Gospel Minus Gospel

A few years ago, I became familiar with a cartoon called “Garfield Minus Garfield,” a second-order cartoon that starts with Jim Davis’ cartoons of his lasagne-loving lazy cat and removes the eponymous character, turning a somewhat average cartoon into a rather chilling examination of an existential crisis [1]. The tagline for Garfield Minus Garfield is that the result of taking Garfield out of the Garfield comics is that the reader ends up taking “a journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb [2].” This is not too unlike the lives of some people I know.

It is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, not unlike the fate of a recent spate of songs by musicians who seek to take advantage of the uplifting sound Gospel choirs but without anything approaching the Gospel message. Some of this use of Gospel choirs appears to be somewhat ironic, such as in the song “Take Me To Church” by Irish musician Hozier, which attempts to use Gospel elements in order to subvert any kind of godly religious message. On the other hand, some of the use of Gospel elements, like that of Sam Smith in “Stay With Me,” is certainly ungodly but appears fallen more due to persistent and unredeemed moral weakness rather than conscious hostility to the Gospel message.

In what ways do these songs (which may be taken as representative of two different ungodly approaches) seek to subvert the Gospel message while using elements familiar to the genre of Gospel music? Before we tackle this question, let us comment on some obvious elements of Gospel music that are worthy of recognition. For one, the elements of Gospel music that are familiar to fans of music—the passionate and heartfelt soulful singing, the call and response elements, the Gospel choir—are not in themselves holy or righteous, but are rather conventions by which people express their religious beliefs. It is the content of the message, not the style of the delivery, that determines the godliness of a song or any other type of communication, for that matter [3]. Sometimes, of course, this content is obvious, and sometimes it must be sought out and carefully examined.

The lyrics and anti-biblical message of Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” is clear and obvious and unmistakable. As a brief examination of the song’s lyrics [4] makes plain, this is a song that is deliberately sinful. A brief catalog of the major sins involved in the singer’s extended metaphor of an idolatrous love, the following of the ten commandments are broken explicitly in the course of the singer’s rapturous ode to a capricious but intoxicating lover:

First Commandment: No other gods before Him: “I should’ve worshiped her sooner. / If the Heavens ever did speak, / She is the last true mouthpiece…”

Second Commandment: No idolatry: “If I’m a pagan of the good times, / My lover’s the sunlight.”

Third Commandment: Taking God’s name in vain: “My church offers no absolutes. / 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…” See also: “Offer me that deathless death. / Good God, let me give you my life.”

Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy: “Every Sunday’s getting more bleak, / A fresh poison each week.” (He can’t even get the day right.)

Eighth Commandment: No lying: “Take me to church, / I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies.”

Tenth Commandment: No coveting: “To keep the Goddess on my side, / She demands a sacrifice, / To drain the whole sea, / Get something shiny, / Something meaty for the main course. / That’s a fine looking high horse. / What you got in the stable? / We’ve a lot of starving faithful. / That looks tasty. / That looks plenty.” (This could possibly count as theft as well if one is looking to feast off of someone else’s food taken by coercion.)

We also have the breaking of the seventh commandment, if it is taken to include fornication in the broader sense of sexual misconduct: “She tells me ‘worship in the bedroom’. [4]”

In one song, we have nearly all of the ten commandments explicitly broken by someone who freely confesses his lack of godliness and who thinks that it is only in the sad and furtive fornication with a clearly immoral and dishonest woman that he feels human and clean. As human beings, we sell ourselves far too cheaply. We submit to corruption and oppression for far too little gain, destroying ourselves with lusts and addictions for the briefest and most costly of highs. As abhorrent as the message of Hozier’s hit song is, it is a tragic loss that he cannot see in a godly love the sort of symbolism of our union with God that is represented by the Song of Solomon, instead submitting to death and misery and sadness because he become entangled with a clearly unworthy woman whose beauty is not joined with honesty or compassion or, seemingly, any other virtues.

Leaving aside the sad earthly scene of Hozier’s idolatrous lust, let us turn to the second of our songs in today’s comparative song analysis. Earlier this week, while listening to one of the contemporary hit radio station in the Portland area (I think it was Z100), I heard one of those press features showing Sam Smith as an artist on the rise, and the brief interview clip with him showed him saying that all the songs he sang were real, and came from his own personal experience. While this is certainly stated with an aim of being seen as an authentic singer-songwriter, there are some experiences it would be better not to have, and certainly far better not to write and sing songs about accompanied by a Gospel choir. “Stay With Me” is a case in point.

The lyrics to this neo-soul pseudo-Gospel ballad are short enough that we can examine them in detail here:

“Guess it’s true, I’m not good at a one-night stand,
But I still need love cause I’m just a man.
These nights never seem to go to plan.
I don’t want you to leave, will you hold my hand?

Oh, won’t you stay with me?
Cause you’re all I need.
This ain’t love it’s clear to see,
But darling, stay with me.

Why am I so emotional?
No it’s not a good look, gain some self control,
And deep down I know this never works,
But you can lay with me so it doesn’t hurt.

Oh, won’t you stay with me?
Cause you’re all I need.
This ain’t love it’s clear to see,
But darling, stay with me. (Repeat chorus two more times) [5].

Lyrically speaking, this is not a complicated song at all. It is also a song that is not written with the same degree of deliberate hostility to righteous conduct as Hozier’s songs. Nevertheless, the song is very clearly a blasphemous song, in that we have a singer whining about the pain that he feels from one night stands, something he apparently plans to do even if the plans never seem to work out, while singing the song in a church. (I wonder why picking up random girls at a bar, sleeping with them without getting to know them at all and without any commitment is generally not a good way to find the sort of lasting love and intimacy that one wants. /sarcasm).

Clearly, I am the last person on this earth who would wish to make someone feel bad for longing for love and affection. My own longings for affection and intimacy are fairly obvious and well-known to just about anyone who interacts with me for any length of time in a personal context. Let me be perfectly clear: it is not the longing that is wrong, but the way in which that longing is fulfilled, and in the way that the repercussions of those moral failures are portrayed. To fill a legitimate and proper longing for lasting love and affection with a one-night stand is a horrible moral error, especially if they are planned or are a pattern of behavior. To compound this error by expressing one’s sadness (but apparently not repentance) by using the form of a Gospel choir is blasphemous, implying that God blesses the habitual sins of unregenerate mankind.

Why is this done? What is it that leads people to think that it is acceptable to use the form of Gospel songs without the content of the Gospel message, a message of repentance and moral regeneration from within. The Gospel message is not about a pallative for our woes, a treatment of the symptoms of the fallen world we spend our lives wrestling with. The Gospel message is about a cure to the source of evil in sin, whether the sins of others against us, or our sins against others and against God. The joyous sounds of a Gospel choir are meant to celebrate the indwelling presence of God in ourselves and in our lives, by which we can act in godly ways that spread the righteousness we have found to our families, our communities, our institutions, and our societies, and eventually our world. We do not seek to rejoice in our brokenness and folly (as is the case with “Take Me To Church”), nor do we seek to whine about our self-inflicted problems (as is the case with “Stay With Me”), but rather we seek a solution to our woes through becoming transformed by the Spirit into the image and likeness of our Heavenly Father, following the footsteps of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This message is not a popular one. It does not appeal to our desire to be seen as naturally good, to think of ourselves as better than we are. It does not appeal to our wish to justify ourselves as we are, and to be able to enjoy whatever fleeting pleasure can be found in the lusts of our eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life that none of us (certainly not I) are immune to. If we recognized more and celebrated more the freedom we do have because of the working of God and of godly people in our lives, we would have a kinder view of a loving God that mourns our brokenness and the way in which we so frequently wallow in our sins and deliberately seek after evil, and that longs for us to be whole, to be clean, to be pure, to have the love and affection that we seek and to give it to others. We come to God asking him to take away the pain and suffering of our lives caused by the sins of fallen beings, including ourselves, and God wishes to take our broken bodies and hearts and minds and spirits and relationships and faith and trust and to turn it into a glorious new creation. Why is it so hard to take Him up on the offer?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garfield_Minus_Garfield

[2] http://garfieldminusgarfield.net/

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/the-devils-music-christian-contemporary-music-and-its-critics/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/brave/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/10/04/pm-dawn-and-the-gnostic-revival/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/you-oughta-know/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/08/27/that-which-has-not-been-seen-does-not-have-to-be-unseen/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/not-a-bad-thing/

[4] See, for example:

“My lover’s got humour,
She’s the giggle at a funeral,
Knows everybody’s disapproval,
I should’ve worshiped her sooner.
If the Heavens ever did speak,
She is 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 absolutes.
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.

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.

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.

If I’m a pagan of the good times,
My lover’s the sunlight.
To keep the Goddess on my side,
She demands a sacrifice,
To drain the whole sea,
Get something shiny,
Something meaty for the main course.
That’s a fine looking high horse.
What you got in the stable?
We’ve a lot of starving faithful.
That looks tasty.
That looks plenty.
This is hungry work.

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.

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.

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.”

Source: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/hozier/takemetochurch.html

[5] http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/samsmith/staywithme.html

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Love & Marriage, Musings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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