I've been thinking about this a lot, and I've reached the conclusion that there is a lot to be said for the "Jesus is my boyfriend" song. Certainly a lot more than could be said for the "blood and gore" song. I suspect that our desire to explain and defend our theology every time we open our mouths shows we are not all that secure about it. This leads us to overemphasise it and in the process neglect other important aspects of our spirituality. So here is my defence of the "Jesus is my boyfriend" song.
The origin of this type of song can be found in the Jewish and Christian tradition of reading the Song of Songs allegorically, as a portrayal of God's love for his people. In this type of reading the woman in the song may represent Israel, the church or the individual believer, and the man represents God.
It is a moot point whether this is the way the original author intended the song to be read. It is possible, for instance, that the monastic interpreters of the middle ages were embarassed by the frank eroticism of some of its verses.
How beautiful you are and how pleasing,
my love, with your delights!
Your stature is like that of the palm,
and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
I said, “I will climb the palm tree;
I will take hold of its fruit.”
In my youth various Protestant commentators were busy reclaiming and resanctifying this eroticism, showing that far from regarding sex as sinful God delighted in it and wanted us to enjoy it. I'm thankful for that, but it would be a shame if in the process we lost this other way of reading. The allegorical interpretation of this book opens up for us a way of understanding our relationship with God far more visceral and immersive than our doctrinal formulae. Think about this, for instance, as a spiritual allegory.
I slept but my heart was awake.
Listen! My beloved is knocking:
"Open to me, my sister, my darling,
my dove, my flawless one.
My head is drenched with dew,
my hair with the dampness of the night.”
I have taken off my robe—
must I put it on again?
I have washed my feet—
must I soil them again?
My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening;
my heart began to pound for him.
I arose to open for my beloved,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with flowing myrrh,
on the handles of the bolt.
I opened for my beloved,
but my beloved had left; he was gone.
God desires us, he comes searching for us like a lover in the night, but it is inconvenient for us to allow him entry so we stay in bed - then too late we run for him and find him gone. So we go out frantically seeking him but instead we fall into the wrong hands and come to harm.
My heart sank at his departure.
I looked for him but did not find him.
I called him but he did not answer.
The watchmen found me
as they made their rounds in the city.
They beat me, they bruised me;
they took away my cloak,
those watchmen of the walls!
Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you -
if you find my beloved,
what will you tell him?
Tell him I am faint with love.
Imagine our joy when we find that God feels the same desire for us, longs for us as much as we long for him, and has never stopped seeking us.
Sixty queens there may be,
and eighty concubines,
and virgins beyond number;
but my dove, my perfect one, is unique,
the only daughter of her mother,
the favourite of the one who bore her.
The young women saw her and called her blessed;
the queens and concubines praised her.
The fact that we are special, that God desires us despite having access to those who are so much better, so much purer or more beautiful, is a great message, but the sheer passion, the depth and overwhelming nature of this love, is what this song gives us and what we will never get from theology. All this in a song that does not once mention God by name.
The apostle Paul provides us with a starting point for this kind of thinking in the New Testament. In Ephesians 5 he first addresses wives.
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.
Then he turns to the husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
Of course Paul's immediate intent is for us to look to Jesus' example for how we should live in our marriages, being "subject to one another in love". Yet the analogy also works the other way. For most of us, romance is the most passionate, all-consuming emotion we will ever experience. What else makes us think of another person day and night, feel joyful in their presence and fretful when apart from them, devise creative and elaborate ways to please them, deny them nothing that will make for their happiness?
This, surely, is the love Paul is describing when he says "Christ loved the church and gave himself for her." It is this love we are to return when we submit to the Lord, not being obedient to a cruel and arbitrary master but returning the passion of a lover who gives everything for us. Having Jesus as our boyfriend, our lover, our husband, is not a trivial thing. It is the highest form of love we can imagine.
Not all "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs capture this, but let me give you two that do. The first is from the late middle ages, John of the Cross's The Dark Night of the Soul, heard here in a beautiful performance by Loreena McKennitt.
This complex piece of mystical imagining is the opening of a larger work in which John describes the process of entering into that state of darkness and blindness in which we cannot perceive God and despair of finding him, only to have him find us. Here that state is presented in the form of a love song in which, as in the Song of Songs, God is not mentioned by name but is present in every line.
Upon that misty night
in secrecy, beyond such mortal sight
Without a guide or light
than that which burned so deeply in my heart
That fire t'was led me on
and shone more bright than of the midday sun
To where he waited still
it was a place where no one else could come.
Oh night thou was my guide
oh night more loving than the rising sun
Oh night that joined the lover
to the beloved one
transforming each of them into the other.
My second example, Your Love Broke Through, is more modern and much simpler, and comes from that most conservative of Protestant songwriters, Keith Green.
This is a song of spiritual awakening which once again doesn't mention God by name.
All my life I've been searching for that crazy missing part
And with one touch you just rolled away the stone that held my heart
And now I see that the answer was as easy as just asking you in
And I'm so sure I could never doubt your gentle touch again
It's like the power of the wind
Like waking up from the longest dream, how real it seemed
Until your love broke through
I'd been lost in a fantasy, that blinded me
Until your love broke through.
If you heard this song in the context of Green's work, you would have no doubt that it's a song to God. Green was very outspoken about his beliefs. Yet Australian-American pop singer Marcia Hines made it a Top 10 hit here in Australia in 1976 and most of her listeners, like me when I first heard it, would have had no idea it was a gospel song.
You might say this proves the original point and that as a result the message is lost and Green has sold out. This could only be the case, though, if you think our differences are more important than our commonalities. Not everyone can relate to theology, but who couldn't relate to this feeling? Who wouldn't remember that love breaking through, or else long for it to be so? If you heard Marcia Hines sing this song on Countdown in 1976 it might not have led you to seek God. Yet even there it would have given you a purer, holier vision of love than, say, Ted Mulry's Jump in My Car with which it jostled for chart position. Perhaps in reaching for this love you might just find the "god beyond God" that Tillich speaks of.
And if we were to allow such passion and longing into our church services, what might be the result then?