Stolen Capital: The Weight of Words in Hozier's "Take Me to Church"
September 9, 2014
I'm not a musicologist or a respected lyrical critic. In fact, I don't know much at all about music. I'm a novice theologian who can't help but be pricked when he hears what is played on the radio during his morning commute. This week, it happened to be the song, "Take Me to Church," by Hozier. The opening melody, which is truly haunting, is what kept me from turning the radio dial. Then came what someone described as "the deep, soulful voice" of Andrew Hozier Byrne, the Irish singer-songwriter. After a few seconds, I was hooked and decided to listen to the writer's story--whatever it might be.
The initial lure of a song is a testament to the potent aesthetics of sound, a beauty both deep and dangerous, for a moving melody can carry whatever its creator wishes. In this case, the melody was carrying a theologically disturbing message. Within the first minute of the song, I noticed that the words seemed heavy, steeped in something too weighty for the subject matter.
Judge for yourself:
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 getting more bleak,
A fresh poison each week.
"We were born sick." You heard them say it.
My church offers no absolution.
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.
Worship. It's what pulled me in. And if there was any ambiguity about it, the chorus clears that right up:
Take me to church.
I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies.
I'll tell you my sins so you can sharpen your knife.
Offer me that deathless death.
Good God, let me give you my life.
Upon hearing the first verse and chorus, I thought this was nothing more than a rapturous praise of sexuality gone too far--a goddess with the alleged power to absolve his sin and make him well. I was uncomfortable with this, but then I immediately realized that what Hozier is doing will be condemned as sacrilegious by anyone with a conservative bent, and that should come as no surprise--certainly not to him. That's what he's expecting: that's what he wants. He knows religiously minded listeners will be struck by the imagery of worship. And, more to the point, while the flare of paganism gets the attention of conservatives, the bending of Christian dogma enlists their rage and response. That, in part, is probably what made the song go viral; at least, it's what kept me from turning off the radio. No one would've given The Davinci Code a second thought if it were based on the conspiracy of a tribal religion. In today's cultural milieu, slapping organized Christianity in the face is in vogue, and it's a win-win situation for the artist. The conservatives become defensive and raise a ruckus, and the liberals rush to the artist's side to patronize them for being intellectual adolescents.
I don't wish to play into that, so I don't care to draw attention directly to the metaphor Hozier is using, or even, for that matter, what it signifies. The Irishman has been quite forward about what he means. In an interview with Laura Barton of The Guardian, he says that the core of "Take Me to Church" is "about how organizations like the Catholic Church undermine what it is to be human and loving somebody else." The song is also about the "offensive, backward, barbaric" notion of original sin. There it is. Apologists, have at it.
My issue lies with the use of the words themselves. What makes Hozier's words effective? What gives them power? Is it the poetic finesse? I've heard better. Is it the controlled meter and rhyme scheme? Good Lord, no. What about the accompanying music, the soulful, slow warble of notes? I don't think so.
What makes Hozier's words effective is the Christian faith itself. The central themes in the song--worship, sanctity, identity, relationship--and the words he uses to express them have little weight if not grounded in biblical revelation and the history of the church. His words are effective because they are weighty, but they are only weighty because of the gravity given to them (1) by God himself, whose Trinitarian nature is the basis of all effective communication; and (2) by years of use in the Christian tradition. The way I see it, Hozier is trying to exploit that historical use in order to praise what he considers to be the essential mark of humanity: sexuality. He has, in a sense, stolen weighty words from the church in order to empower his message for the world. My question upon hearing the end of the song was, "is he allowed to do this?"
It would be taboo to limit an artist's medium, so rather than say that an artist such as Hozier cannot do this, I would like to call attention to what he is doing: stealing Christian capital. Allow me to explain.
Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), one of the most unique apologists of the Christian faith in the twentieth century, introduced the idea of "borrowed" or "stolen" capital. The concept was quite simple. Because Christianity is true, anyone opposed to Christian faith has no choice but to borrow or steal truth and meaning from it when attacking it. For Hozier, that means stealing linguistic capital, i.e., meaningful words: worship, heaven's mouthpiece, church, absolution, sin, death, life. Note the church's historical use of these words: we worship Christ as God's climactic revelation to us (heaven's mouthpiece), as the head of the church, the one who absolves us of our sin, who brings life out of death. God has given these words meaning in historical relationship with the church. In this sense, these words belong to him; they reflect a relationship that he himself established and maintains. But this is a fatuous idea to contemporary ears. People assume that "free speech" means that no one owns words. Words are part of the universal capital of humanity. How deluded to assert that someone else can lay claim to phonemes.
The problem with this view is that it discounts the effectiveness of words while simultaneously averring their availability on the free market of communication. Words would have no effect at all if they were not inherently relational, and their relational nature would be nothing more than conventional and arbitrary if not grounded in an ultimate person. We rely on words to reveal our thought and sentiment and to call for response, but that is only possible when language is stable, when its meaning is upheld by more than our linguistic whimsy. We speak not just because that is what humans were meant to do and because we see everyone else doing it, but because we have an irrevocable trust in that communication to foster vital relationships. Phonemes, before we articulate them, are part of a larger system of language and all of human behavior that is structured and meaningful because the entire cosmos is structured and meaningful by a relational God.
In this sense, our use of words betrays not just our perceptions and opinions, but the truth upon which those perceptions and opinions rest--we are relational beings made in the image of a relational God. We speak because God has spoken to us, not simply because God speaks in general to a void of space and time, and certainly not because words are an evolutionary social development--the former would mean that reality is essentially impersonal; the latter would mean that language is merely conventional (contra Aristotle, Rousseau, and Derrida), and in that sense transitory and unreliable. We do not live like that. Certainly, Hozier does not live like that when he writes his lyrics and hopes to move his listeners by them.
What does this tell us essentially? Words are not neutral; as much as we might think that they are merely colored by the past and shaped by the future, they are meaningful in relationship, ultimately in our relationship with God. So, when we embrace them, we do not simply embrace phonemes and lexical meanings; we embrace the foundational meaning upon which they rest; we embrace the God who speaks. Words are, as antiquated as the idea sounds, covenantal. They are born within relationships, and they reflect those relationships. This is inescapable--no one on the face of the earth uses "just words," divorced from a relational stance toward God; creatures made in the image of a God who speaks cannot claim linguistic autonomy. On the one hand, yes, our use of words reveals our person. As my favorite linguist, Kenneth L. Pike, says in one of his poems,
How can I tell who you are?
Every idle word
marks your track
with private scent.
Every vowel, every tone, every "R"
gives a trace of your origin
and your bent from afar.
But, on the other hand, the revelation of our person is only possible and relevant because persons are defined in community--not just our human community, but the human-divine community, i.e., our relationship to God.
So, when Hozier--or any artist--says something like, "Take Me to Church," my ears perk up. The word "church" has a deeply relational meaning, reflecting the aching and glorious history of human-divine community, the history of God and his people. The word church is anchored by blood, billions of prayers, and centuries of persecution. It cannot be emptied of its weight and harnessed instead with the baggage of the sexual experience between a man and a woman (or a man and a man, since the music video is a ploy against Russia's anti-LGBT policies and features a gay couple being chased by a mob). Why can Hozier not do this? Because he alone does not control the weight of words--no person does. Words are relational not simply because we use them, but because God uses them. Hozier can sling the weight of sexual intimacy upon an already weighted word, but he will not be left with a "new" meaning for the word. What he has done, in essence, is place a clown's nose on a corporate executive. Everyone knows what's underneath that red nose, and it's far more serious than appearance suggests.
What is really happening is a reversal of linguistic reference. "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt 16:18). This represents the primary reference of church. Hozier's playful use of the word to refer to sexual intimacy is secondary and marginal--in itself airy and ephemeral compared to the primary reference. But reversing the linguistic reference of a word is a cunning way to draw the popular ear, which, in this day, has little sense of the history of words.
The linguistic reversal is made all the more explicit when we see that, in fact, the intimacy of Christ's relationship with the church is the exemplar upon which human sexuality is modeled. If Hozier really wants to go to church--if he really is looking for lasting intimacy--he is knocking on the wrong door. In the song's bridge, he writes,
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.
No, I'm afraid. What makes us human, what makes us clean, is that same intimacy that is bound up with the primary referent of the word church. What makes us human is not sex; it's a relationship with a God who is a community unto himself, and who gave of that community in order to restore a relationship shattered by far more than "gentle sin."
Hozier, and any other artist, can use words as if they were on the free market. But they aren't. Words have a relational meaning in the divine-human community and a history to boot. In short, Hozier is using stolen capital of the Christian faith. And I, for one, would like it back when he's finished toying with it.
Pierce T. Hibbs (MAR) serves as the Assistant Director of the Center for Theological Writing at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is currently enrolled in the Th.M. program and studying the language theory of Kenneth L. Pike. Pierce, his wife, Christina, and their son, Isaac, reside in Telford, PA.