I sing a lot of things in church. I have sung hymns, anthems, spirituals, arias, and chants. I have also sung contemporary Christian songs and pop stuff right from the radio. I have sung “Some Nights” by Fun., and “Don’t You Worry Child” by Swedish House Mafia. I have sung Owl City, Nico & Vinz, Jason Mraz, and Michelle Branch. The week before last, I sang this song by the ska/punk band Dance Hall Crashers. So what I’m trying to say is that I love including different styles of music in worship, and I am usually good to go when unusual song requests come in. But then I surprised myself.
The theme of last week’s service was what we teach our children about religion, and what our responsibility is to their souls. Over the course of our planning discussions we couldn’t help but bring up the very popular song by Hozier, “Take Me To Church.” One of our pastors had never heard the song, and the other one loved it. They asked if I would sing it. And I said no.
I have tried very hard to articulate my feelings with regards to this particular song, and I have come up short. I think it is an emotional, knee-jerk, gut thing. But I hate this song. And listen, I don’t think it’s a bad song. Actually, it is a very good song, quite catchy, that makes some powerful statements. I am glad that it exists. But I find it offensive. And I don’t know why. I have never had such a strong reaction to a song before. I, of all people, am not one to be seriously concerned about blasphemy and the like. But something about this song just punches me in the soul and I feel…attacked.
“If the heavens ever did speak, she’s the last true mouthpiece”
Okay, you are comparing this girl to an angel, or to a goddess or something. That’s okay. People have been comparing women to angels (even though angels all seem to be dudes…) for a long time. Even though you are saying that God doesn’t really exist, and if God does exist it is the form of your girlfriend. Not really a problem.
“Every Sunday’s getting more bleak. A fresh poison each week. ‘We were born sick,’ you heard them say it.”
Alright, I can see where he is going here. The church’s official stance on a variety of issues has caused a lot of people to feel unwelcome, and has even caused violence and fear. And I’m not talking the crusades here, I’m talking about today, in America. That is a valid criticism.
“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.”
Okay, now I am starting to get uncomfortable. Again, he is just comparing sex to religion, which has been done a thousand times before. So what is it that gets me about this? Perhaps that in previous incarnations of this theme, God was viewed as something good, and sex was compared to this favorable experience of worship, but now God is the villain? Do I feel condemned personally? Am I angry that this is the perception of the church in the world, when it is so far from my own experience of the restorative nature of Jesus Christ and the community with which I explore my personal faith? Yeah, that sounds closer to true.
“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.”
The lengths to which he takes this metaphor are great. And yet I remember, back in the halcyon days of my youth, when all of the grown-ups I knew were furious with Madonna.
“When you call my name it’s like a little prayer. I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there.
In the midnight hour I can feel your power. Just like a prayer you know I’ll take you there.
I hear your voice, it’s like an angel sighing. I have no choice, I hear your voice. Feels like flying.
I close my eyes, Oh God I think I’m falling. Out of the sky, I close my eyes. Heaven help me!”
How is this any different from what Hozier is doing today? I think Madonna’s video was more offensive than her song, actually, and I remember seeing it on MTV and thinking it was weird, but not so over-the-top as to cause the uproar that it did. I like Madonna. I like that song. I have danced to it on numerous occasions. But again, I do feel that she is co-opting the imagery of religion in a positive way. Her song may be somewhat disrespectful of the church, but it never feels condemning.
The senior pastor e-mailed me over the course of the week and asked if I would reconsider singing the song. So I did. I considered it a lot. He felt that it was important to tell the story of how the church is seen in the world today, and that this was a message that we needed to hear. And I get that. And I agree with him. But I couldn’t sing it.
“Why?” he reasonably asked me.
“Because I don’t like the song.”
“Why don’t you like it?”
“Because it’s upsetting! It makes me angry!”
“But WHY!?” he said, looking for some sort of defensible, logical reason why I hated this #1 tune. And I had nothing. Nothing specific, other than that singing it felt, in some way, like approval of it. Like I said, it is a gut reaction to a song that I feel demonizes something that is important to me. And the thing is, I agree with everything Hozier says! I have watched interviews, read articles, and learned more about this man and his song that I ever wanted to, and he says a lot of important things. The church can harm. The church can oppress. The church can be a force for bad. But though our data is the same, our conclusions are wildly different. I believe that the church can be salvaged. I think the church is as desperate for saving as the rest of us, and that we should work from within it to change the parts that are hurtful. The church once promoted slavery. The church once promoted segregation. The church is not infallible, and the church can change. Because the church is not a “thing.” The church is people! People with whom we can have discussions and share experiences and moments. People who don’t have all the answers anymore than you or I do. The church has the potential to do good or evil, and it is up to us to ensure the former.
You know, maybe the reason I get so upset about this song is the lack of backlash against it. When Madonna released her album, when Sinead O’Connor went on SNL, when Ray Charles started using church music in a secular fashion, there were plenty of people getting upset and freaking out, so I didn’t have to. I tried to google “Backlash against Take Me To Church,” and it didn’t even autofill it in. The search results came up empty, or at least what it showed me were positive reviews of the song, and more interviews with Hozier, whose name sounds like a Canadian insult. So am I the only one who feels this way? Is everyone else okay with popular culture painting the church as the villain? Which, again, has been done before, but at least church people got upset about it! Or has the church just given up on popular culture and retreated into its own world of cultural sensory deprivation? That’s never a good thing either.
Or maybe, as usual, I am overreacting. I tend to do that. And I still can’t really put my finger on what exactly it is about this song that pushes so many of my buttons. But if it is the lack of backlash, then let me rectify that right here, and right now. “Take Me To Church,” consider yourself officially lashed back.