“Jesus is my boyfriend” songs: New entries in the struggle between “orthodox” and “pietist” hymnody?

In a recent conversation, a Twin Cities Catholic pastor shared with me his experience of going to Germany for the ordination of a friend. The ordinand had come from Germany to study for a year at the St. Paul Seminary and had returned home to complete his seminary studies and be ordained a presbyter (priest) for his home diocese. What struck my friend was the concluding congregational music at the ordination: all present joined in a rollicking rendition (in English) of “I Will Follow Him,” a 1963 #1 Billboard Hot 100 hit in the United States when recorded by Little Peggy Marsh and recently reappropriated for the film, Sister Act:

I will follow him, follow him wherever he may go.
And near him I always will be, for nothing can keep me away,
He is my destiny.

I will follow him, Ever since he touched my heart I knew
There isn’t an ocean too deep, a mountain so high it can keep,
Keep me away, away from his love.

I love him, I love him, I love him
And where he goes I’ll follow, I’ll follow, I’ll follow….

Notice how what was originally a paeon to romantic love becomes transformed into a declaration of discipleship for both the (fictive) sisters in the film and the (genuine) members of a worshiping assembly.

A comparable example coming from the “Praise and Worship” genre is Matt Maher’s “Lord, I Need You,” available both on CD and by video on You Tube. The composer, in a voice distinctly reminiscent of John Mayer, sings the following text over an alt-rock guitar-driven accompaniment featuring bass, drum kit, piano and synthesized sound as well:

Lord, I come, I confess.
Bowing here, I find my rest.
And without you, I fall apart.
You’re the one that guides my heart.


Lord, I need You, oh, I need you.
Ev’ry hour I need You.
My one defense, my righteousness;
Oh, God, how I need you….


So, teach my song to rise to You
When temptation comes my way.
And when I cannot stand, I’ll fall on You,
Jesus, You’re my hope and stay (2x).


My third example comes from what some call “Contemporary Christian Music” (although the boundaries between “Praise and Worship” and “CCM” are porous). The Youth Ministers’ Network of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis chose John Mark McMillan’s 2005 song “How He Loves Us” for their segment of the Archdiocesan Spring Formation Day 21 May 2014. Mr. McMillan’s vocal style is reminiscent of Mr. Maher’s, though the electric guitar driven accompaniment is “harder” than “Lord, I Need You.” I strongly recommend watching the video of the performance, both because it is obvious that those present know the song by heart and since a significant part of the impact of the song comes from repetitive chanting of “Whoa” after the text is exhausted:

He is jealous for me,
loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden, I am unaware
of these afflictions eclipsed by glory.
I realize just how beautiful You are
and how great Your affections are for me.
Oh, how He loves us so; oh, how He loves us.
how He loves us so;
Oh, how He loves us so.  Oh, how he loves us;
how He loves us so.


Yeah, He loves us; whoa, how He loves us.
whoa, how He loves us; whoa, how He loves.
Yeah, He loves us; whoa, how He loves us.
whoa, how He loves us; whoa, how He loves.

We are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes.
If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking;
So Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss,
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest.
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets
When I think about the way that He loves us:


All three of these compositions belong to a sub-genre of recent religious music that another friend has dubbed “Jesus is my boyfriend” music. Songs falling into this category usually exhibit: 1) texts that speak of Christ (or the Father or the Holy Spirit or a saint) in intimate, romantic terms; with very little effort these texts could be converted to songs about one’s date, fiancée, or spouse (e.g., “Jean, I come, I confess…. And without you I fall apart…. I need you, O, I need you. Every hour I need you.”); 2) music that falls into identifiable pop genres that in the mass media signal “authentic” (i.e., non-ironic) romantic sentimentality (more indie-rock/singer-songwriter than heavy metal or hip hop).

I confess that I find myself in a quandary in trying to analyze and assess this music for Christian, and specifically Roman Catholic liturgical, worship. While I have no doubt about the authenticity of the feelings reported by the songwriters, I am put off by the lack of craft (at least as I understand it) in lines like: “So Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss, / And my heart turns violently inside of my chest” and I don’t think that is because I’m a celibate prude: I think Jeremiah’s “You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced” is profoundly poetic and metaphoric in the spiritual life. Committed as I am to congregational singing, I am stumped by musical practice that doesn’t seem to prize unison tune-singing so much as providing a melodic formula at which the assembly can throw its voices without worrying about exact pitches or rhythms. But I’m also committed to discovering how each culture expresses its religious sensibilities through music and this alt-rock style may be the musical vernacular of those growing up in 80s and 90s. I suspect that chant-trained musicians would have been having some of the same reactions that I am having to “Jesus is my boyfriend” music to examples of liturgical music in the folk-pop genres of the 1960s and 70s. And I have to take into account the ecstatic behaviors and rapt expressions on the faces of those singing: “Yeah, He loves us.”

Trying to grapple with the suspicion I have of the propriety of these songs for Roman Rite liturgical worship, I first thought that these pieces could be appropriate for para-liturgical (devotional) and group prayer situations that don’t prize the objectivity promoted by liturgical worship (e.g., charismatic prayer meetings). Even better, these compositions would be appropriate for (youth) retreats, catechetical sessions and private spiritual listening. But I had to question my desire to wall off this music from liturgical settings when I acknowledged that I was quite willing to be emotionally overcome at communal prayer by the spiritual intimacy and emotional rapture of African-American pieces grafted onto the Roman Rite. Given my training, I then did some research to try to find parallels at earlier times in the Church’s history to the present situation. I believe I have found one in the tension between “orthodox” and “pietist” hymnody in the Lutheran tradition (although Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc. versions of this same conflict also appear).

The “received wisdom” about Pietist movements is that they appear in Christian history whenever religion seems to be divorced from experience. Thus among German Lutherans in the 17th C, the movement emphasized personal faith against the perceived stress on doctrinal and theological issues to the neglect of developing a Christian way of life. English Puritanism raised some of the same concerns against the established Church of England in writings such as those of Richard Baxter and John Bunyan. Other figures exiled from England, such as William Ames, developed a Dutch form of pietism in a Netherlands strongly marked by Calvinism.

I think John T. Pless’ Pieper Lecture “Liturgy and Pietism: Then and Now,” delivered at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, on 18 September 1998, provides the clearest analysis of this strain of Lutheran worship. Pless makes it clear that pietism represents a foreshadowing of today’s “alternative worship” forms:

When we compare the changes in liturgical texts and structures introduced by pietism with those brought about by the advocates of so-called alternative worship, we might be tempted to conclude that the innovations of pietism were rather minor. For the most part, pietism did not produce new liturgical orders.  What pietism did introduce what a shift away from the centrality of the divine service in the life of the church. This shift was necessitated by a prior shift from justification to sanctification, from the objective reality of the mans of grace to the subjective experience of the believer, from beneficium to sacrificium, from the Office of the Holy Ministry to the priesthood of believers. This is the crucial shift which prepares the way for later developments in pietism’s offspring, revivalism and Pentecostalism….

This subjectivity is given expression both in the hymnody and preaching that issues from pietism. The most significant hymnals to come out of pietism were the two books produced by the son-in-law of Auguste Francke, Johann Freylinghausen (1670-1739) in 1704 and 1714. These two hymnals were combined into a single volume in 1741 which was known as the ‘Freylinghausen Gesangbuch’ of the ‘Halle Hymnal.’… The hymns of pietism reflect a ‘warm Jesus-mysticism’ as [Frank] Senn calls it.  Coupled with this “Jesus-mysticism” is a stress on sanctification with an accent on the imitatio Christi. The pietist hymnals arranged hymns not according to the church calendar but according to the ordo salutus [sic] and selected situations in the Christian life. New tunes were composed which fit with the sentimental character of the pietist texts.

[Referenced on 2 July 2014 from http://www.ctsfw.edu/Document.Doc?id=294]

John Wesley (1703-1791) greatly admired Freylinghausen’s most famous hymn, “O Jesus, Source of calm repose,” and translated it into English in 1737. One of the so-called “Jesus hymns,” the text is judged to be an exemplar of Pietist hymnody, marked by depth of feeling, rich Christian experience, and faithfulness in Scriptural expression:

Who is there like Thee,
Jesus, unto me?
None is like Thee, none above Thee,
Thou art altogether lovely;
None on earth have wee,
None in heaven like thee….

John Wesley also lauded the work of another Pietist, Nikolaus Ludwig, Graf (count) von Zinzenfort (1700-1760) and his contributions to Moravian hymnody. Here is a Wesleyan translation of one of Zinzindorf’s hymns:

O come, Thou stricken Lamb of God!
Who shed’st for us Thine own life-blood,
And teach us all They love – then pain
In life were sweet and death were gain.

Take Thou our hearts, and let them be
For ever closed to all but Thee;
Thy willing servants, let us wear
The seal of love for ever there.

How blest are they who still abide
Close sheltered by Thy watchful side;
Who life and strength from Thee receive,
And with Thee move, and in Thee live….

I think these examples are enough to suggest a parallel between some Pietist hymnody and some of the “personalist” songs of the Praise and Worship/Contemporary Christian Music movements.  Rather than judging the appropriateness of these songs for present-day worship, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps I’m being invited to consider whether or not the “received” liturgy is perceived by some worshipers as too cold, formal and rational in its song, with the desire to supplement such worship with more emotional and intimate singing. Or do these songs best serve as evangelical tools, inviting non- or shallow-believers to some kind of emotional/spiritual conversion as preparatory or supplementary to the Church’s formal worship. I look forward to the insights of Pray Tell readers on the topic.

34 thoughts on ““Jesus is my boyfriend” songs: New entries in the struggle between “orthodox” and “pietist” hymnody?

  1. “To see ourselves as others see us” … some of the best commentary-as-parody of this was in the “Christian Rock Hard” episode of South Park:


    (“Body of Christ” will probably cause the most dis-ease among Roman Catholics.)

    When the texts and music of the liturgy allow us to express ourselves through our capacities for intimacy and overt emotion, are we not being more fully expressive of the God in whose image we are made? Perhaps people who find a liturgical/musical language that is only formal and rational (though if you can find something more “formal” than a P&W-structured song in the rest of the liturgy, I’d like to know what it is) are instinctively objecting to a God who also seems to be portrayed or imaged as only formal and rational and distant.
    A God so crazy in love with humanity as to take on the wholeness of our flesh and the panoply of our emotional spectrum needs a broader range of communication from us as well.

  2. The “I will follow him” example made me recall, once again, a Eucharistic Adoration song we used at the Newman Center, c. 1977:

    You’re just too good to be true,
    Can’t take my eyes off of you,
    You’d be like heaven to touch,


  3. Excellent essay. Your final point, “Do these songs best serve as evangelical tools, inviting non- or shallow-believers to some kind of emotional/spiritual conversion” is an important one. In parish pastoral ministry, I find it incredibly important to remember that the large majority of registered parishioners, 70-80%, do not attend Mass on any given Sunday. Of the minority that do attend, the new normal is attending once or twice a month. To find a cohort of people who attend Mass 50+ weeks per year, you have to look at my parent’s generation, or perhaps grandparents. That is rarely the case among my peers.

    Yet these people do care enough to stay registered in a parish, pay to send their children to Catholic schools or religious ed programs, and if asked identify themselves as Catholic. Reaching these people, engaging them in worship, and making church matter are among my highest priorities as a parish musician and liturgist. If one style of music or another proves more effective toward that end, sign me up.

  4. I am an adult convert to Catholicism who I was raised Lutheran in a tradition of vigorous and tuneful hymn-singing. (Your average Lutheran congregation can and will break into spontaneous four-part harmony at the drop of a hat.) When I began attending Mass, I was puzzled by the lack of congregational singing and the fact that most of the members simply left the building rather than singing all the verses of the final hymn. (Never had I seen either behavior in a Lutheran church.) I tend to loathe Christian Contemporary music because, while I often find the lyrics meaningful because of their close association to scripture, the musical accompaniment is (to-me) tasteless, tacky, over-produced, and gimmicky (cue the syrupy strings and the choir on the bridge before the last verse). But cracks are appearing in my snobbish attitude. I’ve noticed that many members of my congregation will sing the contemporary communion hymns (without looking at their hymnals) so clearly those songs have struck a chord. (Sorry.) “Grace Like Rain” has become a staple of our Easter Vigil, during the sprinkling rite after new members are baptized. I love the song and love the joyful emotion it evokes in our community. Long story short, I agree with Scott: If the music draws members to mass, let’s sing it. However, it’s important that masses not be segregated by age group (traditional at 8:30, contemporary at 10) so let’s sing both with equal vigor. I’ll be attempting the alto part in my pew near the back.

  5. McMillan probably rehearsed the song with his gathering before having it recorded. If my parish bothered to rehearse now and then, we would have similar responses. I don’t think that these are the kinds of responses we aim for at least in the Eucharist. These songs might work in paraliturgy and retreats, as the author says. But why call on McMillan in the first place, or Dan Schutte or Twila Paris or whomever? Local parishes often can turn out better and more engaging fare if they just “cast down their buckets where they are.” It can be done; it has been done! Our music minister wrote “I Will Follow Jesus” a few years ago.

  6. Such writing has very long history.
    The opening verse of Fr.Joncas’ third example (John Mark McMillan’s 2005 song “How He Loves Us” ) immediately brought to mind the Song of Songs, particularly chapter 8, verses 6-7.
    One thinks also of the writings of mystics, such as St.Theresa of Avila (who apparently wrote, tho’ I have not read it, Meditations on the Song of Songs, 1567).
    But whether any of these are suitable for readings at Mass, or singing in metrical form . . . . ?

  7. “I am stumped by musical practice that doesn’t seem to prize unison tune-singing so much as providing a melodic formula at which the assembly can throw its voices without worrying about exact pitches or rhythms.”

    Sounds like the venerable “improvised heterophony”.

  8. Re: #6. For those of us English-speaking Catholics of a certain age, the most powerful example of “improvised heterophony” might be the way certain voices in the congregation decorated the notes of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” no matter what the printed score told us :-).

  9. I wonder sometimes if Catholic churches, in their quest to become more “relevant” to young people, aren’t becoming more irrelevant by banking too much on novelty and “the latest thing in music.” By its very nature, most music today is “disposable”–popular today, disdained as passé tomorrow, and only valued as much as “the herd’s” opinion of it is right now. If we want to convey the constant, unwavering presence of Christ in our lives and in the world, should we be using something that seems to lack stability and longevity? Practical experience shows that some groups respond very positively to contemporary forms of religious music, be they Praise/Worship, CCM, etc. However, at what point along the spectrum do we risk venturing into the dangerous territory of “worship-tainment” simply to hold the congregation’s attention? Polls indicate that a significant portion of youth already think the Mass is boring. Can we address this without resorting to a “give them whatever they want” response? To what degree is this a “bread and circuses” approach to liturgy? To reiterate, is this constant shifting of musical priorities making the Mass appear more irrelevant and amorphous to youth?

    Please understand that I’m not arguing the “style vs. intent” issue, as I have been on retreats with friends who experienced profound peace and self-understanding via contemporary Christian music. At the same time, I think we need to be accountable for addressing and answering the hard questions. Given that the Mass is supposed to be the source and summit of our faith, shouldn’t we provide the best quality of lyrics, accompaniment and presentation that we can, and does this style of music best provide those characteristics?

    1. @Paul Fell – comment #8:
      Perhaps this “problem” is not new. It may also be untrue that popular music is as “disposable” as some might think. My father, a lover of big band jazz, lamented its fading as he loudly pontificated that rock music would suffer the same fate. Only with a louder thud at the bottom.

      The truth is that composers like Maria Schneider take the jazz big band into new territory that I think my dad would actually approve of. And my daughter and her generation can enjoy the Beatles as much as, um, Bruno Mars. Poor Dad.

      Turning to church music, I think people look for quality. Few church musicians can pull off what Mr McMillan or Mr Maher do. They are skilled performers and animators. Give ’em credit. My college students wonder why their P&W events fall flat compared to what the evangelicals in town can accomplish. Not everybody has a Matt Maher on the parish staff. In my parish, that certainly ain’t me, whoa, whoa.

      The matter of the appeal to the human affect is another story. Some Catholics are disturbed at “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend.” I think I am too. But mainly because I’m a guy. And secondarily, because I look for more subtlety in music.

      But on the other hand, why do we avoid the emotional side of liturgy? Am I afraid of losing control? My deepest feelings? My lack of affect in my relationship with God? I like the tracing back of affective church music to the deep past. Lots to think about.

  10. I’m going to be working late this evening trying to figure out what do with 40 high school students tomorrow morning at a last-minute “send-off Mass” to the Steubenville Youth Conference. And since I’m no longer serving a metropolitan cathedral with glorious natural acoustics, but now serve a suburban parish with a relatively new “classical”-style church and an acoustical environment that presumes all primary sound sources in the liturgy to be mediated electronically, Fr. Joncas’s musings are timely and provoking. Raised and reared on the “choral experience” as the modality in which the Christian Church prays in the liturgy, I have a persistent mental block when it comes to reconciling liturgy and the NECESSITY of electronic mediation.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the “orthodox/pietist,” logogenic/pathogenic thing. Trying to understand the perspectives of those who want more of the kind of thing demonstrated in the video linked above (which I really like in some way…the way my current late night obsession is the Rolling Stones and Heart, and the way my wife loves U2), I can see that the more traditional celebration of liturgy in my parish is probably high on the “logogenic” scale, and low on the “pathogenic.” I feel it too. Why are the traditional modalities even disappointing to me? We don’t have a natural acoustic adequate to making them work. Ordinary people–those with timid or weak singing and praying voices, or those sensitive enough to want to hear the “corporate voice”–can’t hear each other. Unless some obscenely super-human-scale thing happens sonically by means of electronic mediation, there is no way the liturgy can be engineered to approach this level of “feeling.”

    I don’t have very many rational things to say about this yet, but my gut tells me there is a growing gulf between the experience based on ephemeral technology and the natural order, and that’s were my cognitive and affective dissonance is located.

  11. Thank you all for the best example in a long time – maybe ever – of expounding on and discussing a (potentially) controversial topic with respect and humility. Blessings to all.

  12. Sometimes it seems to me that the prudential judgement favoring sentiment over sentimentality is submerged in the face of a perceived pastoral crisis: the young folk don’t come to church, so let’s try to be more relevant and meet them where they are. In the “Jesus is my lover” category, I was taken aback by the recent use of this Rascal Flatts lyric in a retreat penance service for college students:

    I set out on a narrow way many years ago
    Hoping I would find true love along the broken road
    But I got lost a time or two
    Wiped my brow and kept pushing through
    I couldn’t see how every sign pointed straight to you

    Every long lost dream led me to where you are
    Others who broke my heart they were like Northern stars
    Pointing me on my way into your loving arms
    This much I know is true
    That God blessed the broken road
    That led me straight to you.

    I think about the years I spent just passing through
    I’d like to have the time I lost and give it back to you
    But you just smile and take my hand
    You’ve been there you understand
    It’s all part of a grander plan that is coming true.

    Now I’m just rolling home
    Into my lover’s arms
    This much I know is true
    That God blessed the broken road
    That led me straight to you.

    When I commented on this to a theologian-friend, her comment was, “Yes, and fifty years ago these people would have sung ‘Near thee, Madonna, fondly we hover, trusting thy gentle care to prove’ with a similar emotional valence.”

    Some fraction of the folks among whom I minister operate from a “spirituality with my brain turned off” prayer book. I can’t and I don’t. It seems to me that all of us who lead the church in public worship must operate from the humble and honest stance that the spirit from which we preach and plan and preside will do what the spirit will, acting in God’s people as they need — and that the rites we celebrate have an integrity of their own, which we cannot disregard. Maybe this is the prophetic/incarnational tension instantiated yet again.

  13. I agree with #10 that first and foremost it is quality. Simply follow the Britney Spears without auto-tune release and read the musically reflected responses… Pop songs can be co-opted for religious and maybe liturgical purposes but I think there are some very good emotionally stable hymns that people will sing.

    My issue with choirs is that we sing a song at Mass and then we hear it again four weeks later and the choir director says “why aren’t you singing this, we’ve done it before?” A high schooler will put a song they want to learn on replay until they got it down. As church musicians, we don’t give that luxury.

    I would instruct my choir director that an introduced song needs weeks of repetition so that familiarity will breed participation. Probably the most personal and intimate phrasing song (thanks for that kind sentiment Fr. Joncas) I can think of would be Amazing Grace. But when our high schoolers sing Home by Phillip Phillips, one can sense that they are not singing about a building. We have American Idol, radio stations, and an insurance company to thank for that. Familiarity breeds participation.

    Also…well said #11.

  14. Are we on to a loser when we try to attract people with music that is a poor relation of the kind of thing they know, value and love? Is there a danger of patronising them? My own kids would definitely roll their eyes at that clip.
    As for in the liturgy …. my own personal rule of thumb is that texts that concentrate on “me” rather than “us” are not the way to go.
    For some majestic and spine-tingling heterophony ….. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZBgjepiRJc

  15. Matt Maher has a striking example of Jesus-as-boyfriend in “Lead Me Home”. This was a staple of Masses at Our Lady of Consolation when I was living in Glasgow (2014-5). It left me feeling very odd, as “lover” to me, has a distinctly sexual meaning. Not my favourite song. That said, the indie-rock style of the music at that particular Mass worked very well for me and for the congregation in general, across an age range from zero to ninety.


  16. Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs come off even worse in some of the audio recordings (and publishers still market it as “liturgical music”), particularly with a female lead showing heavy influences of recent simpering pop-tart stylings. A disturbing cousin is the (usually male-sourced) “I-am-Jesus-and-I-want-to-be-your-boyfriend song…I have no problem with using or writing a good paraphrase of Scriptural quotes or ideas, but I find myself put off by first-person “dialog” that has no direct scriptural source, especially the more generically cloying the lyric gets…

  17. I found this essay and the comments very engaging, thank you all. I would like to add one observation to the conversation. An element that I have experienced over and over again both in Catholic liturgical settings, and in Contemporary Christian Praise and Worship settings is how connection to the song, hymn, etc. is established. Since Michael wrote this essay, I will start with On Eagle’s Wings and the hundreds of funeral stories I have listened to from young, old, daily Mass people, Sunday Mass people, Christmas/Easter people, it seems that the song has connected people spiritually to a significant death moment in their life. I have also experienced this in Contemporary Christian Praise and Worship settings, a singer gives a testimony about a significant moment in their faith journey/ spiritual struggle, and explains how the song connects to the moment. Very often, the audience/worshippers share a similar connection and/or gain a new level of connection to the song because of the testimony. I have heard numerous people comment that Now Thank We All Our God, always reminds them of Thanksgiving. Try to imagine Christmas with Joy to the World. There is no substitute for quality music, well written, and well played, and sung, however, it seems possible that the spiritual connection between the music and assembled worshippers can provide an insight into this conversation. Can anyone else connect Hail Mary: Gentle Woman and a May Procession?

  18. Thanks for raising the question as a question, Mike. The post and commentary remind me of this analysis by anthropologist Talal Asad, in his study of the liturgy and homiletics of Bernard of Clairvaux:

    “In this period the majority of the new [monastic] recruits were adults, and usually from the noble or knightly classes. They had therefore participated actively in secular society–unlike most recruits to the older monasteries (including the famous monastery of Cluny) who had lived virtually all their lives in the cloister and been raised in it since childhood. This meant that the new monks had had direct, pleasurable experience of sexual love and knightly violence prior to their having taken up the religious life. Such experiences, Leclerq points out, posed a special problem for religious training …. Bernard set before his novices an authoritative model of virtue toward which they were to aspire, but he also sought to use concupiscence itself as the material for exercising virtue …. this work of transformation required a skillful deployment of biblical language so that it might resonate with, and reintegrate, the pleasurable memories and desires that had been fashioned in a previous secular life” (Asad, Genealogies of Religion, 141-3).

    So Bernard set out to make the monastic life seem (with their willing cooperation) more pleasurable than all their worldly pleasures. And from this quest sprung the immortal (and frankly sensual) Sermons on the Song of Songs. So certainly, this impulse and need has a long history. I think we sometimes overreact when we see parallels with secular desires and pleasures, whereas a real Bernard would probably just sit down and write the best “Jesus is my boyfriend” music ever. I admit, I find most of these songs clunky and unsubtle, but I suspect I would have found the vast majority of homilies from the 12th century clunky and unsubtle too.

    I very much enjoyed the tone of the comments, as well.

  19. I had to smile at the characterization of “I will follow him” as an expression of discipleship for the Sisters in “Sister Act.” There were real life Sisters who had used that song ever since it was popular, privately and silently, as an expression of the tenderness and intimacy with Jesus that was their experience in their celibate prayer life.

    Debbie Boone said in at least one interview that her signature popular song (name escapes me, pardon the senior moment), which sounded romantic, was even more about her relationship with God.

    A rather frumpish looking Sister — now departed, so she can’t be identified from this account — one startled me by saying that “the Lord was the most amazing lover.”

    Mystical bridegroom spirituality may be considered a thing of the past, an oppressive stereotyping of women, too individualistic for today’s needed correctives of community and social justice — but something like it is still part of many persons’ personal experience of their intimacy with God. It’s not just for celibate women anymore.

  20. In the days of Communist Poland there were some popular songs, particularly during the ’70s and ’80s, that on the surface were lovely romantic ballads but were, in fact, cleverly disguised catechetical or praise songs/hymns. (E.g., “Caly Swiat To Ty”) Reminiscent of the symbolism in the Book of Revelation, those “in the know” sang these songs under Communist noses that never picked up the scent of faith being celebrated right in front of them.

  21. RE: Comment 20. Was Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” the title that temporarily escaped you?

    I read this post having just returned from playing the organ at the funeral of a 79-year-old woman who had never married. Throughout his homily the priest referred to her as a “Bride of Christ.” Some days I’m not my best self, so the entire homily I was distracted, thinking, “If I die, he’d better not say that about me.”
    I understand and appreciate Ann Riggs’ comments, but I guess I don’t feel the need to be anyone’s bride in order to validate my existence in this world or the next. But, thanks to this post, I will ponder my perspective.

  22. Am I right, that Pius X’s Tra le sollecitudini (1903) aimed to promote Gregorian chant (+ polyphony) to replace the “operatic” style of music then current in Italian churches – where “operatic” = “popular & emotional”? If so, it’s another instance of this dual dynamic.

    I once summarized the liturgy constitutions’ music chapter in 3 points. In an authentically Vatican II parish: (1) Gregorian chant has “pride of place in liturgical services.” (2) There is music from and in sync with the culture of the people. (3) There are new compositions. That needs nuancing and can be added to, but I still think it’s true to SC, nos. 112-121.

    Half a century later, if we “re-read” that chapter today – looking back to re-appreciate and be grounded in its fundamental principles, looking around at our new context today, looking ahead to the future with its “uncertainties and promises which appeal to our imagination and creativity” (Centesimus Annus, no. 3) – what might such a re-reading contribute to this conversation?

    From point (1), we’d have chant, mostly vernacular, as a steady undercurrent. Maybe from one weekend parish Mass (with other Masses having a single chant element once in a while). That would be an advance and probably far enough, overdue, true to the council, neither retrogressive nor anti-conciliar – no need at all for it to carry that baggage – just take it as a form of liturgical music. I would happily argue, on several grounds, that parishes are deprived if it’s not on the menu.

    Point (2) presumes a VII spirit of welcome toward the culture. We’re discussing how far that welcome extends, but VII opens the door. Point (3): SC 121 says new compositions “have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music” (chant/polyphony?) and foster “active participation of the whole congregation.” How do those two principles apply here: does the popular Christian music Catholics encounter on the radio-TV-computer-phone have qualities proper to sacred music, and foster active…

  23. I am filled with responses to this well crafted, even handed and thought provoking essay, many of which have already been expressed. But the one thing that occurred to me was that, at the liturgy, we are worshipping together, gathered as the Body of Christ. It is hard for me to reconcile the “Jesus is my boyfriend” type of intimate musical exchange with the “us” which happens in the liturgy.
    Yes, we need a personal relationship with Jesus, but that can be expressed in song at almost any other time except the liturgy, when we stand shoulder to shoulder with one another to offer our worship to our God! Use the music at youth gatherings outside Mass, at retreats, at rallys, etc.
    It is akin to a relationship between spouses. They love deeply and they express it in many ways, even physically. But they do NOT express it physically at parties, lectures, school, Church or in public anywhere…..we fervently hope……

  24. I think religious music with youth (many of them that is) and liturgy with youth in the United States is in mission territory and has to be sensitively treated as such. Yes On Eagle’s Wings (#18) holds an emotional and intimate place for many youth and it’s sing ability spans age favoritism…it can be used for funerals and campfires. So for me it is familiarity and quality and words that keep the soul moving that sets the table for that song.

    If the hymn/song means something, can be sung, and is of quality, it has a real possibility of curbing the “divorce” of religion from experience.

  25. My experience is that mist people don’t discriminate between religious songs and liturgical songs. So when “Jesus is my boyfriend” touches a legitimate emotional response to God’s love – as we have seen throughout the ages – it seems to them that it belongs in Mass. I think, partially, this comes from Mass being the only prayer for many people, and partly from a desire to share that experience in a group. Of course,as others have pointed out, it seldom is as satisfying in your average congregation because we don’t all have the musical charismatic leadership.

    Each person’s spiritual experience is unique, and personal prayer is unique. The beauty of liturgical prayer is that it lets us pray as a group. Of necessity, the unique personal aspects of prayer need to be smoothed over so we can all share it. I understand that this can make Mass seem boring or unsatisfying if it doesn’t “touch” you in your own spirituality. But that’s why we all need both personal and corporate prayer.

  26. # 27 I think, partially, this comes from Mass being the only prayer for many people, and partly from a desire to share that experience in a group. …

    This line catches my imagination and the insights in it will keep me thinking this weekend. There is some truth in this that causes me to wrestle with what I do as a minister/prayer leader.

  27. Terri Miyamoto : Each person’s spiritual experience is unique, and personal prayer is unique. The beauty of liturgical prayer is that it lets us pray as a group. Of necessity, the unique personal aspects of prayer need to be smoothed over so we can all share it. I understand that this can make Mass seem boring or unsatisfying if it doesn’t “touch” you in your own spirituality. But that’s why we all need both personal and corporate prayer.

    I think Guardini says something similar: that it is precisely the objective formality of the (then) RC ritual that gave it a capacity to carry each person’s unique spiritual experience, as joined with others in that communal-liturgical form of prayer – and to do so without violating one’s interior depths of faith and spirituality by forcing it out into a public expression for all to see (requiring one, as it were, to wear one’s spiritual heart on one’s sleeve).

    Think of liturgy as expressive, and as formative (John Witvliet used to do a talk on this at the Calvin Vital Worship Grants Program Colloquiums).

    Can highly emotive love-of-God songs be sufficiently broad in their theology & spirituality as to authentically express the wide diversity of personal spiritualities inevitably present in a group of hundreds? Or, if not, is that still okay, if the song’s theology-spirituality is so commendable that its power to form someone into its spirituality is itself a good thing – with the emotionally formative power of the music (and in a communal setting) being a constitutive and in this case beneficial feature of the experience? When, then, does such an emotionally powerful experience become, not formative and beneficial, but manipulative and harmful?

    Steubenville youth conference Eucharistic adoration services yield an emotional high, but I’ve heard some adults who attended call it manipulative – and this when the focus is something solidly Catholic – appreciation for the gift of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. If this kind of experience is manipulative, what makes praise & worship/Jesus is my boyfriend music beneficial?

  28. I wish to commend Mr./Dr./Fr. Johnston’s (one of my hang-ups is to use honorifics unless I know someone well or they have invited me to use more familiar address [and, BTW, I usually ask people to call me “Mike”]) comment at #29 as a wonderfully concise expression of exactly the point of my essay. All too often, I fear, the discussion of what music is “manipulative and harmful” in liturgical settings is like the Supreme Court justice’s reputed comment about pornography: “I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see [hear] it.” Perhaps I am asking for too much clarity, but it would seem to be helpful to formulate at least some tentative guidelines about what music is “formative and beneficial” vs. “manipulative and harmful” in the liturgy that reflect something deeper than my own biases. Perhaps in the end this discussion simply raises the question of liturgical “taste” and we’ll end up agreeing in such matters “non disputandum” but I hope we could still probe more deeply. Thanks to all for their contributions.

    1. @Mike Joncas – comment #30:
      Dear Mike,

      Thank you. It’s Dr. Johnston only when being formal; usually it’s Bill. I’ve used “Michael” (presuming, yet hoping not to be presumptuous, more familiarity than “Fr. Joncas”) just because somehow that’s what I remember (I guess mis-remember) from the ’70s… concerning which I’ve wondered if it might be relevant or of interest here in this conversation to recall the way the introduction of your guitar-and-music into Vespers in the Lady Chapel of Sacred Heart during the liturgy program summer sessions represented, would you think, a modest broadening, in the direction of “music of the culture” (or even, using the categories you named, “orthodox” toward “pietist”??), of the musical style that was then more predominantly what they/we called “contemporary classical,” with modified chant (thanks, e.g., to David Isele, Frank Quinn, et al.).

      That may well read too much into that moment. But if it has any relevance to this discussion, what might it tell us – as regards, for example, distinguishing music meant, in a helpful, formative, beneficial way, to appeal to and give expression to the faith and the heart of a believer in love with God, from music that is introduced and used more manipulatively, even if intended for the same purpose?

      More generally, if the “folk mass” of the ’60s was the Catholic “pietist” response to generations of the more strict and often experienced as distant formality of the Latin Mass (and we went from singing the Missa de Angelis in 1964 to the Missa Bossa Nova in 1966, with all that entails in change of setting, culture, etc. – amazing!), is the difference between that and Jesus-is-my-boyfriend a difference in degree or a difference in kind? That might help me get a better handle on this topic and how I should think about it.

      1. @Bill Johnston – comment #32:

        “what might it tell us – as regards, for example, distinguishing music meant, in a helpful, formative, beneficial way, to appeal to and give expression to the faith and the heart of a believer in love with God, from music that is introduced and used more manipulatively, even if intended for the same purpose?”

        This is worth examining, but it applies to both orthodox and pietist, to both formal and emotional. As Paul touched on in #31 and others have also noted, those of certain generations, or those who are more marginally attached to the Church can experience manipulation in a formal or orthodox musical style that may be completely disconnected from their spiritual experience, and the message of such an encounter can be that they don’t belong.

        That is what makes this question so challenging and important.

  29. As one who came to an approximation of spiritual maturity in the mid-1970’s (aka “The Age of Burlap, to some), I found the first useful distinction to be made when evaluating music for common prayer is the one from #27 above: religious vs liturgical, followed closely by the (perhaps superseded) triple evaluation on musical/ritual/pastoral appropriateness. One large difficulty I’ve encountered in addressing Fr Joncas’s impulse toward “tentative guidelines” lies in the reality that the contours of those guidelines can all too often reflect less a list of musical or pastoral principles (accessibility, authenticity, inclusivity, aesthetic worth, orthodoxy, etc) and more the authority of the listmaker. All too often have I heard, of late, “we do it that way because that’s what the bishop wants…”

    In addition to this bit of realpolitik, I wonder if the commentators in this blog believe there is a difference in the way people under (pick a number) 35 “consume” music. It appears to me that there’s a generational difference in the use of the “playlist as moment-to-moment soundtrack.” Could it be that this constant exposure plays into the “Jesus-is-my-lover” phenomenon — the language of romance and sex has uncritically “leaked” into spirituality image-vocabulary?

  30. I have to correct your lyrics for How He Loves Us. It’s not wet sloppy kiss. It’s unforeseen kiss. (Psalm 85:10; also see Deut. 4:24) While some of the lyrics may seem too personal and the style of music may not suit your taste, the thees and thous of the old hymns do not appeal to many younger people. I have been in services where the hymns were so difficult that they were anything but anthems of glory to God and it would be hard to believe anyone one got anything out of them because it was all they could do to concentrate on trying to sing it correctly. I agree the messages are lovely, but for some, the old style of speaking used in many hymns detracts from easily understanding the message. Organ music is not required for a hymn to honor God, either.

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