It’s a song about “reclaiming your humanity through an act of love.”
Unless you’re into the Irish bluesy, indie rock scene, chances are it’s only been in recent months that you’ve heard Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.” The song, the lead track on Hozier’s self-titled album released in September, is thick with metaphor, as the catchy refrain goes,
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
According to Hozier himself, musician Andrew Hozier-Byrne, in case it isn’t clear enough in the song, the meaning is about sex and oppressive institutions — which means, at least in our day, that the song has something to say about homosexual practice and those groups that espouse traditional sex ethics. Hozier explains in one interview,
Sexuality, and sexual orientation — regardless of orientation — is just natural. An act of sex is one of the most human things. But an organization like the church, say, through its doctrine, would undermine humanity by successfully teaching shame about sexual orientation — that it is sinful, or that it offends God. The song is about asserting yourself and reclaiming your humanity through an act of love. Turning your back on the theoretical thing, something that’s not tangible, and choosing to worship or love something that is tangible and real — something that can be experienced. (The Cut)
The music video for the song spells out what we might otherwise miss. Not wanting to specifically target the church (which happens enough in the song’s lyrics), Hozier says the video references anti-gay events in Russia. Two men are involved in a physical homosexual relationship; a mob of masked vigilantes bust into a house and drag away one of the men, knife to his throat, until they reach a crackling bonfire, circle around the man, and start violently kicking him. The video has been viewed 23 million times over the past year.
Those Oppressive Institutions
There is much about the song, and Hozier’s comments, that do not cohere. For one, it’s sad that he would lump Russia and the Christian worldview into this same category of “oppressive institution,” and then to pretend that they share a violent approach against gay rights. That’s simply not true.
It also appears in Hozier’s comments that he makes no distinction between homosexual orientation and homosexual practice, something a growing number in the church are careful to do. An orientation, he says, is natural and good, and if anyone says it shouldn’t be pursued, they are “undermin[ing] humanity.”
But then he says that God is theoretical, that if you are to assert yourself and reclaim your humanity through an act of love, you must turn “your back on the theoretical thing, something that’s not tangible, and choosing to worship or love something that is tangible and real — something that can be experienced.”
In his view, the love between human individuals and their sex is more real than God, and in fact, that is what we should worship. And as the music video suggests, those who think differently might as well be part of the mob wearing masks, carrying bottle torches and knives, dragging gay men through the woods and beating them profusely. But that’s unfair, Hozier, and too easy.
Just to Be Clear
This is another example of forcing this topic into an either-or straightjacket — either you celebrate those who practice homosexuality, or you hate them. Once again, this time through the jauntily clever lyrics of “Take Me to Church,” popular culture is being muzzled by the binary lens of over-simplicity.
I don’t wear a bandana over my face, and I’m not bashing in the windows of my gay neighbors’ house, dragging them away in the name of my church, and if anyone ever does that sort of horrible thing, they should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. No one who shares my vision of God and the world could do that — in fact, our God said to put down the rocks, and to go and sin no more (John 8:7, 11). We’re not bashing anything, or dragging anyone anywhere. We’re just saying “That’s wrong” and “you’re loved” because that is what the gospel compels us to say — because that’s what we all ourselves have heard. We are all wrong, in one way or another, and we all, if we would only listen, are being offered a love beyond our wildest dreams.
Perhaps that’s the part that confuses me the most. The song calls us to turn our backs on the theoretical in order to worship and love what’s real. The object of my faith, though, is as far as you could get from theoretical. I believe in Jesus.
With Backs Turned
I am one teeny part of those many Christians who read the Gospels and know they’re true, that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, and that he came to this earth as a human and walked on this ground just like we do, that he suffered in the ways we suffer, and that he died the death we deserved. I believe that he was dragged through the woods, as it were, and worse. I believe that he bled, that he hung on a tree in the outskirts of Jerusalem with his arms stretched wide, nails driven through his wrists, gasping for air, gurgling the death that filled his lungs. I believe that he closed his eyes, that his heart stopped beating, that his body went cold, and that he died. This, Hozier, with all due respect, is not theoretical.
Neither was it when he rose from the dead on the third day, when he met the disciples gathered in a room and said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).
No less theoretical was it when he said, just before his ascension, “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18), and then when, by that authority, he sent his Spirit to indwell his church and inspire the New Testament authors, including the letters of Saint Paul which clearly portray homosexual practice as sin (1 Corinthians 6:9–10) and say that God shows his love for us sinners by Jesus dying on the cross (Romans 5:8).
There’s the strange irony of it all. According to Hozier, we must turn our backs on this “theoretical” in order to reclaim our humanity through an act of love, when the reality is that our backs were already turned — turned against the very One who came to redeem our lost humanity through his act of love.
Here is no oppressive institution trying to squelch people, but a Savior who sacrificed himself, his love still held out for us, ready to make a new creation.
Only then are we truly human.