He is wonderful, I Want to Talk to Him! Ye’s ‘Revelation19:1’, Pentecostal Worship, and Moments of Encounter

Image by Axel Antas-Bergkvist via Unsplash

Alisha P. Aggrey describes how Ye’s ‘Revelation 19: 1’ became her ‘pandemic soundtrack’, giving her a daily sense of a Divine ‘encounter’ that transformed her ‘ordinary existence’, for the next article in our series on ‘bingeing’ the arts during the pandemic. 

A silver lining of the pandemic’s subsequent lockdowns and isolations was the return of the twenty-two-time Grammy award-winning rapper and music producer Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) to the gospel genre and Christianity. A side of Ye resurfaced we had not seen this explicitly since his 2004 Grammy rap song of the year ‘Jesus Walks’, where he makes the following admission,

I wanna talk to God, but I’m afraid ‘cause we ain’t spoke in so long.[i]

The re-awakened Ye could now be seen travelling the country again with his one-hundred-man ‘Sunday Service Choir’ accompanied by pastors, all singing before celebrities and congregants. In his (clean) reworked renditions of his single ‘Jesus Walks’, we hear what appears to be an overcoming of his prior admission, replacing it with,

I wanna talk to God I ain’t afraid.[ii]

And, indeed, he did.

Image by Axel Antas-Bergkvist via Unsplash

Ye and his Sunday Service Choir produced a Christmas album named Jesus is Born, where they reworked and updated a classic favourite of mine, ‘Revelation 19:1’, by Jeffrey Lavalley. As indicated by the title, the song is taken from the nineteenth chapter of the Bible’s apocalyptic text, Revelation. In this particular chapter, following judgment on the Earth and the destruction of Babylon, the multitudes of heaven respond by raising their voices to praise God the conqueror. The heavenly hosts inspire Lavalley’s lyrics,

Hallelujah, salvation and glory

Honour and power unto the Lord our God

For the Lord our God is mighty

Yes, the Lord our God is omnipotent

The Lord our God, He is wonderful

All praises be to the King of kings

And the Lord our God

He is wonderful

Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Hallelujah, He is wonderful.[iii]

As a postgrad student completing my degree indoors, ‘Revelation 19:1’ became my pandemic soundtrack. I looped it until it haunted me and probably my dear neighbours. It reminded me of when I was a teenager, and my mother asked my grandmother to borrow a particular gospel CD. My grandmother swiftly responded, ‘you can’t tek the CD till I feel the Holy Spirit on every track!’ and continued to laugh, the rest of the room joining in with laughter because we knew exactly what this meant. Each track was going to be looped and looped just as in a Pentecostal service, where we repeat each segment of the song until we feel the Holy Spirit has come down, which was not always instantaneous. I was not letting ‘Revelation 19:1’ or its many covers go; I had become like my grandmother, like the worshippers in an hours-long Pentecostal service—a worship binger.

Image by Mick Haupt via Unsplash

In an interview with Ye and radio host ‘Big Boy’, Ye provides insight into his spiritual awakening and offers a rebuttal to his audience’s potentially adverse response to his gospel music,

‘I’m only afraid of God’.[iv]

I believe this statement allows us to better appreciate the proclivity towards what I call the communal bingeing of worship music, namely, fear. Ye was still afraid. He had a fear of God which kept him from God in 2004; he overcame this deterrent with the fear of God, a fear that drove him to pursue God, as his art testifies. What Ye hints at in his statements, and what many Pentecostal congregants anticipate in rhythmic repetitions in worship, is fear. Communal bingeing is the solidarity between otherwise solitary worshipers who experience fear corporately. I describe this experience as bingeing precisely because of its relation to rhythmic repetition.

In The Idea of the Holy, German philosopher Rudolf Otto identifies the phenomenon of fear as the primitive core of religion itself.

This fear derives from an apprehension of the divine or the numen, a Latin word referring to divinity. Otto uses the term ‘numinous’, from numen and omen, to refer to the character of one’s experience when the divine presence is apprehended. This apprehension inspires a unique fear and creates a new category of value, the numinous—an experience of fear unlike any other experience of it.

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C.S. Lewis introduces this apprehension with the following device. Suppose you were informed of a tiger in the next room. You would experience fear, specifically the fear of a dangerous wild animal and likely leave the building. Suppose, instead, you were told that a ghost was in the next room. You would experience an entirely different kind of fear, not in response to danger but a fear that intrigues. Further, if you were told of a mighty spirit in the next room, the apprehension would produce wonder, excitement, and awe. This final example illustrates the unique sense of fear induced by the numinous.[v]

Otto contends that these moments are best described as ones of encounter. Within these encounters, the numinous produces three co-existing components, expressed by the Latin phrase ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’, awe-inspiring and fascinating mystery. Distinctively, this apprehension occurs a-rationally; as Otto emphasises, this experience is a faculty of the spirit rather than the mind. We apprehend the presence of the divine not primarily through the use of intellect but through the experience of it, in the moment of encounter.

Since apprehending this experience is not a function of exercising the intellect, Otto seeks not to define the mysterium tremendum but instead describes the range of potential feelings it can produce. In the words of Otto,

‘The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its profane, non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures’.[vi]

In particular, it is the mysterium tremendum, the aspect of fear and terror, that I believe most clearly captures that which a diligent worshiper continually anticipates in Pentecostal church services. Originating from the realm of the mysterious and supernatural, the numinous infiltrates the everyday, and religious practices may summon this. Liturgy is an instance through which the encounter recurs. As Pentecostals our Sunday church services are an act of manipulation, an act that incites this recurrence. Gospel music liturgically functions to ‘usher in’, invite, entice, or even pull down the divine presence and incubate it. Through repetition, gospel music can function to manipulate the ordinary experience of worshipers, inviting the divine into their presence, taking seriously and literally the Psalmist’s claim that God ‘inhabitest the praises of Israel’.[vii]

During worship, our evidence of this inhabitation is the mysterium tremendum, the witness of our spirit to this infilling or what Queen Booker calls ‘Holy Ghost Possession’.[viii] Distinct from the everyday assurance of God being with us, this inhabitation occurs in a tangible, tantalising yet shocking way. When a Pentecostal congregation gathers, we drift as if all gathered by one tide, totally removed from the circumstances and rationality of everyday life, absorbed and sustained by a singular energy. As a child attending services, these moments scared me, sometimes horrified me, and never failed to produce this trembling in me. As the potency of the mysterium tremendum ushered in through the rhythmic repetition waned during the week, the next service would arrive, and as we engaged in communal binging this tide, renewed, again swept me.

During the lockdowns, without in-person gatherings, I craved these moments of encounter, the solidarity of communal bingeing that leaves us all changed. Even on the off-chance that an in-person service was permitted, quarantining in England away from my registered Scottish doctor made attendance an impossibility for me due to health reasons. Without immediate access to medical care and medication—all while struggling over a thesis and lacking in-person church meetings—I was left in the agony of debilitating pain. So, in an act of desperate manipulation, I devised a means to encounter the numinous. I binged ‘Revelation 19:1’.

Listening in my headphones and on a speaker, I hoped that the same transformative power that bewilders entire congregations, the haunting presence attracting us back each week, so vibrant that it energises the weakest of infant souls, would come through my listening and change something about me. I hoped that the extraordinary would transform my ordinary existence through my listening. I hoped God, on whom my thesis was based, would make his presence tangible. I hoped I could be allowed to feel more than the ailments of my flesh or the restrictions of my intellect. I hoped for truth itself—that which could live through me and guide my work. The same being who was the marvel of the heavenly host, a warrior king, the wonder of intellectuals, I hoped would come at my beckon, at my bingeing. He who is wonderful living continually with me.

Though these encounters are sometimes short-lived—the repetition of a gospel CD, one song, a single sentence—they produce an expectant hope for the next encounter.

My dad knew this longing and this persistent hope. Faithfully, at five a.m. each day, he would begin the day by repetitively singing, ‘I want you to consume me with the power of your spirit and make me more like you’.[ix] In his rhythmic repetitions, he experienced the awe of gazing into the wonder of the divine, the encounter with the numinous. I believe this was where he found his power. In Ye’s words, his weapons were ‘in a spirit’s land’.[x] Bingeing ‘Revelation 19:1’ was my weapon during lockdown, a way to sustain hope and gather power, a way to encounter the divine through rhythmic repetition.

Hope is an element of fear just as the terror brought on by the numinous is accompanied by fascination. Though these encounters are sometimes short-lived—the repetition of a gospel CD, one song, a single sentence—they produce an expectant hope for the next encounter. In these moments of encounter, God meets us, revitalises us, sustains us, empowers us, leading us like the hosts to heaven, us also to exclaim, ‘He is wonderful’.

 

[i] Ye, ‘Jesus Walks’, Genius, accessed February 18, 2022, https://genius.com/Kanye-west-jesus-walks-lyrics.

 

[ii] Ye, Sunday Service Choir, and James Corden, ‘Kanye West Airpool Karaoke’, interview with James Corden,

The Late Late Show with James Corden, YouTube, October 29th, 2019, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgLOv36an3s&t=595s.

 

[iii] Stephen Hurd, ‘Revelation 19:1’, Genius, accessed February 18, 2022, https://genius.com/Stephen-hurd-revelation-19-1-lyrics.

 

[iv] REAL 92.3 LA (@Real923LA), ‘Big Boy: Are you afraid of losing your audience Ye? @BigBoy Kanye: I told you I’m only afraid of GOD, I’m afraid of my daddy, God’, Twitter, October 25, 2019,

https://twitter.com/Real923LA/status/1187724043765473280?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1187724043765473280%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fhiphop-n-more.com%2F2019%2F10%2Fkanye-talks-religion-being-canceled-more-with-big-boy-watch%2F.

 

[v] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2015), 5-6.

 

[vi] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, trans. John W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), 12-13.

 

[vii] But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel, Psalm 22:3 (KJV).

 

[viii] Queen Booker, ‘Congregational Music in a Pentecostal Church’, The Black Perspective in Music 16, no. 1 (1988): 32.

 

[ix] Artist unknown, ‘Consume Me Lord’, Way to Church, accessed February 21st, 2022, https://waytochurch.com/lyrics/song/5357/consume-me-lord. The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir covers the hymn on their 1987 album, How Jesus Loves, however, the original authorship and date of the hymn remains unknown.

 

[x] Ye, ‘Closed on Sunday’, Genius, accessed February 21, 2022, https://genius.com/Kanye-west-closed-on-sunday-lyrics.

 

 

Author

  • As a graduate of Newman University, Alisha has continued as a postgraduate in Biblical Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She presently studies Biblical Languages and Literature at the University of St Andrews. With a particular interest in applying the intertextual method the Torah.

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