In less than a month, Justin Bieber’s song Holy has racked up nearly 50 million views.
The figure itself isn’t too surprising. After all, the Canadian popstar has been at the top of music charts — and accumulating billions of YouTube views — for the past decade.
But unlike many of his hits, which usually reflect on relationship wins or woes, Holy is unflinchingly Christian, in both its lyrics and visuals.
According to Carl Morris, a lecturer in religion and culture at the University of Central Lancashire, the song Holy — which features fellow Christian Chance The Rapper — references two sacred sacraments.
“The narrative in the video is [you may] encounter difficulties in life, but marriage provides a rock and a source of support,” he says.
“And it’s the sacrament of marriage, which is holy in many respects.”
Dr Morris says the other Christian rite — which is reflected upon lyrically — is baptism.
“There are continual references to going down to the water and finding Christianity. Finding Jesus is the implication with that,” he points out.
I hear a lot about sinners
Don’t think that I’ll be a saint
But I might go down to the river
Bieber himself wasn’t baptised in a river, but a far narrower body of water.
In 2014, Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz famously performed the sacred ritual for the musician in the bathtub of NBA player Tyson Chandler’s home.
“Evangelical charismatic baptism is critical for born-again Christians, people who find Christianity later in life,” Dr Morris explains.
Real spirituality, or a ploy to sell albums?
Daniel White Hodge, a professor in the arts department of Chicago’s North Park University, is more sceptical of overt religiosity in pop music.
“Are artists really doing this for artistic sake or are they just selling albums?” he asks.
“I would always, as a researcher, ask, ‘What’s going on here?’ if it’s too simplistic.”
Dr Hodge says there are many artists, including Tupac, Lauren Hill and, more recently, Kendrick Lamar, who have wrestled with deeper spiritual themes — more than tokenistic nods — in their music.
But he explains that those artistic works are not always understood to have Christian references, because they don’t fit the traditional mould.
However, when it comes to Bieber’s collaborator, Chicago-born Chance The Rapper, Dr Hodge says he’s well-known in the community for his Christian acts, not just lyrics.
In 2016, the Grammy-winning artist founded a charity aiming to empower youth through arts, education, and civic engagement. It has raised millions of dollars for Chicago Public Schools, where Chance himself was a pupil.
“Chance is not your regular rapper,” says Dr Hodge.
“The guy Instagrams with his mum; his parents are pastors.
“He does a lot [with] the money that he gives, the places he shows up to help.”
The gospel according to Kanye West
Chance isn’t the only rapper from Chicago to espouse a Christian message.
Hip hop artist Kanye West has incorporated religious themes into his music from his debut album, The College Dropout, which featured the track Jesus Walks.
His most recent album, Jesus is King, is a celebration of spirituality with gospel singing and lyrical explorations of Christian concepts, such as salvation.
Dr Hodge says West’s leap into this musical genre makes sense.
“Rather than trying to make the jump into contemporary Christian music — he understood the black church,” he says.
But, he adds, the “church with Kanye” events held in the lead-up to the album’s release were “a great marketing ploy”.
Why celebrities get spiritual
So, why are artists like Justin Bieber and Kanye West choosing to proclaim their religiosity now — at the height of their fame?
And would they have risen to such heights had they sung about God and Jesus Christ from the get-go?
Dr Hodge believes, like all professionals, pop artists often play it safe for their early records.
“There are things I say now that I wouldn’t have said before tenure, being promoted to full professor, so I get that with every artist,” he says.
But now, he says, both Bieber and West are “at a different stage in their career”.
“We’ve seen Justin go through like [being] a little kid, Justin partying and going nuts, and then of course, the pushback to Christianity, which pays homage to a lot of our pathways,” Dr Hodge says.
The rise of prosperity and charisma
For Dr Morris, it’s interesting that both Bieber and West have aligned themselves with Christian denominations that are growing in popularity.
“Mainstream Catholic and Protestant churches are in decline, but charismatic churches, which are often Pentecostal-leaning, as Hillsong is, are growing quite rapidly, particularly amongst young people.
While Kanye West was brought up in the African American spiritual tradition, Dr Morris says today he is linked to the prosperity gospel movement, a branch of Christianity that views wealth and success as blessings from God.
He points out that West has performed at notable prosperity gospel churches in the US and appeared with American pastor Joel Osteen, an advocate for this type of Christianity and owner of a media empire and Texas megachurch.
While Justin Bieber and Kanye West may not look, sing or act like Christian role models from previous generations, Dr Morris believes they are illustrative of current trends.
“Their own personal stories and peculiarities might have attracted them to each of these [forms of Christianity], but they really represent what is happening socially, culturally and religiously across many parts of the world today,” says Dr Morris.
And, with many places of worship still shut due to the global pandemic, millions of Christians are seeking spiritual solace online — perhaps one Justin Bieber or Kanye West song at a time.
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