Although I am inclined to listen in on conversations about worship and music anyways, lately I have noticed quite a few people weighing in on this issue. There seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with the state of modern worship music. In particular, many have taken the infamous Jesus Is My Boyfriend genre to task. John Stackhouse, a professor from Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, weighs in decisively in his post Jesus, I’m NOT in Love with You. Albert Hsu, author of The Suburban Christian, shares his insights in Pitfalls of Romanticizing Worship.
While Stackhouse’s post is a bit of a polemic (more on that at the end), both he and Hsu point to the underlying problem of emphasizing the individual over the community in expressing our worship and love for God. Stackhouse shares this insight:
But the New Testament never calls Christians Jesus’ fiancées or his brides. Instead, it is the Church collectively, and only the Church as a whole, that relates to Jesus this way–just as individual Israelites did not relate to Yhwh as so many spouses, but only the nation of Israel as nation was his beloved bride
However, it was Albert’s post that spoke most powerfully to me. His nuanced historical perspective on individualism and romanticism, along with his biblical insight, provided quite a bit about which to think. In many ways, individualism/romanticism is the cultural air we breathe. We are born into it, and sometimes it takes a voice calling out in the wilderness to wake us up. As Hsu writes:
Culturally, I think that when we Christianize romantic motifs in our worship, we often merely substitute one idolatry for another, rather than challenging the very validity of romantic love as a controlling narrative in our culture.
To borrow a phrase from Brian McLaren, we must stop and consider what story we find ourselves in. This is an essential question: What narrative controls us? Is it the story that says even if you were the only person on earth, Jesus still would have died for you? While I think I understand the heart of this well-worn story, it is firmly rooted in the individualism and romanticism that Albert describes in his post. And, if Jesus pretty much exists for my personal happiness, what are the consequences for our worship together? From my experience, this ends up being a room full of people (whether it is ten or ten thousand) who are singing the same song but, despite being completely lost in love with Jesus, are completely disconnected from one another. They are physically together but miles apart in their hearts.
Or, do we understand the story and reign of God as being much, much larger than the scope of our individual lives?
* * * * *
In his criticism of the “love song to Jesus” genre, Prof. Stackhouse says, “it gives me the homoerotic creeps to declare that I am ‘in love with’ another man.” At first glance, this seems to be an honest expression of his discomfort with these kinds of lyrical expressions of love and adoration to Christ. However, what he writes immediately afterwards gave me pause, “And I don’t apologize for saying so.”
As Jamie Arpin-Ricci observes, this second sentence “seems to suggest to me that he considered how some might take this comment, but still felt it appropriate to say it.” Honest expression is one thing, but it should not be considered burdensome, especially for someone of Stackhouse’s erudition, to find a better way to express this feeling. It saddens me that so many in the Christian community have trouble distinguishing between being “real” and being rude.
Perhaps it is that rebellion within us that cannot stand it when someone shows us where we have gone astray. Instead of humbly acknowledging our mistakes, we launch into defense mode — justifying and responding with our own counteroffensive, “Well, I’m insulted that you’re insulted by my words.”
All too often I see people, especially when confronted with their own racist or prejudicial attitudes or actions, respond with a self-righteous, “Well, should I have to think of what everyone will think every time I say something?” Of course, it is unreasonable for us to expect people to consider the feelings and experiences of every other human being on the planet — but there is something to be said for a general sense of empathy and understanding, especially coming from followers of Christ. And often, this line of reasoning is used as a cover for laziness — it’s easier to fall back on the broken default setting than to actually change the way we speak, think or interact with others.