So you’re driving down the road, scanning the radio for a decent song and you come across “holy, holy, holy.” Must be a worship song, eh? Not the way you might expect. Let’s see what happens if we put together a little mashup of three tunes you could have heard on the radio this week.
“Somehow baby, you broke through and saved me
You’re an angel, tell me you’re never leaving
‘Cause you’re the first thing I know I can believe in
You’re holy, holy, holy, holy
I’m high on loving you…
You made the brightest days from the darkest nights
You’re the river bank where I was baptized
Cleanse all the demons
That were killing my freedom
Let me lay you down, give me to ya
Get you singing babe, hallelujah
We’ll be touching, we’ll be touching heaven” (“H.O.L.Y.” by Florida Georgia Line)
“I should’ve worshipped her sooner
If the Heavens ever did speak
She is the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday’s getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week
‘We were born sick, ‘ you heard them say it
My church offers no absolutes
She tells me ‘worship in the bedroom’
The only heaven I’ll be sent to
Is when I’m alone with you
I was born sick, but I love it
Command me to be well
Amen. Amen. Amen
Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life…
No masters or kings when the ritual begins
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
Amen. Amen. Amen” (“Take Me to Church” by Hozier)
“Roll the windows down and turn up the dial
Can I get a hallelujah
Can I get an amen
Feels like the Holy Ghost running through ya
When I play the highway FM
I find my soul revival
Singing every single verse
Yeah I guess that’s my church” (“My Church” by Maren Morris)
Now there’s a lot we could say about these songs. Right off the bat, they are all three catchy, the kind of songs that get stuck in your head for hours. They are clever, using the unexpected metaphor of the sacred to make ordinary earthly loves and freedoms seem transcendent. And that’s nothing new — since Herbert and Donne were writing in Shakespeare’s day, English writers have done the same; pop singers, too (Madonna, Bon Jovi) have been doing this for years. We could make a good Public Service Announcement that if you play these songs backwards… wait, you could just play them forwards. But humor me for a minute. Let’s dig a little deeper and ask why.
Why is it that church — church, with its pews and organs and tiny wafers — is a go-to analogy for passion and ecstasy? Why do songwriters want to subvert traditional worship and replace it with something else? Why is it that human beings are so prone to worship in the first place?
It does get a little old, I’d imagine, to come up with a fresh metaphor for a love song. Love is a rose, a dance, fireworks, a waterfall. Love is super awesome. How do you say that in a new way? So writers, reaching for the highest, the ultimate idea to represent this mind-blowing human experience, turn to God. Hallelujah. But is that the end of the story? Anthropologists argue about why exactly the belief in the supernatural is so pervasive around the earth, but clearly there is a human impulse towards worship.
Back in 2001, Thomas T. Clegg and Warren Bird put out an insightful little book called Lost in America. They postulate that all people have three basic desires: for transcendence, significance, and community, and prove their assertion with a lot of fascinating statistics about what makes us tick. They say, “Everyone, at some point in life, wants to know God — to know the mystical and the divine, to solve the dilemma of life’s God-shaped vacuum, and to know the great beyond.” They point out some of the top-grossing movies of all time: Star Wars, E.T., The Sixth Sense, Independence Day. We might add all of those Batman movies, Harry Potter, even Indiana Jones.
It’s like the old preacher postulates in Ecclesiastes, “God has set eternity in our hearts.” We have a built-in longing for something… more. To borrow a lyric from Switchfoot, “There’s got to be something more / Than what I’m living for / I’m crying out to You.”
So you’re a lyricist and you’re reaching for words that get to that longing, that transcendence — what are your options? Life is a highway, a party, a song… or life is sacred, holy, a beautiful mystery. There is no more epic story than the imagination and creation of the world, the sacrifice of a King for all of humanity, and the ultimate vanquishing of evil.
December in particular offers up a smorgasbord of soundtracks for life: you might be rocking around the Christmas tree, letting it snow, or roasting chestnuts. Or you can lean into the wonder: the holy night, the miracle in the manger, the creaky old shepherds privy to a celestial flash mob. Trade in the mundane for the mystery this year.
Take me to church.