The Hole in Bieber’s “Holy”

For over a decade, Justin Bieber has been influencing culture as a musical artist. Unlike other artists who have faded out, Bieber’s popularity continues. One of his new releases, “Holy” is no exception. Partnering with Chance the Rapper, Bieber makes strong claims about love and holiness, asserting that a woman is his savior thus allowing him to experience holiness. With close to 300 million plays on Spotify, and over 100 million views on YouTube, this song is being heard. Although this song is catchy, don’t let the beat be a distraction from its deeper meaning.

Check out the lyrics here.

“Holy” is a song sharing a man’s response to a woman who invites him into the powerful experience of love—an experience he calls holy.

After watching the music video, we can see that Bieber holds some true core values: commitment, hard work, service, care, honesty, vulnerability, hospitality, family, community, and prayer. Ultimately, it reveals that people desire genuine, committed love. The viewer gets the impression that as the couple remains committed to each other, God is taking care of them, especially through the hardships of life. The first time I watched this, I was stunned by the beauty depicted and by the unveiling of many desires of the human heart.

People have deep desires and longings—a characteristic that is uniquely and utterly human. Many love songs reveal these longings. The problem is not in having the desires themselves—God created us with them—but rather, in where we seek to satisfy those desires. From what this song communicates, this woman is the one satisfying the desires of the man’s heart. She helps him to experience “holiness.” The lyrics open:

“I hear a lot about sinners
Don’t think that I’ll be a saint
But I might go down to the river
‘Cause the way that the sky opens up when we touch
Yeah, it’s makin’ me say
That the way you hold me, hold me, hold me, hold me, hold me
Feels so holy, holy, holy, holy, holy”

Bieber begins by acknowledging that he isn’t a saint—indicating his need for some kind of a savior. As the singer and the woman touch, the “sky opens up” and he calls the experience “holy,” revealing a view of the woman as a savior. He is quickly getting into some treacherous territory. Later in the song, God is referenced. As Chance the Rapper begins the bridge, he sings:

“The first step pleases the Father
Might be the hardest to take
But when you come out of the water
I’m a believer, my heart is fleshy…”

It could be that Chance and Bieber, both professing Christians, have great intentions in bringing God in here, but it ends up being confusing. Already, using the term “holiness” in the context of a feeling about a woman is a bit dangerous. Now, the word “Father” is added, clearly referring to God but adding to the song’s confusing message. The couple seems to want to please God with their commitment to one another, but not through belief and commitment to God directly. Their commitment to each other appears to be their salvation, rather than God himself. Sexual love is powerful—a profound gift. There is no denying that. One may even consider it a glimpse of holiness; however, as Bieber sings about this woman holding him feeling holy, it begs the question: “What is holiness?”

As Bieber sings about the love which he “can’t explain,” he hints at the reality of romance—it is mysterious. However, to compare a woman’s love to holiness is a counterfeit view of the divine concept. Throughout the Bible, God says to his people, “Be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45, 1 Peter 1:16). Holiness is who God is and who we are becoming by the grace-filled work of the Holy Spirit. Holiness is to be set apart or sacred. It embodies pure justice, steadfast love, unconditional grace. Putting “holiness” into words feels both daunting and unattainable because of its profound nature. If holiness is who God is, it is certainly not a feeling. So, when Bieber says that the way this woman holds him feels holy, he diminishes holiness, likening both feeling and another person to “holiness.” It seems that Bieber is trying to communicate good things, but he misses the point entirely. The love he is experiencing may be pure and beautiful, but to call it holy is misplaced.

Bieber does not go wrong in communicating that sexual love is a powerful, beautiful gift, but placing his longing for love on another human being is going to let him down in the end. At the heart of our desire is a longing for the transcendent. The moment that desire is placed on another human being, it disables love. To call someone or something that is not God “holy” puts our longing on something which could never bear it, actually causing both a careless view of love, and a diminished view of holiness.

Bieber’s words make a woman his savior, putting a God-sized role on another fallen human being. In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy Keller classifies this idea as “apocalyptic romance.” A term to describe putting cosmically impossible expectations on another human being. He states,

“At one time we expected marriage and family to provide love, support, and security. But for meaning in life, hope for the future, moral compass, and self-identity we looked to God and the afterlife. Today, however, our culture has taught us to believe that no one can be sure of those things, not even whether they exist. Therefore…something has to fill the gap, and often that something is romantic love.”¹

Although romantic love is a gift, another person can never be the transcendent ideal to fulfill one’s life. In a world that has rid itself of God, it seems that all that is left to fill the desire for the divine is romantic relationships. Great danger lies in having a diminished view of love, both because it leads to a small view of God, and because it puts our longing on someone or something that can never satisfy it.

Perhaps Justin Bieber and Chance the Rapper are hinting at the beauty of and longing for commitment, reminding others of what our culture has lost. But in doing so, we must be cautious of equating human love to holiness—a term God, and God alone, fully embodies. We must think critically about the consequences of diminishing holiness. After hearing a song like this, we can be inspired by the beauty of romantic love—what a wonder that God, the Author of love and marriage, allows for such a powerful experience between two people. However, in the midst of this encouragement comes a challenge. A challenge to have an elevated view of holiness. Human love is only a glimpse of what is good, true, and beautiful. Prayerfully, this will make us run to the source of holiness himself to see that our longing hearts find fulfillment in him (Col. 1:16).² With a high view of holiness, we can be confident that God alone can satisfy our deepest longings while still allowing us to enjoy the gift of another person.

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Article by Katie McTavish