Running to the Altar with Justin Bieber

On Hopelessness and Endless Welcome

This post comes to us from Alexander Sosler:

Justin Bieber and Chance the Rapper recently released a single called “Holy.” At first listen, I found my eyes glazing over with another “Jesus and me” love song put out by two well-meaning and sometimes profound popular artists. The refrain goes, “I feel so holy, holy, holy, holy / When you hold me, hold me, hold me, hold me, hold me.” If nothing else, it seems he doesn’t know what “holy” means. The reason Moses can’t even look at God is because God is holy — much less be tenderly held by Him. I’ve listened to my fair share of “How He loves” and sloppy wet kisses. Even if it’s not used in a worship service: hard pass.

But a second take, and especially with an eye to the music video, led me to consider something else happening. Sure, it’s a popular song, and it nods to the romantic, generic love that will produce downloads. (Sex sells, after all). However, underneath, perhaps subversively, there’s a message of desire, hopelessness, and the hospitable love of God — a love that awakens and welcomes.

In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith argues that we are desiring creatures who are oriented to the good life by our ultimate love. He says that advertisements — whether that be AXE body spray promising sexual desirability or a shampoo commercial pledging ecstasy at first use — understand this Augustinian secret: we are erotic creatures. If you want human beings to move, appeal to what they love. There’s something about desire that pushes us along and pulls us outside of ourselves. Erotic love is not necessarily bad; to desire is human, according to Smith. The question is, “What is our desire pointed to?” Agape is rightly ordered eros. Bieber and Chance offer a picture of rightly ordered eros — imperfectly but resolutely.

For instance, both performers’ opening lines are indicative. Justin’s first lines seem to be about more than romantic love: “I hear a lot about sinners / Don’t think that I’ll be a saint / But I might go to the river …” Here, there’s an obvious baptismal nod tinged with latent doubt. For whatever reason, he doesn’t think he can be one of those “saints.” When Chance’s verse comes, he echoes the first lines of Bieber: “The first step pleases the Father / Might be the hardest to take / But when you come out of the water …” His tempo picks up: “I’m a believer / My heart is fleshy” echoing new birth and the replacement of a heart of stone with a heart of flesh (Ez 36:26). There’s something here about both their verses that are functioning allegorically: yes, it can apply to marital love, but it’s also about something more.

In the music video, Justin Bieber plays an oil rigger, while his partner works as a nurse at what appears to be a retirement home. They’re working hard and trying to make it — until rugged Bieber gets laid off. He walks home after he finds his truck won’t start (never mind that he’s an oil worker who should know how to fix a truck) to find they’re evicted from their motel room. They’ve hit the proverbial rock bottom. Where will they go?

They’re walking on the street, bags in hand, until a passer-by stops and asks, “You guys all right?” Yeah, they’re good. “Where you guys headed?” They don’t know. Denying need. Lost. Downtrodden. Despondent. Hurt. What gets them in the car? The offer of a warm meal.

The question persistent in the song is this: What will not only welcome us when we’re hopeless but will welcome us again and again? The answer: the hospitable love of God which lays a table for us. This love awakens the desire to “go to the water,” and it’s the love that holds us when we fail.

After Chance’s verse, there are some concerning lines: “When they get messy, go left like Lionel Messi / Let’s take a trip and get the Vespas or rent a Jetski / I know the spots that got the best weed, we goin’ next week,” which can seem like a buzzkill to my argument. A verse of praise followed by desire for ganga? Typical for Chance. But “when they get messy,” I think Chance is confessing an alternative choice: going left. When life gets chaotic, there’s a choice of what to turn to: material wealth, distraction, and a quick high? Or “I wanna honor you, bride’s groom, I’m my father’s child.” There’s a different way forward for a “Father’s child” as he attempts to follow the “Bridegroom.” These lyrics point to the marriage supper of the lamb where marital love is a picture of the love of God. He returns to the fact that “I know when the son takes the first steps, the Father’s proud / If you make it to the water, He’ll part the clouds.” As much as we’ll stumble and fall, the Father looks and rejoices at the steps forward. He picks us up, dusts us off, and welcomes us back. And the promise: “I know I ain’t leavin’ you like I know He ain’t leavin’ us.” There’s something about this God that beckons him back. And then, “He holds me, holds me, holds me, holds me.”

In light of this holy holding, against all better judgment, the bridge resounds: “They say we’re too young and / The pimps and players say don’t go crushin’ / Wise men say fools rush in.” Shouldn’t we clean ourselves up first? Isn’t this religion and God stuff all a bit rushed? Can’t this be explained as an emotional fit? Don’t you want to mature and grow a bit before you commit?

It’s resonant with a poem from nearly 400 years earlier by George Herbert called “Love (iii).” It begins, “Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin.” The author wants to be worthy for God. He’s heard of sinners and saints yet grow slack. God, referenced as “Love,” draws near and makes this unworthy intruder a guest. Still uncomfortable with the treatment, the author can’t look on the host in shame. “Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, / Who made the eyes but I?” Yes, yes — but he’s marred them. When life got messy, he turned his eyes to lesser things. “And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?” Okay, okay. Fine. You welcomed me. You took me in. “My dear, then I will serve.”

“You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat.”

Henri Nouwen defines hospitality as “the virtue which allows us to break through the narrowness of our own fears and open our houses to the stranger.” For Justin and Chance, to be the recipient of hospitality is to break down the fears of coming judgment and to be received into the house of the Father.

The hospitable love of God is how they start and how they’ll finish. When they come to the end of themselves and are desperate and lost, who will welcome them? “Holy” encourages us to run to the altar (a fitting word) like a track star.

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3 responses to “Running to the Altar with Justin Bieber”

  1. RJ Coburn says:

    I agree with your interpretation of Chances, “problematic” line, but perhaps another interpretation (and a very interesting one) would be the his use of “they”. Here me out:

    He says, “They always come and sing your praises, your name is catchy,” as in “they” talk abut “God” when things are good, because God is “catchy”. he continues, “But they don’t see you how I see you, Parlay and Desi”

    Desi is reference to Desi Banks, a comedian and actor, who does skits. In those skits the character “Parlay” plays a prominent role, but is never seen on camera. He then uses the phrase, “Cross, Tween, Tween, Hesi” its a reference to a juke move in basketball (cross, between the legs, between the legs, hesitation, “then hit the jet speed”). So “life is short and has a temper” it crosses us up, and then “when THEY get messy” meaning when they get crossed up because they got dribbled on (hence messy… LOL), “[they] go lefty…” Which in slang sometimes refers to looking back on the way things used to be (and since nothing is going right go left). SO the turn to spending money and giving themselves hope in places they used to find. That’s why the weed is coming “next week”. So the “they” can’t find hope in things not seen (Parlay).

  2. Great content! This is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. Thanks for your help 🙂

  3. Chris says:

    Thanks so much RJ! Awesome breakdown!

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