On the uneasy similarities between Christian and secular music

Christian music is the “easiest, crappiest music in the world,” says Eric Cartman in the South Park episode “Christian Rock Hard.” “If we just play songs about how much we love Jesus,” he continues, “all the Christians will buy our crap!”

I’ve never been a fan of Christian music. Growing up in a church, I had trouble differentiating between one acoustic guitar-driven, three-cord rock song and the next, with lyrics that seemed to be randomly assembled from a grab bag of Christianese buzzwords. Some people could really get into worship songs, but to me, they all kind of sounded the same.

Faith + 1, the fictional album Eric Cartman creates in the episode.

While attending church on Sundays, I also went through an intense South Park phase during my middle school years, binge-watching entire seasons in the span of days. (I hope I’m not alone in this regard.) There was something intoxicating about the show’s vulgarity, cynicism, and self-righteousness. “Look at how much everything sucks!” the show declared, inviting you to point and laugh. Being an impressionable pre-adolescent, I gladly complied.

South Park is famous for satirizing everything and offending everyone. Nothing is sacred and everything is a target, including, of course, Christianity. The songs Cartman writes for his fictional Christian band, Faith + 1, are hilariously blasphemous: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” he sings, “why don’t we just shut off the light.”

To write Christian songs, Cartman says, all you have to do is “take regular old songs and add Jesus stuff to them” by crossing out words like “baby” and “darling” and replacing them with “Jesus.” The distinction between secular love songs and Christian songs, South Park suggests, is superficial. When Faith + 1 attracts the attention of a Christian record label, one of the executives says that Cartman does not just “really love Christ” but is actually “in love with Christ.”

This is an interesting point to make. God’s love is a dominant theme in the Bible and contemporary Christian music; almost every worship song features some sort of declaration of love for God. South Park argues that the spiritual, transcendent love described in Christian music may not be all that different from the romantic, erotic love described in secular music. Cartman’s inappropriately sexual lyrics immediately reminded me of John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves”: “So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss / And my heart turns violently inside of my chest.” (To be fair, McMillan said in an interview that the line, “out of context, has a sexual connotation,” though when he wrote it he “never thought of it that way.”)

All of which brings me to my all-time favorite Christian song, Sufjan Stevens’ “To Be Along With You.”

Stevens is not a “Christian” musician in the traditional sense. His songs aren’t played in church services. His lyrics sometimes include four-letter words. His albums are usually categorized as “indie rock” rather than “Christian/inspirational.” Stevens identifies, however, as a Christian, and his music often contains religious allusions and subject matter. Seven Swans is his mostly overtly Christian album, with song titles like “Abraham” and “The Transfiguration.”

What makes “To Be Alone With You” so brilliantly and quietly subversive is the way it uses the style of secular love ballads to talk about religious love. Over quiet acoustic strumming, Stevens sings in a hushed voice, “I’d swim across Lake Michigan / I’d sell my shoes . . . To be alone with you.” On the surface, it sounds like yet another delicate, painfully sensitive love song, much like Stevens’ own “The Dress Looks Nice On You.”

Yet in the next verse, Stevens reveals the identity of the object of his devotion: “You gave your body to the lonely / They took your clothes.” If there is any doubt as to whether or not Stevens is singing about Jesus, he includes the line, “To be alone with me you went up on the tree.” (“Tree” being a metaphor for “cross,” though apparently there’s debate as to how exactly Jesus was crucified.)

Stevens suggests (at least, according to my interpretation) the only way we can comprehend God’s inherently incomprehensible love for us is to compare that love to the flawed, imperfect nature of romantic love. Romantic love is but a poor reflection of God’s love, but it’s the best we can do. “To Be Alone With You” is, essentially, a love song dedicated to Jesus — a worship song disguised as secular music, or maybe the other way around.

Maybe a love song is the most honest way to grapple with God’s perfect love. In short, maybe Cartman was right, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh. Read more at boen.cool

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