October 10, 2016

Why Jesus Just Might Be Our Boyfriend (Reevaluating Our Knee-Jerk Tendencies)

It has perhaps become THE criticism of modern worship songs: replace all references to God with the name of your boyfriend (or girlfriend), and you have a song virtually indistinguishable from the love songs of top 40 radio. Folks like me, who cut their blogospheric teeth on such observations, have made plenty of hay over these kinds of things in posts past. The argument is a justifiable cry that our worship songs need to be more than the mushy, sappy, and touchy-feely. We need doctrine. We need awe. We need reverence. And these cheesy songs convey none of those things, we say.

Nevertheless, despite years (now decades) of blog hate, the lovey-dovey worship song still finds its place on the latest, hottest worship records. Take, for instance, Bethel’s popular song from last year, “Ever Be.” Here’s the opening verse:

Your love is devoted like a ring of solid gold
Like a vow that is tested, like a covenant of old
Your love is enduring through the winter rain
And beyond the horizon…

The song is overtly sensual. In fact, in the manner of vocal delivery and in the style of its production, it’s downright erotic (I know that can be a scary word, but hang with me). And the question in all of this is, “Have we gone too far?”

Smith Strikes Again

Not that long ago, I was rereading the magnificent, game-changing, face-melting book, Desiring the Kingdom, by James K. A. Smith. I was struck again by something I had underlined and scribbled alongside a footnote. Yes, a footnote. The more I think about it, the more I feel we need a whole book on the subject (the complete opposite of a footnote!).

Smith’s argument throughout the book is that Christians are in dire need of recovering an ancient, biblical understanding of our own anthropology. He persuasively writes that human beings are, at our core, first affective creatures before we are thinking creatures. The center of our decision-making—the cockpit that steers the direction of our wills—is our heart, not our head. We are feeling creatures. Whether or not you buy this is somewhat beside the point. I merely summarize Smith to help make sense of his provocative footnote that I just can’t shake:

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 (p. 79, n. 7).

The Inklings Were Down With This

In corroboration, Smith points out the under appreciated work of one of the Inklings—that group of literary enthusiasts (notables: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein) who regularly gathered for friendship and deep conversation. That particular Inkling’s name was Charles Williams, whose essays explored what he called “Romantic Theology.” Rather than rehearse Williams’ thoughts and arguments here, let it simply be said that he laid out a strong case for the analogy of romantic love as a gateway into understanding what the Christian’s relationship with God should be like. Williams didn’t shy away even from the erotic. For us heady types, that just gets plain uncomfortable.

But before we run for the hills, brand Williams a heretic, and perhaps vow never again to read another piece of Narnian fiction, we should recall the very language of Scripture. God doesn’t shy away from romantic imagery in the way he talks about His people. For instance, time and again through the prophets, He rails against Israel’s rebellion, calling it “adultery” (e.g. Ezek 16). God’s intense accusations there (“You whore!” “You prostitute!”) sound like nothing short of a jealous lover. And on the positive side, let it be said that the Church is actually far more than Jesus’ boyfriend. We are called Bride. Really, the romantic is unavoidable.

If all this is true, we at least need to be a little more honest in confessing what might really be behind our nearly allergic reaction to a Jesus-is-my-boyfriend-style faith. Of course, as Smith pointed out, there are things to rightly criticize about mushy worship songs. But I’m asking a deeper question here. Why are we knee-jerk? Why can we leave no place for this?

I’ll posit an answer that strikes dangerously too close to home. So, yes, this is a confession: I like the distance. If I can keep some romantic space between me and God, it allows me to avoid the discomfort of engaging in intimacy with God (there, I said it). It further allows me to sit in self-justified judgment upon the people that all too easily go there. (“We all know those people,” we say. “Emotionally weak. Spiritually shallow. Doctrinally empty.”) Through our carefully crafted, biblically “defensible” arguments, we justify ourselves over against any hint that “Romantic Theology” would help us see that we worship a God who not just loves (which we can conceptually divorce from romance), but who woos. In the name of “thoughtful worship,” which is committed to doctrinally deep, Scripturally sound songs, we measure out enough linear feet to safely separate ourselves from those shallow romantics.

And so we write our blog posts. And so we fold our arms, close our lips, and roll our eyes when we happen to end up in a worship service that leads us in one of “those” songs.

Redeeming Boyfriend Songs

But what if the boyfriend songs were redeemable? I think they are, actually, but it will require movement from both directions. For the suspicious like me, we’re going to need to repent and give a little more ground that romantic expressions are not only permissible, but downright biblical. And for the songwriters of sappy worship songs, perhaps we need a deeper engagement of a biblical framework to the romantic imagery. Ironically, I happen to think that “Ever Be” is a wonderful example of more thoughtful romantic writing. It’s actually obvious in the first verse, but it develops throughout the song. With beautiful metaphors (vows, golden rings) the song links love of God to marriage, to betrothal, to covenant. And then, in the second verse, the romance is grounded in the Gospel:

Now You’re making me like You
Clothing me in white
Bringing beauty from ashes
For You will have Your bride
Free of all her guilt and rid of all her shame
And known by her true name…

The Church gets to wear the whitest of wedding dresses all because that dress has been washed in the blood of her Groom (Rev 14:9, 13-14; 19:7-8).

And if all this is true, then there really is a blessing for us on the other side of this. Waiting for us is a deeper faith, a more intimate fellowship, maybe the rekindling of a love grown cold. So, for your sake and for mine, let’s jump into the romance with a little less fear and a little more faith in the God who has betrothed himself to us, called us out, and vowed to bring us—to woo us—safely to that great Day of consummation.

(RW- Zac Hicks offers these and other provocative pastoral thoughts in his new book, The Worship Pastor. We highly recommend this book to you.)

Zac Hicks (D.Min. candidate, Knox Theological Seminary) is Canon for Worship & Liturgy at Cathedral Church of the Advent (Birmingham, AL), blogger at, and author of The Worship Pastor (Zondervan, 2016). He grew up in Hawaii, studied music in Los Angeles, trained in Philosophy and Biblical Studies at Denver Seminary, and his current doctoral work is in the theology and worship of the English Reformation. Zac's passions include exploring the intersection of old and new in worship and thinking through the pastoral dimensions of worship leading. He is a songwriter, having recorded seven albums to date. Zac has been married for over fifteen years to his wife, Abby, and they have four children—Joel, Jesse, Brody, and Bronwyn.

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