Beyoncé’s Theology of the Body

Sometimes a piece of pop culture becomes a work of deep spirituality and even art, pushing past formula and touching something timeless and holy.

Such is the case with “Drunk in Love,” the song by Beyoncé off her most recent, self-titled album. The song has been out for a while, but I came to have an entirely new appreciation for it due to a book I’m reading. The book is Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II’s Theology of the Body by Carl Anderson and Fr. Jose Granados.

For the past several decsades of the Cultural Revolution, conservatives and liberals have been at odds, perhaps no more so than on matters of human sexuality. The left says that our bodies are good and that sex is an essential need, and also fun. Conservatives argue that, while sex is indeed good, if not treated with the proper respect for its cosmic and spiritual power, it can debase both people and the culture.

The Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II’s revolutionary teaching on human sexuality and the subject of the book Called to Love, bridged that gap. You didn’t need to be Catholic to appreciate or understand it. The idea is that human creatures are created to wonder, and that wonder is inseparable from love, and that love is what gives our lives meaning. Wonder can be experienced in the majesty of the natural world, of course, but reaches its greatest intensity in love: “Our response to true love fulfills our experience of wonder and puts in our hands a compass to guide our quest for meaning to the goal of true happiness.” Wonder, and the love that it produces, is powerfully expressed in our bodies, most obviously when we are making love: “The body manifests the person.” We are creatures, but creatures with souls that respond to wonder, and strive for the transcendent. A person who can’t wonder—and yes there are quite a few—is doomed to a dull life, and not through anyone’s fault but his own.

For decades, conservatives and liberals have managed to miss essential parts of this argument. For the left, sex is there to be deconstructed. Our wonder should be quelled in service to lessons about anatomy, reducing our souls to plumbing. For the right, the body’s sensuality has often ben suspect, from Elvis’s wiggling hips to Katy Perry’s revealing outfits. Both had a piece of the truth; it’s important that kids get good basic sex education so that they are safe and informed, and the human body can quickly go from expressing sexual joy in a beautiful and compelling way—say, dancing—to degrading itself with a vulgar display of debasement, like twerking. But the extremes of both left and right suffered an inability to wonder—liberals because sex is just body parts, conservatives because sex is so holy and terrifying that we aren’t even allowed to delight in the act.

When pop culture gets the equation right, when it acknowledges the wonder in our souls along with the creatureliness that makes us react with earthy humor and delight to such wonder, it can truly transport us.

Such is the case with Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love.” Sonically the song creates an atmosphere of ethereal, otherworldly bliss, with a bed of synthesizers and science fiction bleeps and squeaks. Instantly, you’ve entered another dimension. Of course, this has been the intent of the love song since human beings started playing music. Yet before the advent of rock and roll, lyrics were often bland and trite, expressing love in moon/June couplets and dreamy clichés. Rock and roll brought the essential body into the picture. Lovers were suddenly not just dreamers, but people charged with wonder at the experience—and with wonder at their own bodies. They tingled, shook all over, couldn’t think straight, were disoriented, and even sick. Like Beyoncé, they were “drunk in love.”

“Drunk in Love” thrillingly explores this theology of the body. She gets down with some imagery about the tactile human desire to touch each other, and the wonder that comes with an encounter with the opposite sex.

The transporting nature of love is expressed in the funny scene where the lovers wake up in the kitchen, not even sure how they got there. It’s as if a powerful supernatural force has moved them, which is indeed the case. Beyoncé might edge up to the line of vulgarity, which dissolves wonder and renders the sublime demonic, but she never crosses it.

Finally, in “Drunk in Love” the word “love” is cried, exalted, prayed. Beyoncé’s creaturely wonder, her delight in her own body and the body of her husband (the rapper Jay-Z), is a conduit to divine love, to bliss. This is pop music at its best, the place where it becomes art.

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