(Religion Unplugged) — Justin Bieber dropped his latest single “Holy” on Sept. 17.
Featuring Chance the Rapper, Gospel influences and an almost innocent sweetness, the song stands out among Bieber’s music (including even “Yummy,” released in January).
The song is eagerly religious, as Bieber proclaims that he’s “runnin’ to the altar like a track star,” and he “can’t wait another second.”
Chance the Rapper proclaims that “I know we believe in God, and I know God believes in us.”
The song’s music video is a short film in which Bieber plays a construction worker who’s laid off with dozens of others. He and his significant other, a young Black woman and healthcare worker, are evicted from their home and then picked up on the side of the road by a Hispanic man in a U.S. military uniform, who insists they come for a hot meal with his family.
It’s the sort of video that picks up on some of the favorite parts of evangelical culture: hope, America and good family values.
Bieber’s manager and one of the producers of “Holy,” Scooter Braun, as well as the YouTube description of the music video, describe “Holy” as a “new era” of music for the artist. Notably, pop star Billie Eilish commented on the music video, “I love you!❤”
This new era seems to be marked by two main influences: Hailey Bieber and evangelical Christianity.
Justin and Hailey married in September 2018, and the love songs on Justin’s latest full album from January, “Changes,” are about love and commitment — in stark contrast to his “Boyfriend” days.
In “Holy,” Bieber sings that “the way you hold me, hold me, hold me, hold me, hold me / Feels so holy.”
The couple attends the Los Angeles location of Churchome, an evangelical megachurch pastored by Judah and Chelsea Smith. Bieber has often posted videos of recorded sermons, #guidedprayers, motivation and an invitation for followers to download the church’s app.
It’s only one way Bieber has started publicly expressing his faith.
In early January 2018, he posed shirtless on a plane with a Bible open in his lap. “Wowzers,” the caption says.
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His social media is full of posts thanking Jesus for his music and success. In a recent post on Sept. 6, he talks about the combination of faith and his past.
“I came from a small town in Stratford Ontario Canada,” he writes. “I didn’t have material things and was never motivated by money or fame[.] I just loved music. But as I became a teenager I let my insecurities and frustrations dictate what I put my value in.
“I want to walk in the plans god has for me and not try and do it on my own!” he continues. “I want to give up my selfish desires daily so I can be a good husband and future dad! I’m grateful that I can walk with Jesus as he leads the way.”
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Even before this year, Bieber sang about religion in some of his work. Bieber’s song “Pray,” released in 2010, is about the power of prayer (and was a big hit for pre-teen Bieber fans raised in Christian homes, like myself).
The song is about Bieber wrestling with the suffering he sees in the world—as seen in poverty, homelessness, war and a whole host of other issues. When it comes to world hunger, he says, “I lose my appetite, knowing kids starve tonight / Am I a sinner cause some of my dinner / Is still there on my plate?”
What’s the solution for these problems and the heartache he feels? “I close my eyes and I can see a brighter day / I close my eyes and pray,” he says.
The music video for “Pray” is a bizarre artifact of evangelical Christian culture at the beginning of the 2010s and of Bieber’s Christianity. The video is essentially a collage of unrelated and unlabeled clips: the viewer sees homeless men and women, Bieber praying with his team before a concert, children in hospital beds, Bieber taking pictures with fans, soldiers returning to their families and concert footage.
At the end is the message that “God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer.”
The entire project is well-intentioned and sweet, but ultimately relies too heavily on pathos and feels vague. In 2010, though, I was just happy to have received what I thought was proof that Bieber was a Christian. I forced all of the kids in my middle school’s Fellowship of Christian Students to listen to it as a source of motivation.
“Holy” is a similar, if more mature, project. It’s soulful, aided by Chance the Rapper’s feature and — like all of Bieber’s best work — just really catchy.
But where does his faith lie, and where is his music career headed?
Consider, lastly, another recent project he worked on.
Bieber stars in the music video for DJ Khaled’s “Popstar” as an actual popstar, waking up in a mansion, changing from trendy outfit to trendy outfit, drinking alcohol and dancing with models. Then he wakes up in bed with his wife: the music video and popstar life were just a dream. They walk their dog together, and Drake calls to set the events of the dream in motion.
The video is cute, colorful and harmless, but it feels like a study on the duality of Bieber’s life and career. Is he a lavish popstar? Is he a modest Christian, husband and singer?
Can he be both?
It’s entirely possible that Bieber is leaving behind the popstar life to make more hopeful, spiritual pop music. That seems to be the case so far this year. Let’s see what music he releases next.
(Jillian Cheney is a Poynter-Koch fellow for Religion Unplugged, where this article originally appeared. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)