Taylor Swift has swept loyal fans off their feet yet again with her new double album, The Tortured Poets Department, sprinkling religious imagery alongside themes of love, loss, and desire. Affectionately dubbed “Mother Taylor” by Gen Z fans, Swift has even more status than a usual pop star; she’s a nurturing and trailblazing surrogate parent. While thirty-somethings see her as their fellow pilgrim in love and loss, twenty-somethings look to her to pave a way with words for their own experience. But with her new album, Swift gives the moniker “Mother” a whole new layer of meaning.

Swift pushes stadiums beyond their capacity; meanwhile, many mainline churches can barely fill a pew. And even as numbers of “nones” and “nonverts” grow, Mother Taylor catechizes listeners in affection and devastation. The Tortured Poets Department, which contains more explicitly Christian imagery than any of her previous works, represents a convergence of those trends. Celebrity catechesis stands in for Christ.

The clearest example of this turn in Swift’s work is the song “Guilty as Sin?” Terms like “holy” and “crucify,” and phrases like “roll the stone away,” signal an inroad into the terrain, not merely of the vaguely religious, but of specifically Christian theology. The song finds Swift in a state of ennui, longing to throw caution to the wind to express herself, regardless of whether that means satisfaction or self-sabotage. Do her visions of fantasy fulfilled make her “bad or mad or wise?” Swift’s speculations touch on a deeply human dilemma. What should we do with our desires and what do they do to us? How do our desires shape who we are? Swift explores these questions through several avenues.

Swift’s speculations touch on a deeply human dilemma. What should we do with our desires and what do they do to us? How do our desires shape who we are?

In the second verse, we encounter the idea that desires don’t matter in the statement of “someone” who proposes: “There’s no such thing as bad thoughts/Only your actions talk.” Maybe this is someone considered wise who has counseled Swift to suppress her feelings. Or it might be a friend who has sought to convince her that she bears no responsibility for forbidden flights of fantasy. Whatever the case, experience makes Swift skeptical. Her irrepressible longings are an all-consuming virtual reality that she experiences just as viscerally as taste or touch. Unrealized desire manifests in mental and physical forms that consume her, bind her to the object of her desire, and claim commitment to a common future.

Proverbs proclaims, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” But Swift goes further—a bed of unfulfilled longing is a bier of oblation: “Oh, what a way to die/My bed sheets are ablaze.” She longs for what she feels internally to cohere with the external world, to be consummated in relationship. Desires, Swift sings—as much as they seem to create their own alternative reality—cannot satisfy. Human beings cannot live on desire alone.  Staying only at the level of our desires without realizing them is to be pent in, imprisoned, unable to find a way out: we are stuck in a “hedge maze,” our “longings locked… inside a vault.”

Swift holds out her solution in the religiously laden bridge. Critics will “crucify” her for defying convention. But she has a way out: “What if I roll the stone away?” Emerge from the death of self-denial, Swift preaches, and come alive to the only thing that matters: the consummation of desire. “What if the way you hold me is actually what’s holy?” she asks. She chooses “you and me religiously.” Swift disdains the distraction of spiritual scruples. Sexual satisfaction is the only thing that’s sacred. Erotic desire is her God of choice.

Swift self-identified as Christian in her 2020 documentary Miss Americana. How, then, might Christians make sense of this religious imagery? Can Christians resonate with this song’s depiction of desire?

Desires matter, whether sinful or pure. They’re at the core of who we are, where even “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” This insight is especially prevalent in Augustine, who said that love and desire are at the heart of human identity, teaching what Swift elsewhere echoes: “you are what you love.” As Jesus himself said, even desire alone can be morally decisive (Matthew 5:28).

Christianity also affirms the urgency of being open about desires, holy and unholy. The Psalms, for instance, lay human longings—however splendid and sublime, however hidden or heinous—boldly before God. The Bible also clearly teaches that whereas chronically unfulfilled desires can feel fatal, “a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12).

Christian teaching embraces these instincts from Swift on longing but holds that we can only realize our deepest desires if we widen the frame. The Christian tradition celebrates fulfillment of sexual desire (see the Song of Songs), but not as the ultimate human value, or even as necessary for human flourishing (consider Christ). Being human is so much more than either the suppression or actualization of sexual desire. Christianity also teaches the necessity of self-denial. Swift urges listeners to give in to their desires, even if it means crucifixion. But Christ’s call to take up our crosses daily and follow him means something much more counter-cultural: consistently denying ourselves for the sake of others.

Finally, our desire for God is an indispensable part of the picture. We’re invited to love with an all-consuming passion, but this burning love is to be directed toward the only one who can either deserve or satisfy it: God. When asked for the secret to living well, Jesus said it like this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39). Christianity holds out the hope of ultimate fulfillment. Singers have long moaned about the elusiveness of satisfaction. But Christianity proclaims it’s possible. The secret, though, is to turn our longings toward God: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).

The Christian imagery in “Guilty as Sin?” is as explicit as the song’s sexual innuendo.  But what the song represents is not so much rapprochement as replacement. Mother Taylor, crooner and unconventional ecclesiastic that she is, intones a series of priestly substitutions: self-satisfaction for self-denial, hedonism for holiness, and a gospel of fulfilled erotic desire in place of the self-emptying sacrifice of Christ.

In the end, Swift models an earthy expression of desire, but her song pushes us to look further for true fulfillment. To find our way out of the “hedge maze,” we look instead to the “mother” who said, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34). Christ’s own desire is that our desire should be for him, the ultimate joy of human desiring. In his embrace alone will we find wholeness.