Taylor Swift isn’t the light of the world. And she won’t fill our culture’s God-shaped hole. But the biggest pop star on the planet does identify as a Christian

In December 2023, a clip of preacher Dr Tony Wood went somewhat viral. The pastor of Mission Bible Church in Costa Mesa, California regularly posts clips from his sermons on Instagram, but the reason for the wider-than-normal distribution of this particular message was that it made a target of a beloved cultural icon. The world outside the pastor’s window had become obsessed with singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, and he was not impressed. “When the hope of the world is someone in pink spandex and known for glitter bombs, you know that the world is in a woeful and grievous place,” he declared. 

Wood was apparently incensed that TIME magazine, America’s traditional arbiter of global influence, had named Swift as its 2023 ‘Person of the Year’. Taking particular exception to a line in the magazine which described her as a ‘light’ in a dark time, he went to great lengths to explain that, in fact, a “middle-aged pop star” (Swift is 34) was no one’s idea of hope in a suffering world. That she couldn’t help you with your everyday problems, let alone your eternal ones. “Taylor Swift can never lay her body over that chasm, allowing us to walk over it to get into the graces of a mighty God,” he rallied. “There is only one who ever could, and his name is Jesus.” 

Of course, Swift would probably agree with him. But we’ll get to that.

‘I promise that you’ll never find another like me’

Since the 1920s, the fortnightly news journal TIME has awarded ‘Person of the Year’ (it became gender-neutral in 1999) to the individual who had shaped the world’s headlines to the greatest degree over the previous twelve months. It’s important to stress that this isn’t always a glowing tribute – past winners have included Vladimir Putin and even Adolf Hitler – rather, it’s a metric of a person’s impact on the world. It’s been won by 14 US presidents, five leaders of Russia or the Soviet Union, three popes, and a few notable titans of industry. Until 2023, however, it had never been won by an entertainer.

“Every year contains light and dark; 2023 was a year with significant shares of darkness”, wrote the magazine’s editor, Sam Jacobs, in his explanatory editorial. “In a divided world, where too many institutions are failing, Taylor Swift found a way to transcend borders and be a source of light. No one else on the planet today can move so many people so well.”

Given the previous recipients of the award, it’s understandable that the decision to name Swift Person of the Year might seem to critics like a tasteless, populist shift. As wars rage and economies tumble, surely there are more serious, deserving candidates? Meanwhile, Jacobs’ first-chapter-of-John-baiting line about Taylor being “a source of light” in “darkness” has irked pastors like Dr Wood, who point out that hope in Taylor is really no hope at all. Surely Swift isn’t truly the brightest light in our dim world? Except that for millions upon millions of people, that’s exactly what she appears to be.


‘The haters gonna hate’

It’s been 15 years since Swift’s name first popped into the wider global consciousness. It was partly the consequence – back in 2009 – of a legendarily awkward moment at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), where Swift won Best Female Video for her song ‘You belong with me’. As she began her acceptance speech, rapper Kanye West stormed the stage, wrenching the microphone from Swift’s hand to pronounce that, in his view, Beyoncé was the far more deserving recipient. “Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ll let you finish, but Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time.” 

Her songs seem to give language to the feelings and anxieties of a generation

It was a toe-curling moment for the watching world, but for Swift it turned out to be the first in a series of iconic, fan-winning moments. She fought back hysterical tears, allegedly, to compose herself in time to perform her winning song. She won the crowd and would go on – at last count – to win another 638 music awards around the world. Though she might not have known it then, that night at the MVAs may just have been her superhero origin story. 

‘Big reputation’

At the time, Swift was growing in popularity but still relatively unknown on the world stage. A country music prodigy who’d signed her first record deal at 14, she had begun to emerge to wider prominence, but only as one of a number of popular female singers. Fast forward to 2024, and she’s indisputably the biggest star on the planet, yet Swift’s persona has remained marked with a thread of humility and authenticity. Partly this is visible in her relationship with fans – or Swifties – who feel an unusual sense of love and connection with and from their idol. She hides clues for them in her densely written songs, and goes to lengths to make them feel like friends rather than fans. In the early days she would seek out Swifties on social media and invite them to secret album previews. More latterly she’s observed their homespun dances on TikTok and incorporated them into routines in her stadium shows. Swift cultivates her fan base, and a girl-next-door image that tells the world that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Which, when you look at the numbers around her, is really quite remarkable.

Another titanic US publication, the financial bible Forbes, has devoted an increasing amount of column inches to Swift in recent months. Declaring her a billionaire in October, it went on to estimate that her current ‘Eras’ world tour could generate as much as $4.6bn for the US economy through direct revenues, tourism and job creation. 

Eras is a cultural megalith all on its own. Already the highest-grossing live music event of all time, it’s a 151-date global retrospective of her career which includes an extraordinary eight nights at Wembley Stadium this August. At this moment, it’s almost impossible to overstate Swift’s ability to sell tickets (every date sold out in seconds); her appeal is unparalleled, and not only crosses international borders, but also ignores age, gender and a host of other social demographics. The tour, which has already been filmed and given a cinematic release, delivered instant and extraordinary wealth to Swift, and cemented her status as a global icon. 

So why is this the Taylor Swift era? What is it about this singer-songwriter, precociously talented, but objectively no more remarkable than hundreds of other performers, that has catapulted her into an unprecedented pole position? It’s hard to know exactly; what we can observe is that various disparate factors seem to have combined into megastar alchemy. 

Importantly, Swift writes great songs. Even if like me you’re no Swiftie, you’ve probably heard some of her hits, like the insanely catchy ‘Shake it off’. What lies beyond those radio ditties, however, is a rich catalogue of soulful tracks that seem to strike a deep connection with younger people. Swift’s roots are in country music, which infamously deals with far deeper and more difficult themes than chart rock and pop ever might, and perhaps helps her to speak into troubling times. Her songs seem to give language to the feelings and anxieties of a generation; even as she externally processes her own journey, others seem to find themselves in it. So the music itself is important…but it’s not just about the music.

There’s also something about the woman herself, and her publicly revealed character, which seems to capture more of our collective imagination. She’s famously kind, especially to fans. She’s humble to the point of self-deprecation. There’s an offbeat nerdiness to her with which some identify, and an untacky glamour that appeals to still others. To some extent she’s a kind of everywoman, difficult to dislike and easy to identify with. She is endlessly fascinating, partly because she keeps on doing the unexpected. 

In the background of all the break-up songs and glitter bombs, the vapours of Christian faith remain

And so while we enjoy her music, and find her intriguing, there’s another part to the equation; the context within which Swift inevitably resides. It’s the dark world to which Jacobs referred in his editorial; the uncertain cultural moment that desperately demands some heroic light. Perhaps TIME is right: Swift’s popularity is found in her ability to illuminate our world in its gloomiest moments. 


‘I pray to Jesus too’

Dr Wood was furious to think that we might mistake Swift for Jesus. She’s TIME magazine’s light in the darkness, but she’s not the Light of the World. As I said earlier, Swift would surely agree, and it appears that her own life has intersected at various points with the true light.

Raised in a Christian home and formatively shaped in the Bible Belt hotspot of Nashville, Tennessee, Swift has publicly declared herself to be a Christian. In a famous clip in which she railed against the rise of Trumpian politics (and specifically the Republican senator Marsha Blackburn), she expressed her anger at policies such as one which legislated against domestic violence victims. She was furious that Blackburn had suggested that such policies were in keeping with “Tennesee Christian values”, saying: “I live in Tennessee. I’m a Christian. That’s not what we stand for.”

This outburst seemed to be a little slip of the mask for a figure who has generally adopted the ‘we don’t do God’ approach to entertainment-world-domination. Without interrogating the nature of her faith, we can take her word that she at least has one. 

Her lyrics offer few clues to what that faith looks like, and she makes only fleeting and occasional references to it. In the song ‘Soon you’ll get better’, Swift talks about turning to prayer – specifically to Jesus – when her mother was diagnosed with cancer: “Holy orange bottles, each night I pray to you / Desperate people find faith, so now I pray to Jesus too.” Like many Christians, her theology seems to embrace the power of God to work alongside and through medicine, but she still makes space for the work of the miraculous.

If there’s a Gospel According to Taylor, then justice features heavily

A better-known example occurs in ‘Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve’, a song which allegedly charts the breakdown of her relationship with fellow singer John Mayer. The lyrics appear to refer to a loss of innocence – a choice she made (and regrets) between her Bible-Belt upbringing and the infatuation of an ultimately toxic relationship. “All I used to do was pray”, she sings: “Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve / If you’d never looked my way.” The story is not clearcut; nor is the state of her faith in the aftermath. Yet again, it seems like an acknowledgement that faith in God has played an important role in her life, even if she now feels far from him.

These are breadcrumbs, hints that in the background of all the break-up songs and glitter bombs, at least the vapours of Christian faith remain. What we do know is that Swift aligns with various aspects of Christianity. She shares God’s passion for justice, regardless of whether her faith and activism are always connected. As well as being a powerful force in the #MeToo movement, she has also used her considerable influence to speak out against racism. If there’s a Gospel According to Taylor, then justice features heavily. She also espouses countercultural (and Christian) values like kindness and humility. She gathers and loves her – for want of a better word – disciples, and creates a sense that every single one of them matters. And she’s big, really big, on bringing joy to the world. She certainly looks like a Christian should. 

‘The best people in life are free’

Swift is not the Light of the World. But since the one who actually was called his followers to place their lamps on stands, it’s hardly a problem that she should seek to “let [her] light shine before others” (Matthew 5:16), nor that millions upon millions of people across the world find their lives illuminated as a result. 

Not since the golden age of pop, when Madonna and Michael Jackson took turns to fill stadiums, has the world known an entertainment icon operating at the scale of Taylor Alison Swift. Her runaway success has much to teach us about the power of well-pitched marketing, the appeal of genuine talent and 1,000 other things (later this year, she might even swing an entire US election). 

The temptation, when Swift makes no obvious attempt to guide people towards Jesus, is for Christians to diminish her importance. Yet perhaps sometimes it’s OK not to analyse, criticise or point out why, ultimately, a famous person can’t fill the God-shaped hole in all of us. Sometimes it’s enough just to sit back and enjoy the wonder of a glorious, God-given talent, and to allow them to bring some much-needed light to a darkened world.