Beyoncé in her new visual album “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
Beyoncé’s visual album “Black Is King,” released Friday (July 31) on Disney+, brings to life the music of her 2019 album, “The Lion King: The Gift.”
“Black Is King” reimagines the story of “The Lion King,” which told the tale of a young lion named Simba who flees his home after his father, the king, is killed, rediscovering himself and returning years later.
African Americans have been on a similar journey, said writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow.
“It is this human story of both Simba and Black people — that we are trying to find home, come back to home and live into who we truly and fully are,” said Benbow, who created the #LemonadeSyllabus social media campaign after the release of Beyoncé’s previous visual album, “Lemonade.”
Spirituality plays a huge role in that journey in “Black Is King,” which draws imagery from Christianity and traditional African religions.
“It is this honoring that Black people have always been a spiritual people, full stop, and that spirituality is robust and that to demonize it in any way, shape or form is also to demonize yourself,” Benbow said.
Here are five times religion and spirituality make appearances in “Black Is King.”
1. Moses imagery
“Black Is King” may be a reimagining of “The Lion King,” but the young king’s journey of knowing and returning home to himself and his people also parallels the story of Moses told in the Hebrew Bible, said Tamisha A. Tyler, co-executive director of Art Religion Culture, or ARC, and a doctoral candidate studying theology, culture and ethics.
Moses imagery in “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
At the time Moses was born in Egypt, Pharaoh had enslaved the Israelites and ordered all Hebrew boys who were born to be killed, according to the Book of Exodus. To save her son, Moses’ mother, Jochebed, placed him in a papyrus basket and placed it in the Nile River.
Pharaoh’s daughter discovered Moses and raised him. He went on to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt and is revered as a prophet in a number of religious traditions.
“Moses grew up to be a young man that helped his people find freedom. Moses became then the person or the symbol of liberation” for the people of Israel, Tyler said.
“Black Is King” begins with the image of a basket tumbling down a river.
Later, during the song “Otherside,” viewers see Beyoncé placing her baby into the basket as she sings, “Best believe me / You will see me / On the other side.”
Nicholas R. Jones, assistant professor of Spanish and Africana studies at Bucknell University, sees the Moses imagery in “Black Is King” as “this rooting and reclaiming of Christianity as a continental African type of religion in many ways.”
After all, Jones pointed out, Christianity was in Africa long before European missionaries and colonizers arrived on the continent.
2. The orishas
“The orishas hold your hand through this journey that began before you were born,” Beyoncé says as the film draws to a close. “We never forget to say thank you to the ancestors, noble and royal, anointed, our blessings in the stars.”
Orishas are “intermediaries between human beings and the higher divine” that are represented or manifested in nature, according to Yoruba spirituality, Jones said.
Beyoncé first appears in the film on the beach, dressed in white and holding the baby she presumedly has drawn from the water. She kneels in front of two men swinging censers as she describes “coils in hair catching centuries of prayers spread through smoke.”
“You are welcome to come home to yourself. Let ‘Black’ be synonymous with glory,” she says.
Beyoncé carries a child in the beginning of her new visual album, “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
Jones and Benbow describe the scene as an offering to Olokun, the orisha who has dominion over the ocean, depths, darkness and profundity.
“You are immediately tuned into the fact that this is a deeply spiritual quest, and it begins with an offering to the African deities who have carried our ancestors and who carry us,” Benbow said.
Beyoncé also is channeling Oya, an orisha often represented by the water buffalo, when she appears wearing horns and cowhide and smoking a pipe in another scene, Jones said.
There are other spiritual beings in the film, too, including the zangbeto — shown covered in palm fronds and climbing onto the hood of the adult king’s car later in the film — who “puts things back in order and essentially demands justice,” he said.
“For me, in ‘Black Is King,’ Beyoncé is really playing with all of these types of images, iconography, so on and so forth,” Jones said.
“I really see the message being a decolonial type of spiritual project, really calling both Black people in the diaspora and in continental Africa, as well, to sort of this decolonial project to return to your roots — explore your ancestral, spiritual, religious roots.”
3. The divine feminine
Throughout the film, Beyoncé embodies the divine feminine, imagery she has evoked many times before.
Viewers of her 2017 Grammys performance spotted references to Kali, a Hindu goddess who has been worshipped as the Divine Mother and Mother of the Universe; Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty; and the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus in Christian traditions. Beyoncé also evoked images of two orishas: Yemoja and Oshun.
“Black Is King” offers glimpses of paintings in the background of several scenes in which Beyoncé is depicted as the Virgin Mary, haloed and holding a child.
Beyoncé depicted as Oshun in her new visual album, “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
She makes this clear in the song “Mood 4 Eva,” singing, “I am Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter / I am the Nala, sister of Naruba / Oshun, Queen Sheba, I am the mother.”
Like Oshun, Beyoncé is pictured in gold and yellow and often near water and waterfalls. She also is accompanied — as are several of Oshun’s avatars — by birds, including peacocks and vultures, according to Jones.
“Even in the diaspora, when enslaved Africans were clearly praying to Virgin Mary, we have to think about different forms of religious syncretism and the camouflaging of Catholic saints with different orishas or divinity,” he said.
Beyoncé returns to water again and again in “Black Is King.”
“Water” is the name of one of the songs in the visual album, featuring Pharrell Williams and Salatiel. The film features rivers, waterfalls, the ocean, recycled water containers, even a synchronized swimming sequence, and serves as the setting for rituals and offerings.
“Water signifies life. Water signifies purity. Water signifies hope and water signifies the ability to be reborn,” says a voiceover in the film.
Water is a symbol of rebirth in the Christian rite of baptism, Benbow said. It represents life, she said, pointing out many believe the continent of Africa is the origin of all life and civilization.
“And so to go back to water, which represents life, and to see these Black people in water, dancing in water, doing all of this around water, it is again embracing the truth that this life, these contributions, what we know to be true, to be us, they don’t exist without Black people,” she said.
Water also is part of the imagery associated with several orishas, including Olokun, Yemoja and Oshun.
In “Black Is King” water is “transformative,” Cate Young wrote for NPR.
“Its mythical power is reflected in both the pain of sailing Black people across endless oceans for subjugation and its healing potential to wash away the violence of that history,” Young said.
Beyoncé performs ’Spirit’ in her new visual album, “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
5. Coming full circle
One of the film’s most powerful moments comes near the end, when Beyoncé sings the triumphant anthem “Spirit” in what appears to be a sun-drenched chapel. She is framed in the window like a halo and surrounded by a choir dressed in purple.
Tyler sees the scene coming full circle from the opening Moses sequence.
“You can’t get that moment in ‘Spirit’ without seeing all of the orishas. All these different pieces that you see throughout the film lead up to ‘Spirit,’” she said.
“It’s a return to something that you understand at a deeper level now, so that the choir, the voices singing together, that moment in that church is deeper because you’ve reclaimed a part of yourself that people have tried to deny you.”
Even as she appears surrounded by the church choir, Beyoncé is dressed in yellow, evoking Oshun.
The moment highlights the way the spirit that has guided and continues to guide Black people is “at work in all places,” Benbow said.
“Beyoncé is a church girl, born and raised Methodist. She just released another visual album steeped in honor and reverence of the indigenous religious/spiritual practices of our ancestors,” she tweeted.
“Sis, if you have been looking for permission to explore and understand, let this be it.”
When asked what she would write about if she could write about anything, Ashlee Eiland’s answer was immediate.
It was 2018, and the pastor said the divisiveness and contention in public conversations was weighing heavily on her. Eiland, the formation and preaching pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church near Grand Rapids, Michigan, said she felt a “holy discontent” to offer an alternative.
She wanted to help people talk across their differences and, at the same time, still be able to recognize each other’s worth as human beings created in God’s image and likeness.
“I wanted to recapture that because I feel like, especially two years ago, some of that was being lost. I was sensing that would take us down a really hard trajectory if things continued in that direction,” she said.
But kindness isn’t all holding doors and letting people merge in front of you in traffic. The goal of kindness is restoration and transformation, Eiland said.
“I think sometimes what kindness means, if we’re doing it well, is that we are righteously angry,” she said.
“We are lamenting, we are grieving and sometimes holding that grief and anger and lament with someone,” she explained. “I’m specifically thinking of people of color in this country and Black people, who, for generations, have endured an injustice. That should not be met with a pithy call to just be nice to one another, meet each other in the middle of this and this will all be OK.”
In a series of short essays, the pastor and author shares her experiences as a Black woman in predominantly white Christian spaces. She writes of encountering both racism and belonging, of confronting her fears and offering kindness even in the face of radical opposition.
Eiland talked to Religion News Service about what it means to be kind, why it’s important to be able to speak to others across divides and how churches can play a role in that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does kindness look like in the midst of a pandemic, when fear and distrust are running high and people are unable to be in physical proximity to one another?
It is interesting talking about up-close kindness now that we are encouraged to not be so close anymore.
Before we get to this idea of outward kindness, have we truly sat with being receivers of God’s kindness toward us? Are we regularly coming back to self-kindness? One quick exercise would be over the next 24 hours just to actively note our own voice and how we speak to ourselves. And if that doesn’t reflect a level of transformation and reconciliation with ourselves, as God has offered it to us, then how are we ever going to extend that to the world around us?
I think there is a level of heart work involved before we look outward. I’m thinking of Paul’s words to the Ephesians, where he actually cautions the people of God away from hardheartedness. He says, “But be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God through Christ has forgiven you.” There’s something about maintaining a tender heart first, before we can look outward to the work of forgiving, to the work of reconciliation, to the work of truth-telling.
In the book, you share the pain you felt on election night in 2016 and your fear about “what this presidency and the rhetoric that accompanied it would mean for the poor, minorities and marginalized.” Afterward, you reached out to a Republican friend to understand why she had voted for President Trump. Why do you think it is important to try to understand and have conversations across differences?
I’m thinking of the greatest commandment — to love God and to love our neighbor — and maintaining distance in an unhealthy way. There are so many good reasons to maintain distance for the sake of healthy relationship in the way of boundaries, but I’m talking about choosing to stay distanced from one another just for the sake of maintaining our own narratives. It has great potential to create a hotbed for bitterness, resentment and hate. And if our hearts are hotbeds for bitterness, resentment and hate based on the narratives that we are persistently pursuing, then we can’t love God and love our neighbor.
I didn’t really have a desire to debate her because I knew where she stood. I really wanted to know why for the sake of seeing her humanity up close. Her being my friend is a key part of this, too. This wasn’t a random person I’d just met. This was someone I’d already done relationship with, had history with, who I’d seen lead teenagers out of addiction and into relationship with Christ — I mean, a stunning legacy. I wanted to act against the potential for bitterness, anger, resentment to grow my heart by being close to her and asking God to show me how he saw her.
Because we had a relationship, the beautiful thing was she was able to hear my heart when I was able to hear hers, and our relationship to this day is wonderfully intact, and not just intact, it’s thriving. To me, the end goal of my relationship with her isn’t to hold her close in order to change her mind or to prove I’m right. I’m pursuing unity, and unity requires truth telling, it requires the pursuit of justice and reconciliation, it requires peacemaking.
You also write about the importance of speaking out and taking action. How do you balance that?
Wisdom and discernment are key here. Spout out an issue, someone’s going to have an opinion about it. We all have opinions on everything, but for me personally, that doesn’t mean my voice needs to be heard in every single instance for a couple of reasons.
You talk about racism. There are times where I feel strong in my spirit to lead and to point others in the direction of how to be a better reconciler and how to do the work of antiracism in a way that honors Christ, how to speak up and to be strong and courageous, to use one’s voice in a way that doesn’t allow the people of God to suffer. And there are times when I feel like that’s not my work to do for that moment. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about it. And it doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion. But there are some times, for example, when you talk about racism and bigotry, where I feel more wrapped up in the community of God, when my white brothers and sisters speak up.
There’s discernment here. I don’t want to speak for the sake of just being heard. I want to speak for the sake of transformation. And that means I have to be attentive to the role my voice plays, whether in that moment I need to make room for someone else’s voice.
Social media is important, speaking outwardly is important and maybe a yard sign is important. I’m not minimizing those things, but am I doing the hard work within the relationships in the spheres of influence that have already been given to me? For some, the Thanksgiving table and the Christmas dinner table this year are going to be the battlegrounds because you’re talking across the table from someone who might hold a different opinion from you, and that might be the place that requires the most courage.
You also share a story about confronting your fear of police by inviting police over for coffee. What does that experience have to say to readers now in a moment of reckoning over systemic racism and police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others?
Again, I am careful not to be prescriptive. In that moment, that felt like a good next step for me. I felt like I had the energy and the desire to really step into an engagement like that with our local police department at the time. If I’m honest, there would have been other days that would have happened and I would not have had the energy or the desire because so much of what is happening is repeated trauma. So I’d say you have to be really discerning on whether that type of proximity is a good next step.
Fear was leading me, and I didn’t want fear to lead me. I know what happens when fear leads. When fear leads, the oppressed is in danger of becoming the oppressor. When fear leads, I am paralyzed (from) carrying out the mission that God’s called and placed on my life. For so many different reasons, I was sensing fear in that moment was not leading me to the flourishing and wholeness Christ desired for me.
I felt like the next step was to humanize individuals who are part of a larger system. It was also acknowledgement that not every single individual who’s operating within the system is interested in brutalizing citizens. There are good law enforcement agents who have protected and served really well. And so I wanted to counterbalance what I was seeing in the media and seeing around my neighborhood with my own eyes. To be open to it, exploring what would it be like to share with our local law enforcement how this feels for us and to be mutually curious, almost going against my natural instinct. It wasn’t like this Hallmark moment. I think what it did is it interrupted the fear that was festering in my own heart, and it gave face to a system. I was able to engage with individuals, not with a system.
In the afterword to the book, you mention the burden of being a Black woman in a “predominantly culturally white church.” We’re in a moment when many churches are saying they want to listen, learn and do better. What’s something you would share with churches about what it means to be culturally white and how wearying that can be?
Cultural whiteness says to every other culture represented within one’s congregation or staff that ours is the norm, that cultural whiteness is the norm. There might be room made for the existence of difference, but we might be hesitant to let that difference lead us in different spaces.
One is I think for church leaders to say, “How can we get a better perspective and move away from our own blind spots by listening to Black, Indigenous, people of color within our church and staff on their perspective of what whiteness is like in our church context?” If there’s a white staff or leadership team defining the culture, it’s like being a fish swimming in the water and not even knowing you’re wet. There has to be a different perspective to help inform what its impact is for others who are entering into that environment.
So a lot of listening and then examining spaces where there’s not just representation, but leadership. You can say, “Yeah, we’re a diverse church. We have 20% Latinx people. We have 10% African American.” You can say that and think you’re diverse, but unless there is someone who’s sitting at the table, not just offering ideas, but you’re actively asking to lead you, then cultural whiteness will remain dominant. And so there has to be a real reckoning — are you willing to give up some of your own space or for someone else to lead and shape and form culture?
And it won’t be just in one space, like Black History Month or an MLK celebration. Cultural whiteness, because it can be so deeply embedded in so many different church spaces, there has to be commitment to this over time repeatedly. It might seem like you’re talking about it too much or it’s coming up too much, but if it’s not revisited regularly, and if you’re not loving people well by inviting them to the conversation to help actively shape spaces, giving them leadership and authority in some senses, then we won’t see change over the long haul.
Specifically, this shows up on platforms, in the ways of worship and preaching and teaching, all the way to children’s ministry, what Bible characters look like, who’s teaching the story. Cultural whiteness impacts not just staff teams and the racial makeup of a congregation, but systems of how ministry is done. How ministry is done is directly tied to how people are formed and their view of God and life with God and each other. There has to be a willingness to be shaped and formed in any other way.
(RNS) When Sarah Bessey started blogging in 2005, she saw it as a way to keep in touch with friends and family.
And that was in the early days of the Christian blogosphere, which she remembers as an “oasis of community” — strangers sharing everything from parenting tips to theology and filling comment sections with “lively and respectful” dialogue.
“The internet gave women like me — women who are outside of the usual power and leadership narratives and structures — a voice and a community,” Bessey told RNS by email. “We began to write and we began to find each other, we began to learn and be challenged, we began to realize we weren’t as alone as we thought we were. Blogging gave us a way past the gatekeepers of evangelicalism.”
For many Christian women, including racial minorities, and others whose voices traditionally have not been heard by or represented in institutional churches, the internet has created new platforms to teach, preach and connect.
That includes countless personal blogs and social media accounts like Bessey’s. It also includes online ministries that have grown to include offline events like Propel Women, (in)courage, The Influence Network and IF:Gathering, and Bible study communities like She Reads Truth, which started as a hashtag by several online strangers to share what they were reading in the Bible and has grown to a website, app, book and specialty Bible that counted 500,000 active users last fall.
“People used to ask me, ‘Where did all these women writers and influencers come from?!’ and I’d have to laugh when I said, ‘The internet!’” Bessey wrote in her email.
But, if the furor on social media this past month is to be believed, the abundance of faith bloggers also has created what the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren called a “crisis of authority.”
“Is literally everyone with a computer — do they equally hold authority to teach and preach?” said Warren, an Anglican priest, who wrote a commentary for Christianity Today titled “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?”
The controversy started just before Easter. Writer and speaker Jen Hatmaker criticized “the systems and alliances and coded language and brand protection that poison the simple, beautiful body of Christ.” Hatmaker said she had encountered all that after affirming in an interview last fall with RNS columnist Jonathan Merritt that same-sex relationships can be holy.
A day later, Bible teacher Beth Moore tweeted that when considering the “things that need crucifying with Christ I vote personal branding. It’s gross.”
“I am so sick of it and them I could vomit,” Moore wrote.
Warren said the controversy touched on nearly all of the disagreements currently roiling the waters of evangelical Christianity — one of which is complementarianism, or the belief that men and women have different roles.
“We’re talking about the history of evangelicalism, anti-institutionalism meets complementarianism meets marketing, money and power meets marginalization of minority voices — all of these things collide in this conversation,” she told RNS.
Warren said her concerns extend to the male-dominated “megachurch” model, as well.
Austin Channing Brown. Photo courtesy of Austin Channing Brown
“I think the reason — and this is why I wrote the piece — that a lot of women are going outside their congregations to the internet for discipleship, is that they don’t have women in their congregations who can come to them, not just as buddies but with pastoral authority,” Warren said.
Many women already are gifted teachers, and the institutional church should embrace them, she suggested. That’s a mutual relationship: Bloggers also should work to “build a church bigger than their own personal brand and submit to this long tradition of Christian faith.”
That’s precisely why internet platforms are so important, according to Austin Channing Brown, who writes and speaks about justice and racial reconciliation.
Not only does it give a voice to those the institutional church hasn’t — and minority women in particular often are overlooked for leadership positions, Brown said — but also, she tweeted, “important things have been said from outside denominations because denominations were all messed up.”
Not all churches and denominations confer authority through a seminary education. Brown is ordained by her Full Gospel Baptist Church denomination though she doesn’t have a traditional seminary degree.
“The church has survived the printing press, radio and televangelists. We survived the rise of non-denominational churches and megachurches. We survived generations of white men with a platform and no traditional governing body sanctioning or approving their words,” she said in an email to RNS.
“But I don’t want to frame this newest step in the democratization of influencing the church as something to be survived. Many Christians believe that the church is made better when marginalized voices bring a new narrative to old ideas.”
Why this isn’t new
Questions about authority and influence go back at least as far as 1517, as those on all sides of the conversation are fond of pointing out. After Martin Luther reportedly nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, they were distributed widely via new media (then, the printing press), sparking the Protestant Reformation.
“So, no, I am not worried about women with blogs becoming a crisis for the church. I suspect that we will survive, and maybe even be made better by their presence,” Brown said.
Many famous evangelicals have lacked seminary training or institutional backing. For instance, best-selling author Ann Voskamp recently noted that D.L. Moody — the 19th-century evangelist who founded the Chicago Evangelization Society, later renamed the Moody Bible Institute — had no more than a fifth-grade education.
Evangelicalism is what historian Daniel Silliman calls a “discourse community.” It has no agreed-upon definition, no creed, no single person or council who can speak for the entire movement.
“It’s a conversation, so those platforms shape the conversation,” Silliman said.
It just looks different in 2017 than it did in the world of the 1970s, when the conversation happened primarily through Christian bookstores and radio.
Bessey, the blogger, says it’s easy for someone with a recognized platform to sneer at building such a following. But she says the church is stronger when those unauthorized voices get heard.
“I know that I love Jesus and follow Jesus better when I hear why and how other people follow him — especially when I hear from people who aren’t always approved by the establishment,” she said. “God isn’t trademarked.”
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