, Tillich, and the like. I noted Asad’s dismissal to a universal definition, and also noted J.Z. Smith’s assertion that religion can be defined in over fifty ways. It is a conversation we are all familiar with. But on the other hand, we all have an internal definition of religion, a Justice-Potter-Stewart-like gut feeling that when we look at something claiming to be a religion, we know what it is when we see it.
Expedition Everest, in the Animal Kingdom. In this case Disney invented a Tibetan Buddhist derivative with alternative colored prayer flags and carvings of a Yeti holding Everest in one hand and a dorje in another. The Disney Imaginers have even gone so far as to create a yeti altar, overflowing with plastic fruit offerings and a Tibetan like stature of the Yeti, available for pictures with the Everest ride as the backdrop.
In both cases, the aesthetics of religion are being harnessed to serve other purposes. In Disney’s case, the goal is entertainment and to sell yeti based souvenirs, although one can also buy Tibetan Buddhist prayer beads, bowls, butter lamps, and other religious paraphernalia. In Yeezianity’s case, we see a web-savvy fan using social media to promote his love for an entertainer and get some notoriety while they doing it. It might be a fun thing to post a meme picture claiming one believes in Yeezus, but I think to call it a religion is to render the object of our study shallow.