With its Latin-tinged beat and its languorous tempo – not to mention its sultry (yet tasteful) video – the song is undeniably sexy. Considering its title, you might then assume that it’s yet another secular song based on the shopworn “lover-as-savior” trope.
But it’s not.
You see, Michael wrote this song after the death of his lover, the Brazilian fashion designer Anselmo Feleppa, of AIDS. It’s a powerful and personal response to the tragic loss of a young man ripped from this world far too soon.
It’s a remarkable song that invites us into the mind of someone wrestling with grief. Written in an era when homosexuality was rarely mentioned overtly in the public square – and was far less tolerated than today – it showed many listeners that gay love was just the same as straight love. It humanized a social issue that was becoming more and more divisive at the time. It reminded listeners in an intensely personal way that, no matter what they though about homosexuality, the issues surrounding it concerned real love between real people.
Regardless of one’s views on homosexuality, this song’s ability to foster empathy makes it valuable for us Christians. Though our lives may be full of blessings right now, this song’s powerful depiction of of a man grieving reminds us that there are undoubtedly dozens of people around me at any time who are hurting. It reminds us of the ministry of compassion that we have taken on as followers of Christ.
For this reason alone, “Jesus to a Child” can be a way for us to experience God’s presence in our life. And we have not even started to explore the song’s striking reference to Jesus himself.
In my own scholarly research (to be published at the end of 2020), I’ve learned that Jesus actually appears in a surprising number of secular songs: almost 500 since 1969. As you might imagine, these songs view Jesus in a wide variety of ways. But few of them display such an accurate and compelling understanding of Jesus as this one. As a result this song has much to teach us. In fact, it has so much to say that I’ve decided to split this article into two posts.
PART 1: LOVE
We’ve already established that “Jesus to a Child” is a love song. But it’s also more. It’s both a memorial and a eulogy for a man cut down in his youth by a deadly disease.
“Jesus to a Child” memorializes Feleppa by bathing us in a sonic environment that signifies the love between the two men: and yes, that love clearly included sex.
In Greek, the word for his kind of love is eros. It refers to physical, sexual attraction, and – believe it or not – it shows up throughout the Bible, where it refers to love between husband and wife. Of course, some Christians may believe that the Bible’s embrace of eros does not extend to two men who love each other deeply. While I disagree, this is not the point I’m trying to make here. In context of this column, I just want to point out at the start that I have not missed the eroticism of the song. There’s no way to avoid the fact that Michael’s song memorializes his love in a way that honors both romance and sex.
What I want to focus on is the other kind of love that this song explores, what the Bible calls agape:
Agape love is unconcerned with the self and concerned with the greatest good of another. Agape isn’t born just out of emotions, feelings, familiarity, or attraction, but from the will and as a choice. Agape requires faithfulness, commitment, and sacrifice without expecting anything in return.
George Michael experienced agape in the love of Anselmo, and most of the song focuses on describing that love. That makes it not just a memorial, but also a eulogy: an opportunity for Michael to praise Anselmo by celebrating those aspects of his character that made him worthy of his love.
As such, this song is remarkable in the world of pop music. Most “love songs” are actually about the object of one’s love (“She’s so great!”) and about the desire we have for the object (“I want to hold your hand!”) They are songs about eros because they are principally about the feeling we have for someone else. And a feeling is of course fundamentally self-oriented: we experience desire and we want it to be satisfied.
“Jesus to a Child” is different. It is about the love Michael received from Anselmo, love that was kind, generous, and tender. Not selfish, but selfless. Humble. It was not a love that treated Michael like an object of desire, but instead as a human being worthy of his respect and care. It was like the love that Jesus had for the little children:
Kindness in your eyes
You heard me cry
You smiled at me
Like Jesus to a child
Sadness in my eyes
No one guessed
Or no one tried
You smiled at me
Like Jesus to a child
We often describe agape as“Christ-like” because Jesus was its ultimate embodiment. He was faithful to everyone, especially to his Father. He was committed to his message – even to the point of death. And of course he sacrificed his life for his friends. In doing so, he redeemed us, giving us access through him to a fundamentally different way of being in the world. His agape shattered the paradigms of greed and lust for power that are destroying our society, our relationships, and even our planet. When the song says “They will know we are Christians by our love,” agape is the kind of love it means.
George Michael and Christianity
We Christians recognize Anselmo’s love as agape. What is interesting is that George Michael does as well, despite the anger he felt toward institutional Christianity.
Michael was raised Protestant, but never practiced a faith as an adult. So perhaps you might think that he is just using Jesus in this song as a convenient signifier, a name that lends instant gravitas to a tribute song. But listen again. The name “Jesus” is the highest note that he sings in the entire song. It’s also the culmination of the long melody that climbs, inexorably, from the beginning of the verse, peaking at its last line. There’s no way to avoid it: Jesus is the most important word of the song, the goal toward which the melodic, lyrical, and dramatic structures of the song are leading. Michael is investing the name with expressive power for a reason: because thinking of Jesus’s love immediately resurrects Anselmo’s love in his memory.
This is even more striking because, as a gay man, Michael had lived a life in which Christian society had judged him to be a sinner. But while he seemed to have maintained an interest in religion (even recording songs like “Faith” and “Praying for Time”), Michael had even more personal reasons for rejecting certain brands of Christianity:
One of the most heartbreaking things I ever saw was when I went into Anselmo’s room one afternoon and he was sitting there in bed with his prayer cards. I just thought to myself, ‘Please don’t tell me you think you’re going to hell.’ It makes me so angry and I sincerely hope he didn’t fear that.”
–from a 2004, GQ Magazine article, available here.
Not long after this incident, Feleppa was dead. One wonders what kinds of conversations he had had with Michael as his death approached. Did Feleppa confide that he feared for his eternal soul because of his sexuality? We’ll never know. But because Michael described this anecdote in 2004, it clearly still weighed upon him nine years after Feleppa’s death. The wounds inflicted by Christianity were still raw.
Considering all of this, how could George Michael have written a song that points to Jesus as the exemplar of Feleppa’s love?
The answer lies in agape itself. Exploring that dimension of the song – and of George Michael himself – will be the focus of the second part of this article.