If you have been on the internet since Saturday night, you have heard about Beyoncé’s new visual album titled LEMONADE. In true Beyoncé fashion, her work has people from all corners of social media weighing in. From celebrations of Black Girl Magic to the ever-present chorus of those who label any speech with a racial element as “divisive”, LEMONADE has made a tremendous artistic impact in less than 48 hours.
While there is no shortage of topics which Beyoncé tackles in this work, the theological elements found in LEMONADE are hard to miss. With the flash of a black screen with white letters reading “GOD IS GOD I AM NOT”, Beyoncé knew that her work would start conversations around religion, faith and God. I wrote a reaction to LEMONADE for Sojourners where I write as a contributor which you can find here. But this is my debut post with Women in Theology, and I want to talk theology.
Black women have clung to their Christian faith since the first trafficked slaves were introduced to Christianity. I often reflect on this prayer, written in a Dutch-influenced slave dialect:
“Dear Massa Jesus, we all uns beg Ooner [you] come make us a call dis here day. We is nutting but poor Ethiopian women and people ain’t tink much ‘bout we. We ain’t trust any od dem great high people to come to we church, but do’ yu is the one great Massa, great too much dan Massa Linkum, you ain’t shame to care for we African people.”
This prayer is perhaps one of the earliest pieces of Womanist theology; a Womanist Christology to be exact. From this enslaved woman to the illiterate but prophetic Sojourner Truth, Black women have been doing theology for centuries. They simply have not had the agency to do so within white, patriarchal spaces. While many brilliant Black women have entered the halls of academia and church pulpits, there is still an element of Womanist theology that must come from Black women themselves, from within their own experiences and spaces. This, is what makes the theology of LEMONADE so necessary and relevant.
In her visual album, Beyoncé brings us plenty of carefully placed religious imagery. She dives from a building, arms outstretched in a Christ-like fashion. The poetry of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, which infuses the piece, gives us plenty of religious images to consume. In one scene, Beyoncé recites a poem which fits into the album’s story arc of a black woman who experiences infidelity from her husband; an allegory which lends itself to more generalized interpretations about black women, loss of love and rejection. In this scene, the text tells of a woman fasting, abstaining and withdrawing as a type of ascetic. The lyrics speak of wrestling in spiritual warfare, crossing oneself and seeing the devil. She even mentions plugging her menses with pages from the Holy Book. This, is a scene embracing a raw, edgy and decidedly black feminine spiritual experience.
So what about that “GOD IS GOD I AM NOT” screenshot? What is that all about?
One of the first black female responses I found on Twitter was a young, black Christian woman expressing skepticism of Beyoncé and her supporters from within the clergy. With a proof-text scripture in tow, she warned of “false prophets”. Though confounding, this is a typical response whenever someone like Beyoncé elicits too much praise. In steps a theology of fear, seeking to temper the possibility of idolatry toward the person creating subversive speech. Rumors that Beyoncé has “sold her soul to the devil” through “illuminati” have circled Beyoncé for years. In fact, she addressed them herself in her recent single FORMATION, which paved the way for LEMONADE. “Ya’ll haters corny with that illuminati mess”, she says, later singing a lyric that commands credit for her success instead of attributing it to some fictional cult. I believe the same people who are suspicious of Beyoncé’s possible soul-selling illuminati activity are likely the ones who want to quash her bold speech with cries of idolatry or heresy. Some black Christians have unfortunately inherited a theology of fear that is in turn a theology of oppression. Fear all that questions the socio-religious status quo while perpetuating the safety of scripture as interpreted by white, patriarchal voices. Liberationist theologies require us to push against oppressive theologies, and to stand bravely against any outlook that tells us to fear subversiveness.
With that, I leave you with a quote from my Sojourner’s piece:
“I believe Beyoncé brings to the theological conversation is a new, subversive, Womanist theology…The Church has left an indelible mark on black women even though they have not historically held access to the pulpit or the academy. Pop star Beyoncé, a lay woman who comes from the complex, creolized heritage of black America, brings us fresh perspectives and deep ideas to consider in the church, the classroom and in front of the computer screen. While some will say her work is just a shallow publicity stunt and others will say her work is offensive and sacrilegious, I give LEMONADE a standing ovation. As a 21st century black woman who occupies Christianity, the academy and millennial pop culture, I applaud the contribution as one that won’t soon be forgotten.”
Amen and cheers to LEMONADE.