Here in the footnotes of James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, we find an unexpected apologetic for “Jesus is my Boyfriend” worship music.
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, their remains a kernel of “fittingness” about such worship.
That is to say, there is a sense in which the closeness God has to us, the desire we have to be close to him is sometimes more analogous to that of a lover, instead of the (admittedly more frequent) images of God as king or father. As God clearly relates to us this way sometimes (with plenty of examples in scripture) it is indeed “fitting” to write worship prayers or songs in this vein.
While opening such doors is dangerous, I’m not sure that the primary goal of worship or discipleship is safety….this thin fulcrum that tips from sexual desire to desire to God – that on the cusp of this teetering, “dangerous” fulcrum, one is closets 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 have come to really like that Jamie Smith is not quick to dismiss Christians outside his tradition. He may in the end, dismiss some of them, but he doesn’t ever fast track it. Mystic women? Legitimate until proven otherwise. Charismatics? My peeps! Reformed eggheads who write unbelievably long books? Just keep doin’ your thing. “Rationalism that sneers at ______” is what we should be suspicious of.
It seems to me that a common theme of church renewal movements is to make worship a bit more “dangerous” as Smith describes above. Luther used secular melodies to encourage congregational participation contra a “sacred” tradition that had become too walled off from the people. I have a lot of Reformed friends who get excited about making worship “dangerous” by singing every psalm verbatim – including all the violent and vengeful imagery. They are pushing against the decay by bringing the full force of God’s wrath back into view in our music. It’s there in the bible so should not be ignored. But their way of being “dangerous” is within certain well-defined limits. God may be bloody, but he definitely isn’t sexy. Except that sometimes he is. Wait.
I have to admit I am not a fan of much “Jesus is my Boyfriend” worship choruses. I remember a church service in college where I had to excuse myself from singing “My Jesus, Dreammaker”. (No, I am not making this up, and no I am not going to look up who wrote that song. I don’t care.) But other times, I have been deeply affected by this sort of worship. Some of the more “intimate” songs by Darrel Evens (who seems to have dropped off the map in the last 10 years) come to mind.
I think what makes these sorts of songs either powerful or a giant train-wreck is the context. When they are led by young and buoyant (and perhaps not entirely modest) 22-year-olds in the spotlight, the lines get too blurry with regards to their meaning regardless of how well you KNOW what the words are supposed to be about. This setting would ruin St. John of the Cross too, even though there is not a thing wrong with his beautiful writing. In the same way, when the psalms about God destroying his enemies are set to a march and sung by soldiers carrying actual guns – then it’s impossible for “vengeance is mine saith the Lord” to NOT get buried. (See some Civil War-era hymns for examples.)
I think if we are going to be truely “dangerous” in our worship, and truly scriptural, we need to find a place for this stuff – at least some of it. Being safe is too easy, and incomplete.