God's Politics

God's Politics

Gareth Higgins: Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Theology’

Sinead O’Connor’s not angry anymore; or at least not angry in the same way. Her tearing up of a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live 15 years ago, combined with what we think we know about her ordination into an unofficial offshoot of the Catholic church, give a convenient excuse for people to ignore her. This is a pity, because it makes us forget that she produced one of the only memorable and honest songs about love in the 1990s, her cover version of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and one of the most beautiful hymns of spiritual comfort (1997’s “This is to Mother You” on her Gospel Oak EP).
She has made her spirituality more explicit than ever on Theology, her new double album, and the anger of early Sinead has given way to songs of hope, confidence, and worship. In 23 tracks she sings of God being present in the earthiness of a life lived between the search for truth and the struggle to get by—when she relates how God met “my need on a chronic Christmas Eve” it is easy to imagine the pain that many people feel at the times when the culture is forcing them to pretend to be happy.
In an album infused by the Hebrew Bible (“They dress the wounds of my poor people as though they’re nothing; saying peace when there’s no peace”), she expresses her desire to “make something beautiful” for God. O’Connor, who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s in an often culturally bleak Ireland, is speaking out of a context that is trying to shake off its sometimes theocratic past. So it’s a risk to make music that quotes the Bible favorably. But she gets away with it—even bringing new moods to “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “By the Rivers of Babylon” —because she’s not afraid to show that she is indeed sometimes afraid.
Frederick Buechner famously wrote that, in the search for God, “without room for doubt, there would be no room for me” —I for one am grateful that Sinead O’Connor has not allowed dogma to suppress her personality and questions about what authentic spirituality is. Indeed, to sing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is a pretty good summation of much contemporary religion, which often seems so unsure what to do with itself.
Her spirituality doesn’t fit easily within ecclesial borders—there’s more than enough Rastafarianism, Buddhism, and generic “God as energy” ideas to go ’round here; not a bad marketing hook or a bad idea since O’Connor has said that the album is partly a response to the global insecurity that affects all faiths and none since Sept. 11. But as the Celtic writer John O’Donohue says, the best response to evil is to make something beautiful. You get the sense that when Sinead O’Connor says that railing against injustice is an act of love, that she also believes it’s better to light a candle than to curse the fact that it’s dark out there. No one can know the depths of the soul-search that goes in inside the heart of Sinead O’Connor—her music over the past 20 years has revealed someone never less than honest—sometimes painfully so. If she can stand in place for seekers like me—who sometimes yearn for the certainties of youthful faith, but know that mature spirituality has to transcend fundamentalism—then I’m grateful. Here’s to the next 20 years.
Gareth Higgins is a Christian writer and activist in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For the past decade he was the founder/director of the zero28 project, an initiative addressing questions of peace, justice, and culture. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul and blogs at

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posted July 13, 2007 at 4:36 pm

Wow, I didn’t even know she was still alive, much less recording new stuff. Won’t buy it as I’m not into that type of music, but hopefully she is at peace with herself.

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Jedidiah Palosaari

posted July 13, 2007 at 5:05 pm

Not to mention the incredibly haunting and moving “Thank You for Loving Me”.

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posted July 13, 2007 at 8:03 pm

I read an interview that she gave recently and I was impressed. Thanks for this post.

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posted July 13, 2007 at 9:24 pm

I listened to her latest. Unfortunately, it’s plagued by self-righteousness and finger pointing. I would like to see an album where Sinead condemns herself as roundly as she condemnds the rest of us.

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posted July 13, 2007 at 10:12 pm

Elmo posts: “I would like to see an album where Sinead condemns herself as roundly as she condemnds the rest of us.”
We will likely see that about the same time we see a homily from a Catholic priest that condemns the church for its sins as roundly as it condemns others.

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kevin s.

posted July 14, 2007 at 12:01 am

“We will likely see that about the same time we see a homily from a Catholic priest that condemns the church for its sins as roundly as it condemns others.”
I don’t think I’d purchase an album by the Catholic church either. I think Sinead is an swell musician, but I tire of her self-indulgence (artistically and personally).

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posted July 14, 2007 at 8:38 am

That’s pretty funny!
“I Do not want what I haven’t got” was an amazing album (Nothing Compares 2 U wasn’t even the best song on it). I get tired of her self-indulgence and self-righteousness, too, but I think the same can be said about so many other artists today. I just tune out the nonsense and try not to read any interviews.

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posted July 14, 2007 at 2:07 pm

There is absolutely nothing self-righteous on her new ‘Theology’ album. The woman sings the Mary Magdalene song, for crying out loud (‘I Don’t Know How 2 Love Him’)–the most NON-self-righteous spiritual tune I could imagine. The rest of the time, she has adapted, almost word for word, some of the more peaceful and conciliatory passages of the Old Testament Psalms. So, if one makes a judgement that the material is selfish or self-indulgent, it really seems a veiled condemnation of “spirituality” itself, because the Psalms are…uh…pretty much beyond reproach as literature and as source material.
It’s a beautiful album. A moving, poetic, elegant record–very much along the lines of her others. And let’s cut the tired old line that she’s some meager one-hit wonder, already. She had hits and awards and acclaim before her ‘Prince’ cover-song (‘Mandinka’ ‘Troy’ etc.) and plenty after (‘Emperor’s New Clothes,’ ‘Thank U 4 Hearing me,’ ‘Thief of Your Heart,’ etc.). Sure, none was nearly as big as ‘Nothing Compares 2 U,’ but that was a world-beater; few singers or artists have ever had a hit that huge or duplicated a hit that huge in their own catalogues. O’Connor has still managed to sell 20 million albums despite being vilified by the world for her baldness and Popish protests. She’s earned and deserves some respect. Grow up, little boys.

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kevin s.

posted July 14, 2007 at 5:12 pm

“She’s earned and deserves some respect. Grow up, little boys.”
She has earned some respect, and done a lot of things that are worthy of criticism. I have not heard “Theology”, though the one-star rating from Rolling Stone does not have me optimistic. I do own Universal Mother, which is good, but almost certainly musically indulgent (at one point, she fairly well bangs on the piano and shouts “na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na”.

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Amazon Creek

posted July 16, 2007 at 3:08 am

In my travels on the Internet the last several years, I’ve had the joy of posting and messaging back and forth with a lot of dear souls that are very much like Sinead. They are seekers, very honest seekers. If they have doubts – at least they are honest ones.
Me-thinks a person who honestly faces their doubts and voices their honest questions has a far better chance of getting their questions answered by God than people who never face them.
God loves honest hearts. Read the anguished search in David’s Book of Psalms. Now there is the rawest of honesty!
That kind of honesty often winds up finding God.
Did Jesus brush Thomas off? No, He answered His honest questions. The other disciples didn’t need those kind of answers and proof. But…Thomas did.
Isn’t it great that God is so considerate of each of our own individuality? I don’t have the same kind of doubts that YOU do. And YOU don’t have the same kind of doubts that Sinead does. I doubt
Sinead has mine.
And God meets each of us where we are and as who we are.
Even in my own search for God as a child, finding Jesus Christ as my Savior was not an isolated act in January of 1973. There was a steady path of questions and doubts and false-starts from the time I was small child. When I was in high school, my searching even led me into the occult for a time.
No, the occult is not something I’d recommend dabbling in. But God often looks past our error and lack of understanding – to our heart.
God eventually pointed me to His Son, and out of the occult. “You shall find me when you seek for me with your whole heart.”
And me-thinks God is more than able to make sure all of the people like O’Connor, like the cyber-friends I run into on the Internet that aren’t quite sure about this Jesus Christ – get their questions answered – just like He answered mine.
Me-thinks God likes honest hearts – even when they don’t know the answers. David ranted on and on at times in the Book of Psalms. Was God offended? No, He called such a man “a man after God’s own heart.”

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posted July 16, 2007 at 11:06 am

Amazon Creek,
Thanks for your thoughts. I agree–God isn’t threatened by a seeker’s honest questions, and He is more than willing to help us discover the path that leads to Him.

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posted July 17, 2007 at 6:23 pm

I think that those in the public eye learn a hard lesson when they decide to voice their heartful, but controversial opinions about the powers that be. They will be burned at the medias stake as a scapegoat to blame for the fears of the masses, and to keep the finger pointed squarely away from those very same powers, and to keep us from asking the hard questions.
I really believe that Sinead was simply trying to protest the church’s right to speak for God, albeit using shock value to do it. I also firmly believe that the Dixie Chicks were simply protesting the decision to go to war(by using humor to mock the decision maker.) In truth, they showed some disrespect, maybe not the best approach, but the reaction to both of these opinions was so far beyond proportional as to be ludicrous. Sinead is not a devil worshiper, nor are the DC in league with Al Quaeda.
I think that both of these artists have suffered unfairly for the basic human right of freedom of speech. Both artists have tremendous gifts, and craft beautiful messages of hope and love (though DCs new album has a generous sprinkling of hurt feelings as well—yes they are still angry). But it seems that after 15 years Sinead has gotten past that, and I can only hope that in time DC will too. I just think we all need to be aware when our fears have been amplified by the media, and when the anger we feel towards those who have differing opinions may have been manipulated.

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posted July 17, 2007 at 9:40 pm

Gift list for Gareth Higgins:
1. Wild at Heart
2. Economics In One Lesson
3. Some country music CD’s…

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posted July 18, 2007 at 12:00 pm

what good does it do to critize her spirituality? and to continue to relate her to events that are dimmed by the loud parade of questianable celebrites since then.
This music may not be eveyone’s taste, but it stands alone in voice. It’s hopeful that it represents a little community of musicians that came together to make it. The agreement there is sweet and I welcome it.
Which is more than we can say for most of us.

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posted July 19, 2007 at 4:20 pm

Why is that when celebrities try to change for the better, the public always wants to throw up the things from their past? Most of us Christians have behaved badly and exercised poor judgment in our pasts…and yet we have been redeemed and those sins of our past are not held against us. The comments about O’Connor’s self-indulgence and self-righteous seem to harken back to prior acts. Do they apply in this case? Are some of you responding to her current album or your perception of her from the past?

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posted July 19, 2007 at 8:20 pm

If she’s done hating the pope, then I don’t have a problem with her.

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