I’m of the belief that Taylor Swift’s repertoire is so deep that there’s a song for every emotion. Through her gifted songwriting, I can belt out songs about heartbreak and revenge with stunning authenticity for a person who’s been in a happy, committed relationship for the past five years. This Lent, I’ve been trying to see Jesus as a person more than as an abstract concept, and I’ve been talking to him more personally in my prayer life. I wondered, if Taylor can transport me so deeply into other people’s stories, could I bring her music into my prayer life?
As I was listening to Reputation, the lyrics of “Call It What You Want” leapt out at me for all the ways they parallel the bible stories we hear throughout Lent and on Good Friday. So I sat down with my bible and my headphones to dive into the connections. What followed was a version of the Ignatian spiritual practice of contemplation (imaginative prayer) in which we put ourselves inside the stories we read in Scripture, imagining the sights, sounds, and feelings that Jesus and his followers experienced in those moments. Here are some of the insights I gained through the practice:
“My castle crumbled overnight
I brought a knife to a gunfight
They took the crown, but it's alright”
Jesus went from being hailed as a king when he arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to being condemned to death just days later. The word “crumbled” also reminded me of Jesus’ prophecy, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).
“All the liars are calling me one”
The chief priests and elders who felt threatened by Jesus got together to think of ways to get rid of him. They accused him of treachery – that is, deception (Matthew 26:3-4).
“Nobody's heard from me for months”
Nobody heard from Jesus for months (40 days, to be exact) as he went into the desert to fast and be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11).
“I'm doing better than I ever was, 'cause
My baby's fit like a daydream
Walking with his head down
I'm the one he's walking to
So call it what you want, yeah, call it what you want to”
Obviously the parallels aren’t perfect here because this is a pop song about romantic love, which is different from the kind of love between the God the Father and Jesus, His Son. God himself is a perfect and eternal exchange of love between God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The Father and the Son are always oriented toward each other, drawn together by the Holy Spirit. Jesus can trust that his Father is always present.
“My baby's fly like a jet stream
High above the whole scene
Loves me like I'm brand new
So call it what you want, yeah, call it what you want to”
Again, ignoring the romantic language of “my baby,” I also thought of this stanza in terms of the love between Jesus and the Father. In the story of the Transfiguration, God the Father is literally “high above the whole scene,” with a booming voice coming down from the clouds to express his love for his Son: “While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’” (Matthew 17:5).
“All my flowers grew back as thorns
Windows boarded up after the storm
He built a fire just to keep me warm”
After he is betrayed and condemned to death, Jesus is mocked mercilessly: “Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on his head, and a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” (Matthew 27:29)
“All the drama queens taking swings”
Countless people taking swings at Jesus: Judas, in his betrayal; the Pharisees and others who testified against him; the crowd who insisted that they’d rather have a murderer, Barabbas, living among them than let Jesus walk free.
“All the jokers dressin' up as kings
They fade to nothing when I look at him”
When Jesus was tempted in the desert, Satan pretended to be a king and offered Jesus the keys to the kingdom. However, Jesus saw right through this facade, realizing Satan is nothing but a joker. Jesus refused to worship him, clapping back, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve’” (Matthew 4:8-10).
“And I know I make the same mistakes every time
Bridges burn, I never learn, at least I did one thing right
I did one thing right
I'm laughing with my lover, making forts under covers
Trust him like a brother, yeah, you know I did one thing right
Starry eyes sparkin' up my darkest night”
Since Jesus is perfect, he doesn’t make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean he can’t identify with this stanza’s juxtaposition of pain and gratitude. In the Agony in the Garden, the night before he is given up to death, Jesus exclaimed to his Father, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). He doesn’t want to undergo what is to come, but he ultimately trusts in his Father.
“I recall late November, holdin' my breath
Slowly I said, ‘You don't need to save me
But would you run away with me?’”
During his crucifixion, onlookers taunted Jesus and dared him to ask his Father to save him. They said things like, “[S]ave yourself, if you are the Son of God, [and] come down from the cross!” and, “He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him” (Matthew 27:40-43). But Jesus doesn’t call out to his Father to save him. Instead, he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). He doesn’t ask to be spared, but he does reach out to his Father.
As I imagined Jesus experiencing real human emotions, he seemed more real to me. Through listening to this song, I walked through his temptations, his desolation, and his ultimate trust in his Father. Ultimately, Taylor’s song is a happy one, where trust in a strong relationship prevails – but the song is still layered and complex, as most emotions are. I found this practice to be spiritually enriching, and I’d encourage you to try it with some music that speaks to you.