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 www.godisnotelsewhere.blogspot.com