All Holy Week, I've been listening to Hozier's “Take Me to Church” — an odd sort of spiritual exercise, I suppose.
At first it was the hauntingly catchy refrain: “Take Me to Church” — and after all I would be going to church all week this week, the holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar. Maundy, or Holy, Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday.
The refrain was jarring against the artist's desired impact of the song, that in fact no one would be taken to church, that no one would trust the institutional church that has proven so dogmatic, divisive, violent, and decidedly un-Christlike in its practice as to become "a fresh poison each week."
“Take Me to Church” is about sexuality, about dogma, about prayer, about worship, about heaven, hell, life, death, sacrifice, sin, confession, and absolution. It’s about Catholicism and Protestantism and Jesus and atheism and fear and hope and love.
We each see pieces of it. Many American viewers saw Hozier's music video and wrongly assumed he was gay — that the sum of his message was about the church's persecution of homosexuality. And even though Hozier is not gay, he did mean to indict the church for its horrible treatment of the LGBTQ community — but the message of his song goes beyond sexuality.
Hozier is an Irish singer, a man who grew up with the deadly legacy of Catholic-Protestant war, a man whose national church was beset by sexual abuse scandals and pews full of dogmatic believers who had never read the Bible. Masses in many cases were dominated by ritual and women and babies sent away to church-run facilities, like the one where the bodies of nearly 800 infants were recently found in an unmarked mass grave. In 2013 an Irish woman died because she could not have a life-saving abortion.
Americans can look on the Irish church with judgment, yet our own church scandals and hypocrisy can fill even more pages.
As a pastor looking toward Easter Sunday 2015, I see something else in these lyrics. I see and hear a deep longing. Not only for sex. But a longing for the God who came to earth in Jesus, who died and rose again because of love.
I asked colleagues and friends about their responses to this song, as it dominates airwaves during Holy Week, and no one seemed to want to broach the topic. Too sexual, some said. Another, that "it could not be redeemed." Another, that "people would be too offended."
It's not my job to "redeem" Hozier's song. But his is a poetry that demands Christians consider the deep longings and pain of those on the sidelines of the church. It is a deeply wrought pain and yet also a pain wrenched in spiritual language, a compelling and historical language — words and pain out of which not only death, but life, can come again for disciples of Jesus in 2015.
I don't want to redeem Hozier, to explain his lyrics or attempt to say why he's wrong and church is not dog-like devotion but instead a community of faithful people attempting not to imprison but to set free. Now is not the time or place for a defense or even a confession. Rather it is the time for the beginning of the discussion, for the church to engage those pained yet longing masses who have swallowed its edicts but vomited its sin, left sitting on the edges and wondering where Jesus went.
Now is the time for questions raised by Hozier's song — and a chance for the church to consider and respond.
1) Hozier uses the word "worship" five times in “Take Me to Church,” following it three times with "like a dog." He seems to understand "worship" to be dumb, mindless devotion, as though churchgoers are like dogs who have been taught to play tricks: pray, stand, sit, genuflect, sing, raise your arms.
Is this primarily how people understand "worship?" How is worship described in the Bible? What type of worship did Jesus desire, and was it "like a dog?"
2) The song begins with humor and laughter set at odds with a stern church. Whoever Hozier's lover is, her joy is the opposite of what he encountered in religion.
Are churches lacking joy, humor, and laughter? Is this what Jesus intended?
3) Among Hozier's most chilling lines: "Every Sunday's getting more bleak ... a fresh poison each week." The lines are chilling because upon self-inspection, perhaps they are true to experience.
Is there a bleakness in our churches? Are we hastening toward death or toward life? What responsibility do pastors have in light of bleak churches?
4) One of the principles of Catholicism, and Christianity in general, that Hozier seems to have swallowed is the principle of Original Sin: "I was born sick," he says, "but I love it."
Do we presume all people to be “sick?” Have we so thought of our churches as “hospitals” that we have forgotten their primary role is not healing but maintaining and spreading life, love, hope, and faith? Have we emphasized individual depravity at the expense of recognizing and rooting out institutional depravity in our churches? What does it mean if the church's primary defining characteristic of humanity is "sick?"
5) Hozier says: "Worship in the bedroom ... The only heaven I'll be sent to is when I'm alone with you." Sometimes this seems to be the only lyric pastors hear when confronting this song!
Are we — the church — so afraid of talking about sexuality that we neglect the rest of this song because of our prudishness about this line? What does it mean for Hozier to define worship as sex? What role does sexual pleasure play in a Christian life, and how can the church embrace sexual pleasure and sexual relationship without endorsing promiscuity or unsafe sexual behaviors?
6) Hozier condemns the church, but he keeps vestiges of Jesus in his song: "Command me to be well," he sings, reminiscent of Jesus' healing of a man with leprosy in Matthew 8, and says: "Let me give you my life," reminiscent of Jesus' instructions to his disciples in Luke 9, to take up their cross and follow him, for whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and "those who lose their life for my sake will save it."
In what ways might Hozier be reaching out to Jesus in this song? As Christians, are we so quick to defend the church that we miss modern-day prophets who speak the words of Jesus? Does our religiosity get in the way of our mission for the Gospel?
7) Hozier seems to reference Holy Communion midway through the song, speaking first of "sacrifice," and then of "starving faithful."
In what sense are Christians today spiritually starving? When we offer communion, do we offer it in such a way that it fills — or do we leave people starving for the Good News?
8) Hozier sells, "I'll tell you my sins so you can sharpen your knife," which seems a reference both to confession and also to priest sexual abuse scandals, where in some cases priests exploited the sanctity of the confessional to abuse children. Knife in this instance could even be a phallic symbol.
Has the church lost its high ground on confession? How can Christians uphold the importance of confession without looking like hypocrites? In what ways can the church publicly confess of its own sins and how might this be healing?
9) Before the last chorus, Hozier ends his song with these lines: "I am clean ... Amen. Amen. Amen." Like the leper who meets Jesus, perhaps even in his anger toward the church, Hozier believes there is some advantage to being “made clean.”
Can the church play any role in helping people and institutions be “made clean?” Why would Hozier end his song with Amen, as though it were a prayer?
Rev. Angela Denker is a former sportswriter turned Lutheran pastor in Chicago. Denker covered the 2009 Super Bowl and was published in 2007 in Sports Illustrated. She blogs at Overwhelming Jesus.