The hit song of 2013 was a plea to be taken to church—but to the disappointment of those who were looking for signs of cultural tides turning back toward Christian faith, the church here was the body of another person, worshiped through the ritual of lovemaking. “My lover’s got humor …” Hozier sang in “Take Me to Church,” “I should’ve worshiped her sooner.” Replacing institutionalized Christian worship with the worship of the lover liberates the singer from the shackles of oppressive religion and makes him free to embrace his humanity in all its grittiness and earthliness, to celebrate the embodied nature of human existence. The worship of the lover becomes almost an alternative religion.

Yet there’s something fascinating going on in terms of human desires and transcendence in “Take Me to Church.” Hozier’s song almost unwittingly admits that human beings have an inherent impulse to worship and that we crave for an experience of transcendence. In other words, we long to give ourselves away in worship.

Similar echoes of transcendence can be found in two more recent pop songs: Taylor Swift’s “False God” and Justin Bieber’s “Holy. In the pauses, sudden jumps, and almost subconscious impulses of their treatment of romance, “Take Me to Church” and “False God” make visible our longing for God—a longing that Justin Bieber’s “Holy” also points to, although in a different way.

In the Church of the Lover: Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” and Taylor Swift’s “False God”

It may surprise you, but I think that Hozier’s got worship right in many ways.

Hozier’s song—filled with religious imagery and allusions to especially Christian forms of worship—moves toward its crescendo with a gravitas reminiscent of liturgical music with its chorus of “amens.” The church of the lover “offers no absolutes” and is free from hierarchical power structures (“no masters or kings when the ritual begins”). Despite lingering guilt and shame, the worship of the lover is marked with boldness and freedom. In a reference to the Garden of Eden and humanity’s fall, Hozier sings, “There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin / In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene / Only then I am human / Only then I am clean.” In a few masterful lines Hozier reaches toward the paradox of his earthly worship: it might not lead to a perfect paradise, but it is precisely in the pure fleshiness of bodies mingling that the gates of heaven are opened.

The singer goes so far as to plead: “Offer me that deathless death / Good God, let me give you my life,” recognizing that the transcendental desire to give yourself wholly to another is at the heart of worship. Here heaven hangs low, descending to the madness and soil of our earth: to experience bodily union with the lover is heaven, paradise, church. It is an alternative form of transcendence, experienced through the worship of another, reaching toward spiritual union.

It may surprise you, but I think that Hozier’s got worship right in many ways. Worship is more than just an acknowledgment of the supreme value of what is worshiped. In worship we give ourselves to another, we yield to the other’s power. As such worship is both dangerous and inherently human. 

What is remarkable about Hozier’s quasi-theological vision is his awareness of the ambivalence and danger of worship. Having abandoned the god of “bleak” Sundays, the singer longs to give himself completely to the lover. But he is still acutely aware of the price and danger of giving oneself away to another. “I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies / I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife. … / To keep the Goddess on my side / She demands a sacrifice.” Though the worship of the lover is in some sense a form of liberation as it opens up a new way of experiencing transcendence—free from the dogmas and rules of institutionalized religion—the inherent danger of worship remains: to worship is to be in the power of another. And who knows whether the other can be trusted? 

In Taylor Swift’s “False God,” it is not so much the lover as it is romantic love itself that becomes an alternative object of worship. As in “Take Me to Church,” worship in “False God” is earthly and bodily. Heaven reaches earth when the lovers touch (“I know heaven’s a thing / I go there when you touch me”). The altar of worship is the body of the lover (“religion’s in your lips … / the altar is my hips”). Confessions are made and there are references to Christian worship and liturgy (“Make confessions and we’re begging for forgiveness / Got the wine for you”). And yet, again, the depiction of romantic love as worship is filled with a sense of ambivalence, even danger: “They say the roads get hard and you get lost when you’re led by blind faith … / But we might just get away with it / Religion’s in your lips / Even if it’s a false God.” The faith the singer has in the love between herself and her lover is blind— trusting daringly, even desperately against all the odds—and there is no guarantee for Swift that the god of romantic love can be trusted. Yet the urge to worship, to yield to the power of this love, is irresistible.

Both “Take Me to Church” and “False God” exemplify how human longing for transcendence is experienced in a secular, disenchanted world where God is not. We long for that Greater for Whom we were made, although we can hardly name him or our desire. Yet, intimations remain: hints, hunches, and guesses. A rumor that perhaps we were made for Someone else. Depictions of romance like these show the artists seeking a new home for our desire toward transcendence, in romantic love. 

They also reveal some of the artists’ modern assumptions about the nature of religious worship. Modern critics of Christianity tend to accuse it of an anti-body and anti-sex mentality. Hozier especially seems to compare his embodied, earthly worship of the lover favorably with the kind of other-worldly, disembodied transcendence that Christianity is supposedly offering. And many Christians, too, accept without realizing Hozier’s either/or dilemma: We must choose between the pursuit of other-worldly, disembodied divine transcendence and our more “base” bodily existence and desires. To find transcendence—to find God—one must leave the dim earth behind. 

This, however, is not so much a Christian as it is a Platonic vision of transcendence: God far away, in the realm of spirits and ideas, the earth at best a shadow of his being. In this understanding of transcendence, heaven and earth are driven apart, they become each other’s opposites, and to long for God is to long to leave behind the physicality of human existence.

In reality, Christian faith celebrates the earthly, bodily reality of human existence and looks forward to the redemption of our bodies in God’s new creation. Romance and sexuality are not opposed to knowing God: they point toward him. This is where Justin Bieber’s “Holy” adds an interesting voice to the conversation that Hozier and Swift start. In “Holy,” romance and sexual desires are broken signposts that point toward God.

At the Altar of Love: Justin Bieber’s “Holy”

At a first glance, Bieber seems to be suggesting something similar to Hozier and Swift. In a catchy chorus he sings: “The way you hold me / Feels so holy / On God / Running to the altar like a track star.” Here, too, there are references to baptism: the singer wants to “go down to the river” to be purified, and “the sky opens up”—a reference to the baptism of Christ—when the lovers touch. As in baptism, so in the physical union of bodies there is a kind of death in giving oneself completely to another. Such a death purifies and is followed by a resurrection. So it seems that again in the act of sex something transcendental takes place.

Bieber’s upbeat song, however, conveys none of the sense of looming danger that Swift and Hozier associate with the worship and transcendence experienced in romantic love. Instead, there is a deliberate ambiguity: the altar the singer is running to is not only the body of the lover, but quite literally the altar where he marries his love, and the baptismal waters refer not only to the act of physical union, but also to actual baptism. Bieber is suggesting an alternative vision of how romantic love and worship mingle: the transcendence of romantic love is experienced as an openness leading into divine love, not as a replacement of it. This is possible because the singer in “Holy” lives in a world where God is present and where human life is open toward him. As a result, romantic love is sanctified by God at the altar where the union of the two lovers is blessed, and points toward God’s love for human beings. In this way Bieber is situating himself in the Christian tradition, going all the way back to the Song of Songs, of seeing human romance and marriage as an image of divine love.

For Bieber it’s not the lovers’ worship of their love or each other that sustains them, but rather their mutual worship of God: by giving themselves first wholly to God through baptism, they can give themselves wholly to each other in marriage. “Formalize the union in communion He can trust / I know I ain’t leaving you like I know He ain’t leaving us / I know we believe in God and I know God believes in us.” Instead of looming danger, then, there’s a sense of complete trust and joy in abandoning oneself to another. The touch of the other feels holy and is, indeed, a kind of heaven.

The Marriage of Heaven and Earth

Bieber is pointing toward a different path back to the Garden, a different home for human desires: worshiping a God who is not closed off from his world, but present in it, sustaining it with his presence. Hence, the worship Bieber depicts is not opposed to the embodied nature of human life. Rather, embodied human existence becomes a pointer toward God.

In this theological vision of romance, human sexual desires carry within themselves the secret of all created things – the secret “not known, because not looked for / But heard, half-heard, in the stillness / Between two waves of the sea” (T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”). The secret is that the world is not empty of God; on the contrary, it was created by God for God and finds its completeness only through him—and so it longs for him, for its own transcendental end. The whole cosmos longs to worship.

In light of this transcendental longing, it’s not surprising that all three songwriters make references to water and wine, to baptism and the Eucharist. The sacraments are, after all, concrete and embodied ways of experiencing a God who is not far off, but who seeks communion with us. They are ways of worship, of experiencing transcendence. As such they point toward the future marriage of heaven and earth when God fills the temple of his creation with his glory. Through the sacraments we give ourselves to God wholly and completely—bodies and all. And—as is made vividly clear in the Eucharist—through them God gives himself to us bodily. Is it any wonder then that these songwriters who explore the transcendental dimensions of a different kind of physical union cannot stop referring to the sacraments? Whether they know it or not, whether they embrace it or rebel against it, the secret is there—not known, because not looked for, but heard, half-heard between the pauses and waves of the music.