Sure, pop music seems to have little in the way of ... umm ... depth ("boom boom boom, even brighter than the moon moon moon" -- thank you, Katy). The question is whether God is present even in what can seem to be vacuously superficial. Can what initially appears to be a cheesy song about teenage romance actually be a way to imagine God singing sweet nothings to you? Can our inability to get Carly Rae out of our heads actually help us live out the Gospel ideal of praying without ceasing?
Of course, it's not always so easy. I mean, who doesn't "Believe in a Thing Called Love"? Sometimes it's just not possible for me to imagine God and myself "rocking 'til the sun goes down." And sometimes pop songs are just distracting (in an all-time you-gotta-be-kidding-me moment, one of my least favorite songs of all time, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper, infiltrated my mind at perhaps the worst possible time: while trying to pray with the Passion. Yup, that was pretty bad.)
Sometimes the only thing I can do is baptize a song, turn it into something about the Christian life regardless of what it was supposed to mean. On a recent silent retreat, for example, I just couldn't keep a certain song, one that's not exactly retreat material, out of my head (OK, it was "Wild Ones" by Flo Rida ft. Sia -- so good!). Instead of trying to repress it, which only made me think about it more, I decided that I would turn the phrase "wild ones" into a description of all those people Jesus invited to walk with him along the adventurous road toward the Kingdom of God. I'll confess that I was more or less pumped that I managed to get Flo Rida to help me focus on the Kingdom of God.
Even aside from than the lyrics and music videos, baptizing a song that really doesn't serve God can be a little duplicitous, especially when the artists have made some less-than-edifying personal choices. It is no doubt easier to see the presence of God in someone who not only performs a catchy song but also lives a virtuous life.
All of that is true. But the deal is that all of us are imperfect carriers of God's grace. At least that's what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ seems to have had in mind when he wrote, "by virtue of Creation, and still more the Incarnation, nothing here is profane for those who know how to see."
With Teilhard's blessing, here's my top-10 list of pop songs that might secretly be about God (or at least have messages that God might want us to hear). Alright, no more caveats, here's the list.
The "This Is Too Easy Because I Already Imagine God Singing Them To Me" Division
10. OneDirection -- "What Makes You Beautiful"
Best Line: "You don't know you're beautiful. If only you saw what I can see..."
I really don't like OneDirection, and this song seems both too sappy and manufactured for pre-teen girls. That said, I can't fight a good message, and this is one we simply cannot hear enough. We are loved into being by God, and yet we can hate ourselves for our flaws. If only we could see what God can see, we'd know that we actually are beautiful.
9. Drake ft. Rihanna -- "Take Care"
Best Line: "I know you've been hurt by someone else. If you let me, here's what I'll do: I'll take care of you. When you're ready, just say you're ready."
Understatement of the year alert: not all of Rihanna's songs are easy to pray with. But I have to admit that a few of her songs lend themselves to ruminating on messages I have to think God wants us to internalize. Because we have been hurt. We have built walls to protect ourselves. Without coercing us God simply whispers, "You are precious; you are mine. Just say you're ready and let yourself be loved by me."
The "Did They Steal That Line From Scripture? No, Really, Did They?" Division
8.vTaylor Swift -- "Eyes Open"
Best Line: "The night goes dark. Keep your eyes open. Everybody's waiting for you to break down. Everybody's watching to see the fallout. Even when you're sleeping, keep your eyes open."
Was Taylor meditating on the Gospel of Matthew while singing this song for the "Hunger Games" soundtrack? Because she sounds an awful lot like Matthew 25:13, "stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
Taylor also might be discovering Ignatian spirituality, because there are some odd parallels between her admonitions about what to do when "the night goes dark" and Ignatius' instructions for what to do when we're in desolation and feel far from God. Whenever we're immersed in desolation and tempted to give up on God, that is exactly the time to "keep [our] eyes open" and to fight such a temptation.
7. Fun. -- "We Are Young"
Best Line: "Tonight we are young, so let's set the world on fire. We can burn brighter than the sun."
I sure as heck hope there is some sort of Gospel message in this song considering that I (and the rest of the country) have spend the last few months having these words tattooed onto our ear drums. Fortunately, I think there is. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, "You are the light of the world ... Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father" (Matthew 5:14-16). Ignatius thought this was so important that, legend has it, they were the last words he ever spoke to his close friend (and fellow saint) Francis Xavier as Xavier was leaving for the Indies. "Ite inflammate omnia," Ignatius is to have said, or, "Go, and set the world on fire."
Let's have some Fun. setting the world on fire.
6. Katy Perry -- "Firework"
Best Line: "'Cause baby you're a firework. Come on, show 'em what you're worth. Make 'em go oh oh oh as you shoot across the sky. ...You just gotta ignite the light and let it shine. Just own the night like the 4th of July."
While Katy has strayed far from her Christian music beginnings, she nails this Gospel message even better than Fun. If Jesus were around today, he likely would not talk about covering one's light under a bushelbasket but instead "own[ing] the night like the 4th of July" for your heavenly Father.
The "Unintentional Catechesis" Division
5. Rebecca Black -- "Friday"
Best Line: "It's Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday. Partyin', partyin' (yeah!), partyin', partyin', (yeah!), fun, fun, fun, fun, lookin' forward to the weekend. We, we, we, we so excited. We so excited. We gonna have a ball today."
OK, OK, I know saying that "Friday," arguably one of the most hated songs ever created, helps explain part of the faith is a bit of a stretch, but hear me out. And, no, I'm not going to say that listening to this song makes me miserable thereby putting me in a space to pray with Good Friday. That would just be cruel.
Nope, this was yet another of the songs that got lodged in my mind during that recent retreat. While I was initially agitated that a song with lyrics as profound as "we, we, we so excited" was distracting me from trying to pray with the Resurrection, I baptized it, turning Rebecca Black into an aid to prayer. "It's Easter, Easter, gotta get down on Easter" I found myself singing (hopefully, for the sake of my fellow retreatants, not too audibly).
But wait, the possibilities for Rebecca-angelism don't end here! If we change it to Sunday, can you think of another pop song that better illustrates the importance of the sabbath? Thanks to Rebecca, now "I, I, I, I so excited" for the Lord's Day.
4. Hanson -- "MMMBop"
Best Line: "MMMBop... It's a secret no one knows. Can you tell me? Oh no you can't 'cause you don't know. Oh yeah you say you can but you don't know."
Since the age of 12 the question has haunted me: What on earth is an mmmbop?! Finally, after yet another "Well, the Trinity is a mystery" homily on Trinity Sunday, I thought, "That's it! What if they were singing about an Mmmystery!" We can write books -- or songs -- about the Trinity. And yet on some level, Hansen will always be right, we just don't know.
As if tackling the mystery of the Trinity wasn't enough, Isaac, Taylor, and Zac seem steeped in Scripture and full of wisdom for those in ministry. They sing:
Plant a seed, plant a flower, plant a rose
you can plant any one of those.
Can you tell me oh which flower's going to grow?
No you can't 'cause you don't know.
Keep planting to find out which one grows.
Hansen, like Paul and Apollos before them, know that no matter how hard we work ultimately God causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). I certainly am never sure whether my efforts will produce anything good, all I can do is keep planting and trust that I'll eventually discover what has grown.
3. Rihanna -- "We Found Love"
Best Line: "We found love in a hopeless place. We found love in a hopeless place."
Christians do the impossible: see a dead man hanging on a wooden beam and call it love. We find the depth of God's love for us in one of the cruelest ways humanity has figured out how to kill each other. We have found love in a hopeless place, indeed.
The "This One's Got It All" Division
2. Adele -- "Make You Feel My Love"
Best Line: "I can offer you a warm embrace / To make you feel my love. When there is no one there to dry your tears / I could hold you for a million years / To make you feel my love. / I know you haven't made your mind up yet / but I would never do you wrong. / Go to the end of the earth for you / To make you feel my love."
I know this is a Bob Dylan original, and I'm admittedly tired of the overwhelming amount of Adele on the air, but there's no denying that this is a wonderful song to pray with. Seriously, pull it up on your browser and imagine God is singing to you for four minutes and seven glorious seconds.
Almost every retreat director I've ever had has started off the retreat by inviting me to pray with Psalm 139, but maybe they should have just asked me to listen to Adele. "Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there... Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me" (Psalm 139 7-10). God will go even to the end of the earth to offer us the kind of warm embrace that can make us feel God's love.
1. Whitney Houston (R.I.P.) -- "I Will Always Love You"
Best Line: "If I should stay, I would only be in your way. I hope you have all you've dreamed of. And I wish to you joy and happiness. But above all this, I wish you love."
Just like No. 2, Whitney's "I Will Always Love You" is actually a cover (this one's actually a Dolly Parton original). But honestly, can anyone top Whitney? That note in "I Will Always Love You" -- you know, that note, the epitome of a money note -- is perhaps one of the closest experiences to the beatific vision we have in this earthly life. Whitney is one of those performers whose life didn't always match the transcendence of her talent, and after she died, there was much discussion. But that note always sounds to me like it came right out of the brokenness of her life.
More than just an experience of beauty, notes like that describe God and God's love, they describe the Jesus who wishes for his joy to "be in you that your joy may be complete" (John 15:11). God offers us unconditional love while giving us the freedom to respond to this offer of love however we will.
And with YouTube at our fingertips we've got even more freedom to experience The Note -- or any of your other favorite songs that might (secretly) be about God.
A version of this article originally appeared on The Jesuit Post.