‘Gotta have a friend in Jesus’

It only took two or three notes of Norman Greenbaum’s 1969 hit “Spirit in the Sky” to appear on the car radio before my teenage daughter had reached the volume dial and turned it up high.

A special satisfaction comes when she enjoys the same music that I embraced when it originally hit the charts. My “current” music is her golden oldies.

“Spirit in the Sky” has such a great sound that Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the 500 greatest songs of all time. It is one of those tunes that keeps showing up everywhere from baseball games to the movie screen.

For example, in Anaheim, California, the Angels’ play it while introducing their lineup. And my daughters associate the song with the wonderful Denzel Washington movie, “Remember the Titans” — filmed on the beautiful Berry College campus I might add.

As a young teen when the song first hit the radio, I was pleased that the popular rock song affirmed my faith: “Gotta Have a Friend in Jesus.” (We ignored the doctrinal weakness of another line claiming: “Never been a sinner; I never sinned.”)

A Wikipedia article says that Greenbaum, a Jew, wrote the hit song in about 15 minutes after hearing country crooner Porter Wagoner do a gospel number on TV — and wondering if he could come up with one. So it’s not like he read a few volumes of Barth, Tillich or Bultmann first.

However, I have learned not to expect every aspect of the culture to affirm my narrow perspectives on life and God.

There are times for theological debate. And there are times to just rock out a little while driving down the road — especially if the joy of a 40-year-old song is being shared with someone you love.


  1. YES! Of course when the Kentucky Headhunters (and then later dc Talk) covered this gem, they both altered the lines to “You know I’m a sinner, you know I’ve sinned”

    thanks, John!

  2. I had an email exchange with Mr. Greenbaum once; he was very nice. I told him that I appreciated the irony in the line “Never been a sinner, I never sin; I’ve got a friend in Jesus” and he replied that he wasn’t being ironic–he thought that was how Christians really thought. We all know, of course, that there are no perfectionist strains among our Christian brothers and sisters.

  3. Thanks for your responses. And, Mike, let us know if you get any email responses from Elvis.

  4. This past Saturday, my daughter married (he blogs as “The Big Daddy Weave”), and picked one of her favorites for the dance with the Father of the Bride, the Natalie Cole version of Unforgetable with Nat in the background. She did not know that his version was my favorite romantic song for many years. So while we danced, I sang it to her with the recording. The experience will always be unforgetable.

  5. John, as a 60s music fan, loved your post today! In 1971, I was as equally enthralled with a Canadian band by the name of Ocean who came out with a tune called Put Your Hand In The Hand (of The Man) which allowed me to celebrate my own faith over Top 40 radio! This one, as well, sold over a million copies. I think Greenbaum’s song, as well as Ocean’s, were products of the Jesus music scene in the late 60s and early 70s that eventually spawn what we now know as Contemporary Christian Music. Great post, John!

  6. I am with you on this one, John. Music allows me to stay connected to my teenagers.

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