Take me to church

I firmly believe that Christians need to engage with culture; the good, the bad and the ugly; “the bible in one hand and the newspaper/radio/tv in the other”. [1]

There is one particular popular song at the moment that has been causing me trouble and it is everywhere. Nominated for a Grammy, a Brit award, endless airtime on the radio, YouTube hits in the millions, it even turned up in my son’s guitar lesson, where it had been requested by another student.

Anthony Hozier-Byrne is 24 years old and writes and performs under the name Hozier, his debut single ‘Take me to Church’ is a remarkable song. The Guardian described it as “a vibrant, lusty composition that showcases not only the hue of Hozier’s voice but also the heft of his song writing”. The Telegraph review described “a big, soulful voice capable of plunging to dark, doomy depths and swooping up into wild, lupine howls”.

It’s a great tune and well performed, but I guess it was the religious imagery that drew me in, not least the mention of the church in the title and chorus. I am, after all a minister, a church-man and on closer listening this is not a comfortable lyric for someone like me. Not since ‘church of the poison mind’ by Culture Club in the mid 80’s has a top ten hit been quite so outspokenly critical of religion. Hozier himself describes it as “a bit of a losing your religion song”.

This is no disposable pop song Hozier-Bryne is a thoughtful man and a gifted lyricist and deserves to be taken seriously. In a recent interview with Gigwise he explained why the lyrics took three years to write “I’m very meticulous about making sure every word is right. I can defend any idea by the time someone hears it, because I’ve put it through a strainer seven times.”

So, where have his critical words come from? Born and raised in Ireland as a Quaker after his parents rejected their own Catholic upbringing, there was an element of bleakness to the singer’s childhood. His father was a drummer on the Dublin blues scene turned bank worker who was forced to retire when Hozier was six after an operation to correct a spinal problem left him with nerve damage in a wheelchair. “It was a tough old time — no money. Mum kept us together in a big way.”

Hozier went to a Catholic secondary school. “I went on Catholic retreats, stuff like that. There was a lot of pilgrimage-type stuff to holy places in Ireland. At the time I was very open to trying things, trying to get my head around it.”

But it appears to be the numerous scandals that have recently come to light in Ireland involving the Catholic Church that lies behind his lyrics.

“The damage done by the Church to the people of Ireland is completely irreparable, and the reparations are all too few. There’s still a lack of will to turn around and say, ‘This is not OK’. There are still things like regular news segments where they ask the local priest what he thinks. Why is it an organisation that is considered to have any moral standing at all? The track record is just appalling.”

And with that he walks away from the church and replaces religious feelings and ideas with the solace found in “transformative power of romantic love”.

So how, as Christians, should we respond to a song like ‘Take me to church”? There are plenty of evangelical Christian websites quick to condemn him and his lyrics, placing him in a group of reprobates along with likes of Marylyn Manson and Black Sabbath, but that response is too easy and doesn’t do him (or the others) justice.

Here is a thoughtful young man, looking at a corrupt church and choosing to walk way. This makes me sad. Especially when he chooses to contrast this experience with love. I thought the church was supposed to be all about love? God’s love demonstrated to us through Jesus. I for one am deeply sorry and ashamed of the hurt caused by some parts of the church. Places where grace has all but vanished and been replaced by judgement, exclusion and arrogant self-righteousness.

Ultimately romantic love (eros) and divine love (agape) are two different things, one does not replace the other, so I hope and pray that Hozier and others like him who have chosen to reject a broken church might still be able to find God’s grace and love, after all God is much bigger than our fragile institutions.

As for those of us who choose the attend church each Sunday let’s make sure that the experience is one that reflects our values of love, justice, inclusion, forgiveness and humility. So that our children, aged 24, might be writing ‘Take me to church” because it is a place where they encounter the grace of God.


[1] quote variously attributed to Spurgeon, Barth, Rowan Williams and others.

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