Whose Soul Is “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” Saving?

I have so much to say about church since I stopped going regularly. Usually, I find myself grappling to adequately articulate it all. There’s a delicate balance between criticism and cruelty, especially when discussing “The Church,” an institution that doesn’t exactly welcome criticism of its practices. In church, I was indirectly taught not to turn a critical eye to what was going on around me and to call my lack of intellectual investment “faith.” So even now, as I know that it’s quite natural to question an obviously erroneous exercise, I still feel a little guilt when the exercise I’m decrying is a church one.

And then there are days like today, when I log onto the ‘net and find a video like this one:

in which a “fictional character” named Mother Wisdom decides to offer a rallying cry to the single women in the congregation. That rallying cry: Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).”

Now, I can see that this video’s been available on YouTube for nearly two months, so I know I’m late to the game, offering any kind of commentary. But there’s no statute of limitation on annoyance, right?

There are about three different facets of this footage that trigger knee-jerk responses for me. I’ll give you two:

1. I’ll start with the superficial. I grew up in churches where leaders frowned upon listening to non-gospel music. As a result, my peers and I were constantly “resetting.” We’d acquire “secular music” from various sources: dubbing radio broadcasts, borrowing CDs from cousins (so that if we were caught with them, we could say, “They ain’t mine!” and not be lying), or developing an afterschool BET-viewing habit.

Then our youth group or some visiting speaker would slam non-Christian musical recordings and we’d feel super-guilty about our secret acquisitions (folks in my church circle called this “feeling convicted,” a catch-all term that pretty much applies to anything that causes you even the slightest twinge of guilt. See: “I felt convicted after eating a fat slice of chocolate cake at 1 a.m.”).

So we’d “get rid of” all our “secular” music. We’d reset ourselves as truly penitent, secularity-abstaining young people… until the next Jay-Z single dropped.

At my church, this was an individual practice. But once, I went to a winter formal at a tiny Christian college in a tiny Pennsylvanian hamlet. I stayed overnight in the women’s dorm and found taped to more than one door several shards of “secular” CDs, CDs that had been broken in a public forum to prove that one’s addiction to the devil’s music was over.

I can’t speak for those young women, but I, for one, cannot attest to ever completely deadening my interest in non-gospel music. When I was a senior in college, I had one of these “conviction” spells. In a fit of pique, I tossed 20 “secular” CDs (all that I had acquired in my four, post-youth-group, living-on-my-own years) into a shoebox and left them in the lobby of my dorm, with a note attached that read, “Please Take.”

One month later, I heard the sophomore across the hall blasting my Cree Summer Street Faerie CD and I felt remorse of another kind. (Fortunately, I still had my newly purchased cassette promo of Bilal’s “Soul Sista” single–the one I eventually broke by incessantly rewinding the “Sometimes” snippet–to ease the pain.)

But back to the point, which is that few young music aficionados feel inclined to permanently confine themselves to one genre of music. If a Christian child could entirely escape all non-Christian music, videos like the above wouldn’t exist. There would be no frame of reference for them.

This is what has always annoyed me about the informal Secular Music Ban in The Church: when it doesn’t yield the expected results, people swing 180 degrees to the left, and start singing snatches of secular music to “win the young people.”

You won’t win souls by singing excerpts from “Single Ladies.” You just won’t.

What you’ll do is undermine everything you’ve ever said about secular music being “sinful,” and the only point you’ll effectively convey is how akin the church and the club can be. (You got your crowd amped by playing a popular radio single? Congrats! So does a DJ.)

2. Onto my second problem. The even more obvious one. After Mother Wisdom “gets the crowd hyped,” she gets to her tiny, practically whispered point, which is: “Wait.” She goes on to quote Romans 12:1 about presenting your body a living sacrifice to God. Turns out, this whole ill-advised display is about pre-marital abstinence.

Setting aside the fact that the lyrics of that song (as I interpret them) are the antithesis of abstinence-promotion (Isn’t the “it” to which Beyonce’s referring her own sexual prowess? Aren’t her leotard and stilletos in the video the archnemeses of modesty?), singling out the single ladies, making them stand in a coed congregation and tasking them and them alone with the burden of “waiting,” seems a bit… unbalanced, does it not?

And yet, like the informal ban on secularity, this is a pretty common practice, at least in the churches that raised me. When the risque subject of sex finally needs to be addressed within a youth group (usually full of 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds who may very well already be sexually active–or at least have picked up a plethora of bad habits, rumors, and perceptions about sex that no one conversation in a church on a Friday night could ever hope to undo), the girls and the boys are separated. A male youth worker talks to men. A female youth worker talks to women.

I don’t know what the dudes are told, but chicks are told that we need to be virtuous and wait on the Lord for husbands. Chicks are told that we should dress modestly so as not to incite dudes to “stumble” and “lust after” us.

Maybe while we were being shamed about our femininity, dudes were receiving the same kinds of messages. But what I suspect was more likely is what this video illustrates: girls were getting the “take responsibility for your and your boyfriend’s abstinence” talk while dudes were told that, when the time came to select a wife, they should choose one who “waited” (… for him to do whatever he pleased with “single ladies” who didn’t care if he “put a ring on it”).

Interestingly, those messages don’t end when you’re no longer young enough to attend youth group. Churches also have these nifty things called “Singles Ministries,” where, in my experience, you congregate to drink punch and read all the scriptures there are about decrying fornication and the very few that the Apostle Paul wrote about the virtues of single living (… penned after his own divorce), while some married bible study teacher tells you how he “found” his wife and how his wife “waited” for him to “find” her and recognize that she was a “good thing.”

These people may also take you bowling. On Friday or Saturday nights. (Typically, there’s only one or two men in this “ministry.”)

I give you exhibit A. Sure, this seems to be a regular in-home “Young People’s Choir” practice, but I’m willing to wager these people are single. And this was a Friday or Saturday night. And before or after this “rehearsal,” the women pined over their future husbands:

Also: I can’t stress enough how very disturbing the pervasiveness of this song (and dance, apparently) has become, within church communities:

2 responses to “Whose Soul Is “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” Saving?”

  1. This is a pretty good article I remember when they were calling hip hop the devils music back when I was growing up to so I had stolen my cousins NWA tape only just to play it when my parents left the house.Only to see why they call hip hop the devils music. Over the years hip hop has become more Godly with the Kanye West song “Jesus walks” and Kirk Franklin giving hip hop it’s props in most of his songs the gap between hip hop and Church is being bridge. The most distubance of this article was teh video with Mother Wisdom Performing the Beyonce them song in church another thing that is disturbing is the fact that youth have stopped dressing up for church. I hated a suit and a tie too at the earlier stages of my life but I had to get accustomed to it. I found out that through the years the innocents of the church itself is slipping and the wall that was placed between the church and the outside sins of the world are breaking down faster than the earths ozone layer and with that video it only show’s proof of that. Good article stacia.

    You look Beautifal in that picture by the way

  2. tarik: it’s interesting that you mentioned dressing up for church. i stopped dressing up for church a few years before i stopped going every week. i didn’t think there was anything wrong with “dressing up” a pair of jeans and going on. but it’s true that when i dress up for church, i feel more reverence for the process of attending–and that’s something i probably wouldn’t feel if i, like you, hadn’t been trained to dress up by parents/other authority figures.

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