Here’s a true confession for you: last week after finishing a not-so-triumphal run around the neighborhood, Beyoncé’s “Love on Top” came on my playlist just as I was dragging myself into the driveway. As I spontaneously broke out into a nearly move-for-move adaptation of the associated choreography I realized that I was in the midst of the most unadulterated three minutes of praise and worship I had experienced all month long.
It’s not that the classic songs of praise contained within our august hymnal don’t do it for me. Indeed, the poetry and haunting lilt of a hymn like #639 is always enough to startle me into some hither-to unexplored perspective on divine relationship and inspire warming waves of awe and adoration deep within my soul. I can always count on #175 to wash all my intellectual speculation away in a burst of triumphalist insistence on the mysteriously inexplicable elements of our strange faith. But I sure do love Beyoncé. And when I hear the schmaltzy, senselessly mass-produced lyricism of a song like “Love on Top” with its shameless key changes driving ever higher towards unattainable squeals of delight in “the one that gives your all, the one I always call,” I cannot help but think of God.
I have my friend Ben A. C. Hines to thank for this. Ever since we were in seminary together he’s produced scripturally themed mix-CDs appropriate to the season (they first and have most frequently arrived in Advent). His mix CD’s tell a familiar story through a pop lens, pairing chapter and verse with top 40, such as when he used P!nk’s “Raise Your Glass” as an alternative Magnificat or Alex Clare’s “Too Close” as an interpretation of the prophet Hosea. His CD’s have gotten me through seminary, CPE, GOE’s, ordination, ministry, marriage, and life in general. What I’ve learned for myself is that sometimes the emotional tenor of a pop song adequately conveys what I wish to express towards the ineffable presence of the holy in my life as well as any favorite verse of scripture can. Plus, you can dance to pop.
You’ve likely noticed how the “you” of a poem or a song easily reaches beyond the explicit object addressed. A love poem may have a very specific “you” in mind, yet often no single “you” imagined could possibly bear all of the romantic expectations being expressed. This is part of what makes some songs popular, its easy to imagine ourselves popping in a new “you” for the “you” the singer sings to, their universal sentiments easily fit our lives. This adaptability has often been a tool for theologians. Take the Song of Solomon, for example. This work likely made it into scriptural cannon from the erotic poems of country folk, yet over time it has been interpreted to signify something as grand as God’s intimate covenant with God’s people.
If the Song of Songs can be re-appropriated for theological aims, so can Queen Bey. I know this much, at least, from personal experience. When I was out there in my front yard, slightly defeated by my initial running goals, suspiciously eyeing the neighbor’s windows to make sure I wasn’t being watched, dancing like my life depended on it, I can tell you I wasn’t dancing for Jay-Z, my own husband, or any other man on the earth. I was dancing for someone who has always inexplicably and invisibly snuck into my life when I most needed it, through friends, mentors, just the right book or article at just the right time, the memory of something someone wise once told me, voices in my head, giving me all, the one I always call.