by David Keating
The Keating Files – October 29, 2020
My wife and I recently sat down to watch an episode of Saturday Night Live. Normally, I don’t bother to tune in unless there is a guest that I particularly enjoy, but with an election growing ever closer, I thought there might be some amusing parody or commentary on the state of American politics. What we got instead was much different.
The musical guest for October 17, 2020, was none other than Justin Bieber. I admit, I was pretty unfamiliar with his music as well as his personal transformation that he has apparently undergone. My knowledge of his music was pretty much limited to his kitschy, teen-focused bops from the early 2010s. Imagine my surprise when I saw someone far removed from that pop star of yesteryear appear on my television screen. Bieber was looking older, was adorned with more tattoos compared to last time I had tuned into his songs, and had a far more sincere focus in the song he performed for the audience.
Each musical guest has the opportunity to design the soundstage from which he or she will perform. This week’s musical guest had designed the stage to be brimming with foliage on either side of the stage, and, above the stage was placed an enormous neon cross. I wasn’t sure how much to read into this as there are artists from time to time who use religious imagery to simply heighten or boost their own image or sense of gravitas in their performance. But then came the lyrics:
I hear a lot about sinners
Don't think that I'll be a saint
But I might go down to the river, uh
'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
Runnin' to the altar like a track star
Can't wait another second
'Cause the way you hold me, hold me, hold me, hold me, hold me
Feels so holy
Again, talk about surprising. That’s about as powerful a testimony as one can get on SNL or from the pop genre in general. About midway through the song, the musical guest brought on a guest of his own, Chance the Rapper, who sang these lyrics:
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
If you make it to the water He'll part the clouds
I know He made you a snack like Oscar Proud
Suffer it to be so now gotta clean it up
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
Chance the Rapper has been very vocal about his own journey in reclaiming his Christian roots. He cites his faith as something that allowed him to get his life on track and quit smoking. But, beyond just clean living, I would argue listeners are getting to see a side of Christianity and Christian testimony that we don’t see discussed all that much in our culture. I would argue that Christianity actually empowers artists, through the faith-based tradition of Christian art and music, to give voice and a vocabulary to a transcendent kind of love.
It isn’t just Chance the Rapper or Justin Bieber who are discovering something unique and life-changing about the Gospel, nor is it just the two of them who are seeking to put their faith into their music. Just recently, Kanye West captured headlines when he released 2019’s Jesus is King. Paired with Jesus is King, Kanye West has also been holding Sunday spiritual revivals known as his “Sunday Service” events.
To many Christians, especially mainstream Protestants and evangelicals, this seems surprising and even a little confusing. To be sure, the version of Christianity presented by West and Bieber looks different. Most of our sanctuaries aren’t adorned with neon crosses or held outdoors with adoring fans looking on.
However, it seems that these artists are making a logical progression in their music.
What do I mean by this? Much of Chance the Rapper, Justin Bieber, and Kanye West’s work has focused on themes surrounding love, beauty, and the pursuit of that beauty. If we’re being honest looking at some of their past releases, we can see that the pursuit of beauty has often worked itself out in selfish ways, valuing sexuality above all else. But people who are interested in following the pursuit of the good as well as the beautiful know that love is never left at just desire. Instead, love pursues something deeper than that.
It may sound ridiculous, but I think these artists of today actually find themselves in a Christian tradition that goes back to Dante at the very least. Dante too pursued the beautiful and lost his object of adoration at a very young age. Having lost this woman whom he loved, Beatrice, Dante finds himself lost within a “dark forest” of a midlife crisis. What Dante finds is that he discovers more and more about that love he bore for Beatrice was actually pointing toward something far greater. Dante eventually understands that the love of something beautiful (Beatrice) actually drew him toward contemplation of the source of that which is good and beautiful, which is the life of God.
Beatrice pointed Dante toward "the Love that moves the sun, the moon, and the other stars” (Paradiso, XXXIII). Is that a little sentimental and schmaltzy? Sure. But, love often is. And the funny thing is, it doesn’t sound that far off from Justin Bieber’s confession that, “the way you hold me feels so holy.” My hope is that all of these artists continue to dive deep into their faith as so many other Christian artists have throughout the centuries as they embrace the divine love of God, which empowers the love we have for one another.
The Reverend David Keating is pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Curtis, Nebraska.
Previously by Pastor Keating…