Whose Soul is "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" Saving?

Crossposted from slb’s site:

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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtP32VgUScU&hl=en&fs=1]

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 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 antithesis 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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nP9WNsjRVLY&hl=en&fs=1]

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

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhqFoJHezNw&hl=en&fs=1]

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slb (aka Stacia L. Brown) is a writer, mother, and college instructor in Baltimore, MD. Check her out here: http://stacialbrown.com and here: http://beyondbabymamas.com.

9 comments to Whose Soul is "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" Saving?

  • I’ll never, never, ever understand religion, for many of the reasons you wrote.

    It’s incomprehensible (and infuriating) that a “virtuous woman” is supposed to be strong enough to protect her own purity, deny her own perfectly natural feelings about sexuality, and keep lustful men at bay … until a man who has had his fill of “loose” women decides to settle down with her. And then, at that point, she’s supposed to submit to him and let him protect her because she’s *not* strong enough to live her life single and independent.

    WTF??

  • kaya

    i wish i could watch the youtubes but my job has a strange firewall that only allows youtube to work like 30% of the time. so i’m hoping my comments are still relevant without seeing the video.
    anyway, slb, i usually agree with most of the things you post. and i do agree with some of your points in this post. but i think you’re kind of painting “church” with a wide brush. i also grew up in the church but had an entirely different experience. i have no memories of being discouraged from secular music. for the most part it was encouraged. or if not encouraged, at least accepted as an important part of black culture (just like the black church). of course there were messages discouraging mysogynist lyrics or explicit cursing, but i can also remember hearing sermons with direct quotes from biggie smalls. my mother was a pastor’s kid and we grew up listening to bob marley and madonna without “feeling convicted.” obviously my experience is different from yours, but that’s part of my point. not all churches are the same. yes it is hypocritical to condemn secular music then try to use it for your own interests. but not all churches condemn secular music. i don’t see anything wrong with using something popular and catchy to try and get your message across.
    yes, i for the most part, have a problem with the message.
    but the methods, not so much.
    i do agree with empowering women to stand up and try to get what they want out of a relationship. i deal with so many women who get an STD from their partners and can’t even muster up the confidence to tell him to get treated for the disease HE gave her let alone wear a condom. so if these are christian women that really want to believe in abstinence before marriage i don’t really see a problem with encouraging that.
    however i DO see a problem with the whole women have to be the ones responsible for abstinence. you pretty much expressed my feelings on that one.
    anyway i’m all over the place with this comment; i hope you got what i was trying to say. i’m no holy roller by any means but i feel like this blog often beats down on organized religion. we really shouldn’t get into the habit of sterotyping – whether its a group you agree with or not.

  • slb

    kaya- i appreciate your comments and understand your frustration with the “beating down of organized religion.” i’ve stated on this blog and elsewhere that i do still ascribe to the Christian principles with which I was raised, even if i have a *host* of issues with the way those principles have been presented. i want to reiterate here that i am not agnostic, nor do i harbor any malice about Christian tenets. my angst comes from my own church experiences and i’m slowly working to resolve that.

    with that said, it wasn’t my intent to imply that all churches are anti-secular music or pro-singles ministries or pro-secular lyric use to get their points across.

    it *was* my intent to comment on the churches *i* attended growing up and how this particular video and this particular woman’s use of beyonce’s “single ladies” produced a series of knee-jerk reactions relative to my own experiences with my old churches.

    when i wrote of the “Informal Secular Music Ban in the Church,” i wasn’t referring to churches that *don’t* attempt to implement that ban–and i do have a problem with churches that *do* using secular lyrics to “reach the young people.” it’s a contradiction.

    i thought i was specific about prefacing comments with “my old churches” or “the churches that raised me” or “i can’t speak for xyz” and i intentionally used that phrasing so as *not* to generalize, but i’m sorry if i failed at qualifying my comments as specific to my experience/observation.

  • Grump

    As a product of having a mother that was an ordained missionary in COGIC, I can sympathize with you about those “talks” regarding sexuality and “dem feelings” where they seperated the youth by sex to discuss the issue. As young men, we were also told to put aside those urges and be virtuous and exemplary men. In my church there was no double standard practiced where women were told one thing while them men were allowed to do the other. It is rather idiotic to believe that a congregation where 65% of the members held XX-chromosones would allow any foolishness to be taught.

    There were times where the young, middle aged, and older women would but heads on teaching and practices and that was because the later generations were more educated and informed about what was going on in the world and how they should better prepare the youngins for it through Christ and his teachings.

  • Becky

    I loved the point you made about the ban on secular music. It reminds me of an episode of South Park (I confess to having seen) in which the characters take pop radio love songs and insert the word “Jesus” every so often. So much contemporary Christian music is simply reworked pop. Many of the same producers, engineers, and instrumental musicians who are creating the Christian music have a career in pop/rock as well. You’re absolutely right: nobody’s soul is being saved by avoiding this music.

    I think an argument could be made for the fact that so much secular music today objectifies women, but when a woman is only as good as her virginity, I am afraid that the two genres are more similar than they might like to think.

  • Wow, this post really struck a nerve with me – both the secular music guilt-trip that was so common in my youth group days, and the pressure put on young Christian single women to wait passively for Mr. Right while “staying pure.” In my youth group days, I never once bought a single secular album. Instead, I would bum them off of friends and make a copy for myself. Or I’d listen to the radio and tape songs off of that. All of the exhortations in youth group to give up my secular music listening habits never really worked on me, they just caused this strange double-think that made everything okay as long as I wasn’t buying the music for myself – even though I was listening to all of the popular secular songs!

    As for the whole abstinence thing that was drummed into my head constantly through years of youth group and Christian college – well, it’s years later now, and I’m a 27-year-old virgin who has left the church of my youth behind but still feels pretty messed up over sexual issues. Somehow all of those messages about purity and abstinence and waiting during my youth group years never really discussed what was supposed to happen when you didn’t meet the perfect man God intended just for you while you were at Christian college, and instead kept on waiting right into old maidenhood. What happens is you end up feeling like a freak, as all of your old Christian peers have gotten married, started having babies, and left their careers to be happy stay-at-home moms. Meanwhile, all of the non-Christians your age presumably have all of the sexual experience you missed out on while you were “waiting”, and you’ve got the stigma of still being a virgin on top of all of the sexual hang-ups that evangelical Christianity seems to instill in so many people.

    Whew. I just got a lot off my chest that I really haven’t talked about anywhere else. Your post just really hit home with me.

  • Asada

    Oh snap!!!
    I cant believe this thing actually blew up like this! WHOA, my mouth is wide open now.

  • PatriarchySlayer

    Kristi, are we ever on the same page. I am 24, and pretty much, your story is my story. I fight tooth and nail almost everyday to not get pigeon-holed into one category or the other. People look at me funny when I explain my lack of sexual experience to non-Christians, but at the same time I am never good enough for Christians either. I am smack dab in the middle. And although this year I have been experimenting a little bit with guys, I always end up on the hurting end of this bullshit.

    To get where I’m coming from…this is what I’ve concluded. I can’t win no matter what I do. I waited for all this time, and this year when guys actually started to be interested in me, I thought that maybe I can experience what other people have. You know, that desire to be normal. But that never happened. Because instead of living with the stigma of being a virgin, I have a new stigma, rape survivor. Yeah, my “first time” (I hesitate to say this, because I believe your real first time is by choice) was rape. Why couldn’t I have a normal, so-so experience like most of my friends, and then move on… I don’t know. I struggle with this issue a lot. Why can’t I ever have a good sexual experience? Does it really even matter? Now that my choice to be pure until marriage was effectively taken away from me, does it really matter what I do?

    So I get you. It’s a crappy spot to be in. I’m not sure anymore what to do either. The worst part is, I still feel like a freak.. only this time doubly. And yes, all my Christian friends are getting married and having babies too, but they’re also getting divorced very quickly, they’re unhappy, and I believe in a lot of cases they are settling for men/women who are not right for them, in order to have sex. If I ever marry someone it is going to be because I want to spend the entirety of my life with that person. And for no other reason. Maybe sex is clouding the subject of marriage, what do you think?

  • Deesh Reedan

    Dear PatriarchySlayer,

    I haven’t dealt with any of the secular music issues discussed herein, but virginity and sexuality in the Christian church is certainly a big issue. I could go on about that, but I want to right a personal message to you. I believe also that a person’s first time is when they choose it to be. Just for your information, in the modern world, the physical proof of virginity (the hymen) is destroyed on most young girls during regular activities like sports, horseback riding, etc, that girls in previous centuries didn’t engage in. So whoever attacked may have taken your sense of safety, may have physically and emotionally damaged you, but he didn’t take your choice away from you. What you choose to do still matters. If you want to wait to have sex, wait. If you want to have sex with someone, I recommend you have it with someone who you care about, and who you believe cares about you, not as a way to prove you’re normal, or that you’re ‘over’ what happened, or whatever. Everything we do is all about our choices, not what others choose to do to us. As far as feeling like a freak, there are far more twenty-something virgins than you probably realize, everyone in the US isn’t a star of Sex in the City. In other countries, even westernized, modern ones, it is even more common for guys to tend to be virgins until their twenties, waiting for the ‘one’. And being a rape survivor doesn’t make you a freak, or a victim if you don’t want to be. Unfortunately, rape is all too common. 1 in 5 women are rape survivors, so I guess if you’re a freak for that, then you are in a large group of them. I hope you have talked to friends, family and authorities about what happened to you, to help you get closure, such as it is, if not justice. I am sorry for what happened to you, and I wish you a happy, prosperous, sexually satisfying life, filled with a the love of a devoted significant other, if that is what you wish. But be strong, girl, and make the choices that make you healthy, make you feel good, not ones that make you ‘fit in’ or please others.

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