Anglican Bishop Graham Cray explores the life and music of Marvin Gaye in the chapter “Through Popular Music: ‘Wholy Holy'”, featured in the anthology Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts edited by Jeremy Begbie. The following essay by Andy McCoy critiques Cray’s theological comparison of the temptation of Christ and temptations of Marvin Gaye while proposing a deeper examination of the nature of temptation and its tie to abuse in Marvin Gaye’s life.

In both a written and performed sense, theologians have rarely entertained an audience with popular music. For this reason, I commend Graham Cray’s willingness to venture theologically into that which he labels “the primary popular art form in the media-saturated world which emerged in the twentieth century and continues into the twenty-first.”[1] His chapter, “Through Popular Music: ‘Wholy Holy,’” featured in the anthology Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts, offers a welcome opportunity to consider the theological implications of the tumultuous life and work of one of popular music’s most brilliant and formative musicians, Marvin Gaye.[2] In the following critique I desire to further this theological and musical conversation by examining the nature of evil’s attack on incarnation through temptation and subsequent connections to religion and abuse in Marvin Gaye’s life.

In responding to Cray, I find it most helpful to work backwards through his conclusions. I begin here for I most strongly agree with his fourth and final point that “When resistance to temptation becomes costly, the critical issue is the trustworthiness of the Father. …At the heart of the incarnation is the revelation of the trustworthiness of the Father.”[3] Cray properly identifies the issue of trust and reconciliation that lies before all temptation. Can I trust God? Am I being reconciled with God and do I know that God is good? Jesus certainly faced real temptation as do we, but on our behalf he faced temptation as human and divine, beset with all the sinful realities of this world and reconciled to God. We on the other hand are only reconciled to God through Jesus, and our sin bears out the fact that we do not always experience God as good, even if we should. Temptation then is only temptation in that it challenges the character and nature of our reconciliation with God. For Jesus the challenge was no less real than ours, but it was a challenge he consistently met. As sinful creatures in a fallen world we lack the constancy of our Savior and thus God’s ongoing redemption in our lives is a constant facing of this question, “Is God good?”

Because of this need for reconciliation Cray’s third conclusion concerning Christian growth is incomplete. He writes, “We grow or shrink according to the outcome of temptation.”[4] Related to this, I believe, is Cray’s earlier assertion that “at the heart of temptation is a choice.”[5] Choice as to whether or not we sin and the subsequent outcome are certainly part of temptation, but both of these rest on an even more primary question about the goodness of God. If the heart of temptation were about choice, then we would simply need to make the right one. And, of course, our failure always to make right choices demonstrates our need for a Savior. If the outcome of temptation exclusively determined our spiritual growth, then no one would grow, for no matter how much we mature in this life, we never fully vanquish temptation and sin. I am not saying that choice and outcome are unimportant as we face temptation. But evil does not simply offer us less than moral choices; evil attacks the very nature of God’s reconciliation in our lives.

The attack of evil and the nature of sin are particularly exemplified in Marvin Gaye’s songs which mix unbounded sexuality with references to the Holy Spirit. Cray rightly see this as problematic in his second conclusion, which concerns the role of the Spirit. Cray notes Christ’s temptations in Luke are preceded by “the Father’s gift of the Spirit, occur under the leading of the Spirit, and result in a deepened experience of the power of the Spirit together with an announcement of the purpose of the gift of the Spirit.”[6] Cray then contrasts this with Marvin’s “use” of the Spirit. “He wanted to engage with the Spirit and to sleep with Jan. At the key point of temptation he was more vulnerable than Christ because in his life so far he had already yielded to temptations and gone against his spiritual heritage many times…”[7]

I certainly agree with Cray that Marvin yielded to temptation more than Christ did; Christ never yielded to temptation unto sin. Generally interpreted, I also agree with Cray that Marvin went against the spiritual heritage given him in Christ. All Christians do this whenever they sin or succumb to temptation.

Yet particularly interpreted, I think Marvin’s spiritual heritage bears further examination. Cray notes that Marvin’s father was a bishop in their church and an abuser of his son. Yet, Cray fails to notice the full range of connections possible between this and Marvin’s later choices regarding temptation. Cray finds it a “striking irony” that Marvin “invoked the Spirit to justify his abandonment of the ten commandments.”[8] Is this more “striking” than Marvin’s father’s physical beatings combined with the rigidly religious environment Marvin grew up in? The Father gave Jesus the Spirit, but Marvin’s father gave him a tradition of the Spirit infused with the insidious ambivalence of abuse. Abuse in Marvin’s life does not change the status of his sin or the immoral choices he made later in his life. But the presence of physical and religious paternal abuse does reveal an evil attack on God’s goodness long before Marvin’s temptations as an adult.

In this context I now consider Cray’s first conclusion concerning the dynamic of temptation and the nature of evil. In light of Luke’s account of Jesus being tempted by the Devil, Cray points to the personal nature of evil, “…evil is to be understood as something more substantial than a force within individuals, and that it is a power which impacts the lives of individuals from the outside.”[9] I find Cray’s understanding less than complete, for though I very much agree as to a personal nature of evil which exists outside of us, Cray does not emphasize evil’s work against the incarnational nature of our creation and our redemption. Evil’s goal is to maim and destroy the image of God, the image that is incarnated yet fallen in our humanity and redeemed through the incarnation of God in the person of Christ. Thus, evil seeks to maim not only my soul, but my body as well. Nowhere does evil do this better than in abuse. The comprehensive, body-and-soul destruction wrought by abuse reveals evil’s aim to desecrate the incarnation.

Because evil attacks the whole of the image of God in incarnation, neither Marvin’s “turning from the commandments” nor Jesus’ obeying of the commandments is simply about lacking or possessing awareness of the Devil. We know Jesus was tempted by the Devil directly. We do not know the degree to which Marvin was aware of evil, but awareness would not primarily change the course of evil’s attack. Evil attacks whatever understanding Marvin or Jesus have that God is good, and this attack is deeper and wider than what is disclosed through the immediate choices readily before us in temptation. Evil attacks the reconciling work of God in every part of life—body, emotions, cognitions. And evil does not limit its attack to that which is immediately present, even if a concept of an immediate present could be humanly grasped. Evil attacks our understandings and interpretations of God and ourselves over time, through the ever-shifting temporality of past and present and onto the expectation associated with the future.

Thus the temptation of Jesus must be understood as more than Jesus choosing or performing rightly. Satan’s aim was not simply to get Jesus to make a bad choice.[10] Satan’s attack was upon Incarnation itself—an evil desire to pit body against soul, present against past and future, and ultimately Son against Father and Spirit. Certainly, Jesus meets Satan’s temptations with knowledgeable Scriptural response, but this knowledge springs from a heart reconciled to God, a heart which believes God is good. Satan also has knowledge of Scripture[11], but Christ’s reconciled relationship with Father and Spirit undergirds the knowledge used in Christ’s decision not to succumb to temptation.

Evil works no less against reconciliation between God and the life of Marvin Gaye. Concerning Marvin’s most influential album, What’s Going On, Cray writes, “Marvin sang out a vision for his culture in the early 1970s (and for today) that had strong echoes of Christ’s vision and calling.”[12] This is contrasted with the overt sexual emphasis of Marvin’s next album, Let’s Get It On. “For those who know the background there is tension between the musical style and the lyrical content. Church music was pleading for sin.”[13] Cray later concludes that Marvin “experiences his conflict as one within his own desires and between two parts of his personal history.”[14] Furthermore, Cray gives us reason to believe that Marvin was aware of the “two parts” as well. Cray quotes Jan Gaye, “I think there was something at the back of (Marvin’s) mind where he thought he could change and that he would change people, but in another way he reveled in what he knew to be wrong.”[15]

While both Cray and Marvin sense some degree of tension between the sacred and the sinful in Marvin’s music, neither allow this tension to guide their approach to understanding Marvin’s life. Cray highlights the differences between What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On with primary concern for the morality of faith Marvin leaves behind as he moves from the former album to the latter. Marvin, during his life, seemed primarily concerned with collapsing any notion of sin in the moral distance claimed by the second album at the expense of the first. In this, both arrive at an incomplete understanding of Marvin’s life which Marvin’s music itself will not allow. The legacy of Marvin’s music, that which Cray calls sin “being portrayed as sacred” is in its unreconciled nature which parallels an unreconciled reality left largely unexplored by Marvin (as quoted here) or by Cray. For Marvin, sacred and sinful are fused not only in his music but also in his childhood introduction to faith by an abusive father.

Reflecting on both albums together reveals a malevolent bind that would work against Marvin through any encounter with the work of evil to question God’s goodness through temptation. For Marvin simply to flee temptation and return uncritically to his Christian heritage would mean ignoring the violence and harm which pervaded the religion of his past. On the other hand, Marvin seemed completely to turn away from God rather than confront the sins perpetrated against him and his subsequent choices to sin. Cray is right to contrast the impact of temptation in the life of Marvin and the life of Jesus, but he fails to let Marvin’s music point the way beyond poor choices to the fuller story of a life where the name and work of God are desecrated by abuse. In a very different way, Marvin fails to honor his past pain by disempowering the Gospel influence of his music and seeking life in sin rather than in the incarnational goodness of God who can redeem even a life where sin and sacred have been fused together. This is incarnation’s redemption of fallen creation—the image of God redeemed not unto merely better choices, but even more completely through the stories of broken bodies and wounded hearts.[16]

As Cray points out, Marvin’s final confrontation with his abusive father tragically brought not redemption but death. The incarnation brings life, a new life available through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Cray responsibly calls us to remember that “The incarnation of Christ only has power to save if the temptations of Christ were real.”[17] Similarly, I believe we must examine the full reality of temptation, sin, and evil as it worked against the life of Marvin Gaye. As we consider the attack of evil upon incarnation, we cannot downplay the immorality of Marvin’s choices, but neither can we downplay the implications of abuse as he faces the question of God’s goodness inherent in temptation. To do so does not fully speak to the life and music of this brilliant yet troubled musician nor does it honor a God whose work of incarnation offers reconciliation to those created in God’s incarnational image.


[1] Graham Cray, “Through Popular Music: ‘Wholy Holy’?” in Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts, ed. Jeremy Begbie (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), p. 120.

[2] As recent as Dec. 11, 2003, Rolling Stone, Issue #937, ranks Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On at #6 in its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On also makes the list at #165.

[3] Cray, p. 135.

[4] ibid., p. 134.

[5] ibid., p. 131.

[6] Cray, p.132.

[7] ibid., p. 133.

[8] ibid., p. 132.

[9] Cray, p. 131.

[10] The temptations presented to Jesus by Satan in the Luke 4 narrative all reflect choices which in other contexts would be perfectly right for Jesus—i.e. Jesus eats in other contexts, Jesus is given all authority and power over kingdoms of the world following the resurrection, the angels care for Jesus in other contexts.

[11] Lk. 4:10-11 records Satan quoting Ps. 91:11-12.

[12] Cray, p. 127.

[13] ibid., p. 128.

[14] ibid., p. 132.

[15] ibid., p. 129.

[16] For further reading of a Christian perspective on the dynamics and issues of abuse, please see Dan Allender’s seminal work The Wounded Heart (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1990).

[17] Cray, p. 121.