The divinity of Beyoncé’s ‘Church Girl’

Beyoncé is not an ordained minister or a deity. But for some people, the song “Church Girl,” off her 2022 album Renaissance, has a divine meaning — not to mention the odes to New Orleans bounce music, gospel and hip hop all in one.

To understand this song, you need to understand who it’s for.

“I am a church girl in every sense of the word,” said Shaplaie Brooks. “People who are queer and people who are ‘other,’ we come to this kind of personal moment where we feel liberated and we start to remember the things that we were taught, that the church is within us.”

TJ Johnson, too, is “undoubtedly a church girl, through and through.”

“The church has broken my heart many times,” Johnson said. “I’ve had churches tell me that I couldn’t sing in their choirs because I was gay. I’ve had people tell me I couldn’t do certain programs.”

Dominic Glaude said that when the song comes on, “Oh! you gotta dance.”

Like Johnson, Glaude and Brooks, I grew up in the church. Needless to say, dropping it “like a thottie,” as Beyoncé implores, was not in any of the sermons.

But being a good Christian was. So what happened when people said you weren’t?

“I’m a queer trans man,” Glaude said. “It took me time to figure that out. But as I was going through that stage in the church and being a Christian and stuff, it was shunned upon to like [someone of the] same gender or, you know, change the gender, things like that.”

People who grow up in the church and feel unwelcome — especially because of their gender or sexuality — are often left building their own welcoming, loving communities.

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“We no longer need that community that is not affirming, and we create our own community,” Brooks said. “And I love that about us. I love that about us as Black people. I love that about us as Black queer people and as Black queer church kids.”

The Rev. Irene Monroe, contributor to GBH and the All Rev’d Up podcast, said overcoming judgment is a common experience in the church, whether parishioners identify as queer or not.

And Beyoncé reflects that in her song.

“She is talking about bodily autonomy as God-given,” Monroe said. “There’s a thing with Black church conservatives like, ‘mhmm, we know what you were doing on Saturday.’ Yes. And we come to defend it on Sunday.”

The song holds that duality, Monroe said.

“We are sexual, sensual and spiritual,” she said. “We’re ratchet, religious and righteous. We’re human and holy.”

That duality is in the song’s composition, too.

It samples “Center of Thy Will” from the gospel group The Clark Sisters.

Then echoes the raunchiness of bounce legend DJ Jimi.

As the Rev. Monroe explains, it’s the kind of genre-bending Beyoncé is known for.

“You really see the blurring between the sacred and the profane,” she said. “It’s a performance piece in terms of theology, because church liturgy we have, as well as the lyrics. But what I’ve named it as is a Black feminist body theology, we call that womanist theology. And what it is saying is that our lives are sacred texts.”

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As for the gender bending, the album as a whole is an ode to the Black and queer roots of disco and house music, and a rallying call for freedom and joy.

“What’s she saying is, let me pull up the lyrics — turn to the book of Beylations!” Johnson said. “She’s talking about how she’s been down, doing all this work, doing all this labor. And you know what, I’m about to go out. I don’t care what y’all gotta say. I don’t care who lookin’.”

That goes for the congregation, too.

“[Expletive] what they say,” Glaude said. “I’m here for the sermon and I’m here for the music. I’m gonna come in here and be myself and reclaim my space.”

Saints and sinners alike.

“Unfortunately there is divinity that comes from persecution,” Brooks said. “And when I think of queer divinity, I think of a perfected lens and being able to have this aerial view of the world in a way that is so wildly introspective. And it literally feels like we are one with God.”

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