Defending Mushy Worship Songs: Could Jesus Be Our Boyfriend?

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought15 Comments

When people begin to think critically about worship, one of the first analytical dominoes to fall is the criticism that modern worship songs take too much of a “Jesus is my boyfriend” approach.  Many (including myself) have often said that if one could substitute Jesus’ name for the name of a significant other in a worship song, it’s not a good (or biblical) worship song.  Others have taken the analysis a step further and said that romanticized language in worship isn’t man-friendly.  “Worship has become feminized,” they say.  

There is value in this line of critique.  As with any topic or focus, if it dominates the sung vocabulary of a congregation to the exclusion of other concepts, ideas, and attributes of God that receive equal (or even greater) play in Scripture, it’s more than likely that some mal-formation is taking place.  But James K. A. Smith challenges me and us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  At the end of a section teasing out the implications of a desire-based rather than cognitively rooted anthropology (in other words, a view of human beings as most essentially desiring, loving creatures rather than fundamentally thinking, rational creatures), Smith summarizes that “The end of learning is love; the path of discipleship is romantic.”  But then this fascinating footnote follows:

I think a philosophical anthropology centered around affectivity, love, or desire might also be an occasion to somewhat reevaluate our criticisms of “mushy” worship choruses that seem to confuse God with our boyfriend. While we might be rightly critical of the self-centered grammar of such choruses (which, when parsed, often turn out to be more about “me” than God, and “I” more than us), I don’t think we should so quickly write off their “romantic” or even “erotic” elements (the Song of Songs comes to mind in this context). This, too, is testimony to why and how so many are deeply moved in worship by such singing. While this can slide into an emotionalism and a certain kind of domestication of God’s transcendence, there remains a kernel of “fittingness” about such worship. While opening such doors is dangerous, I’m not sure that the primary goal of worship or discipleship is safety. Catholic novelists such as Graham Greene (The Heart of the Matter), Walker Percy (Love in the Ruins), and Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited) recognize this thin fulcrum, that tips from sexual desire to desire for God–that on the cusp of this teetering, “dangerous” fulcrum, one is closest to God. The quasi-rationalism that sneers at such erotic elements in worship and is concerned to keep worship “safe” from such threats is the same rationalism that has consistently marginalized the religious experience of women–and women mystics in particular.”*

I know for some of my readership that the knee-jerk reaction to this will be to cry “liberal feminism.”  For others who are in a context awash in romanticized worship language to the exclusion of other valuable languages, this will probably rub them the wrong way.  However, I found, especially upon digesting the fundamental anthropology suggested by Smith, that there may have been some baby in my bathwater.  No doubt some will press the line of questioning, “Well, just how far can we go with this?  Where’s the line?”  Our answer should be, “No further than Scripture.”  Well, well, then.  If that is the case, then we should probably consider ourselves challenged.  Hmmm….  

Related Posts (some of which could betray my one-sided view up to this point):

*James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 79, n. 7.

15 Comments on “Defending Mushy Worship Songs: Could Jesus Be Our Boyfriend?”

  1. "No doubt some will press the line of questioning, 'Well, just how far can we go with this? Where's the line?' Our answer should be, 'No further than Scripture.' Well, well, then."


  2. Zac, I'm glad you're enjoying Smith's book. I did as well. I agree with his argument. At the same time, I generally find fault with songs that go down the "Jesus is my boyfriend" path. Here's why:

    Romantic imagery has its place IF the metaphor skillfully illuminates our relationship with God (we are the "Bride" of Christ, after all) and if it isn't done in such a way that it actually detracts from the object of the metaphor, primarily calling attention to itself. A metaphor is supposed to help us understand something, by way of interesting comparison (in which one symbolizes the other).

    In other words, if a song says "Jesus is my lover, and He loves me well," then by the time the song is finished I (the listener) should understand something about HOW Jesus is my lover.

    Here is some further critique of "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs, from a blog post I wrote awhile back:

    "Imagine you are writing love songs to a girl, which simply say, "I love you, I love you, I love you," never describing why you love her, never recounting any specific things she's done, and never painting a picture of her with your words that would prove you wrote the song just for her, rather than having recycled the generic love song you wrote for your last girlfriend, and the one before that, and the one before that."

    After awhile, the girl is probably going to get miffed and asked, "Why do you love me? What do you love about me?"

    What if God replied to our love songs with, "That's the same thing you say about the hottie down the block. In fact it's the same thing you've periodically said to various hotties ever since you were in 6th grade. Is that all I mean to you? Do you not understand how much more I am to you? How much more I've done for you?"

  3. Bobby,

    Right on. I get that. I remember reading your very insightful post on the subject a while ago. Thanks for the clarification. Romantic imagery and writing should be more robust and fleshed out. The psalms testify to what you're saying. Rarely (if ever) do they gush without substance/reasoning.

    I wonder, though, if every song MUST have that kind of integrity, or whether it's incumbent upon the worship planner / liturgist to couch such songs in the integrity of the service. In other words, could there be a place for "I love you, I love you, I love you" IF the reasoning has been supplied in some other song, prayer, or aspect of the liturgy?

    Perhaps something analogous: Some songs of consecration ("Lord, I give myself to You" types of songs like our beloved "Take My Life and Let it Be") are very incomplete, theologically. If we isolate them, they sound very devoid of the gospel and very works-based, right? But we rightly understand them in the context of worship and in the context of the gospel's proclamation within that service. Is it not similar for gushy songs?

    Your critique really does hold for some of evangelical worship, which go, en toto, gushy songs with no reasoning throughout the service. But is there not a place for gushy romanticism within the worship service's total context?

    Hear me clearly, I'm not disagreeing with you. I just would hate to dismiss some powerful songs (musically, melodically, and textually powerful) simply because they don't substantiate their emotivism.

  4. I agree — it's all about context. One of the biggest mistakes people make when critiquing worship songs is to forget that these kinds of songs are designed to be sung in church services, alongside other songs as well as readings, prayers, sermon, communion and other elements that, together, provide a rich picture of the gospel.

    Sometimes when people have said to me, "I don't like X-song because it doesn't present the whole gospel" I reply, "Would you hold every verse in the Bible to that standard?" In fact some whole chapters and even books don't provide a full picture.

    A song — whether it's part of a worship service or a longer recording — is like one chapter in a story. Some songs, like "In Christ Alone," present a panoramic view of the gospel. Others, like "Indescribable," do not. But "Indescribable" can be a solid part of a worship service.

  5. Nice, provocative title, Zac. 😉

    This line, the foundation of Smith's passage, stood out to me:
    "I think a philosophical anthropology centered around affectivity, love, or desire might also be an occasion to somewhat reevaluate our criticisms of "mushy" worship choruses that seem to confuse God with our boyfriend."

    My question is, what makes us feel the need to pick either emotion or reason as the center of the human? We are composite beings– body and spirit– so what prevents us from also being a composite of emotion and reason? The Hebrew word for heart is best understood as the seat of the person– both rational and affective elements of a person. They found no need to tease one out from the other as the "center."

    Lastly, my primary issue with many of the songs in question is not the mushiness of them, but rather their flippancy. I see things that essential equate Jesus as a boyfriend as being more analogous to "Jesus as my homeboy." Perhaps I'm in the minority there; it would not be the first time.

  6. If romantic love between husband and wife changes over the years from an emotional infatuation (first met) to a steadier, more committed love, should we expect the same kinds of emotional "maturation" with our relationship to God and how we express that? Should we expect the same kinds of emotions in worship that lead to being able to "enter into" more "mushy" songs or is it ok to realize that we might not ever feel the same as we once did while our devotion and quiet enjoyment of the gospel grows still?

    I can easily look at myself and see where I have lost much of that worship fervency over the years. This has a lot to do with the state of my own heart and its growing comfortable with the truth of the gospel. But recognizing our frequent coldness of heart can also lead to condemnation and a type of legalism.

    Great post, thanks.

  7. Sarah: Good thoughts. Perhaps the "center" and an either/or is ultimately unimportant. Smith would argue that the centrality has to do with how we, at our core, are formed. He would say that desire/love is more basic (and therefore central/core) to our formation (maybe not more important, but more basic, hear clearly) than the rational/cognitive. Perhaps he points this out to especially counter the strong pull in conservative evangelicalism toward change-by-worldview-shift or change-by-thinking-differently. You should read his book if you haven't. It's making me think, sister!

    You're right about the mushy-flippant distinction. One can be deeply romantic without being trite. If I'm honest, though, I've often conflated the two in my criticism of syrupy worship songs and I want to be more careful. Romantic, in and of itself, is not wrong. I appreciate you helping further the distinction.

  8. I would add to the worry about making the affective central, at least when this is expressed as being opposed to the cognitive. My reason is this: our affective lives are highly sensitive to and partially constituted by our cognitive lives. In my view, emotions are a synthesis of what we care about and how we see the world. In order to have a formed heart we definitely need re-formed emotions. But two central aspects of forming our emotions are these: forming the proper concepts by which to see the world, and training our appetites/desires/etc. to conform to our moral/religious outlook. These are highly cognitive activities.

    That said, I think balance is called for, and I appreciate the post. (I will still shudder, though, every time I'm asked to sing that God's fragrance is intoxicating.) 🙂

  9. Good cautions, Ryan and Sarah. Perhaps Smith is making a point with his extremity. We can't neglect the cognitive, nor are the two perhaps as easily divisible. Valuable checks, smart people. Keep the thoughts flowing as I continue to digest and interact with this book.

    And, Ryan, you know I shudder too.

  10. Thinking about it overnight: For the purpose of these types of discussions, it's probably neither here nor there what we identify as the core essence of the person. And maybe I've gone too far to articulate Smith as saying that. It's more about change and formation.

    It IS telling that I'm digesting all this stuff at a cognitive level (I'm reading a book filled with propositions that are or are not persuading me). Yet Smith's point is more basic. Change is more formative/lasting when it is tethered to the heart/gut/desire. But perhaps change is most comprehensive when it eventually engages the whole person (in other words, is corroborated by worldview, propositional truth, etc.). Smith's meta-point is that to think that people will change if we just information-educate them enough, lecture enough, have enough study is not the best, most fundamental way to think of people's formation. I'm inclined to agree. That said, it seems obvious to me that when said formation is back-filled (or front-filled) with truth on the cognitive, intelectual level, it is that much more potent and lasting.

  11. A devil's advocate post.

    What would happen if we stopped thinking that Christian worship songs are often too feminine, and started thinking that they are not feminine enough?

    Isn't the claim that the songs are feminine merely a caricature of real femininity, in the same way that the macho bloke persona is a caricature of real masculinity? No one was more masculine than Christ. No one was more feminine than Christ. He was fully human and fully divine.

    The church is the bride of Christ. Taken from his wounded side like Eve from Adam. From that perspective we are all feminine in our relation to Christ. Men included.

    We all receive the outpouring of his love and life. If that is not erotic we are kidding ourselves.

    How does a bride sing to her husband?

    She speaks what is true about His nature and character, and expresses affection for who He is and How he treats her. That is worship. What does it look like?

    For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

    There is nothing more romantic and sentimental than that!

  12. Romance has taken all shapes and sizes in this "sexually maddening age" and I think what we need is a biblical re-interpretation of the origin of love itself. I believe every loving human relationship is modeled after our loving relationship with God and in fact need to change to look more like our loving relationship to God. Also, biblical anthropology points us to the fact that each person is first and foremost created to be in loving relationship with God. It makes logical sense, then, that this love will be the strongest, and the most affectionate of all loves (some variant of the rule of causality will prove this claim to be true, I think).

    I'm familiar with the eros, philia, and agape distinctions, but I think all of these loves are essentially the same at the core (1 Cor. 13). This makes sense to me because love is an intrinsic quality of God and human relationships are made to reflect the relationality of the Trinitarian God in all the variety of its expressions in the created world. So my theory is that what may be different among eros, philia and agape love is not so much WHAT the essential quality of that love is, but WHO the object of our love is.

    Depending on WHO we are trying to love, our rightful acts of devotion will vary. For example, it will be entirely wrong to project sensual, physical love to God because God is Spirit and we are supposed to worship Him in Spirit and Truth. Indeed, He deserves reverence and awe because of His total Goodness and Otherness distinct from the created world. I think our love for God HAS to look different from how we love our boyfriends or girlfriends (or wife in your case), given the complete grandeur of the person of GOD we worship. But should the fact that Jesus is not my boyfriend make that love less intimate or affectionate? I don't think so! I think the intensity of our love for God would actually be stronger and more affectionate than our love for our closest partners or friends. David the psalmist seems to have felt that way. How could it not? When we love people, we love fallen and depraved creatures. When we love God, we love the Perfection of everything good, and Perfector of our lives…! That's deserving of extra affectionate praise, no?! Thoughts?? These are very wonderful reflections btw. Thank you for sparking meaningful conversations on these important issues of worship, relationships, and culture so I can think about these things along with you ;]

  13. I think these songs should still be around; however,

    if it doesn't mention God in any specific way (like using "You" for the entire song) and the male can be interpreted as a boyfriend, it is significantly less evangelical. There is nothing wrong with mentioning God in our new songs; in fact, we should do it as scaffolding. If we don't scaffold our newer songs, ones with original lyrics, so that non-believers can interpret them as religious, then they aren't doing as much good as they could.

    Many of the songs I've heard in campus ministries are about this "boyfriend-ness". People I know compose songs about this.

    At first, I was on board for them doing this; however, I realized I would personally interpret them as secular songs if I didn't know the artists personally. How many people know their favorite band's members personally? We need to put ourselves in non-believer's(or new christian's) shoes when we are writing these kind of lyrics. After all, the song writer wants everyone to take something away from the song.

  14. Zac,
    Thanks for the challenging post! One thing I wanted to bring up is this. In the NT, whenever the Bible uses the word "love" in relation to God and man, it always uses either Agape, or in some cases Philia. Eros, the word for romantic love, is not used in this relationship. In English, we have one word for love and so it is harder for us to define what kind of love it is we are talking about in the midst of a song. Also, although we the church (together) are the bride of Christ, I am not personally the bride, and so songs written on that subject need to be really careful in defining what we are talking about. The metaphor is a wonderful one, but easy to misunderstand in our culture that has a million love songs. To be set apart might take some extra work in informing our audience what we are talking about.
    Thanks for letting me post here!

  15. Dan, you're always welcome to post, brother. I think you're bringing up great points. I am understudied in the concept of "Romantic Theology," but I think your observations need to be addressed. I would also press the importance of Old Testament lexicographical insights, too, which requires us to reckon with how we view things like Song of Songs and the countless romantic imagery God puts forth between Himself and His people, especially in the prophets and the Psalms.

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