Aaron Perry ~ Deathless Death: Take Me to Church

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“Something in you dies when you give yourself indiscriminately to gluttony, whether in food, drink, or sex.”[1] While it was New Testament scholar N.T. Wright who wrote that, it could just as easily have been written by singer-songwriter Andrew Hozier-Byrne (“Hozier”), as commentary on his song, “Take Me to Church.” The only difference is that Hozier celebrates this kind of “deathless death.” Wright does not. Neither do I. I think it’s God’s grace. I also think it is Wesleyan theology.

John Wesley was a eudaemonist. This means he was focused on happiness. I first heard this notion when I chanced to encounter Burrell Dinkins and the sermon he preached through an online chapel service from Asbury Theological Seminary.[2] Well, maybe it wasn’t chance, but a kind of prevenient grace. Dinkins captured something that was just beginning to emerge in my theological convictions in my first days of pastoral ministry: holiness—a life devoted to God—is the path both of and to happiness because it is the path to God.

But not all walk the holiness path. And sometimes the amount of sacrifice offered by the desperate traveler down a path that once promised happiness makes for a more determined traveler. Wright names three of the paths people plod in pursuit of happiness: food, alcohol, and sex. Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” luring, rich, and haunting in melody and voice, is like a determined traveler calling heartfully from far down the path of sex-as-happiness. Its conviction and eerie beauty is undeniable. Go to YouTube here and listen to the song, but refrain from watching the video for the moment; it has a narrative of its own. You’ll hear what I mean.

Hozier wrote the song about his first breakup and the importance of sexuality in being human. “Sexuality, and sexual orientation—regardless of orientation—is just natural.”[3] It seems the expression of sexuality is the experience of heaven. From “Take Me to Church”:

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 

Church, worship, heaven, amen. Religious words and divine experience interact clearly and seamlessly. Hozier makes it explicit: “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 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.”[4]

But the context of the song betrays this line. “Take Me to Church” does not speak of asserting oneself, but of offering oneself to the female goddess that is his lover. “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.” This leads into the doubly paradoxical conclusion: “Offer me that deathless death / Good God, let me give you my life.” It is paradoxical in “deathless death,” but also in the giving and taking: life is given and simultaneously taken.

Hozier further clarifies this deathless death: “I found the experience of falling in love or being in love was death—a death of everything. You kind of watch yourself die in a wonderful way and you experience for the briefest moment—if you do believe somebody and you see for a moment yourself though their eyes—everything you believed about yourself is gone.”[5] It seems that death comes at the hands of the lover. “Take Me to Church” vividly captures how sharing oneself in the relationship leads to this kind of (sacrificial) death: “I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife.” So, why would Hozier agree with Wright’s analysis of indiscriminate giving? Because Hozier believes that something in you dies when you give yourself in the human act of sex.

Yet when there is a kind of relationship, let’s call it consensual, this death must go both ways. The lover becomes not just the one who gives their life, but the one who takes the other’s life. Perhaps the song’s video inadvertently captures this paradox as well, as one gay lover looks on in helpless dismay at his seemingly unconscious or dead lover at the end of mob violence perpetrated because of their forbidden relationship. (You have probably already watched the YouTube video, but if not, then go watch it here and you’ll see what I mean.) The lyrical memorability and melodic thrust of the song capture the reality that it could be either lover in a relationship who vocalizes the message of the song. This mutual deathless death is the closest you get to love and happiness on the sex-as-happiness path.

So, how might Wesleyan theology engage this sex-as-happiness path? Wesley shows how certain pursuits of happiness have the adverse effect:

You seek happiness. But you find it not. You come no nearer it with all your labours. You are not happier than you was (sic) a year ago. Nay, I [expect] you are more unhappy. Why is this, but because you look for happiness there, where you [know] it cannot be found? Indeed, what is there on earth which can long satisfy a man of understanding? His soul is too large for the world he lives in. He wants more room.[6]

The sex-as-happiness path is not wrong because sex is bad and sexuality is shameful. Far from it! The sex-as-happiness path is wrong because it comes to an end. The path simply is not long enough. Sex is not enough. For Wesley, false paths to happiness are not simply dead-ends, though; instead, all shortcuts to happiness lead to hellish misery:

I entreat you to reflect, whether there are not other inhabitants in your breast, which leave no room for happiness there. May you not discover, through a thousand disguises, pride? Too high an opinion of yourself? Vanity, thirst for praise, even (who would believe it?) of the applause of knaves and fools? Unevenness or sourness of temper? Proneness to anger or revenge? Peevishness, fretfulness, or pining discontent? Nay, perhaps even covetousness. And did you ever think happiness could dwell with these? Awake out of that senseless dream. Think not of reconciling things incompatible. All these tempers are essential misery: so long as any of these are harboured in your breast, you must be a stranger to inward peace. What avails it to you if there be no other hell? Whenever these fiends are let loose upon you, you will be constrained to own, ‘Hell is where’er I am: myself am hell.’ [7]

To keep with the theme that Hozier introduced, this potential for hell on earth is why orthodox Christians maintain the traditional view of marriage and sexuality. While Hozier seems to equate an act of sex with an act of love in the interview with “The Cut” quoted above (http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/03/qa-hozier-on-gay-rights-sex-good-hair.html), Christian theology works to determine when an act of sex is an act of love in order to keep sex an act leading to happiness. Or, as writer Christopher West put Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, “the problem with pornography is not that it reveals too much of the person, but that it reveals far too little.”

While there are different applications and important differences regarding sexual ethics within various minor and major Christian traditions, Christian theology broadly affirms that sex between a man and woman in a marriage relationship is the context where sex is act of love precisely because it is the relationship where one lover may give him- or herself without the other taking this life. Far from the relationship of goddess/god with sharpened knife demanding sacrifice in “Take Me to Church,” faithful marriage is the relationship where sex does not lead to a deathless death, but to life—most explicitly in the flesh-and-blood life of the child who becomes the symbol and reality of the mutual self-giving of two lovers.

The holiness-as-happiness path does not end in the same way that sex-as-happiness does. The holiness-as-happiness path does not end at all, really, because it is the path to God, the source of life and life to the full. God does not offer a deathless death, but endless life in resurrection. That’s the path of happiness. To trod that path? To read those lyrics? To hear that song? Take me to church.

 

[1] N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters, SPCK: London, 28.

[2] http://place.asburyseminary.edu/ecommonsatschapelservices/992/

[3] http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/03/qa-hozier-on-gay-rights-sex-good-hair.html

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/music/hozier-i-m-still-figuring-it-out-i-m-still-figuring-myself-out-1.1933663

[6] Wesley, Works. Volume 5, p. 137.

[7] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley. Volume 5. New York: Emory and Waugh, 1831. “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” p. 138.

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Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry and Pastoral Care at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He and his wife, Heather, have three children. Aaron is the author of Putting the Plot Back in Preaching (Seedbed), co-author with Tim Perry of He Ascended into Heaven (Paraclete Press) and editor of Developing Ears to Hear (Emeth Press). Aaron completed his PhD in Organizational Leadership (Regent University). Follow him on Twitter @aaronhmperry

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