One of my friends, author Natalie G. Owens, sent me a video of a church choir singing Hozier’s “Take Me To Church.” And she said this was the kinda song my church choir would sing . . . and this got me thinking about the nature of worship, about church life in America, about what does and doesn’t constitute blasphemy.
I also asked myself whether it’s even possible to truly blaspheme or insult the Lord when you’re intending to love on Him and love on your brothers and sisters. My original take was:
This song goes off in some directions maybe I don’t love; all the same, I’d happily sing it at my church and then use it to teach on issues of love, sex, modern marriage, and maybe even what sin really means.
But I kept thinking about it. I asked a few friends if they’d be shocked and annoyed if they were at my church and we rocked this out? Or would they be like, huh, what’s El got to say about this today? Or would they just be like, well, all right, let’s rock this out? Most of the friends I asked just murmured something along the lines of, “Wow, that was hot when he sang it at the Grammy’s.”
Of course I kept thinking about it, and finally I pulled up the song online and read the lyrics again. The song itself starts off with a pretty standard comparison of making love to going to church:
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
In these words, I see a lot of similarities to how love of God is treated by Sufi and Christian mystics. This could be about loving God. This could be Rumi seeking loss of self in his Beloved’s grasp. Or it could be any of us finding death to self in love, which is not necessarily a terrible thing at all. A great thing about being in love or simply loving greatly and radically—friends or lovers—is that we lose our selfishness, we abandon our selves, and we find union with another spirit or community with another soul.
The line with the knife in it makes me squirm, but love can be painful, right? When we make ourselves vulnerable to others, we form deep connections to other souls, but we also can and do get hurt. Think about the act of lovemaking itself—“it hurts so good” insofar as true ecstasy is almost impossible to bear. Good loving is that intense.
But before I get to what makes for good loving, I wanna look at a few more lines of Hozier’s song. He sings:
My lover’s got humour
She’s the giggle at a funeral
Knows everybody’s disapproval
I should’ve worshipped her sooner
If the Heavens ever did speak
She is the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday’s getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week
‘We were born sick,’ you heard them say it
My church offers no absolutes
Next, Hozier says his lover is the only one who speaks the truth, and obviously I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but maybe she’s the only one who feels authentic to Hozier; maybe she’s the only one who speaks truth TO Hozier. Then there’s this line about how bad modern church is, and I gotta say this honestly: I agree with Hozier. I’m not condemning your church experience in anyway, not if it’s giving you spiritual sustenance, but most American churches don’t offer you much in terms of teaching you anything substantial about God.
Take the typical hour-long church experience. How much time is spent actually reading from the scriptures? Thirty seconds? Maybe? Maybe one minute. And that’s atrocious really. I mean, there are thousands upon thousands of great stories and poems in the Bible, not to mention the Mahabharata and the Masnavi, but priests and ministers alike do not share the Word.
What they do give you is some business announcements. Several hymns. Some more business announcements. And then a sermon, and sermons are totally hit and miss and they often do not teach you much of spiritual value. The better preachers help you out (maybe) with some parenting issues; the worse preachers scare the crap out of you with some fear-based, human-created political or social commentary that lacks even a hint of God’s DNA.
I don’t understand why churches don’t teach more. I don’t get it. When I go to worship, I want to better understand the God I’m worshiping; instead, I hear a lot of treacle mixed with rules piled on more rules, and maybe with some grape juice tossed in to wash it down—if I go up for Communion. And I’m not a big believer in the wisdom of eating God. After all, Jesus meant that metaphorically. Just as Isaiah wrote of eating the word, just as he wrote of swallowing the scroll and receiving wisdom, just so did Jesus intend that his words be taken as spiritual rather than physical sustenance.
Give me the Word, and a lot more of it—please give me spiritual sustenance and stop telling me I’m a sinner going to hell. Like Hozier said, don’t teach me I’m sick; don’t teach me absolutes . . . because the only absolute I really believe in is love. That’s the true spiritual sustenance we all need and it’s what I wanna get on Sundays.
Guess I’m still okay with Hozier. But hey, there are some lines he’s written that do trip me up a little, so let me quote those to you.
If I’m a pagan of the good times
My lover’s the sunlight
To keep the Goddess on my side
She demands a sacrifice
To drain the whole sea
Get something shiny
Something meaty for the main course
That’s a fine looking high horse
What you got in the stable?
We’ve a lot of starving faithful
That looks tasty
That looks plenty
This is hungry work
Wow, as someone raised in the Christian tradition, I have a kneejerk reaction to the word, ‘pagan’, and I’m just now realizing that. Ha! Isn’t it funny how we’re conditioned to dislike certain things without really contemplating why we feel that way?
As far as paganism, and as far as sacrifices, let me get this out of the way: human sacrifice is disgusting, and I do not like religions which distort God’s word by instituting such gross and inhumane practices. I also am a little uncomfortable with any form of blood sacrifice. I don’t love the prior use of animals in the Judaic religion, or in the Hindu religion (or in just about any of the older religions) but it does make a certain amount of sense, I reckon, for those living in agrarian or tribal societies to perhaps use a dying animal to feed others and offer up the meat given to feed the priests and holy teachers (who in the Jewish faith were not allowed to even own property) as part of their worship. Animal sacrifice done respectfully and used to feed those who do not earn a living yet serve the community is something I can wrap my mind around. No matter what, we can all agree that hurting children is an abomination and it’s evil in the eyes of the Lord.
But that’s not what Hozier is talking about here. He mentions something about a “high horse” yet obviously he’s talking about himself, and again, the sacrifice is metaphorical. He’s talking about offering up a sacrifice to a goddess, or a female version of god. And the rest of the verse is about offering up his body to her in the act of lovemaking he’s wanting to get involved in—maybe when he’s done inducing her swoon with his words. As far as worshiping the divine female, I do believe Mrs. God exists, so I see nothing wrong with this. And if the Bible doesn’t speak of Mrs. God, maybe that’s because it wasn’t time yet to talk about her. Maybe the prophets of that time weren’t ready to hear about her either; after all, they were writing in a male-dominated time, when it was not at all unusual for a man to have more than one wife or even to have sex slaves as his own.
Without belaboring the sacrifice issue too much, one way to think of sacrifices is the collection baskets they pass around at church. Or as the Qur’an teaches, the best religions ensure that orphans and widows, the poor and the afflicted—are all supported by means of charitable contributions from other members of society. All religions, actually, teach this point: sacrifice some of your own wealth and take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. And historically churches have been the institutions that took care of these poor souls.
So to sacrifice at church is a good thing that ensures that no one goes hungry. And sacrificing at church is good for the giver too. It’s good for souls to give to others, and all the prophets and saints and great teachers agree on this. Give. And in return, you do get a lot. Hozier is not really talking about giving to the poor in “Take Me to Church” but the issue of sacrifice is all about taking care of others and being a good soul in the process. Sacrifice is absolutely of spiritual value.
The next issue that Hozier’s song gives me is this: is he celebrating carnal pleasures, or the pursuit of empty and mindless sexuality, which I don’t think is good for the soul, or is he celebrating deep and connected lovemaking? I don’t know if there’s any way to really answer that, but the fact that he compares the bedroom to a church suggests in and of itself that the sexual union that occurs there must be a holy one. Unless the act is meant to be holy, after all, why compare sex to church? Why not compare it to something else altogether?
Of course if Hozier is celebrating mere bland empty sex I wouldn’t like the song. I’d feel a strong distaste for it, just as I feel a painful aversion to most pornography. Modern porn really emphasizes physicality, and maybe that’s because we as a culture have lost our understanding of what must exist in all sexual unions for those unions to be good for our souls: deep and meaningful intimacy. The basis for such intimacy, quite simply, is connection. We must connect to our own selves, and the best of those souls, in order to connect with another soul. And for two souls to connect with one another, each must be awake and connected with his or her higher self. Otherwise, the sex between them has no spiritual component and it is about as exciting as white bread and peanut butter.
What does great, connected sex feel like? Well, here’s what Hozier says:
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
In other words, neither the female nor the male rules over the other. The lovemaking can be intense, but there is nothing harsh or really sinful about it: that would be Hozier’s ‘gentle sin’. Indeed, the physical joining together feels like “sweet innocence”—it washes away our pain, our aloneness, our sense of disconnectedness. When we make love fully awake and fully as humans, the love feels ecstatic. It removes the grime and sadness, the sickness and the pain all humans feel while they’re here.
Once we view sex as a holy act, pure and beautiful, as pure and beautiful as church, we can reach an exalted and wonderful place emotionally and spiritually. Love, after all, is real. It’s tangible and it’s powerful, and when we find love in the arms of another soul, we find the best in us too. When we connect with ourselves and connect during spiritual lovemaking, our pain goes away. And in place of the pain is the purest and most beautiful piece of us: the light within our soul. And that, the soul within our soul, as Rumi called it, is the best of what makes us human.
So would I sing “Take Me to Church” at my church? After thinking about it, the answer is clear: yes. And I’d smile a lot too.