Taylor & Theology I : What if the way you hold me is actually what's holy?

A poster of Taylor Swift as Jesus, a Bible and a smartphone playing the song “Guilty as Sin” lie on an unmade bed.

In her newly-published book on the history of American Christian popular music, Leah Payne suggests that the end of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) pop stardom properly arrived in the form of Taylor Swift. Whilst for a number of decades there had been a market for explicitly Christian alternatives to mainstream popular music, by the early 2000s, a figure such as Swift, “who wore modest clothing and wrote chaste country songs with plenty of adolescent longing and Christian imagery” was able to take over the role of female Christian pop stars relatively seamlessly: offering a safe alternative to potentially-threatening forms of popular music, and integrating relatively easily with conservative evangelical imaginations of life and romance.

Swift has reinvented herself many times over the years, and whilst she has rarely been without controversy, it is notable how much of a stir her most-recent album The Tortured Poets Department has caused online within parts of this same American Christian public. Since announcing her relationship with Travis Kelce in 2023, Swift has attracted increasing scorn from right-wing commentators as part of broader American culture wars, but the release of TTPD has brought with it a new set of arguments, many of them focussed on the album’s religious dimension. Outspoken right-wing worship leader, anti-lockdown protestor and Donald Trump ally Sean Feucht protested on Facebook that “Almost half the songs on Taylor Swift’s new album contain explicit lyrics (E), make fun of Christians and straight up blaspheme God” and a range of similar reactions have circulated from different directions both criticising Swift’s attitude to religion in this most recent album and defending her against potential over-reactions and misinterpretations of her wider agenda.

How, then, do romance, sexuality, and the divine intertwine in Swift’s different albums? What is theological imagery doing there in the first place? And what exactly might Swift be trying to achieve in her role as a wild and public theologian?

From her early albums onwards, romance and the divine are closely entangled together. “Our Song”, one of Swift’s earliest hits, playfully evokes images of God creating the soundtrack to her relationship, conjuring up an image of a deity who sees and helps out with romantic stories and destinies. “Holy Ground” accomplishes something similar, evoking the feeling that, despite it later falling apart, there was something about a romance that might appropriately be described using religious terminology. Other songs identify prayer and the divine with the struggles of relationships. In “Enchanted” Swift prays that her story of love goes in the direction she is desperately wishing for, whilst in “State of Grace”, a morally ambiguous struggle in love is depicted in terms of a holy fight where fighting on the side of good and right is important and worth hanging on to.

Whilst theological themes are far from the main driving force behind Swift’s output, they play a crucial role within the broader logic of her music. Swift is weaver of enchanted narratives, of stories that take the frustrations and joys of romance, questions of personal identity, and social struggles and endow them with a deeper meaning and significance. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that many listen to her output, for the way in which it takes their own experiences and transfigures them into something more. Swift’s narratives often have a strong sense of right and wrong, a sense that life is moving towards a goal, and a poetic imagination which bestows meaning on the world precisely through taking different kinds of imagery and overlaying them on the experiences of life. Her music is there to interpret the everyday and thereby to elevate it above its mundanity.

The Tortured Poets Department

The songs on The Tortured Poets Department continue Swift’s habit of mixing theological and romantic imagery. Rather than assuming a straightforward connection between the two, however, Swift insists on questioning and reimagining the relationship between the narratives impressed upon her by others, and the reality that potentially lies beyond them. These songs’ sense of moral ambiguity goes further than many of Swift’s earlier albums. After having deliberately sought to disrupt a sense of her “good girl” image through her Reputation era, Swift has emerged out the other side not so much as someone who has turned dark and bad, but as someone who has deliberately attempted to escape an image of herself she no longer wanted to own, and who now is able to wrestle with a wider range of her own impulses, situations, and desires than she was able to at an earlier stage in her career.

Whilst theological imagery is found throughout the album, “Guilty as Sin?” is perhaps the song where it comes most forcefully to the foreground. Beginning in a world coloured by feelings of captivity and frustration, the song quickly transitions into a realm of sexual longing and fantasy. As this transition takes place, the song reworks C.S. Lewis’ famous Trilemma (is Jesus mad, bad, or God?) to ask whether the visions that Swift is indulging in make her bad, or mad, or wise. Her fantasies intensify in the chorus, with writing on thighs and top-lip kisses firmly cementing the scenario in a bodily physical world. The question posed here is again strongly influenced by the sayings of Jesus, asking whether mental fantasies without physical action can really make someone guilty. Verse three and the following chorus move through fantasies of lovemaking and the physical ecstasy which accompanies them before reaching something of a theological climax in the bridge.

Having pondered on her guilt throughout the verses, the bridge is where Swift turns things around. Transitioning through an imagined experience of crucifixion and resurrection, Swift emerges out the other side. Here, instead of pondering the potential guilt which has been imposed on her from outside, she now allows a new way of thinking to emerge out of her own experience. The still-ambiguous question which she now poses “What if the way you hold me is actually what's holy?” turns the tables on a group of imagined critics as she asks what it might be like for the love which she is fantasising about not to be a location of guilt and shame, but one of true holiness.

She doesn’t ask this question simply on an abstract disembodied level either; human embrace, the holding of one person in your arms, becomes the action through which the sacred can become present, and forms a grounded tangible alternative to the hollowness of the “long suffering propriety” which might otherwise be asked of her.

In common with much of the exvangelical movement, and recent critiques of American purity culture, the song wrestles with a sexual ethic that seems for many to hit its limit when the authorised path leads only to the imposition of needless suffering and the forbidden path leads to encounters that seem infused with grace. Many in the Swift fandom have understood “Guilty as Sin?” to describe Swift’s experiences of getting back together with Matty Healy quick on the heels of a long-term relationship with Joe Alwyn. Healy’s often divisive reputation and the speed with which their romance came to an end can make this relationship an easy target for criticism and judgment. Swift, the public theologian, however, asks us to take her lived experience seriously; not to interpret it in advance on the basis of well-thought-out religious frameworks, but to use it to question them, and to reflect upon them. Importantly, the complexity of her experience does not lead to abandoning the sacred completely, but involves searching for it in the realm of authentic bodily experience and desire, whether or not that search ultimately works out the way that the seeker might have hoped for. Connection with others is potentially something holy which can be desecrated; bodies are sacred sites; and voices which insist on empty moral frameworks are voices which fail to perceive the depth of true holiness.

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The Body’s Grace

It is clear that Swift doesn’t trust all of her own experiences or evaluations, and she is right not to do so, which is why the posing of questions throughout the song is crucial to what it is able to offer. The issue is not so much an insistence that one option is right and that the other is wrong, but rather that the imagined moral voices raised against her refuse to even countenance that there might even be a genuine tension to deal with and that any dimension above and beyond that of duty might be important to wrestle with. In a famous and controversial essay, theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrestles with similar questions, asking what it means to enter into the body’s grace, what situations this might be found in, and how those might relate to the rules and frameworks that the church has put in place over the centuries to regulate marriage and intimate relationships.

Decisions about sexual lifestyle, the ability to identify certain patterns as sterile, undeveloped or even corrupt are […] decisions about what we want our bodily life to say, how our bodies are to be brought in to the whole project of “making human sense” for ourselves and each other. To be able to make such decisions is important: a conventional (heterosexual) morality simply absolves us from the difficulties we might meet in doing so. The question of human meaning is not raised, we are not helped to see what part sexuality plays in our learning to be human with one another, to enter the body’s grace, because all we need to know is that sexual activity is licensed in one context and in no other.

Williams insists on the importance of our search for meaning and bodily grace within the realm of human sexuality and connection. Whilst Swift’s lyrics point to a dilemma and seek to pose a potential solution to it, however, Williams seeks to go a little further. For Williams as for Swift, an insistence on empty commitment and convention do nothing to uphold the true meaning of Christian sexual ethics, these are not in themselves a source of grace, and are not always the place in which it is found. In looking for the ways in which sexual relationships and human bodies can become locations of grace, Williams insists on the importance of mutual vulnerability and risk; dynamics of desire and being desired; the space to perceive and be perceived by the other; acceptance; nurturing; the ability to discover and give oneself as a source of happiness to another; and the importance of time and commitment in enabling all of this to be able to take place. For Williams, there is something about the way in which all of this is able to come together in human encounter that can make sexuality into a location of grace. The gift of time and the promise not to run away which traditional commitments are rooted in is something that can enable the vulnerability and discovery within which grace can flourish, but it is a means to an end. This grace can be found in other situations, and commitment in itself can ring hollow if other elements are not nurtured and developed.

If Swift poses “long suffering propriety” on one side of her dilemma and the potential holiness found in a new lover’s embrace on the other side, Williams insists on the importance of both elements, and more alongside, highlighting the reasons why Swift may indeed narrate a genuine moral dilemma over the course of this song.

Swift offers us something important in her sacralisation of romantic bodily embrace and connection, and through her wrestling with the question of what is and what might really be holy.

In order to fully work this through, however, we need to take this challenge a step further and explore even deeper the complexities, the vulnerabilities, the risks, the disappointments, the joys, and the commitments that come when we intertwine our lives with the divine and with each-other. It is through this wrestling that we might eventually learn to encounter places which are genuinely and authentically sacred in our relationships with one another and with our bodies.

Mark Porter is a a senior lecturer at the Chair of Fundamental Theology and Religious Studies. You can find more information about his research and publications on his personal website.

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