The 21st Century American church — and in particular, the United Methodist tribe of which I am a part — has become all-too-adept at hand-wringing.
We hear an anecdote, read a survey, or watch a television show in which the message of ancient, creedal Christianity is deemed to be either too narrow or too out of touch for emerging generations. And our response? We wring our hands. “What are we going to do? Not everyone in the world likes us! We’ve got to change our approach! Or better yet, change the message!”
This is on my mind because the latest cause celeb of hand wringers is the Hozier song “Take Me To Church.”
And I have to admit, the song is a vocal tour de force: hypnotic, erotic, and with a touch of the swagger that turns a rock song into an anthem.
Lyrically, Take Me To Church’s centerpiece is this snarling verse, full of double entendre in the way in which the singer parallels worshipping at the altar of his lover to attending a church service:
“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.”
So is it a girl with a shrine of lies who sharpens her knife? Or is it the church? The answer seems to be “yes.”
Hozier himself says this: “Growing up in Ireland, the church is always there – the hypocrisy, the political cowardice,” Hozier told Billboard magazine. “The video has the same theme – an organization that undermines humanity.” Written in the wake of a breakup with his first girlfriend, this is both a love song and a contemplation of sin, drawing influence from the late atheist writer Christopher Hitchens. Hozier described it to The Guardian as, “a bit of a losing your religion song.”
And the church’s temptation upon receiving such a stinging critique from an obviously gifted artist is, again, to wring our hands. “Hozier doesn’t like us! Let’s prove to him we really are nice!” I confess that I’ve had that reaction on more than a few occasions in recent years as the gap between evangelical subculture and American pop culture has widened.
But then I step back. And I remember what Jesus told his first followers in John 15:18: If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. (That’s sort of the ultimate in “worse things have happened to better preachers,” isn’t it?)
And then I remember that the cross is a scandal and the gospel is an offense.
And I recognize that what the bible calls sexual beauty — celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage — the world calls repressive folly.
And then I recall what Flannery O’Connor said: “And you shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd.”
Bring on the oddness, then. Not as an excuse to obnoxious or arrogant or mean, but as the quiet confidence that comes from knowing that our citizenship is not of this world.
With it, the realization that our message of an inclusive invitation to follow an exclusive Savior doesn’t need our apology; it demands our proclamation.
And that’s a cause for raising our hands in praise, not wringing them in shame.