(RNS) — Justin Bieber’s surprise Easter Sunday release, an EP titled “Freedom” and his most explicitly religious project to date, has raced to the second spot on the iTunes album chart, just two weeks after he released a full album, “Justice.”
Complete with a “3:16” timestamp on the album cover — presumably a nod to the widely seen “John 3:16” signs pointing people to the Gospel of John — the EP features Christian pop singer Tori Kelly, among other artists, and, notably, words from megachurch pastor Judah Smith. According to a video posted on Bieber’s Instagram page, the entire project was completed in a very Eastertide-ish three days.
While musically the songs retain Bieber’s signature lilting pop/R&B style, the EP’s six tracks have lyrics and titles that would fit in seamlessly on Christian radio. “On the third day, yeah, you rose up,” Bieber sings on “Where You Go I Follow,” “And you beat death once and for all.”
Bieber’s songs have included spiritual themes before — see “Holy” and “Pray” — but “Freedom” is the first instance of the artist situating an entire project in an unapologetically Christian framework. In the title track, “Freedom,” Bieber sings: “We in search of living water / Too blind to see the Messiah.”
While the EP builds on the vaguely spiritual notes in “Justice,” the EP includes unprecedented spoken prayers as outros, as on the third track, “We’re in This Together”: “I pray for every single person listening to this song right now,” says Bieber. “I pray for peace. I pray for joy. I pray for confidence. I pray for reassurance … ”
Smith follows with his own prayed outro on “Where You Go I Follow.” Bieber officially announced his affiliation with the Beverly Hills campus of Smith’s church on Instagram in January after cutting ties with disgraced former Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz. Smith’s nondenominational megachurch Churchome, based in Kirkland, Washington, is known, as was Lentz’s, for drawing celebrity attendees.
Smith, who fits the popular trope of the “relatable” Gucci-adorned white male pastor in skinny jeans, has been friends with Bieber for a decade and they share matching tattoos. Known for his humor and charismatic style, Smith has also been criticized for his ambiguity around LGBTQ inclusion, something that a few Bieber listeners have picked up on.
Queer Christian artist Semler tweeted on Monday: “Okay it’s a little funny that Justin Bieber released an EP called ‘Freedom’ that features Pastor Judah Smith. Judah Smith doesn’t affirm LGBTQ+ people. We can’t get married, serve in leadership or get baptized at his church but sure… freedom???”
After years of struggling with addiction as well as a series of late-night incidents that made Bieber a tabloid fixture, he took a hiatus in 2017 from performing to focus on his mental health and spirituality. For the latter he turned to Lentz, who had baptized the singer in 2014 in New York Knicks player Tyson Chandler’s bathtub.
Despite Lentz’s own tabloid travails, Bieber’s EP seems to indicate that the singer has not been swayed from a spiritual path, one that embraces the “cool Christian” aesthetic typified by the kind of limited-edition Jesus merch Bieber posted about on his Instagram Easter morning, including a pink, oversized “JESUS ROSE FROM THE DEAD” hoodie.
While cringey to some, his Christianity, with its earnest, wafer-thin positivity, is about as risky as his breezy combination of catchy R&B rhythms and gospel-inspired backup vocals — but for now, his fans are consuming it with their usual gusto.