The Capitulation to, and Challenge of, Belief: Sinead O’Connor, Theology

By Daniel Garrett

Sinead O’Connor, Theology
Dublin Sessions produced by Steve Cooney
Co-Produced by Sinead O’Connor and Graham Bolger
London Sessions produced by RonTom for Up in Ear Productions
Chief Engineer Marc Frank, Assistant Engineer George Renwick
Koch Records, 2007

Sinead O’Connor has produced a double-album, Theology, with one album acoustic and spare, from Dublin recording sessions, and one album electric and more elaborate, from London recording sessions, sharing mostly the same songs but not in the same order. I think of Sinead O’Connor as very talented, and as sincere and troubled, and I love and respect her, though I do not agree with—or even understand—all her personal and professional affirmations and decisions. I know that religion has been important to her always—and religion is one of the things I most want to keep my distance from: consequently, thinking about a work of Sinead O’Connor that has not only a spiritual theme, but religious beliefs, ideas, and commitments, is a complex thing for me.

There are people—among them, Bertrand Russell decades ago in Why I Am Not A Christian, and Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great very recently—who have made critiques of religion more eloquent than any I could attempt now. The humanist philosopher and scientist Richard Dawkins has argued that science is responsible for significant knowledge about human origins, beginning with the evolution of the universe and its structure, on to the development of living beings and things; and Dawkins has reminded us that science, through medicine, has saved lives, and also proved the illusion of religious assertions. Richard Dawkins wrote, “What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false. If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work! The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?” (Free Inquiry, Volume 18, No. 2, Spring 1998).

As well, I must admit that there are probably more eloquent arguments to be made for theology than any Sinead O’Connor, an artist in music, is likely to make, but it is her attempt to grapple with the subject that concerns me now. “I wanna make something beautiful for you and from you to show you, to show you, I adore you” is the first line on Sinead O’Connor’s double album Theology, in the song “Something Beautiful.” It is a song for her deity, of whom she says, “I couldn’t thank you in ten thousand years if I cried ten thousand rivers of tears. Ah, but you know the soul and you know what makes it gold, you who give life through blood.” Sinead O’Connor’s voice has a noticeable Irish lilt in the acoustic version of the song “Something Beautiful,” but the whole song seems to “pop” in the electric or London version.

Sinead O’Connor follows that with a profoundly tender interpretation of Curtis Mayfield’s “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue.” (Sinead O’Connor is a singer who can make you feel as if you are hearing her deepest feeling, her deepest thought—even when it is a song she has not written, such as this, or Prince’s “Nothing Compares to You.”) The Theology London sessions offer a different vocal interpretation of “We People…,” less tender, more direct, more forceful, than the Dublin sessions.

“Out of the Depths” does not match the Dublin session interpretation of “We People…” for passion, but some of the lines in “Out of the Depths” are pointed and poignant. Sinead O’Connor asks her god, “If you keep account of sins, oh, who would stand?” She describes that god as something that has been imprisoned by religion: “you’re hostage to those rules” and “you’re like a ghost in your own home.” The London interpretation of “Out of the Depths” uses a string instrument (fiddle?) and a heavy drumbeat. I like that.

It is an interesting idea to produce more than one version of a song for the public, something artists have been doing more and more in the last two decades. Sometimes, as here, the difference in instrumentation and interpretation allows the listener to get a sense of how many doors there can be into an experience, and how supple a perception can be.

There is rhythmic momentum to Theology’s “Dark I Am Yet Lovely,” which echoes some Bible verses that even I have heard. “Don’t hate me because the sun has darkened me. All my mother’s sons were so angry with me, they made me watch the vineyards. My own things I did not guard” are words that could be a metaphor for slavery (the song has a thematic connection to “We People…,” not the first time Sinead O’Connor has felt and expressed a bond with an oppressed perspective). Some of the song’s other lines, such as “His mouth so delicious, his fragrance so pleases, such is my beloved, such is my darling” suggest passionate love.

“If You Had a Vineyard” is a song that says, through parable (the plantings of a grape vineyard, in which sweet grapes were sought but bitter wild grapes brought), that we do not always get the reward we seek, the result we work for. “And sadness will come to those who call evil good, and good evil, who present darkness as light and light as darkness, who present as sweetness only the things which are bitterness.” (The fifth song among the Dublin songs, and the seventh song among the London songs, “If You Had a Vineyard,” in its London incarnation has a soulful chorus and harmony.)

There is anger and torment in “Watcher of Men,” a song by Sinead O’Connor and Ron Tomlinson (RonTom), a song that questions and affirms existence and faith: “Why did I not die at birth?” and “Oh, watcher of men, do you have eyes of flesh? Is your vision like man?” and “When I accused you, you wouldn’t speak, I said you tore up my hope like a tree, but I spoke without understanding of things beyond me which I did not know…Therefore I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes.”

“33” is a song by O’Connor and Ron Tomlinson, with the lines “Jah spoke and it was. He commanded and it endured. He frustrates the plans of nations. And brings to nothing the designs of people.” I would imagine that the song commemorates the age Jesus was when he died. It is also about a very difficult deity. “33” is the seventh song in the Dublin presentation of songs, and the fourth song in the London presentation: and the London version has something of a dance beat and O’Connor’s whispery voice, not a rhythm one would expect for such a serious, even pious, theme.

Sinead O’Connor’s testimonies are testimonies of faith and passion, and sometimes her testimonies contain delicacy and tenderness, and sometimes they contain interrogations and judgments. “The Glory of Jah,” also by O’Connor and Tomlinson, declares, “May the glory of Jah endure forever” and “The lord makes poor or he makes rich.” (I am not fond of such repudiation of human will and social circumstances.) The London version’s drumbeat reminds me of 1960s Motown girl group music, followed by a gospel organ sound.

“Whomsoever Dwells,” by O’Connor and Tomlinson, states “I say of my lord that he is my fortress, that he is my own love in whom I trust, that he will save you.”

Sinead O’Connor’s voice has a somewhat heavy tone on “The Rivers of Babylon,” a traditional song with new words by O’Connor: “There on the poplars, I broke my guitar, because my tormentors required songs” and “If I forget you oh Jah, may both my hands wither, and may my mouth freeze if I forget how I knelt at your feet.” Is the heaviness of her voice something she has assumed specially for the song, or is it a mark of age? I do not hear any loss of lightness or range elsewhere. “Hosanna Filio David” is the last song on the acoustic portion of the double set. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice song, is on the electric or London part of the collection (the sixth song), and it is a song of devotion that is also a song of doubt (Sinead O’Connor sounds searching).

I think Sinead O’Connor is brave and, though often angry, is full of good intentions. I am touched by Sinead O’Connor’s faith and her passion, but I am not changed by it. I have thought often of religion as being the philosophy of the ignorant; and I love Sinead O’Connor, and I respect her talent and have some awe for her passion, but I am not inclined now to change my mind regarding religion.

Daniel Garrett, Louisiana-born and a longtime New York resident, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, is a writer of essays and creative work, including fiction, drama, and poetry. His work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. For IdentityTheory.com, Daniel Garrett wrote about the work of novelist James Baldwin, film director Eric Rohmer, rapper Tupac Shakur, and the music band Kitchens of Distinction; and for Offscreen he wrote about films such as Boesman and Lena, Dirty Pretty Things, I Love Huckabees, Dogville, Father and Son, Moolaade, Paradise Now, Syriana, Walk on Water and Yes, as well as about books on Charlie Chaplin and on Chinese and Palestinian films. For a journal on philosophy and film, Cinetext (or Cinetext.Philo.at), Garrett wrote about Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, Terrence Malick’s The New World, and the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars, as well as a comprehensive survey article on popular film art. And, for The Compulsive Reader, Daniel Garrett has written on music, films, and books. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com or d.garrett.writer@gmail.com

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