|Photo credit: Kevin Abosch
Long before Britney Spears shaved her head, there was Sinead O'Connor. Like Spears, the Irish-born O'Connor has generated her share of controversy. A Grammy Award-winning singer best known for her hugely popular 1990 hit "Nothing Compares 2 U," O'Connor created a furor when she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II on "Saturday Night Live" in October 1992. Although she is herself a Catholic, O'Connor declared that John Paul, who died in 2005, was "the real enemy." Since then, although O'Connor has put out a number of records since her breakthrough 1990 album "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," she has not had enjoyed continued success in the United States. All that may change, however, with her new release, "Theology," a two-CD set consisting of an acoustic and full-band version of 11 songs, most written by O'Connor herself, and based on passages from the Old Testament.
O'Connor recently spoke to Beliefnet about her fascination with the Rastafari movement, the other religions that appeal to her, and the problems she has with Catholicism.
You've had a very interesting faith journey. How do you define your spiritual life now?
Well, I would consider myself Catholic, by birth and by culture and by blood. But I'm extremely inspired by a number of other religious traditions and also extremely inspired by the Rastafari movement.
What do you identify so closely with Rasta?
What I admire and love the idea of is that they see themselves almost as soldiers for God. They have this concept of the idea of rescuing God—from all kinds of situations--and they have a tremendous excitement about God. They use music as a priesthood, and that's very appealing to me. I was interested in them because they were the first people I learned from that God and religion are two different things. I admire them and the idea of God needing to be rescued, from religion, for example.
Are you more of a God person or a religion person?
Well, I would say much more of a God person, but I love religion. I've been studying all kinds of religions since I was a child, literally all my life. I adore religion and love it. Obviously, like anything, it has all sorts of negatives sometimes, as we all do. But, I'm much more of a God person.
Are there any other religions or religious traditions that you embrace?
I wouldn't necessarily say I embrace, but I'm inspired by Hinduism, and Judaism.
What do you like about those traditions?
Well, in the Hindu tradition I love a couple of things. They have a completely different way of thinking than we do on this side of the world. They turn your head upside down when you get into their way of thinking. They have the tradition of yogis— these guys who, through meditation, can transport. That's kind of incredible. Another thing I love about them is that they often portray God as a female energy, and that's obviously interesting to any woman—the idea of the symbols for God's being allowed to be female. Also, the Vedas, their main scriptures, are just so colorful and so dramatic. They're kind of like the Old Testament, but it's all love and peace.
And I love the Sufis for the same reason, because I think they're pretty much the esoteric side of Islam. And the whirling dervishes. They are Sufis, and they have this thing that they call "God the Beloved," and this tradition of the most incredible kind of religious poetry, this kind of ecstatic poetry. My favorite is Hafiz. He writes this poetry about how he's so excited about God that he keeps chucking himself out the window and breaking his nose. They're crazy, ecstatic kinds of guys who are just completely in love with God.
You mentioned that there are positives and negatives with every religion. What do you think are the biggest problems with Catholicism?
The Rastas, interestingly, call Catholicism "Catholischism," which I think is funny, in a way, but it kind of paints a pictureof what's going on. There are roles within [the Catholic Church] which create separation, segregations, which I don't think are helpful for the church and I don't necessarily think are helpful for God. [But] there's a fine line because there's a lot that’s brilliant about the Catholic church. It's a beautiful religion— there's no getting away from that. But I think the boundaries are unclear sometimes, and that sometimes religion doesn't understand that God and religion are two different things.
Sometimes God can be almost a hostage—not just to Catholicism but to other religions—and kept behind these walls of prejudice, which keep God in and keep people out. Sometimes the hierarchies can be, perhaps inadvertently, in a situation where they are dictating to God. And that's contrary to even a three-year-old's knowledge of God. God loves everybody equally. In lots of religions, including Catholicism, there are people who are deemed less entitled to God's love than others. It's bad for business, and I wouldn't like to see the baby getting thrown out with the bath water, which is what I think is happening. Catholicism is really on the decline, certainly in my own country [
Almost all of your songs on your new album "Theology" are based on Old Testament scripture, not New Testament. Is there a reason for this?
It's really that I love the Old Testament. Since I was a kid it was my particular area of interest. I love the New Testament also, obviously, but I suppose, from an artistic point of view, if you're going to write songs, the Old Testament is a little more artistic, very poetic, very dramatic, very emotional. It contains within it a whole lot of songs, not only in the Psalms but in some of the books. It's just more conducive to songs.
Is there a part of the Bible that you resonate with most, that you go to for comfort or inspiration?
My love is the books of the prophets. Particularly I love Isaiah and Jeremiah, but Jeremiah would be my favorite, above all. So, I'd read [Jeremiah], and just the language and the place it took me to would make me forget about anything that might be on my mind. It is a beautiful book.
You've said that your new album is "an attempt to create a place of peace in a time of war" and that it was a response to what was happening in the world after 9/11. How did 9/11 personally affect you?
I don't think there was a person on earth who wasn't extremely affected by it, obviously some much more than others. But that day did change the world—everything changed. Now, that act [the massacre] was performed by a small minority of people who claimed to represent a particular theology. And in doing what they did, they very badly misrepresented their religion and their theology, and more importantly, they misrepresented God. Obviously, it doesn't need to be stated that anyone who believes in God would never do such a thing.
And anyone who says they're a Christian doesn't send bombs to kill anyone. The world has become a very frightened and frightening place. The existence of war is proof of the absolute lack of contact with God, and that is something I see as having got a lot worse. We're all affected by what happened on Sept. 11 because all over the world there are countries at risk because of involvement in the war. In the case of the British people and the American people, they can't walk down the street without being frightened, with very good reason, that something dreadful might happen.
In the case of
A Christian is supposed to say "What would Jesus do?" Jesus wouldn't be killing anyone and sending bombs on anyone. I do understand, of course, that people have to be protected. But while protection is going on, at the same time there should be Christian negotiations going on to see how can these things be fixed with love.
I suppose all of us are complicit in what's happening if we are doing nothing at all about it. All I can do is make records, and I hope this record would make someone think that perhaps God is not an angry, punishing, warmaking God and is in fact a gentle and compassionate God who actually is upset at the loss of us.
Where do you find God the most?
Everywhere. Everywhere, really. I don't think there's a place God isn't.
Your new song "Something Beautiful," is a prayer to God. What are you praying for?
The song was a prayer to be shown how I could go about making this record. I knew I wanted to make the record, and I knew which scriptures I wanted to use, but I was thinking, "Oh, my God, how am I going to do this? Will I be able to do it." It was really a prayer explaining what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it and in a way saying, "God, listen, I'm going to do this, but I'm not going to disrespect you or mess you about," and "Here's an example of what I'm going to do. Give me a hand to do the rest."
How do you feel about the current pope, Benedict XVI?
I don't know anything about him, to be honest. I actually couldn't tell you anything about him. I don't watch television because I've got four kids and they have the TV on the the whole time watching kiddie programs until 9 o’clock at night, so I don't get to see much of the world.
When you left the music business for a few years, you said you wanted to rejuvenate and spend time raising your children. How did you rejuvenate? Prayer, meditation, yoga?
Mainly looking after my children. I got rid of all of my instruments. I didn't even keep anything to do with music in the house. That was great--I just forgot all about music. I went to counseling, actually, for a couple of years, and that was great, in terms of just getting to know oneself.
What songs do you resonate with most off the new album?
What about it do you identify with so much?
It's the words. It talks to me about stuff like Sept. 11 and the situation we're living in now: "He frustrates the plans of nations and brings to nothing the designs of people." It's a very magical and powerful scripture.
Do you regret ripping up the photo of Pope John Paul II on "Saturday Night Live" in 1992?
No, I don't. Sometimes when you love a thing, such as the Catholic Church, it's really like a parent. Sometimes we want to challenge the people we love, and sometimes we want to rattle the bars because we see them going down the drain unless they face particular issues. And they may not want to face those issues. For example, the issue of sexual abuse by priests within the Catholic Church.
At the time that I did that, in Ireland—which was the first place where people began to come out and say that [molestation by Catholic priests] had happened, ten years before it happened in the States—the families of the victims were being silenced by the church, and the church wasn't able to face what had happened. Instead of facing it, they were trying to silence everyone.
Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't actually an angry act, although I can see, of course, why people would think it was. It was actually an act of love.
Love for the church?
Well, no. You see, I'm a God person—so an act of love for God, actually. But, also an act of rattling the bars of something that I do love, but I don't love it as much as I love God.