Nearly fifteen years ago, I ruffled a few feathers when I criticized contemporary Christian music for its highly romanticized – even sexualized – lyrics for expressing devotion to God.
In my 2006 book, Exiles, I carped about Matt Redman declaring “Jesus, I am so in love with you,” and Delirious singing “We are God’s romance,” and I outlined all the reasons why I thought the phenomenon of feeling “in love” was an entirely inappropriate phrase for Christian worship.
“Jesus ain’t my boyfriend,” I whined.
But things changed after that. And not just because I didn’t like the worship-romance phase of contemporary Christian music. Let’s face it, I have zero influence on the scene.
Who knows what happened. Maybe contemporary Christian music (CCM) just grew up.
But today, songs like Hillsong Worship’s “This I Believe (The Creed),” and “What a Beautiful Name,” and Lauren Daigle’s “Light of the World,” and many more, combine decent theology, biblical phraseology, and engaging poetry.
It’s a welcome relief to the Jesus-is-my-lover era of Christian singing.
More recently, however, other critics have emerged to say that CCM lyrics are too individualistic, too pietistic, too safe.
People like U2’s Bono, and Christian hip-hop artists Lecrae and Marty Mar from Social Club Misfits, have bemoaned the tame, risk-averse nature of Christian music.
In a couple of recent interviews, Bono ripped into the CCM industry, calling it bland and predictable. Reflecting on the richness of the Old Testament psalms, he wondered why modern-day gospel singing wasn’t as concerned with laughter, tears, and doubt.
He especially wanted to know why there’s no reference to injustice:
“I want to hear songs of justice, I want to hear rage at injustice and I want to hear a song so good that it makes people want to do something about the subject.”
Lecrae has been more than willing to address systemic issues like racism and injustice in his lyrics, but he has been criticized for doing so. He wrote,
“Christians saying that ‘preaching the gospel is all we need’ ignores how sin affects infrastructures and societal systems… True faith stands up for the oppressed and the broken.”
Then this week, as many Christian music stars gathered for the 50th Annual GMA (Gospel Music Association) Dove Awards, CNN’s John Blake dropped a bombshell by calling them cop-outs for refusing to criticize racism and injustice in America today:
“What’s most striking about these artists, though, is not what they sing. It’s what they leave out of their songs. The America these artists love to evoke in their songs is stuck in what one columnist called a ‘hideous loop of hate.’ White supremacists march in public chanting, ‘Jews will not replace us.’ A man guns down Latino shoppers in an El Paso Wal-Mart. School shootings now seem almost as frequent as proms. The President demonizes immigrants and tweets racist insults.”
He continued, “These issues aren’t just political, they’re moral. Yet little of these ugly realities make their way into CCM, which is now dominated by upbeat praise and worship music.”
It seems we’ve gone from Jesus-is-my-boyfriend to Jesus-is-my-savior, but we’re missing Jesus-is-our-Lord.
Christian worship should express our collective hope in Christ of a rescued, renewed and restored world, a world in which injustice, racism, hatred and violence have ended, once and for all.
Back to my book Exiles, my suggested alternative to romantic worship songs was that we ought to sing revolutionary worship songs. We need lyrics that call us into a revolution of love and justice. In fact, there hasn’t been a single revolution in history that wasn’t sung into existence.
Social change has a soundtrack.
The revolutionaries of the French, American and Bolshevik uprisings all sang about the new nation they were forging, a song they were willing to die for.
The Civil Rights movement sang Christian spirituals.
The German democratic movement that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall began with singing and prayers for freedom in a church in Leipzig in 1980.
The anti-Marcos movement in the Philippines, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the anti-Russian movement in Ukraine – they all wrote songs to inspire their followers.
Even today on the streets of Hong Kong, millions of protesters resisting the controls imposed by Communist China have found the Christian hymn, “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” as their anthem of freedom. The song has even been banned from Chinese streaming platforms.
And to underscore the point, today, across scores of cities in the US and around the world, secular Justice Choirs are being launched, where ordinary citizens can come together to sing for social justice.
In Exiles, I wrote,
“Isn’t the radical teaching of Jesus as revolutionary as any of these examples of political upheaval? Hasn’t he called us to a revolution of grace, peace, and justice? And hasn’t he told us that if we love him, we will follow him, we will obey his commands? His message is a call to insurgency, to mutiny against the values of this, our host empire… We have been called by the Revolutionary One to demonstrate our love for him with action, with insubordinate acts of generosity and kindness, with a struggle against injustice, with an activist’s vision for a renewed world in which God is acknowledged as the one, true God, and every knee is bent in service to him.”
The Bible is full of revolutionary songs, and not just in the Psalms. In Isaiah 42, we are told to sing a new song to the Lord, but shortly after that, God decides to sing a song to us! And it’s a doozy.
“For a long time I have kept silent,
I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth,
I cry out, I gasp and pant.
I will lay waste the mountains and hills
and dry up all their vegetation;
I will turn rivers into islands
and dry up the pools.
I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
I will not forsake them.
But those who trust in idols,
who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’
will be turned back in utter shame. (Isa 42:14-17)
Singing (wailing?) like a mother in childbirth, God’s lyrics concern a new world in which the unjust, the idolater, the oppressor, are laid to waste and a new world of peace, justice and joy emerges.
Can’t someone write some songs like that today?!