Culture

Hozier's 'Take Me to Church' As a Holy Week Reflection

Hozier, photo via Hozier.com
Hozier, photo via Hozier.com

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.

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."

Pulling Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps...

WITH THE NEXT election still almost 18 months away, you’d think the media would focus on more important topics in the meantime, such as where Kim Kardashian is spending her next vacation.

But you’d be wrong. It’s officially time for the press to ignore more newsworthy subjects in favor of endless coverage of the election “horse race,” but without the legendary good sense horses bring to such occasions.

ISIS on the move, taking the Middle East back to the 7th century? Forget that. Let’s talk about Jeb Bush’s 2016 run, although the hook could be how ISIS reminds people of the disastrous policies of the last Bush in the White House. Or was it the one before that? I can’t remember. (In hindsight, the Bush parents should have named alltheir sons George, so presidential ballots could be printed in bulk, enough for several elections.)

Interestingly, the latest news about ISIS is that its recruits from the West are having second thoughts about the medieval living conditions so praised by the jihadists. After all, in the 7th century there were no antibiotics, no running water, and only basic cable. But you won’t find the press covering that because “Sarah Palin may be running again!”

Although, to be fair, there is a foreign policy connection, since she has publicly stated “God bless our troops, especially our snipers.” (Such a wonderful ambassador for our nation. Definitely U.N. material.)

Climate change threatening our coastlines? Boring. Cable news thinks Mike Huckabee’s White House prospects are, frankly, a lot more interesting. His new book, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, is an alliterative attempt to keep his name before the public. Either that, or he was reading from a Cracker Barrel menu. Regardless, he hopes book sales will be better than his last effort, When Monkeys Fly: My Timeline to the Presidency.

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Trials and Tribulations

THE EXTRAORDINARY film Leviathan takes place in a tiny coastal town on the other side of the world, but it relates to all our dreams and fears.

A man is tormented by bureaucracy, as the authorities try to take his house. He has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and a very unhealthy one with his partner. He works on people’s cars, does favors for people who ask him, and tries to raise his son as best he can. And he’s caught between the wheels of historic oppression and emerging forms.

Leviathan, this year’s Russian nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a work of uncommon cinematic bravery, for the people who made it take on the corruption of their current political masters. Vladimir Putin appears briefly, as a portrait looming over the office of the mayor trying to take our hero’s house. But the graft, selfishness, and cruelty of Putin’s imperial reign are palpably present in the mayor, who has been fighting the householder for years to get his property, for reasons that owe more than a little to the legacy of Soviet-era patriotic ideology. Communism has been replaced by a heady mix of nationalistic pride and elitism religion, whose boundaries are enforced with no mercy. Pussy Riot’s punk prayer gets a mention in a priest’s litany of things that are undermining Mother Russia. It’s the same old story, there and everywhere—keep the nation pure, confuse spirit and law, and wreck your own life by denying the glories of human diversity.

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#blacklivesmatter in Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s ‘A.D.’

Photo via Joe Alblas / LightWorkers Media / NBC / RNS
John, Mother Mary, and Mary Magdalene in “A.D. The Bible Continues.” Photo via Joe Alblas / LightWorkers Media / NBC / RNS

When The Bible miniseries premiered two years ago, controversy swirled around its depiction of a dark-skinned Satan who some said resembled President Obama, as well as its portrayal of white main characters in the Moroccan landscape.

Fast-forward to the premiere of the sequel, A.D. The Bible Continues, on Easter Sunday (April 5), and you’ll see a decidedly more multicultural cast, the result of “honest” conversations between black church leaders and the filmmakers, Hollywood power couple Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

“For too long religious programming has neither reflected the look of biblical times or the diversity of the church today,” tweeted the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, a Maryland-based black activist, writer and scholar.

“We made this point to Mark and Roma after #BibleSeries, and quite frankly they listened. I’m glad for that.”

Now, in a partnership with the 12-part NBC miniseries, an African-American Christian publishing house will host online resources to help viewers connect the holy book to Africa.

Rich Songs of Economic Despair

OUT WHERE Kentucky meets West Virginia, you’ll find one of America’s cultural seedbeds, where Scotch-Irish immigrant traditions took root in the New World. But on her debut album, American Middle Class, singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley, a daughter of the Kentucky mountains (and no kin to The King), paints a heartbreaking picture of what Appalachia has become.

The people of this region were once mostly self-sufficient subsistence farmers. In the early 20th century, they were drafted into the coal mines but brought their pride and independence with them, waging often-bloody battles to establish the United Mine Workers of America. For over a century now, the region’s economic fate has been hostage to the ups and downs of the energy market. As a result, the coal fields have become one of the poorest parts of the country.

The music that flourished in this region became, along with that of low-country African Americans, one of the two great pillars of American popular music. So many country music greats have come from here that Kentucky has a “Country Music Highway Museum” just to honor all the stars (Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, Billy Ray Cyrus, Keith Whitley, and many others) born along U.S. 23.

In short, this part of Appalachia is sort of the Mississippi Delta for white people: A place of dire economic poverty and vast cultural riches, where the art and spirit of a people has found its most intense expression.

Angaleena Presley seems to know all this. The woman from Beauty, Ky., with the perfect country music name is a pure product of hardcore Appalachia. A miner’s daughter, during high school she would cut class, drive to the old house that Loretta Lynn wrote about in Coal Miner’s Daughter, and try to write songs.

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This is Praying

You hear a voice speaking
about a bird dragging its dark universe
of feathers across your yard,
and you realize it must be you

telling the boy how you carried its body
beyond the ambit of your dogs.
One eye, round as a coin,
fixing fear upon you, the other,

half shut. How the bird hauled
its body back into your yard,
dying with a will you could only
admire. Am I the bird?, the boy asks.

You can barely see his face
through the slot, eight inches
from the bottom of the door.
Pie-hole, they call it. You know

he cannot be cured of his crime.
But you can’t help yourself—
this language your body speaks
as you crouch, palms, knees

pressed against the prison floor.
He is nineteen, has an aunt, a mother,
both illiterate, both a hundred miles
away. No one knows why

they have stopped visiting.
You imagine his body, each Sunday,
learning again of their absence.
You imagine his organs, his bones

liquefying inside of his skin.
You imagine his eyes
staring out from his own
gathered flesh. It is three days

before Christmas and you have
ten minutes to spread something
like joy. You think of Vermeer,
the woman in blue, refusing
to obey the physics of light.
You do not even know
the source of your own voice.
Am I the bird? There is a window

beyond the canvas but Vermeer
thinks a shadow will be
distracting. You tell him—
the boy—about your dream.

How your mind had been
like a living thing nailed down,
trembling with what ifs
and how comes. And then

these words: I hear you,
I hear you breathing. A sound
coming from within and
beyond. Not a voice, exactly.

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Reclaiming the Prophetic Edge

“WE ARE AT the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly.”

Martin Luther King Jr. gave this stinging critique of the apathetic nature of both the U.S. church and the general public more than 40 years ago. While some things have changed for the better, the truth remains that the three evils of society that King named (racism, militarism, materialism) continue to pervade U.S. culture, crippling our moral and ethical foundation.

It is difficult to imagine that someone the FBI once labeled as “the most dangerous man in America” would one day have his own national holiday. Each year we celebrate the life of King with an incomplete and romanticized retelling of the impact he had on society during and after the civil rights movement. He dreamed of a better nation, but what was it about his dream that made him a nightmare to the U.S. government?

That is essentially the question that Cornel West attempts to answer with his latest book, The Radical King. This is the 10th book in the King Legacy series, a partnership between the estate of Martin Luther King Jr. and Beacon Press. West curated 23 selections, ranging from King’s Palm Sunday sermon on Mohandas K. Gandhi to his speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” which he delivered exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated. West utilizes this wide array of King’s most important writings and orations to illustrate just how radical he was.

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Excerpt: Something Transcendent

Rosemarie Freeney Harding describes the reaction of her friend—Albany, Georgia-based civil rights leader Marion King—to a physical attack.

In the summer of 1962, in the middle of the Albany campaign, Marion and I were both pregnant. During the campaign, Marion often visited movement workers who were jailed in local facilities throughout Dougherty and Terrell counties—taking them food, checking on conditions where they were kept, relaying messages. On one occasion as she exited a jail, a policeman who felt she was not moving fast enough kicked her in the back so that she fell to the ground. Marion fell so hard that she lost the baby.

Some of us went to see her at her home when she was released from the hospital. As we waited our shock and pain mixed with anger. ... We naturally assumed she would share our sense of indignation and assault. But something else was happening. When Marion came into the room, walking slowly so as not to exacerbate her pain, there was something in her face. A kind of light. Like a victory, a resplendence. It’s hard to explain, because it wasn’t prideful and it wasn’t false. It helped to quiet us—our anger, our judgment. And we recognized it.

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What Matters Most?

EARLY IN Being Mortal, surgeon Atul Gawande tells the story of Joseph Lazaroff, a patient with incurable prostate cancer. His medical team pursued multiple treatments, including emergency radiation and surgery, but Lazaroff ultimately died. What most struck Gawande later was that he and the team avoided talking honestly about Lazaroff’s choices—even when they knew he couldn’t be cured.

“We could never bring ourselves to discuss the larger truth about his condition or the ultimate limits of our capabilities, let alone what might matter most to him as he neared the end of his life,” Gawande writes. “The chances that he could return to anything like the life he had even a few weeks earlier were zero. But admitting this and helping him cope with it seemed beyond us.”

Why is that? For one, Gawande’s medical training didn’t prepare him for dealing with frailty, aging, or dying, he writes. He and his peers were taught to “fix,” to heal people with expertise, tools, and tests. Like most doctors, he approached his patients’ challenges as medical problems to solve, whether they were the accumulations of old age or terminal illness.

But a decade into his practice, Gawande is arguing for a change. Being Mortal is a conversation about why and how. For all its triumphs, medicine doesn’t—and shouldn’t—hold all the answers when it comes to aging and death.

Gawande looks at aging and societal shifts over the last decades, particularly the development of nursing homes (hospitals needed a place to put elderly patients who had nowhere else to go) and their limitations—something he saw through the experience of his grandmother-in-law, Alice Hobson.

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A Newsfeed of Fear

I GREW UP terrified, my childhood catechized by the violence in Northern Ireland, each week a litany of murder. I grew used to the idea that killing was the story of our lives. This, of course, was not true—there was also beauty and friendship all around us, all the time, not to mention eventually a peace process that has delivered extraordinary cooperation between former sworn enemies.

But the way we learned to tell the story—from political and cultural leaders, religion, and the media—emphasized the darkness. It’s been a long and still ongoing journey for me to discern how to honor real suffering while overcoming the lie that things are getting worse.

Today, many of us are living with a fear that seems hard to shake. Horrifying, brutal videos, edited for maximum sinister impact, showing up in our newsfeeds are only the most recent example of how terror seems to blend into our everyday lives.

But things are not as bad as we think. What social scientists call the “availability heuristic” helps explain why we humans find it difficult to accurately predict probability. In short, we guess the likelihood of something happening based on how easily we can recall examples of something similar having happened before. Because of this, folk who get a lot of “information” from mainstream media may tend to overestimate the murder rate: Most of us have seen vastly more killing on TV than would ever compute to an accurate estimate of real-world rates of killing.

Globalization and cyberspace bring more images and stories than our brains can handle, blending them with our lives to the extent that we consciously have to work to create boundaries between our screens and our psyches. One consequence is that people are skeptical when told that violence has been declining over time, and we are living in what is probably the most peaceful era human beings have ever known. But it’s true.

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