Worship Music and the Jesus Fetish

‘I wanna sit at your feet.

Drink from the cup in your hand.

Lay back against you and breathe, here your heart beat

This love is so deep, it’s more than I can stand.

I melt in your peace, it’s overwhelming.’

If the above lyrics were lifted directly from a Harlequin romance novel one might applaud their appropriateness for the genre. The barely veiled erotic imagery, laced with the requisite layer of sensitivity, evokes just the right combination of raw sexuality and emotional intensity that we have come to expect from all things romantic. Unfortunately though, this soppy prose is taken from Christian worship musician Kari Jobe’s 2005 song ‘The More I Seek You.’ Jobe is probably a really nice guy and is not doubt a genuine Christian. Yet as part of the wider Christian worship music industry Kobe’s compositions are a pertinent example of just how misguided and unnecessary the whole enterprise actually is.

I have long suspected that there is a distinctly erotic element to the contemporary worship service that’s rather curious when one considers that the object of our adoration is not our romantic partner but the creator of the cosmos. The lyrical content of much worship music is, in my view, reflective of an excessively individualised emphasis on God’s immanence. Perhaps in some ways this mirrors developments in broader culture, in which rampant materialism and consumerism continue to degrade the human spirit with increasing force. In any case, lyrics focussing on a God who helps me through my hardships, who brings me joy and delivers me salvation are indicative of an excessively utilitarian view of God. Irrespective of one’s position on this, however, the clearly sexualised element of the worship genre should be obvious to any impartial observer, and it’s this phenomenon in particular that requires a corrective.

Writing in The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise and Worship, Keith Drury suggests that the erotic double-entendres of modern worship songs evoke feelings of confusion within Church congregation. (1) Drury argues that in our highly sexualised culture, worshippers are more sensitive to the potentially erotic elements within worship lyrics, and that the presence of eroticism (however mild) can distract from the real worship of God. Because of this dangerous dynamic, Drury suggests that composers and lyricists need to ensure that lyrical content is appropriate for the genre, and not a mere reflection of wider culture.

Drury may well be right in his assessment. However, the global popularity of the Hillsong- style chorus would appear to indicate that most worshippers are not confused by the language at all, but are in fact deeply connected to it. The musical component too appears to illicit a range emotional responses; longing, elation, gratitude and awe. Far from being perplexed, worshippers in the contemporary Church scene appear to thoroughly enjoy the music and lyrics on offer. One might even venture to say that we are turned on by it. I suggest, then, that the worship of God within the context of eroticised lyrics is a way of fetishising Jesus as the hero figure of our deepest longings. The music allows as to enter into an emotionally charged state, with the lyrics providing us the rich romantic imagery needed to reflect on our own individual lives and our longing to have an external figure make us complete. We see in Jesus a personalised protector, comforter and provider who essentially has the circumstances of our lives under control. Sigmund Freud, then, was clearly not altogether wrong when he wrote of the worship of God as being an illusion ‘born from man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable and built up from the material of memories of the helplessness of his own childhood and the childhood of the human race.’ (2)

Despite the extensive use of the name of ‘Jesus’ as a lyrical motif, in essence the contemporary worship model is a worship of ourselves and our own desires; the Jesus we worship is functional (i.e. he meets my needs), and not the objective, transcendent God of Scripture that our finite minds can barely comprehend. As John Calvin wrote, the danger of Christian worship is that it too often worships the ‘gifts instead of the Giver.’ This, he continues, is the nature of idolatry. (3) Thomas Merton understood this danger too. Heavily influenced by the apophatic tradition of Gregory of Nyssa and Master Eckhart, Merton frequently warned against the dangers of seeking to enter the presence of God through the prism of our own images, experiences and likeness. (4) Moreover, to accent the primacy of individual experience in worship is not congruent with its corporate nature and purposes. The outcome of all of this is that Contemporary worship music fails to worship God enough. Those characteristics of God that are less desirable for our own security and happiness are hardly mentioned: wrath, judgement, transcendence, denunciation of the world, permitting of evil and adversity etc. However distasteful these realities may be to us, the true worship of God is incomplete without them.

For those similarly disaffected by the modern worship experience, it’s important to remember that despite its saturation of Church life, current forms of worship songs remain our own cultural creations, and are thus not binding. Somehow we have deified certain forms of worship music as being representative of God’s sonic preferences. The tragedy of this lies in the degradation of the true scope of worship. Taking his cue from Luther’s understanding of worship as being the orientation of the whole person toward God (5), Kierkegaard defined the highest form of worship as this: doing God’s will. (6) It’s that simple, and that difficult.

Notes:

  1. Keith Drury, “I’m Desperate for You: Male Perception of Romantic Lyrics in Contemporary Worship Music,” in The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise and Worship, edited by Robert Woods & Brian Walrath (Nashville: Abingdon 2007), 64.
  2. Sigmund Freud. The Future of an Illusion (New York: Liveright, 1955), 18.
  3. John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 4.17.36.
  4. Thomas Merton. Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1949), 79.
  5. Martin Luther: ‘The worship of God should be free at table, in private rooms, downstairs, upstairs, at home, abroad, in all places, by all peoples, at all times.’ as quoted in What Luther Says, Vol. 3. Ed. Ewald M. Plass (St Louis: Concordia, 1959), 1546.
  6. Soren Kierkegaard. Attack Upon “Christendom”‘ Trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 219

 

About Ryan Buesnel

Welcome to my page! I am a writer and musician from Sydney who enjoys reading philosophy, theology and military history. I am a PhD Candidate through Charles Sturt University, with my thesis exploring the activities of the German State Church during the Third Reich-era.
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