Lately I can’t seem to listen to my streaming music app without hearing Lauren Daigle‘s “You Say” at least half a dozen times a day. What makes this significant (other than the fact that it’s a beautiful song) is that it’s a song by a Christian artist…except I’m not listening to a Christian station.
Living in the Deep South affords me several local options for contemporary Christian music broadcasts, but I didn’t choose any of them, so this song keeps catching me off guard. One minute I’m listening to Ariana Grande and Cardi B and the next I feel like I’ve landed back in church just in time to hear the song that comes right before the preacher gets up to preach.
Like most Christian songs that successfully cross over into the non-religious market, this song hardly mentions anything explicitly Jesus-y at all. Even the word “God” is deleted from one of the lines in the popular radio version, but people like me immediately know the message we are hearing. We’d recognize it anywhere.
I know it’s meant to be an encouraging song, I do. And I’ll get to that part in just a second. But first I feel compelled to express the nagging cognitive dissonance I feel at moments like this. The easiest way I know to do this is to break down a few lines of the song and then look at the Bible to see how the message of her song tracks with what you’ll find there.
Whence Cometh Your Worth?
Let’s start with the first two lines:
I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough
Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up
First of all, I know those voices well. I figure just about everyone alive knows this struggle save for a few narcissists who truly believe they have no flaws. Some of these insecurities are just natural to our species—we’re basically apes with anxiety—but some messages in particular throw fuel onto that fire and put this whole condition on steroids. For example, messages like these:
“Even your best deeds are like soiled menstrual rags to God.” —Isaiah
“Apart from me, you can do nothing.” —Jesus
Growing up evangelical, this is the message that Daigle heard about herself. It’s no wonder she struggles with believing she’s not enough: that message comes to her straight out of the Bible. And it’s not a tangential aside, either. Magnifying human inadequacy is key to the Christian message; it’s the “bad news” on which the “good news” of salvation is predicated. She goes on to ask:
Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low?
Remind me once again just who I am, because I need to know
The search for one’s own identity is central to the human experience, and Daigle here turns to God to find out what her identity is. She puts her dependence on him right out there in plain language at the start of the second verse:
The only thing that matters now is everything You think of me
In You I find my worth, in You I find my identity
IMAGINE FOR A MOMENT if your teenage daughter turned to a boy and said, “The only thing that matters is what you think of me…my worth comes entirely from you.” How would that strike you as a parent? Would that sound like a healthy relationship, or would that disclosure set off an alarm somewhere inside of you?
What if the boy to whom she turned for her worth and identity happened to be the same boy who told her that she is incapable of doing anything right without his help? How would you judge that relationship?
My undergraduate work was in Psychology, so this language about self-worth and identity is very familiar to me. I feel fairly safe in saying that any therapist worth his or her salt will tell you that it’s unhealthy for a grown adult to derive his or her worth and identity from someone else. That’s a recipe for abuse.
But what if you ask a Christian therapist? Chances are, you’ll hear something radically different…especially if you happen to be a woman. According to evangelical Christianity, a woman derives her identity from the man to whom she is married. Prior to that, she gets it from her father.
The apostle Paul lifted that ancient understanding of female identity from his surrounding culture and applied it metaphorically to all Christians regardless of sex. He considered all followers of Jesus to collectively make up “the bride of Christ,” and according to him Christ is the ruler of the Church in the same way that a man was the ruler of his wife. In his culture and time, women were still technically counted among a man’s property. That’s why the groom had to pay money to her father to get her. She was a financial asset.
Modern, post-industrial societies see this as barbaric, but the mentality remains alive and well within the confines of the religious world in which Lauren Daigle grew up. In the evangelical world, talk like this is perfectly normal…especially if it’s said or sung to God in prayer.
Good Cop/Bad Cop
The chorus continues pitting the words of God against…the words of God…by making him both the “bad cop” and the “good cop” at the same time.
You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing
You say I am strong when I think I am weak
Does the God of Christianity in fact say that she is strong? Or does he say that he is strong while she is weak? I’ve read the Bible quite a few times, and what I find there is a message that magnifies the weakness and ineptitude of the believer in the interest of giving all credit for success to God. It’s kind of a central point.
And I believe, oh I believe
What You say of me
Does he say it, though? Is that really being honest?
I am sure Daigle means well, as do the people who raised her to use her platform to communicate this unhealthy sentiment so beautifully. But it’s actually quite misleading to say that God says she is strong when in reality the book that purports to speak for him says exactly the opposite.
Related: “The Dark Side of Grace“
It’s quite convenient that the God of Christianity gets to be both the condemner and the advocate for the same imaginary crimes. It’s a sort of protection racket that’s been going on for centuries, and the Church has had thousands of years to perfect its sleight of hand. What people fail to remember, though, is that both the good cop and the bad cop on are on the same side. It’s all just an act.
The Magic Feather
I said at the beginning that “You Say” is meant to be an encouraging song, and it certainly is to those who love it. I’m sure thousands have already played the song on repeat, weeping as they sing the words alongside Daigle. It means something to them that you probably wouldn’t understand if you weren’t raised in the culture in which she was raised.
But I do understand. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, I heard an old song from my younger days that flooded my eyes so quickly I didn’t even make it past the first couple of lines before I had to turn it off so that I could see the road to drive. It was about the exact same thing that Daigle’s song is about, and the trusting sentiment it expressed was identical. I can still feel what it felt like to internalize that message.
What I know from past experience is that the evangelical Christian message of human ineptitude is meant to drive you to Jesus, asking for his help. In exchange for your admission of spiritual and moral impotence, you are then promised that his strength will become your strength in some existential fashion. But even then, it remains crucial to the formula that you take pains to distance yourself from that accomplishment, giving all credit to him instead of to yourself.
It’s like Dumbo’s magic feather which he was given to make him believe he could fly. The feather itself wasn’t actually magic. Dumbo himself was the source of the power, but something had to make him believe he could do it, so they gave him a feather and told him the feather was what made him fly. Hey, whatever works, right?
Except it was a lie.
It was a little white lie, of course, and Mama says they don’t hurt anybody, so what’s the harm, right?
Well, in the story of Dumbo (soon to be released in live action by Disney this Spring), there came a point at which Dumbo needed to realize that he himself was the source of his own abilities, not some feather plucked from a bird. The little white lie served a purpose for a while, but eventually it became necessary for Dumbo to learn the truth: that the feather was just a placebo.
That’s what Jesus is for Christians like Lauren Daigle. He’s a magic feather that enables you to get up in the morning and tackle the day’s activities with the belief that you can handle whatever life throws your way. Only Jesus isn’t really the one who does, well…anything. You yourself have to do it all. But you need something to enable you to get over your insecurities, so here’s your solution. Jesus can be “your strength.” Really, it’s just you…but whatever works, right?
I suppose I have mixed feelings about this. I’m truly torn about how to look at it. Should I just let people enjoy whatever helps them sleep at night? Or should I call out this toxic mentality that predicates all successes on the premise that you yourself are an abject failure?
My gut tells me that like in Dumbo’s story there will come a time when you will have to realize that you yourself are the only source of whatever you need in order to succeed in life, and that you will never really get where you want to be until you finally grasp that. And if that is the case, it behooves me to tell you that no matter how beautiful the chords and vocal inflections of this talented young recording artist, the message she inherited has a fatal flaw in it.
Religions like Christianity need you to think less of yourself. If you don’t, you’ll never buy what they’re selling.
I cannot make myself okay with that. I’ve tried, I promise. It just goes against my most basic instincts. And if I’ve learned anything in the last 40+ years, it’s that you should trust your instincts more.
[Image Source: Centricity Music]
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