“Take Me to Church”: A Christian Review

Hozier_Take_Me_to_ChurchTake Me to Church,” by the Irish artist Hozier, is a global hit, reaching the number one slot in 12 countries and the top 10 in 21 more. It has gone triple platinum in the U.S. Here’s the opening verse:

My lover’s got humor;
She’s the giggle at a funeral,
Knows everybody’s disapproval,
I should’ve worshipped her sooner.
If the Heavens ever did speak,
She’s the last true mouthpiece.
Every Sunday’s gettin’ more bleak,
A fresh poison each week.
“We were born sick,” you heard them say it.
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. Amen. Amen.

(Rabbit trail which, I promise, will return to main road:) Those last two lines are a reference to a Christopher Hitchens piece in which he criticized the Ten Commandments:

One is presuming (is one not?) that this is the same god who actually created the audience he was addressing. This leaves us with the insoluble mystery of why he would have molded (“in his own image,” yet) a covetous, murderous, disrespectful, lying, and adulterous species. Create them sick, and then command them to be well? What a mad despot this is, and how fortunate we are that he exists only in the minds of his worshippers.

For all my appreciation for the late Hitchens’ considerable wit and intellect, that’s a sophomorically bad misreading of the Torah, one skipping over a rather prominent passage, Genesis 3. God did not create us sick. We did that ourselves. And something else we did ourselves is on sad display in those lyrics above: we have worshiped the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:18–31). And what has that got us?

The yawning nihilism/erotic existentialism of “Take Me to Church.” I have picked up the habit of grabbing swords people swing at me (like the serpentine suggestion, “If the Heavens ever did speak…”) and, at least in my mind, swinging those swords back at the original swingers. It’s not enough to tear down my worldview—you’ve got to offer me an alternative. And what Hozier offers, at least within the limits of this popular song (and his comments on it), is an only-sex-is-real-ism I don’t want. There are no absolutes in his church (um, absolutely no absolutes?) except this one: sex feels good.

[There are] no masters or kings when the ritual begins;
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.
In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene,
Only then I am human,
Only then I am clean.
Amen. Amen. Amen.

Conservative Christian pop music voyeurs are not, perhaps, very practiced in the art of pop music hermeneutics. But if I’m reading him right, I think he’s saying that illicit sex is the moment when he feels most like himself, and the moment when his burdens—yea, even his guilt—fall away. The sexual act is the closest thing Hozier has to transcendence. But not one that gets him very high above six feet: it only makes him “human”; nothing more.

I’ll take my worldview over yours, man. I’m more than merely human; I bear the image of God. And I’ll take the cleansing Jesus offers me, because it really lasts. It’s not over when the worship high is. And one day I’ll get a permanent worship high, and a permanent cleansing. I still get tastes of heaven in the bedroom, but they’re called “foretastes” because sex is not the only heaven I get.

You can’t know in advance the effects of your own sexual choices. Every one of us trusts to some sort of worldview to help us decide which choices will best further our goals. We even rely on our worldviews to give us the best goals. So Hozier is a bit hypocritical to complain that religious institutions are squelching people’s sexuality. “Take Me to Church” is, ironically, taking a God’s-eye view and telling us the best way to a fulfilling life.

But at what cost? My church has absolutes in part because I need to be told to deny some of my impulses out of love for others. My church tells me to protect my children by being (absolutely) faithful to their mother instead of to the impulsive ideals of eros. How permanent is Hozier’s worship, I wonder? I’m guessing—and I say this sadly, not triumphantly—that his “Personal Life” section on Wikipedia will be longer than mine when he reaches my age in ten years, let alone when we stand before the Absolute Person.

If people made “Take Me to Church” the top album of 2014, perhaps they did so because they do desire to feel human, and to feel clean. These are good desires, planted there not by random genetic mutation or by ancient astronauts but by our Creator, who gave us our moral feelings (Rom. 2:14–15). He made us for Himself, and our hearts will be dirty until we find cleanliness in Him. We won’t truly be human until we see Him as He is—because we were made to reflect Him.

T. David Gordon has said that “pop music, largely created by and for commercial purposes, resist[s] serious analysis…. Commerce, then, has an enormous interest in our not taking such questions seriously” (26). What, indeed, do faux-deep pop songs like Mumford and Sons’ “The Cave” mean? Not much, Munson and Drake argue in a take-down of that song in this excellent book. You can hardly make sense of a lot of indie rock lyrics, they say. And I (and commenters on lyrics sites, at least implicitly) agree.

But Hozier managed to say something with some clarity to it, even in the brief space of a pop song, and he issued that something as a pretty direct attack on my spiritual family and my God. And he just won a Grammy. So I thought a little answer was in order.

Best Line of Argument on Contemporary Worship Music

The most helpful stuff on contemporary worship music I’ve read comes from those trained to discern the meaning of cultural forms (semiotics). That’s why media ecologists like T. David Gordon are so insightful. I’m not the prophet he is, but see his article, “The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship Music: Eight Reasons.” One point that has stuck with me:

One generation cannot successfully “compete” with 50 generations of hymn-writers; such a generation would need to be fifty times as talented as all previous generations to do so. If only one-half of one percent (42 out of over 6,500) of Charles Wesley’s hymns made it even into the Methodist hymnal, it would be hubristic/arrogant to think that any contemporary hymnist is substantially better than he. Most hymnals are constituted of hymns written by people with Wesley’s unusual talent; the editors had the “pick of the litter” of almost two thousand years of hymn-writing. In English hymnals, for instance, we rarely find even ten of Paul Gerhardt’s 140 hymns, even though many musicologists regard him as one of Germany’s finest hymnwriters. Good hymnals contain, essentially, “the best of the best,” the best hymns of the best hymnwriters of all time; how could any single generation compete with that?

Just speaking arithmetically, one would expect that, at best, each generation could represent itself as well as other generations, permitting hymnal editors to continue to select “the best of the best” from each generation. Were this the case, then one of every fifty hymns we sing should be from one of the fifty generations since the apostles, and, therefore, one of every fifty should be contemporary, the best of the current generation of hymnwriters. Perhaps this is what John Frame meant when, in the second paragraph of his book on CWM, he indicated that he had two goals for his book: to explain some aspects of CWM and to defend its “limited use” in public worship. Perhaps Prof. Frame thought one out of fifty constituted “limited use,” or perhaps he might have permitted as much as one out of ten, I don’t know. But our generation of hymnwriters, while talented and devout, are not more talented or more devout than all other generations, and are surely not so by a ratio of fifty-to-one.