There is no doubt that music is a major part of society, both present and past. Music uniquely expresses feelings, opinions, and experiences. Musical expression has evolved over time to include a wide range of genres and changing styles that rise and fall with popularity. The church is no exception: hymns have been sung as a core component of worship services for many years, while many churches today sing contemporary Christian songs. Worship is an expression of one’s relationship with Christ, and music is an important type of worship among Christians. As styles and lyrics of worship music have changed drastically over time, the ways in which theology and faith are portrayed have changed as well. Looking at the lyrics of hymns and popular songs from different eras may help us learn how people in those times understood their faith. This paper will explore some of the ways that Jesus has been depicted in music from the 1800s to today.
One of the most prominent types of religious music is hymns, which date back centuries. The oldest known hymn that is still sung today is “Phos Hilaron,” which dates to the late 200s or early 300s; more popular is “Be Thou My Vision,” with lyrics that were written sometime in the 6th–10th centuries. Many of these songs are well known by Christians, even today, and often rely on Scripture to form their lyrics. Many hymns take words of Jesus and adapt them into stanzas that are easily performed and sung.1 Songs written using Jesus’ words lead people to sing from his perspective. This helps those listening or singing to see how Jesus calls each person and how his words speak directly to them.
Not only do hymns integrate the words of Jesus and other parts of the New Testament, words from the Old Testament are often found as well. As the Old Testament was written before Jesus’ coming, there is more focus on God the Father. The common theme of the “God of the Ages” emphasizes that God has always been there, has always provided in the past, and will continue to provide in the future. We can see this in a popular hymn from the 1700s, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,”2 which references how God was present in the journeys of the Israelites and will continue the same in the present day:
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death and hell’s Destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to Thee
By the 1900s, religious music had become quite popular in the Southern United States. African Americans were struggling to gain equality and were dealing with racist and violent actions towards their communities. One way they coped with this reality was through music. Many songs from this era depict Jesus as having a listening ear and a watchful eye. Amid the fear present in the earthly world, these songs focused on a divine presence who could transcend their earthly fear and suffering, one with whom they could communicate through song and prayer.
One might expect music from the 1900s to depict Jesus rescuing his people from their trials. While some music from this period does portray Jesus as a savior, more of it “show[s] Jesus as a protector, comforter, friend, and redeemer, rather than a direct liberator.”3 Rather than focusing on Jesus’ rescue in their time of need, people of this time period made music that declared Jesus was already with them. “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” was popular with many religious people of the time. The lyrics describe Jesus as a “friend who watches day and night” as well as one who “hears [and answers] the faintest cry.”4 Jesus is depicted as an ever-present help and comfort, giving people the strength they need to endure each trial that comes their way and encouraging others to come to know his love.
By the 1950s and 1960s, another theme that emerged was of the supernatural battles between the devil and Jesus. People viewed their earthly suffering as part of a larger picture, a minor battle in the war between good and evil. Wilson writes that in order to end up on the winning side of the battle, people emphasized repentance of their sins in the hope of avoiding judgment.5 A song titled “We are Living in the Last Days Now”6 summarizes Jesus’ story and calls his people to repentance. Its lyrics read:
We have heard the wondrous story of the Christ of Calvary
How He died to save poor sinners deeply bound
He ascended back to heaven but He said I’ll come again
We’re living in the last days now
Oh sinner go pray ask forgiveness my friend
For that judgment day is surely comin’ round
Much of present-day worship music has taken a different look and feel than the music that has come before it. Many of today’s songs are crafted with a few things in mind, mainly the listener’s ability to sing along and to remember the words. In an analysis of some of today’s most popular worship music, Andrew Goodliff, an ordained Baptist minister, highlights a common theme: “a vast majority of the songs … [are] addressed to or about Jesus.”7 Some songs use the name of Jesus directly, while others refer to him with titles such as “Light of the World” and “Prince of Peace.” There is an abundance of music focused on Jesus’ character. These lyrics by Paul Oakley are one example of a song of this type: “My Prophet, Priest and King / My boast, my hope, my victory / My Sacrifice, my Lamb / My song through all eternity.”8 This is similar to the way Southern spiritual music depicts Jesus in that Jesus is seen as someone who is ever-present and approachable.
Many contemporary worship songs exemplify Jesus as the figure-head of faith or on the Godhead as a whole, with less direct reference to God the Father or to the Holy Spirit. Goodliff has found a lack of mention of the Trinity, with less than 2% of songs studied demonstrating clearly the connection between Father, Son, and Spirit.9 This primary focus on Jesus also raises concern about the credibility of what is being said about him. When taken out of the context of the Scriptures, it is easy to describe Jesus as the fulfiller of whatever is needed, rather than what is theologically accurate. This can lead to ignoring the notion of the Trinity with focus on only one person of the triune God.
It is also becoming increasingly common for contemporary songs to focus on Jesus as the satisfaction of human desire. Jesus is seen as the culmination of all that could ever be needed, so that if one could find Jesus, one would have it all. These lyrics from Tim Hughes show this need for Jesus: “My Jesus, my lifeline / I need you more than I’ve ever known / There’s no one quite like you / I’m crying out for your loving.”10 From this, the listener learns that if she calls out to Jesus, he will listen to her, and hopefully meet her needs.
Modern secular musicians have also taken to creating music focused on Jesus. One artist whose music often tops Billboard charts has released an entire album that he describes as a worship album, combining his hip-hop and rap style with lyrics of praise for Jesus. Kanye West shocked his fans when he announced his worship album “Jesus is King” in 2019. The album is short, but there are obvious clues in the lyrics as to how Kanye West views Jesus.
The title itself is the first way that West declares his view of Jesus. This image of Jesus as a king is seen throughout the album, but most obviously in the song “Closed on Sunday.” In this song, West explains how he desires to practice Christianity and live a life devoted to Christ.11 The lyrics state: “I bow down to the King upon the throne / My life is His, I’m no longer my own.”12 This shows that West sees his relationship with Jesus as submissive, acting as Jesus would want him to.
The album also includes a song titled “Selah,” based on a word often used in the book of Psalms in the Old Testament. This song alludes to the connection between God and Jesus. West describes “God as King,”13 showing some understanding of Jesus and God as one being. There is also humanization of Jesus evident in the song, with a line stating, “Then Jesus did the laundry,” as well as mention of the words of Jesus: “John 8:36 / To whom the Son set free is free indeed / He saved a wretch like me.”14 These lyrics show that there is a basic understanding of who Jesus is, but do not include any additional mention of theology.
The final song on the album is titled “Jesus is Lord.” There is an emphasis on the fact that following Jesus is not an individual activity, rather it is to be done within a community. The song is based on Philippians 2:10–11 and repeats the refrain: “Every knee shall bow / Every tongue confess / Jesus is Lord.”15 In quoting the words of Paul in Philippians, this song is similar to the way that older hymns used the direct words of Jesus in their music. West makes it clear he understands that religion is bigger than himself alone and the emphasis is on Jesus as the supreme entity
As music has changed over the years, in both sacred and secular forms, it is clear that the way Jesus has been depicted through it has evolved as well. From classic hymns that focus on the words of Jesus himself, to secular music that touches on the broad elements of Christianity, and everything in-between, our music has expressed many different views on who Jesus is. Some themes used in music to describe Jesus have changed, but certain themes, like Jesus’ willingness to listen and accept praise from his people, have stood the test of time. While the extent to which it is theologically accurate is debatable, it is evident that musicians tend to adapt Jesus to their present-day situations in order to make their music accepted by the people of their time.
Claire Leikert ‘22 is majoring in Business and minoring in
Religion. She is from Ludington, MI. We thank Dr. Wayne
Brouwer (Religion) for his involvement with Claire’s piece.
1 Anthony Esolen, “Illuminations: O for a Thousand Hymns to Sing!,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 32, no. 6 (2019): 52–53.
2 William Williams, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” 1745, trans. Peter Williams, in Psalter Hymnal: Centennial Edition (Grand Rapids: Publication Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, 1959), 407.
3 Charles Reagan Wilson, “Mississippi Rebels: Elvis Presley, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the South’s Culture of Religious Music,” Southern Quarterly 50, no. 2 (2013): 16.
4 Cleavant Derricks, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” Stamps-Baxter Music, 1937.
5 Wilson, “Mississippi Rebels.”
6 The Bailes Brothers, “We’re Living in the Last Days Now,” Columbia, 1947.
7 Andrew Goodliff, “‘It’s All About Jesus’: A Critical Analysis of the Ways in Which the Songs of Four Contemporary Worship Christian Songwriters Can Lead to an Impoverished Christology,” Evangelical Quarterly 81, no. 3 (2009): 256.
8 Paul Oakley, “How Sweet My Saviour’s Name,” on Be Lifted Up, Thankyou Music, 2006.
9 Goodliff, “All About Jesus,” 262.
10 Tim Hughes, “My Jesus, My Lifeline,” on Here I Am to Worship, Thankyou Music, 1997.
11 Christ Lambert, “‘Jesus is King’ Explained: A Guide to the Story and Themes of Kanye West’s 2019 Album,” Forbes, October 31, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrislambert/2019/10/31/jesus-is-king-explained-a-guide-tothe-story-and-themes-of-kanye-wests-2019-album/#4f133ec27961
12 Kanye West, “Closed on Sunday,” on Jesus is King, DefJam Recordings, 2019.
13 Kanye West, “Selah,” on Jesus is King, DefJam Recordings, 2019.
14 West, “Selah.”
15 Kanye West, “Jesus is Lord,” on Jesus is King, DefJam Recordings, 2019.