Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Shacking Up With Jesus

Interesting conversation - and phrasing - with an occasional commenter here who goes to my church. We were discussing worship music; we were both on worship committee and I did an adult Sunday School class on hymn lyrics a few years ago. He mentioned that a lot of modern praise music is "I want to go to bed with you Jesus" lyrics, which he later also called "Shacking up with Jesus" lyrics, as above. I'm glad he was that, er, vivid in his phrasing. He reports the choice of words is not original to him.

I am a great deplorer of things, so it is fair that I give you the other side of this argument as best I can, rather than just leaving you with my personal sneer on the issue.

There is a solid Christian tradition of such things, both OT and NT and in the centuries following. Song of Solomon is understood to include among its several meanings an earthly expression of the mystical romance that God has for us. Jesus uses the image of bridegroom for himself, and bride for us; this is echoed throughout the rest of the NT, particularly in the Revelation to John. Christian mystics throughout the centuries have used romantic, sometimes embarrassingly romantic language for their experience of God. It is an intended secondary theme in The Dark Night of the Soul." Bonaventure, John of the Cross, and Bernard of Clairvaux embrace it willingly. Such examples should not be lightly disparaged, much less thrown away.

It is also fair to point out that it is not for one such as I to judge too harshly on this. I have little temptation in this area, and reproof comes better from those who can identify. I am far more likely to err in the opposite direction, of intellectual assent without passion. As commenter "civil truth" recently quoted from CS Lewis under my The Big Bad Three post:
The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere "understanding". Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritansm; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.

But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate his horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will... (Screwtape Letters)

This romantic Jesus is not generally common in any era. It shows up in Wesley's "Jesus Lover of My Soul" and Miles' "I Come To The Garden Alone," both still used today; it is not unknown to the Desert Fathers; but it is found most commonly in the medieval cloister. And in that era one can also find the greatest warnings of how this Christ-mysticism can be abused. They were not naive, and were familiar with troubadours who openly - and laughingly - interchanged romantic words to their lady with lyrics intended for Mary, and nuns who descended into frankly erotic fantasy in their mysticism. The expectation was that such mysticism would begin at purification and proceed through illumination before attempting union with Christ. Many important figures would have none of it, claiming that it led inevitably to disguised paganism and pantheism. That, I can't vouch for. I don't think I see that yet. But I see danger. In many worship concerts (is that an oxymoron?) this edgy mystical union is the norm.

Anders Nygren, in Agape and Eros cautions
in the midst of the struggle for unselfish love, mysticism proves to be the most refined form, the acme of egocentric piety.
My son tells me that the writers of South Park have also picked up on this, in an episode where a character becomes a popular Christian singer by just throwing the word "Jesus" into the love songs he has previously written.

Those interested in the topic can find it further explored in Jaroslav Pelikan's Jesus Through The Centuries, Chapter Ten.


Anonymous said...

Yeah - I was the interm worship leader at our Methodist Church (a really liberal one!) - recently deposed by a hired gun. Still on the team - but....

Anyway - we "lost" a team member (who really is a universalist at heart) because of - in his words - the "Psycho - Sexual Jesus Love Songs".

As a conservative Christian (what the heck am I doing at this liberal - christian tenent denying church?? - oh - something about feeling good with the tribe it represents!) - I gotta say - he has a point!

Thought you'd like the "Psycho - Sexual Jesus Love Songs" line!

Anonymous said...

The reported experience of the Mystical Marriage appears to be the result of grace plus extended monastic contemplative and ascetic discipline. As your post implies, the expression of that is likely to have a different quality than the Am-Prot phenomenon of thwarted often angry-at-the-world female church-goers crooning with closed eyes, "and he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own..."


Kate said...

I've heard the phrase "Jesus is my boyfriend" lyrics.