What is the essence of our humanity? What or who is worthy of our worship? What is the place of sex in our lives? How do we respond to others whose answers to those questions are different from our own?
These are massive questions, existential inklings humankind has been pondering for millennia. So why am I asking them at the top of a music review? Because in his song “Take Me to Church”—as well as in his many published comments about it—Irish singer-songwriter Hozier hits these spiritual and philosophical questions head on with a worldview that in many ways reflects exactly where mainstream culture is at today.
In the space of just a few lines at the outset of “Take Me to Church,” Hozier challenges and rejects core understandings of sexuality, sin and worship that orthodox Christianity has historically embraced for 2,000 years. He starts with a man’s irreverent lover laughing during a funeral. He loves this woman—worships her, he says—for her refusal to take the solemn event seriously. “My lover’s got humor,” he begins, “She’s the giggle at a funeral/Knows everybody’s disapproval/I should’ve worshipped her sooner.” He adds, “If the heavens ever did speak/She’s the last true mouthpiece.”
From there, Hozier deconstructs and disputes the Bible’s teaching that humanity is hobbled by the burden of sin from birth, singing, “Every Sunday’s getting more bleak/A fresh poison each week/’We’re born sick,’ you heard them say it.” He sarcastically embraces that “sickness” of original sin, relabeling it as good (“I was born sick/But I love it”). So his refutation revolves not around trying to disprove the doctrine, but rather by simply skirting God altogether. Or, more specifically, substituting sex for the Holy Spirit, insisting that absolute truth doesn’t exist and therefore can’t apply to our choices.
“My church offers no absolutes,” he brags. “She tells me, ‘Worship in the bedroom’/The only heaven I’ll be sent to/Is when I’m alone with you.” Physical intimacy, Hozier holds, is where we find salvation. Not God.
If the first verse tries to topple Christian understandings of sex, sin and worship, the second fixes its aim on the Church as a purveyor of ideas Hozier tells us are dangerous and demeaning. “Take me to church,” the chorus derisively instructs, “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.”
He continues the theme of flipping sin on its head by “owning” it as the best part of what makes us human: Acting upon our sexual desires and proclivities, he insists, is a fundamentally wholesome thing and is to be fully embraced (“There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin/In the madness of soil of that sad earthy scene/Only then I am human/Only then I am clean/Amen, amen, amen, amen”). To deny our sensual desires for any reason is to deny something fundamental with regard to our identity, Hozier believes, declaring that there should be no boundaries placed on any of our sexual appetites.
In an interview with MTV in March 2014, Hozier said of his song’s meaning, “It’s about humanity at its most natural, and I guess the song is very much about sexuality, about the sexual act itself. It’s also a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek swipe at, say, the Church and organizations that would undermine humanity at its most natural by pontificating over things like sexual orientation or natural humanity. It’s about asserting your own humanity through a very natural act, because there are very few things more human than that act itself. Also, electing something tangible that you can love, something that’s worth ‘worshiping.'”
So while the song itself depicts a sexual relationship between a man and a woman, Hozier has been outspoken in his support of gay rights, and he’s said that the song is meant to encompass homosexual relationships as well. In an interview with the Irish Times, he noted, “To me, it’s not even a gay issue or a civil rights issue, it’s a human rights issue, and it should offend us all. It’s just simple. Either somebody has equal rights, or they don’t.”
To drive that point home, the video for “Take Me to Church” shows two men passionately (and repeatedly) kissing and embracing and (by implication) having sex. Those sexualized images are intercut with increasingly ominous footage of a gang of black-hooded men (eerily reminiscent of the KKK) throwing a Molotov cocktail at the house of one of the men, then dragging him into the woods where he’s threatened, beaten and (perhaps) murdered as his lover looks on in horror.
It’s a deeply disturbing portrayal that Hozier says was inspired by a recent wave of exactly that kind of brutality against homosexuals in Russia. He told MTV, “The video was expressly referencing that. Far-right gangs attacking LGBT youth with impunity also, without recourse from law enforcement.”
Perhaps no song and no music video in recent memory better encapsulates our global culture’s confused, paradoxical stance on sexuality: It’s nothing, and it’s everything. On one hand, Hozier suggests that something so natural, so innocent, so universal as sex shouldn’t be taken seriously at all. On the other, he insists that our sexuality is so key to our identity as human beings that it’s transcendent and worthy of being incorporated into the very act of worship.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.