July 31, 2017

Borrowing Religious Imagery for Pop Songs

Should Christians Get Excited?

By In Music
// by Tyler Zach //

I recently spoke with a young 20-something in our church who said she wanted to play the country hit H.O.L.Y. at her wedding. She thought it was special that a secular song would use religious language. That made me ask, “Should we get excited when pop songs use religious imagery?”

High On Loving Who?

H.O.L.Y. (an acronym for “High On Loving You”) is a song written by Michael Busbee, Nate Cyphert, and William Will Laresen. It was recorded and performed by country music artist Florida Georgia Line. The song skyrocketed to number one on the Hot Country Songs chart for 18 consecutive weeks and has sold over 1.5 million copies. 

The song was controversial upon its release. Rolling Stone commented, “The mix of Christian imagery and hooking up is most likely a little over-the-line for devoutly religious fans.” Why would Christian imagery in a secular song be controversial? H.O.L.Y. borrows religious imagery, reserved for God, and uses it for someone else. It takes important symbols, which have been used for centuries to worship God, and uses them to worship a romantic relationship. Here are a few lines:

You’re an angel, tell me you’re never leaving
‘Cause you’re the first thing I know I can believe in

[Verse 2]
You made the brightest days from the darkest nights
You’re the river bank where I was baptized
Cleanse all the demons
That were killing my freedom
Let me lay you down, give me to ya
Get you singing babe, hallelujah
We’ll be touching, we’ll be touching heaven

You’re the healing hands where it used to hurt
You’re my saving grace, you’re my kind of church
You’re holy

Look at the imagery being used. She’s an angel. She’s the first thing he’s believed in. She’s the river he was baptized in. She has the power to cleanse him. She leads him to worship singing hallelujah. She heals him. She’s his saving grace. She’s his church. She’s… holy (repeated 4 times by the way instead of 3). The message is not subtle. It’s about a guy unapologetically professing this girl to be his savior.

As we seek to discern the meaning of any song, it’s important to look at the source. Co-writer Cyphert said of his spiritual background, “I was raised in the church. I’m not particularly religious now, but the music (of the church) and all that imagery had a profound effect on me. And I know it did for [co-writer] Busbee as well.” Cyphert by his own admission isn’t high on loving God but rather a new love interest. 

Maren Morris

Finding Redemption In a Car 

Interestingly, Busbee co-wrote a song called “My Church” with country music singer Maren Morris. The song won Best Country Solo Performance and was nominated for Best Country Song at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards. “My Church” is another song that borrows religious imagery for purposes that are “unH.O.L.Y.”  

[Verse 1]
I’ve cussed on a Sunday
I’ve cheated and I’ve lied
I’ve fallen down from grace
A few too many times
But I find holy redemption
When I put this car in drive
Roll the windows down and turn up the dial

Can I get a hallelujah
Can I get an amen
Feels like the Holy Ghost running through ya
When I play the highway FM
I find my soul revival
Singing every single verse
Yeah I guess that’s my church

Morris explains, “Country music is my religion in a way… That’s what I grew up listening to. When you think about Johnny Cash’s ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ and Hank Williams — where do I even begin with his catalog? — it’s church to me. And I know it is for a lot of other people, too.” 


Take Me To Church

Country music is not the only genre borrowing religious imagery. Look no further than the mega-rock hit “Take Me To Church” by artist Hozier. This song not only uses religious imagery to describe a relationship, but also indict the church – more specifically the church’s view on homosexuality. The song is a metaphor, with the man comparing his lover to religion.

First, Hozier sings about his lover:

[Verse 1]
My lover’s got humour
She’s the giggle at a funeral
Knows everybody’s disapproval
Should’ve worshipped her sooner
If the Heavens ever did speak
She’s the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday’s getting more bleak
Fresh poison each week
“We were born sick,” you heard them say it
My church offers no absolutes
She tells me worship in the bedroom
The only heaven I’ll be sent to
Is when I’m alone with you
I was born sick, but I love it
Command me to be well
Amen. Amen. Amen.

[Verse 2]
If I’m a pagan of the good times
My lover’s the sunlight
To keep the Goddess on my side
She demands a sacrifice…

Using religious imagery, he describes his lover as a divine goddess who demands a sacrifice (i.e. sex) which ultimately leads to good kind of “deathless death.” 

Second, Hozier sings condemnation on the legalistic church:

Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins so you can sharpen your knife
Offer me my deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life

The church to him is a place where legalism, hypocrisy, and condemnation dwell – specifically around the issue of homosexuality which is what the music video focuses on. 

Cultural blogger “Pop Song Professor” Clifford Stumme concludes, “The main point of this song is that Hozier feels closer to God in the act of love in sex, not when he adheres to established religion… His ultimate question seems to be: How could anyone choose a rule-making (or shame-adding) church over the experience of love in sex no matter what the form?” 

Everyone Goes To “Church”

The songs we’ve looked at illustrate the Bible’s claim that every human being is a worshiper and has their own version of “church.” We were created with hungry souls looking to find life and satisfaction in our Creator. But, according to Romans 1, we exchanged the worship of God for created things. We now look to relationships, sex, career, music, and other things for redemption.

Borrowing religious imagery, when it’s aim is to exalt, magnify, boast in, and worship God’s created gifts rather than God himself, should be a big deal for Christians. It’s not something that we should get excited about. 

The songs above became instantaneous hits because they are doing something very strategic (whether the writers know it or not). These songs are connecting dots for people. Many people wouldn’t admit, “I worship her/him” or “I worship my job” or “I worship music.” They’ve never thought of their search for life and happiness as a religious pursuit perhaps. But now, artists like Hozier and Busbee are convincing people that they are – and that it’s perfectly OK. 

This strategy is a recipe for a chart-topping hit. When you start throwing out familiar religious terms loaded with meaning and then apply them to things like romantic relationships for example it’s going to produce a big bang. Every time you extract meaningful spiritual vocabulary from someone’s past church experience and use it to help describe someone’s current “worship” experience it’s going to resonate.

Sharing The Good News Just Got Easier 

There is some good news. Having been in ministry for over a decade, it’s always been a struggle to convince people that sin is not just doing bad things but making good things ultimate. Sin is not just breaking God’s law, but replacing God with another lover.

It’s to our benefit when songs on the radio are honest and explicit in describing who and what we worship. They have the potential to get people to admit what they might not have wanted to in the past. 

If we can get people to be as honest as the music lyrics they are listening to, it’ll make sharing the gospel much easier. With the foundation laid that all of us are worshipers and are trusting in someone or something for redemption, we can then make a compelling case for the God of the Bible as the only one who is able to perfectly love, redeem, and usher us into the good life. 

The Recap

  • Music artists are borrowing religious imagery and using it for their own version of “church”.
  • We shouldn’t get excited when artists use Biblical imagery, which has been set apart and reserved for the worship of God for centuries, to describe alternative objects of worship.
  • Sharing our faith may get easier as artists using spiritual imagery give listeners the freedom to call their addictions what they really are: spiritual worship.