“It’s not smooth, it’s not nice, it’s not pretty, but it’s honest.”
These words could easily have been attributed to Beyoncé’s game-changing visual album Lemonade released a fortnight ago to critical acclaim, plaudits, astonishment and criticism.
But they weren’t.
Instead, the quote came from Eugene Peterson – creator of the lovely Message translation of the Bible – in the same week that Bey’s album was launched. He was talking about the book of Psalms, about which he and U2’s Bono have just made a documentary.
“The Psalmist is brutally honest about the explosive joy that he’s feeling and the deep sorrow or confusion,” says Bono.
It’s the raw, brutal honesty and psalm-like quality of Lemonade that kept me glued to Beyoncé’s visual masterpiece. It is unparalleled; on a completely different level to any other music video that you might catch on MTV.
Disclaimer: I’m a fully signed-up member of the Beyhive. I love her. A couple of years ago, I stood with thousands of other screaming fans at The O2 at her Mrs Carter tour and am looking forward to seeing her again at Wembley in July. I’ve often considered writing a piece for threads on why the existence of Beyoncé alone should be enough proof that God exists.
But whether you love Queen Bey or not – if you’re a Christian, or any adult human – you should watch Lemonade. Because this stunning piece of art tells a profoundly human story.
Beyoncé gets down off the pedestal upon which many have placed her and tells us with pain in her voice, anger in her clenched fists, and tears in her eyes, that she is a woman just like us. She uses the voice that has sold millions of albums to speak on behalf of the voiceless, downtrodden, forgotten black women of the United States.
Some people haven’t liked this. The white, middle-aged Piers Morgan – clearly the target audience for Lemonade – wrote in the Daily Mail: “The new Beyoncé wants to be seen as a black woman political activist first and foremost, entertainer and musician second. I still think she’s a wonderful singer and performer, and some of the music on Lemonade is fantastic. But I have to be honest, I preferred the old Beyoncé. The less inflammatory, agitating one.”
The sentiment displays much of what’s wrong with the way women are seen within society: be beautiful, entertain us, let’s have a look at you, but please don’t have an opinion.
There is an undertone of melancholy throughout the album that reminds me of Ntozake Shange’s ground-breaking 1974 ‘choreopoem’ For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf – a heartbreaking story of what it is like to be a black woman in the 20th century. Writing about how her work was received, Shange said: “The reaction from black men to For Coloured Girls was in a way very much like the white reaction to black power. The body traditionally used to power and authority interpreting, through their own fear, my work celebrating the self-determination and centrality of women as a hostile act. For men to walk out feeling that the work was about them spoke to their own patriarchal delusions more than to the actuality of the work itself. It was as if merely placing the story outside themselves was an attack. For Coloured Girls was and is for coloured girls.”
With theological imagery weaved throughout the narratives of anger, denial, apathy, loss, resurrection and hope, Lemonade shows us that even Queen Bey hasn’t got it all figured out. This is a tale not suitable for Instagram.
“Why can’t you see me? Everyone else can,” she asks, alluding – as many have written about – to her husband Jay-Z’s infidelity; her pain at the irony of being invisible to the person she loves the most despite being an icon to millions.
But Bey moves through the pain to forgiveness, recognising that the story might not be perfect, but that love is a decision. “If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious.”
And she moves through forgiveness to a hope that can be found only in God. Just like the Psalmist declares that God is our light and salvation, our strength in times of troubles, the one who hears and delivers us.
Our churches work best when they – like Lemonade – see the whole picture: our lives are complicated, full of hurts and betrayals and mistakes. We carry the pain of injustices that have gone before us. But life also brings us joy and love and hope. It’s in our brokenness made whole that God is glorified. He is with us in the pain and the hurt and the disappointment. He’s there when life gives us lemons. “Her shroud is loneliness. Her God was listening. Her heaven will be a love without betrayal,” we hear in Lemonade.
I’ll leave you with the words of Saint Bono on his new Psalms project: “I would love if this conversation would inspire people who are writing these beautiful… gospel songs, [to] write a song about their bad marriage. Write a song about how they’re pissed off at the government. Because that’s what God wants from you, the truth. And that truthfulness… will blow things apart.”