IVP - Strangely Dim - March Music Madness: If I Set You on Fire

March 24, 2011

March Music Madness: If I Set You on Fire

When I was a kid the leaders of my youth group, a former priest and his wife, a former nun, led us in a discussion of the evils of sexually suggestive pop music. They made what I'd consider a rookie error by inviting us to bring examples of such salacious songs for us to discuss as a group. I don't remember the discussion (except for a general tone of mockery among the students and despair among the adults), but two songs linger in my memory: Madonna's "Dress You Up," off her Like a Virgin album, and "My Dingaling" by Chuck Berry. Hilarity ensued.

Right around the same time, acclaimed Christian singer Leslie Phillips left Myrrh Records, signed with Virgin Records, changed her name to Sam and released her first secular album, The Indescribable Wow. It contained one of the most sensual songs I've ever heard: "What Do I Do?"

indescribable wow.jpgI didn't learn of Sam Phillips till years later, when I bought her Cruel Inventions on a lark. Since then I've made a point of collecting whatever I find with her on it; that's tougher than it sounds, since she's never had widespread popular success. (Her closest brushes with national notoriety are her two Grammy nominations, her role in Die Hard: With a Vengeance and her scoring credits in The Gilmore Girls.) Her Myrrh album The Turning is one of my top five Christian albums of all time (by "Christian" I mean "released under an explicitly Christian label"). I'm pretty sure I could listen to no music but hers for the rest of my life. Quite honestly, when I imagine heaven as a place where no one ever stops singing, I find myself hoping that they're singing "What Do I Do?"

"What Do I Do?" is about intimacy. Well, it's about sex, actually, but not in the way we've become accustomed to popular music being about sex. Filled with lush strings and echo effects, you feel immediately the swirl of emotions that attend to any intimate moment. She sings about anxiety and trust and hope and possibility and vulnerability and protectiveness and everything else you might imagine entering a young woman's mind. The song doesn't progress through its theme so much as it orbits it, simmers in it; put it on repeat and you really could imagine it going on into eternity.

You don't necessarily know that a song is about sex the first time you hear it. I had the same misapprehension of the Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight" as the kids from Glee's Celibacy Club; it was, to my naive mind, a happy song about a tasty midday treat. I remember on road trips gleefully singing along in the back seat of the car, while my parents cringed and stifled laughter in the front seat. But that's the Starland Vocal Band being coy and playful. Sam Phillips, by contrast, doesn't obscure the fact that her song is about sex; rather she dives into the mystery of it - which is why, I think, it's so easy to mistake it for a song about heaven.

The church has a long history of mixing metaphors between the sexual relationship and the divine-human relationship. Even the Bible flirts with such ambiguity, with God calling regularly on sexual dynamics as a helpful way of describing his promises to his people, or his sense of betrayal at their acts of apostasy. People still argue, heatedly, whether the Song of Songs is about a man and woman in love or about God and us. Maybe it's both; either way, there are moments where it makes me a little uncomfortable.

One Medieval community refused to shy away from the parallels between our relationship to God and what they called "courtly love." The Beguines, a network of lay orders for women throughout Western Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, freely associated their discipleship with a sort of marriage to God. The poetry and prayers of the women borrowed heavily from the poetry and courtship rituals of the noble class of their day. Scholar Francis Newman described the dynamic of courtly love as "at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent" - in other words, a swirl of seemingly contradictory things that, under the auspices of love, make perfect sense.

seeking spiritual intimacy.jpgThat's what romantic love aspires to be, but that's what divine love is at its essence: a love that burns away the sin that besets us and refines and elevates the purity intended for us. If the kind of euphoria that Song of Songs celebrates and Sam Phillips emulates in her blissful "What Do I Do?" is what awaits us at the restoration of all things, then honestly, how can we keep from singing?


To learn more about the Beguines, pick up Seeking Spiritual Intimacy by Glenn Myers, due back from the printer any day now.

Between the writing of this post and the time of publishing it, I've become briefly obsessed with Def Leppard. See my other blog Loud Time for some equal time for that very different band. If you're looking for a way of connecting the two, here's one option: In "What Do I Do?" Sam Phillips writes "If I set you on fire will you keep me warm?" In "Rock of Ages" Def Leppard writes "Burn it up; let's go for broke!" Sounds like they were made for each other.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at March 24, 2011 7:01 AM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

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