Christians often get their proverbial knickers in a twist when trying to figure out how to engage with the wider world. There is a lot of energy spent on thinking of ways to be (or seem) ‘relevant’ or ‘genuine’ or ‘attractive’; ideas which sometimes work, and sometimes don’t. Or work for a while and then stop working.
What if the issue isn’t about ‘them’ (the outsiders) not wanting to engage with us, but actually about us and the messages we are sending out to ‘them’? Messages which say “WARNING!” rather than “WELCOME!”
What if the issue isn’t that those outsiders are spiritually uninterested or unengaged, but rather that they are, but that we are not able to see it, or respond appropriately to it?
I am really struck this week by two secular songs, both called ‘Take Me to Church’. Both of these songs, one by Sinead O’Connor, and the other by Hozier, express a desire to go to church (actually, to be ‘taken’ to church). This desire isn’t the simple one anticipated by asinine evangelistic ploys, though. It is not one that will be satisfied by the easy answers offered by the standard model. In these songs, the statement ‘take me to church’ comes with qualifications that we should listen to. They set out a fear and a longing for church, they ask for – demand – a different model to the one they have both experienced before and come to expect. Will the Church listen?
Sinead O’Connor’s song is gusty and upbeat. She begins with a disavowal of ‘love songs’ (“What’ve I been singing love songs for?/I don’t wanna sing them any more”), she wants something else instead: “songs of loving and forgiving/songs of eating and of drinking/songs of living, songs of calling in the night […] songs that mend your broken bones/ and that don’t leave you alone” (Verse 2). If I were starting a church tomorrow, I might just choose those words as my mission statement. This song really gets what the Church is supposed to be. It also really gets how often the Church is not as it should be.
Her chorus is a rousing ‘Take me to Church/I’ve done so many bad things it hurts/ take me to church/ But not the ones that hurt/ Cause that ain’t the truth/ And that’s not what it’s worth”. Here is the qualification. Yes, church! Yes forgiveness of sins! But not the ones that hurt. Not the churches that hurt.
Listen well: this song does not ask for ‘relevance’, it demands integrity. It demands of the church no more or less than what Christ demanded of the church, that “the world will know [God] sent me and will understand that [God] loves them as much as you love me” (John 17). There is no room for systematic hurt in the Church envisioned by Christ.
Speaking of hurt, if you have heard Hozier’s song, also called “Take me to Church”, you will know that it is a brutally honest and gut-wrenching statement. It seems to have struck a real chord, currently sitting at number 2 in the charts. Some Christians have taken real offence at the song, and especially the video, which portrays two gay lovers and their persecution by a faceless gang, highly reminiscent of the current situation for LGBT people in Russia (this is suggested in the video by footage of Russian anti-gay protests). Perhaps it says a lot that a beautiful alternative video, made by a Ukranian ballet dancer, is far more frequently ‘shared’ than the original video.
*TRIGGER WARNING: Depiction of violence against LGBT folk*
In Hozier’s song, church is “a fresh poison every week”, it is “We were born sick, you heard them say it”, it is “I’ll tell you my sins so you can sharpen your knife.” Concepts that ought to be good, like worship and prayer, become claustrophobic, nauseating, “I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies”, “I was born sick/but I love it/command me to be well.”
In comparison to this, the lovers’ relationship is innocent, “there is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.” Their love is also a spiritual experience akin to baptism “Only then I am human/Only then I am clean”, it is an earthy paradise “The only heaven I’ll be sent to/Is when I’m alone with you”. The haunting repetition of ‘amen’ is not a response to the prayers of the church, but an invocation of something else, something beyond, something that exists in the sunlight.
In the video, there can be no redemption. As the scene fades to black, we fear the worst for the protagonists and their families. Speaking on the song and the video, Hozier affirms that they are ‘an indictment against institutions that would undermine the most natural parts of being a person’. He adds ‘it hasn’t been a good year for the Church. It hasn’t been a good few hundred years for the Church”, referencing the recent DUP bill in Northern Ireland, which would exempt religious institutions from equality laws, allowing them to discriminate against LGBT people (source).
The Christian backlash against the video has taken two forms, one of which is the traditional “yeah but gay people are still sick/sinful”, and the other of which is “not all Christians are like this (therefore you shouldn’t portray them as such).” This is an interesting reaction, not least because the video does not actually suggest that the violent gang is Christian or related in any way to the Church (there is no footage of churches at all). This response strongly reminded me of the “not all men!” answer to feminist concerns about rape. In short, it seems like a reasonable statement, but if you dig a little deeper it is actually a silencing tactic – Christians feel uncomfortable, so they tell LGBT people they shouldn’t speak out, since it risks tarring everybody with the same brush. But the stories of LGBT people should still be heard, even if it makes some Christians uncomfortable to hear them. The Bible tells us that what affects one of us affects everyone (“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it” 1 Cor 12:26). How can we, as a body, hope to heal the world while so many of our own parts are suffering?
Hozier’s song, unlike O’Connor’s, does not seem to offer much hope for the Church. The scanty hope present is entirely placed on human relationships. And yet, isn’t that what the Church is supposed to be, not an institution but a living relationship, with God and each other?
To return to my original point, these songs illustrate both the pain of and the longing for Church. They are much wiser and more realistic prayers for the Church than any that I have heard within Christian gatherings of any sort. We must listen instead of just speaking. These songs demonstrate the ways in which the secular world is spiritually engaged, questioning, demanding. How will we answer them?
They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
When there is no peace.