A simple Google search of the words “sexual innuendo Christian worship songs” will get you plenty of articles about how ripe with sensuality the average contemporary church service is. Lyrics such as, “Your fragrance is intoxicating/in our secret place” (from a song by Casting Crowns); “I want to touch you, I want to see your face, I want to know you more” (from famous Australian church Hillsong); or, “hungry I come to you/for I know You satisfy” (also from Hillsong, and also accompanied by the repeated lines “I’m falling on my knees/offering all of me”) are regularly belted by believers. With their hands raised to the sky, they show no signs of embarrassment.
Even though their interpretations of such words appear as pure as the driven snow, there’s little point in mocking the trend, or making junior high jokes. It’s likely that any devoted church-goer over the age 16 is probably whispering similar jokes to their fellow congregants, even as they continue singing the words and meaning them from the bottom of their hearts. Yes, they get it--assuming they haven’t gone so far as to live on a commune with no access to popular culture--and they brush it off. In my experience, identifying the hilarious double entendre-laden lyrics of modern Christian worship is one thing the church can actually have a sense of humor about.
Less funny is the way that young Evangelical people who are commanded to be chaste actually do sublimate their sexuality into their feelings about Jesus. The saucy lyrics might elicit a knowing glance and muffled snickers, but those are superficial delights. Underneath the words, behind the music, the hearts of young folks in the throes of worship are bursting with a sublime love for their savior.
This love, while exciting, is subtly confusing. There’s nothing to compare it to in mundane life. We have platonic love and romantic love, and the latter is, culturally speaking, meant to transcend the former. If this is the case, with what concepts and words do we understand and categorize our feelings for Jesus--a being who was a man but now exists supernaturally, much like a ghost? Not only that, a “man” who loves us, as individuals, unconditionally. Since our society’s heteronormative lexicon does not offer us an analogue for love that is both incredibly intimate and asexual, it seems to me (and felt to me, when I experienced it myself) that Christians--especially young Christians--slip into a somewhat amorous way of speaking and thinking about Jesus. He comes to take on a romantic role, whether or not one realizes it.
At least two factors make young Evangelicals particularly vulnerable to this “Boyfriend Jesus” syndrome. The first is, of course, the virgin vow. Christians, for the most part--and definitely Evangelical Christians--are instructed not to have sex with someone unless they are married to that someone. Regardless of how silly you lucky lifelong seculars might find such a commandment (and by the way, Christians are still having sex before and outside of marriage; they just pretend they aren’t) the fact is that it moves into the realm of psychologically problematic when you’ve got young folks whose very present, totally normal sex drives are not being dealt with or discussed. Is there an acceptable way to channel those desires, which aren’t going to go away, into something worthy of God?
As if those natural sexual urges aren’t enough, throw into the mix a popular culture that idolizes not only sex but “romance”. You are nothing if you are not romantically partnered in our society. Everything is less fun--meals, movies, trips, holidays...none of it, we’re told, can truly be enjoyed except in the presence of someone you’re sleeping with. Evangelical Christianity does little to combat this notion. Marriage is idealized, and made even more intriguing by the fact that it magically makes sex okay all of a sudden. The notion that God desires for each person to be coupled is literally preached from pulpits. And this is not even to mention that the idea is simultaneously negatively reinforced by the stark reality that, at a certain point, there is no place or care for you in the community if you do not have a significant other.
So, you can understand why I wanted it, and wanted it bad: to be in love; to be the object of love; to know the reassurance of a (male) figure by my side, accepting my affection and adoration; to live the fantasy. And the church, it turns out, had just the solution--a gentleman who, we were told, literally existed in order to give his life for us. Whose love was, in a word, perfect. He was the one we were to adore and direct all of our affection toward. His name was Jesus, and he was available to us at any time. It was in this way that I fell in love with a long-dead Middle Eastern Jew. There was even a song to express exactly my sentiment (or to tell me what sentiment to have, depending on how you look at it): “Jesus, I am so in love with you.” I’ve sung it at least a hundred times in my life.
Here’s the problem, though--I didn’t know what it meant to be “in love” with someone at the time that I started consciously having these feelings for Jesus, which was, big surprise, just after I’d finished puberty. Maybe no one ever knows until they’re in the middle of it, but I had never even had a shot at it with a human male, let alone a supernatural being. As such, I was only guessing that how I felt about Jesus was the same as “being in love”, just like I was only guessing that everything I was believing in and adhering myself to was right. What did I know of the world and its nuances and bounty of information a the time I committed myself to Christ? Very little; yet there I was.
Even more suspect than my naive claim to be in love with a dude that (a) I had never met, (b) lived two thousand years ago, and (c) existed for eternity as a spirit in heaven was the way I was also, inevitably, constructing my understanding of the experience of partnered love based on what I was “experiencing” in relationship with Jesus. And what was that experience? Well, no two-way communication for one. I could say and feel any which way toward Jesus and not only would he not respond, I could also easily live in the extravagant fantasy that, were he physically present, he’d be totally cool with all of my moods and words. Not very good training for actual human-to-human negotiations, it turns out.
Not only was Jesus not there to talk to, he wasn’t there to touch. I don’t meant that I wanted to make out with him (though maybe I did and I just didn’t realize what those feelings were at the time)--I mean that there was no satisfying way to make a gesture of affection. The feelings kept building and building and there was never any release (even of the non-sexual kind) which spun me back into the turbulent cycle of the building of those feelings once again. Why was that an unhealthy lesson to learn about love? Well, I never had the experience of wanting to be away from someone’s company, even though I loved them. I never had the experience of the ebb and flow of physical attraction vis a vis the one I was with. In a way, it was ideal. And yet, the person I loved wasn’t actually there, so any way you slice it I was still caught on the reality of my fleshly life.
Maybe it isn’t that big of a deal that I basically dated Jesus until I was twenty-five years old. Not that I didn’t go out on dates with human gentlemen in that time, but they were few and far between and none of what I felt for them was “love”. Still, isn’t it interesting how an all-encompassing, exclusionary belief system like (Evangelical) Christianity finds ways to slide its tentacles into the throbbing spaces of all your dreams and desires? It asks of you things that are either biologically or culturally unnatural and figures out how to compensate you for your sacrifice in a way that makes sense in that world. Sure, singing weirdly erotic songs to Jesus while in a dark room surrounded by rows and rows of other people might have been a bit healthier than an adolescence spent searching for a hyper-sexualized version of love from a bunch of random guys, but I didn’t learn anything either.
Growing up takes a lot longer in the church; it’s like dog years versus human years: ten church years of living = three years of real-world living. So if you’re still recovering from your conservative Christian upbringing, it’s okay. We got held back. There’s still time, and the world isn’t actually as mean and judgmental as we were told. We’re just unlearning the rusty old ways we inherited, which is true for everybody regardless of whether they were raised in church or not. Everybody has their own Boyfriend Jesus they have to break up with, and I’m excited for every person who has the courage to make that move.