A Tale of Two Songs: The Answer

A Tale of Two Songs: The Answer May 17, 2011

Yesterday I conducted a little poll to see whether my readers could tell from isolated snippets whether two songs were Christian or secular. Though I didn’t get quite the response I would have liked (COUGH COUGH… just kidding 😉 ), I got a nice little handful of submissions.
The majority of the votes were divided between option one (both songs are Christian) and option three (the first is Christian, the second secular), with a small percentage voting that they were both secular.

Another small percentage voted for the right answer: option four. Song one is secular, and song two is Christian.
If you’re surprised by that, I don’t blame you. Because if I hadn’t been the one setting up the competition, I probably would have been surprised too.
Let’s talk about song one first. It is called “I See You,” and it’s the theme song from the recent blockbuster film Avatar. (The singer is Leona Lewis—very talented UK “diva.”) These are the full lyrics:
I see you
I see you
Walking through a dream
I see you
My light in darkness breathing hope of new life
Now I live through you and you through me
I pray in my heart that this dream never ends

I see me through your eyes
Living through life flying high
Your life shines the way into paradise
So I offer my life as a sacrifice
I live through your love
You teach me how to see
All that’s beautiful
My senses touch a world I never pictured
Now I give my hope to you
I surrender
I pray in my heart that this world never ends
I see me through your eyes
Living through life flying high
Your love shines the way into paradise
So I offer my life
I offer my love, for you
When my heart was never open
(And my spirit never free)
To the world that you have shown me
But my eyes could not envision
All the colours of love and of life evermore
(I see me through your eyes)
I see me through your eyes
(Living through life flying high)
Flying high
Your love shines the way into paradise
So I offer my life as a sacrifice
And live through your love
And live through your life
I see you
I see you
You don’t really have to know the story to get the gist of the song, but it’s taking off on the movie’s idea of “spiritual seeing” that the noble blue Na’vi have (and the nasty humans, of course, don’t). The two main characters will sometimes say to each other, “I see you,” which is meant to convey something “deeper” than mere physical sight. There’s a good dollop of eco-mysticism woven throughout here, with lots of “colors of the wind” type stuff (for those of you who remember Pocahontas).
But what really disturbs me about this song is the way in which the language borrows from the language of Christianity, so blatantly that most of you thought from the snippets I posted that this was a Christian song. Now, religious love language is not new. There’s a history of love poetry which attributes god or goddess-like characteristics to “the beloved.” However, most romantic poets who used that language in their work did so with a kind of mischief. There was a twinkle in their eye. They knew they were exaggerating, tongue firmly planted in cheek. But this song is different, because it takes itself very seriously. It’s the soundtrack to an epic romance. We’re supposed to feel we’ve listened to something profound when we hear it.
Let’s focus on those snippets again. First:
I see you
My light in darkness breathing hope of new life
Now I live through you and you through me
Does this imagery ring any bells? Sound a little familiar? Maybe a little too familiar? Keep in mind that this is written in the first person from the perspective of the human protagonist, who is falling in love with an alien woman. She is taking on the form of a Savior figure for him. He’s finding “new life” in her. Here’s the second snippet:
Your life shines the way into paradise
So I offer my life as a sacrifice
I live through your love
“Paradise” here refers to the beautiful, untouched world of Pandora, which is then invaded by the humans. (By the way, “heavy-handed” would be the understatement of the year as far as this film’s many and sundry liberal agendas are concerned, but we don’t have time to get into all that today.)  Christ opens the way for Christians to enter paradise, and this woman is doing the same for the speaker. The next line is the creepiest, in my opinion: “I offer my life as a sacrifice.” Yikes! This could refer to a couple of things in the story, but ultimately it probably refers to the fact that the protagonist  sacrifices his human body to become fully Na’vi at the movie’s end. Of course, we as Christians are to offer ourselves as “living sacrifices,” with the small difference that we are doing so for, uh, God. “I live through your love.” Again…sound familiar? Final snippet:
Now I give my hope to you
I surrender

It’s like a twisted mash-up of “Take My Life and Let it Be” and “I Surrender All.” Charming, eh? The speaker is, essentially, placing his soul in the hands of the woman he loves. And through her he has… what? The song tells us: “Life evermore.” Life evermore. As in eternal life.
This is pernicious stuff. It is clear that the writers of this song were intentionally taking language very familiar to Western society, which is steeped in the traditions of Christianity, and using it to suit their own perverted spiritual ends. It goes beyond being just a fluffy pop song, because it’s more dangerous than that. The film it’s based on, of course, is itself pernicious (while managing to be, quite frankly, laughably bad at the same time, pretty blue eye candy or no pretty blue eye candy). It is openly pagan and shows the Na’vi worshiping Pandora’s equivalent of Gaia (Eywa), which really just is The Earth.

However, I’m not really sure which is sadder: the fact that this is a secular song, or the fact that song two really is a Christian song. It’s called “Deep in Love With You,” and it’s by Michael W. Smith. Sorry Smitty, I think you’re a good guy, and you really can write some great music when you put your mind to it, but… major thumbs down here. Now once again, let’s be clear that this is nothing new. The tradition of romanticizing man’s relationship with God goes back for centuries, and traces of it can even be found in hymns like “Jesus Lover of My Soul” and “I Will Arise and Go To Jesus.” This song even borrows the “lover of my soul” phrase at one point. However, those hymns at least boast some excellent poetry and manage to keep a strong sense of dignity about them. This one…well, doesn’t:
I’m deep in love with You, Abba Father
I’m deep in love with You, Lord
My heart, it beats for You, precious Jesus
I’m deep in love with You, Lord

“I can’t resist the tenderness of You” is another line that just about makes me want to…excuse myself. Honestly! Has Christian music sunk so low that we’re no longer capable of expressing our devotion to God beyond the level of a chick-flick script? Now, granted, if you read the lyric as a whole, you would find some doctrinal references that would clarify that it’s a song about God, not a girlfriend. However, the main thrust and the main hook could very easily be taken as such and are hopelessly shallow. Here’s a different song with the same idea:
Every time I breathe You seem a little bit closer
I never want to leave
I want to stay in Your warm embrace
Oh basking in the glory shining from Your face
And every time I get another glimpse of Your heart
I realize it’s true
That You are so marvelous God
And I am so in love with You
And another…
You are my desire
No one else will do
Cause nothing else can take your place
To feel the warmth of your embrace
I’m sorry. I’ll stop now.

This is my point: At heart, both of my original examples are religious love songs. They’re just representing two different trends.  On one side, secular writers are beginning to intensify their religious language when it comes to describing the love between human beings, while on the other side, Christian writers are trivializing their religious language when it comes to the love we have for God. We, believers, are removing the seriousness from religious love language while they, un-believers, are increasing the seriousness of…religious love language. This should be seen as a major threat and a major wake-up call to the Church. Secularism is its own religion. Far from being spiritually neutral, it is revealing itself as deeply  spiritual in its own frightening way. It is imperative that Christian songwriters bring spiritual substance to the table. If they don’t, they will be fighting a dark and powerful enemy with little but flimsy cliches.

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  • K Payne

    I have finally reached my limit with some of the music out here today. There is no thought put into the writing these days and it seems to be a cookie cutter type of business. I am so tired of songs written in some minor key and with lyrics that are sung over and over and call it inspirational. No wonder the world is confused by Christianity. There seems to be no real defining line these days. Writers need to work on songs that are going to make the listener think about their daily walk with God.

  • philwynk

    Turns out I voted correctly.
    There were clues. The second song mentioned “best friend” alongside “passion” and “grace.” “Passion” makes this a love song, of course, but “grace” is something female songwriters seldom say about a male lover, and “best friend” is something male songwriters seldom say about a female lover. So it had to be about Jesus.
    Meanwhile, the motif of “sex is heaven” that shows up in the first song has been common in pop love songs for at least 2 decades, and maybe more like 3, so the overt religious overtones don’t even begin to suggest religion anymore, not if you’ve been paying attention. It’s one of the nastier little tricks the evil one has played on American youth culture, convincing them that what they feel when they’re getting steamed up is what all the religious talk of heaven and grace was REALLY talking about. Then when they discover how little sex really achieves in the absence of permanence, and they’re pregnant, used, and alone, they can blame God. Twisted.
    My comment from yesterday still applies: with all due respect to Michael W. Smith, who is one of the finest songwriters in the world, Christian or otherwise, enough already with the “Jesus is my lover” motif. Once or twice is fine, but a steady diet is going to dwarf the theological growth of the young people in the church.
    As a young believer in the 1970s, I learned a great deal of scripture from the worship choruses we sang: “Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.” “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!” “How lovely are thy dwelling places, my soul longs for the courts of the Lord.” And when we weren’t singing the scriptures, we were rehearsing vital theological truths: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with thee.” Singing these made them sink deep into my soul, where I will never forget them. The Spirit brings them back to me when things get hard and I need to remember.
    Young believers who have grown up on a steady diet of “He’s mighty to save, he has conquered the grave,” and weekly repetitions of “you healed me, you loved me, I love you back, you’re really great” are being cheated, and will suffer for it when they need encouragement.

  • I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. However, I think there’s a little more to the Avatar song than “sex is heaven” because of the mystical/spiritual context of the story. They’re taking elements of various things—Christianity, humanism, paganism—and trying to create their idea of something “spiritual.” The eco-mysticism is related to the religious love language. That’s what makes it extra dangerous.
    You’re funny about modern repetitious fluff in P & W. However, I do have to put in a good word for “Mighty To Save,” which musically doesn’t have a whole lot going for it but does at least have much more doctrinal lyrics than average. I’d take “He rose and conquered the grave” over “feeling the warmth of your embrace” any day.

  • Eugene McCammon

    Great comments. To old opinionated me songs posing as gospel songs lose their posing by carefully and logically citing scriptural quotes – not neccessarilly verbatim – or at least use clear allusions to scripture.

  • K Payne

    I’ll give you the fact that some of these songs do instill doctrinal truths. I guess my problem with the P&W type of music is that I’ve heard so much of it that there seems to be no effort to write anything else. Earl Weatherford taught me alot while I worked for him. His philosophy on music was that if it takes longer to explain a song than it does to sing it, then it’s probably not worth singing. He also said that a singer only has so long ,on any given night, to make a crowd forget about their day and and to focus on the love of God and his blessings. Maybe I really am starting to get old and think like my dad did. Kinda scary!

  • With your dad, that might not be a bad thing at all! 😀

  • philwynk

    I’ll take your word for it w.r.t. Avatar. I deliberate missed the film, knowing in advance what secular/progressive Poisonous Pop Tarts for the Mind I would be subjecting myself to…
    On “Mighty To Save,” clearly I have no objection to Jesus conquering the grave. But, do a little survey someday on the theological truths mentioned in modern, contemporary praise & worship. What you’ll find, I’m pretty sure, is that Jesus loves, saves, heals, rose from the dead, made everything, rules everything, and loves ME ME ME … and that’s about it.
    Think that’s enough theology to get by? or are we perhaps trivializing the truth of God, who provides more mental, emotional, and physical challenge than any of us could manage even if we were to live forever… which we will?
    Just sayin’…

  • philwynk

    BTW, thumbs up on the reference to “Hold Me Close”. That’s a strong contender for Tackiest Jesus Love Song Ever. Eeek. Bleah.

  • Take my word for it: It’s worth missing. Even aside from the numerous spiritual and political problems, it’s not even a GOOD movie. The script practically parodies itself, the plot is a shameless ripoff of about fifteen other films, the acting is barely tolerable, and the music could give you a headache.
    I see your point regarding “me-centric” worship songs, but I wouldn’t say that every worship song containing a personal pronoun is necessarily not focused on God. “Mighty to Save” does contain lyrics asking God to “take me as you find me” and “fill my life,” then expressing the act of surrender to God, all of which seems biblical to me even though it is focusing on the sinner. Others may be more problematic, but I would take them on a case by case basis.
    Yes, agreed on “Draw Me Close.” For some reason, I used to really get into that song. No idea why now.

  • philwynk

    It’s not just the ME-centricity. It’s the repetition of a few, general truths, without discussion, depth, or variation. Compare with the richness of topics you’ll find by flipping through the average, boring pew hymnal.
    Agree w.r.t. the occasional use of the personal pronoun being appropriate. The irony is that among the songs I’m complaining about, some are actually pretty good songs, as songs go. “How He Loves” is good music, not half bad poetry, and a lot of fun to play. (I’m a fairly good bassist, and despite my advanced age, play in several worship bands on occasion.)
    You’ve likely not analyzed it, but “Hold Me Close” is appealing because the music of the chorus is nicely written. There’s a suspended tonic in the bass that’s enhanced by a brief walk through 2 inverted chords, and then it resolves gently. The suspension and the inversions create a nice tension that an audience can feel. So, you weren’t stupid to like it; musically, that part is skillful. The lyrics, sadly, are frightful.

  • Well, obviously I agree that even P & W songs with “good stuff in there” aren’t generally that cohesive or well-crafted. That’s a separate issue though, albeit an important one.
    We’ll have to part ways a bit on “How He Loves.” The poetry is all right, if somewhat purple, but I just can’t get into the music. It has no melody! But maybe I’ve been biased against it because I hate the David Crowder Band with a passion…
    “Draw Me Close” does have very nice music. I used to play it on the piano, though I didn’t analyze the chords. (I could if I wanted to… but I don’t.) I think an even better example along similar lines would be “Above All,” which has really a rather lovely melody, but again, lyrics… meh. “Like a rose trampled on the ground?” Puh-leeze. “You took the fall.” CLICHE! CLICHE! Unless it’s actually a deep metaphor for “the fall” of Adam, but I doubt that much thought went into it…

  • philwynk

    Wow, you’re nailing the “Tackiest CCM of All Time” winners. “Above All” certainly deserves dishonorable mention, and tops the Grating Mixed Metaphors category. Let’s all spit in unison: one, two…
    Crowder’s poetry “purple?” Yeah. I would have said “subtle like a brick to the head,” but we’re noticing the same thing. He does, however, occasionally sound like he’s about to break out of Cliche’ Mode. I really like “Everything Glorious.” And the goat beard with the Geezer glasses and hand-me-down Mr. Rogers sweaters are tres chic, no?
    On the other, so far neglected side of the ledger, several of Matt Redman’s songs succeed where the others fail. “Blessed Be Your Name” deserves to hang around for a century or two, along with “Better Is One Day;” they have in common sitting solidly on specific passages from the scripture; Redman is better about this than most. Chris Tomlin, also, has done a nice job updating some of the better hymns, and “My chains are gone” adds nicely to an Grand Old Chestnut with an unfortunately ordinary melody.
    It’s been nice conversing, and this is a worthwhile topic. Well done, gospel girl.

  • …three! *spit*
    Actually, Crowder didn’t write “How He Loves.” It’s John Mark MacMillan. And I just remembered the “sloppy wet kiss” line which, admit it, is kinda gross.
    Agreed on Crowder’s “I had an unfortunate accident with an electric toaster as a child” hair/beard and geeky glasses. Totally rad.
    Yes, I’ve always liked “Blessed Be Your Name” a lot. It has a good melody, though not a great one, and very good, meaningful lyrics. And it always gives me chills when I hear Steven Curtis Chapman sing it now. Also enjoy Tomlin’s “My Chains Are Gone.” Personally I’m not bugged by the new musical setting, though some people are. One co-blogger has said that it “butchers the classic worse than an 89-year-old grandpa who can’t carry a tune doing it as as a special solo for church.” 😮
    It’s been fun conversing with you too! Come back some time. 🙂

  • philwynk

    Re “butchers the classic”: I think I was unclear. It’s the melody of the ORIGINAL HYMN that I find ordinary and a little boring. It’s pleasant and unoffensive, but frankly does nothing very powerful. The power of the song lies in the lyrics and the story behind them. Tomlin’s additions actually kick it up a notch. So does Todd Agnew’s adoption of the lyrics into “Grace Like Rain,” one of my personal favorites. Two notches, in Agnew’s case.
    I know I’m committing heresy, and now need to bathe in John Newton’s swill bucket to obtain forgiveness. Do pray for my soul.

  • Ah, okay, now I see.
    Now that I know you like Todd Agnew, I most certainly will pray for your soul!

  • Thanks Eugene! I agree, Scripture allusions never hurt.

  • philwynk

    PS: Since I seldom hear the recorded versions of songs and only experience them while playing in church, I’ve only encountered a modified version of “sloppy wet kiss.” The sanitized version for church has it as “unforseen kiss,” which is not only not gross, but actually fits the verse better and creates a metaphor that’s delightful: where heaven meets earth, one experiences a sharp thrill that is completely unexpected. It’s a great image.
    I agree that “sloppy wet kiss” deserves dismissal. And I don’t like dog slobber much, either.

  • philwynk

    Don’t get me wrong about Todd Agnew: my reaction to most of what he’s recorded has been “Hmm, good players in that band, but he sure could use a professional lyricist.” The only songs of his that I even tolerate are the ones where he’s borrowed his lyrics from the ancients: “Grace Like Rain,” and “Our Great God.” But I really like those two.

  • “It is imperative that Christian songwriters bring spiritual substance to the table. If they don’t, they will be fighting a dark and powerful enemy with little but flimsy cliches.”
    I’m not 100% positive, but it seems you are going after specifically CCM songwriters, not ALL Christian songwriters…These types of lyrics can be seen in SG music too, you know.
    Sometimes the little boy in me
    Still wants to climb on my father’s knee
    When the world outside gets too big for me
    When the fear’s too much for me to hide
    And my fondest dreams have almost died
    He always understands me when I say
    Hold me, hold me
    I’m so afraid of the storm
    Hold me, hold me
    I’ll be safe in my father’s arms
    Now there I’m grown and older
    That doesn’t mean that I’m brave or bauld
    But oh, I want so much to serve you
    So I’ll follow if you lead the way
    As long as you’re not too far away
    Just close enough to hear me when I say
    Hold me, hold me
    I’m so afraid of the storm
    Hold me, hold me
    I’ll be safe in my father’s arms (x2)
    Wheres the spiritual substance in that? Or how about…
    I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows,
    I believe that somewhere in the darkest night, a candle glows,
    I believe for everyone who goes astray, someone will come to show the way,
    I believe, I believe.
    I believe above the storm a smallest prayer will still be heard,
    I believe that someone in the great somewhere hears every word,
    Every time I hear a newborn baby cry, or touch a leaf, or see the sky,
    Then I know why, I believe.
    Every time I hear a newborn baby cry, or touch a leaf, or see the sky,
    Then I know why, I believe.
    And yet these two songs have been recorded by a couple of the best SG quartets of all-time…does that mean we just ignore them because they’re SG?

  • Josh, I never said that southern gospel was completely immune from fluffy lyrics. However, at the moment I was focusing on a specific phenomenon, namely, religious love language, which isn’t an observable phenomenon in SG. But of course I’m looking for substance from all writers.
    I’m not familiar with the first song you quoted, but it seems sweet and at least makes a point of describing the relationship as son to father versus lover to lover. As for the second song, I hate that song and always have. So there you are. 😉 Still, I think there’s a distinction to be made between generically fuzzy lyrics and lyrics that are fuzzy in a particularly important area where secular songs provide potent and dangerous counterparts.

  • I don’t go for the second one.
    The first one was done by George Younce and redone by Kirk Talley on Songs I Wish I’d Written. The part that grabbed me was, “But oh, I want so much to serve You. So I’ll follow … if I know You’re not too far away…” The other night at church I got up and kind of apologized before the song. I said something like, I have to sing what I feel like resonates with my heart at the time, and this is all I can find tonight.” And that’s what I sang.
    Songs should teach. But the essence of poetry is that it communicates through our emotions, and at times we just have to grab what we can get and hold on. A few years ago, I spent weeks just able to sing, “I’m not giving up … I’ll keep holding on … By the grace of God…”