When God Imagined Me
I sometimes teach workshops in the art of the protest song. In almost every case, I help people make a shift in their perception, to create a storyline that helps the listener to fall in love with whatever or whomever is suffering due to someone else’s choice.
For example, in the instance of clear-cutting old growth forest, how do we not simply demonize those operating the machines, or the corporate powers that are benefitting? How do we shift our focus onto the trees themselves? How do we encourage people to fall in love and connect with the forest as a part of the whole, including the preciousness of our ecosystem and future air quality for our children? If we can’t make someone connect their heart with what is being lost, the protest song will not do its job.
After that basic shift, I get the writer to ask the question: how do I speak this truth without over-identifying myself with being on the “right side” of the story? It is a fine and subtle balance to keep, to want to protect what is being lost, but not be over-identified as the protector. There can be the tendency to engage in a sort of “compassion hubris."
As a songwriter, this is something I wrestle with daily.
I wrote the chorus for When God Imagined Me, when I was studying Pope Joan, the (possibly historical) woman who masqueraded as a monk, and eventually found herself in the position of Pontiff. Whether or not it is true, I was sitting in the storyline, connecting to that same feeling of “being called," in a culture that is still more comfortable with women being in more “administrative” roles, than the role of a teacher, leader or priest.
The verses for the song, admittedly came later, during a period of mourning, when powerful men who identify as Christian, adopted a “boys will be boys” or “we all have a past” attitude to the now famous “grabbed her” tapes that were released (yes, most likely by the “other side”) back in October 2016.
The grieving occurred because this obvious symptom of a “kill or be killed” competitive culture was either instantly separated from, by men who didn’t want to be associated with the language (but still benefit from the culture), or it was being diminished by Christian men I had grown up being told to listen to and to respect. In truth, it just really hurt.
I was hurt by the most obvious aspect to the matter - that rape culture was either being diminished or normalized by Christian leaders. But after my frustration and righteous indignation boiled down a bit, I experienced lament for the men themselves, who are largely in roles of nepotism, belonging to a culture that claims women having careers is “emotionally damaging” to children - but ironically, are suffering from having had absent fathers, off on crusade (in some cases in their private jet).
I wrestled with the song’s intention, asking: “what am I over-identifying with?” I wrote and erased many lines that were too leading or reactionary. But I intentionally left the verse that disciplines the Christian leaders that did not restrain their will to power and as such, normalized assault and rape.
While I would love to not sing the word “they” ever again… if inequality of women is even now trying to have its day, (perhaps now more then ever, because it is dying), there is still work to do before we can eliminate such “classifying” language.
Thomas Merton, in a 1960’s homily on the feast of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception said: “What has weakened our sense of truth is our unrestrained will to power.” Let me be clear, we are ALL tempted to use a hermeneutic that aids our unrestrained will to power. It is the waters we were born into.
And herein lies the problem: The dangerous application of scriptural proof texting that shallowly and externally brings dominant value to the “male," will never bring to the male an internal experience of value. And this internal experience of value is necessary for the planet’s survival. If we’re still stuck in our own filter around inerrancy, without using a hermeneutic that rigorously asks “what am I trying to get out of this?” it is frankly useless to get stuck in the Bible. Without removing all desire to have power over another, from our scriptural reading lens, our hermeneutic quickly becomes a license to make money however we want to and to use people however we want to.
Please note that I didn’t end the last verse with “they," but sing “for a simple embrace of everyone’s worth” hoping to bear witness to that sacred, untouchable place in all of us, in all of creation, as a unique iteration of God’s uncreated presence. Or as James Finley recently put it - “that blessed non-distinction through the infinity of God in ourselves."
As anyone who has encountered inherent dignity knows, this dignity does not exclude hurtful, power-hungry people. We know these powerful people are not powerful enough to ruin that sacred, untouchable place in themselves, nor are they powerful enough to do so in anyone else.
My hope for this song, (and I don’t know if I succeeded, but all I can do is try!) was to show that the “woman’s movement," or whatever we want to call it, should not be about hating men, or about being better, but should be a witness to the God-given worth of women. I wanted to callout the “pursue and dispose” culture that has somehow hijacked Jesus, who had deep friendships with women and who defied unfathomable boundaries to look across to women with respect and unity.
There is no doubt that When God Imagined Me is a protest song, but I also hope it is the kind of protest song that fills our hearts with sober, kenotic love. We’re going to need it.
- Alana in roles