A song at the top of the Billboard that promotes a Christian view of marriage is not something I had slated for 2020.
The song was Justin Bieber’s new single “Holy,” which was released on Sept. 18 and features Chance the Rapper. When my roommate blasted it in our apartment, I was taken in by the gospel-inspired hook and added it to my playlist to listen to later. I listened to it more closely a few days later — so closely that I had it on repeat for about three hours, completely charmed by both the arrangement and the lyrics.
At first I thought it was just another song that used religious language to describe something other than a relationship with God. There are many songs like this, including Florida Georgia Line’s “H.O.L.Y.,” Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” and Maren Morris’ “My Church.” They all repeat the message made clear by secular culture — religion can be replaced by whatever or whoever you want.
Much to my surprise, after a quick search of “Holy’s” lyrics, I found the song does more than just exalt a romantic relationship to the status of religion. This song embraces a deeply Christian view of marriage as a sacramental union, and encourages lovers to invite God into the midst of their relationship.
The truth that one comes to know God more fully through the relationship between spouses is now a claim shared by Christians— and now by two of the most well-known artists of the decade. Bieber sings in the refrain: “The way you hold me […]/Feels so holy […]/On God/Running to the altar like a track star/ Can’t wait another second/ On God.”
By referencing the altar, he describes the dual anticipation of being joined to his wife through marriage, and becoming closer to God through the process. The altar is the place traditional Christian wedding ceremonies are performed, and, for those who believe in the Eucharist, where heaven and earth meet at each celebration of the Sacrament.
In the rap portion of the song, Chance the Rapper goes into how placing one’s identity in God honors both the lover and beloved: “I wanna honor, wanna honor you, bride’s groom, I’m my Father’s child/ I know when the son takes the first steps, the Father’s proud.”
He rounds out the rap with my favorite line in the song: “Formalize the union in communion, He can trust /I know I ain’t leavin’ you like I know He ain’t leavin’ us /I know we believe in God, and I know God believes in us.”
“Holy” stems from the two relationships most important to Bieber: God and his wife Hailey. For one, Bieber has frequently testified to his faith in Jesus. He was baptized in 2014 after a born-again experience, and has since embraced evangelical Christianity. He credits his conversion with helping him overcome some of his issues with mental health and arrests.
“I’m a Jesus follower,” Bieber said in an interview in April. “When you accept Jesus, you walk with the Holy Spirit. I just want to be led by the Holy Spirit.”
His conversion also led him to his wife, the model Hailey Baldwin. She’s also a Christian, and they kept running into each other at church conferences before they eventually married.
“The common denominator, I promise you, is always church,” she said in a 2019 Vogue interview.
The couple decided to abstain from sex while they were dating, which resulted in a quick civil marriage in 2018 when they decided they couldn’t wait to consummate the relationship. This story gives “running to the altar/can’t wait another second” lyric a personal element.
“Sometimes people have sex because they don’t feel good enough. Because they lack self-worth,” Bieber said in the same interview. “I wanted to rededicate myself to God in that way because I really felt it was better for the condition of my soul. And I believe that God blessed me with Hailey as a result.”
Another influence on the song is the production work of Jon Bellion, a notable singer/songwriter and producer in his own right. Bellion’s songs often incorporate his musings on the divine, and acute listeners will find similarities between “Holy” and his body of work.
Bellion knows how to emphasize certain musical aspects so the arrangement brings out the core of a song. The bright, gospel bursts of the chorus, compared to the simpler piano and bass backed track underneath the rest of the song keeps the name of God at the center of the listening experience.
Bieber said that this “Holy” marks the beginning of a new era for him musically. He may even follow in the footsteps of Kanye West and release an entire gospel album. This probably doesn’t signal any big change for the music industry (unfortunately, “WAP” is still the number one song on the Spotify charts) but it’s nice to see at least one person’s redemption played out so publicly.
Bieber goes against the grain and affirms that it’s unhealthy to view your significant other as being able to replace God. This view of romance ultimately consigns your partner to failure when they’re inevitably unable to fill that need. It can only be remedied by “running to the altar,” where God enters into human life.