On Friday, Ariana Grande released God is a Woman, the third track previewed from her forthcoming album Sweetener. The music video features a feminist reimagining of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, starring Grande as God.
There’s also a memorable cameo halfway through the video when Madonna’s disembodied voice appears, like the voice of God, reciting a gender-flipped version Samuel L Jackson’s Ezekiel 25:17 speech from Pulp Fiction: “I will strike down upon thee, with great vengeance and furious anger, those who attempt to poison and destroy my sisters, and you will know my name is the Lord, when I lay my vengeance upon you.”
God is a Woman has a lot of Grande fans singing “Hallelujah!”, referring to the Christian God in female rather than male terms – which has long been considered by many to be borderline blasphemous. God is still very much gendered male in religious discourse and most versions of the Bible. The Catechism of the Catholic church pretty much says it all with the proclamation “God is neither man nor woman: he is God”. Grande’s song, then, is sure to touch a misogynist nerve.
While some may consider Grande referring to God in female terms to be a heresy, it’s one with a very long history, and one that hasn’t always been controversial. St Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109, talked of “Christ, my mother”, for example. And in her 14th-century Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic, says: “Just as God is our father, so God is also our mother.”
While history is peppered with occasional references to God as a woman, there has been more of a concerted effort in recent years to ensure religious language is more inclusive. In 2015, for example, a group of female bishops within the Church of England campaigned for more “expansive language and imagery about God” that would encompass feminine pronouns. The Rev Emma Percy, the chaplain of Trinity College Oxford and a member of Women and the Church (Watch), a group that successfully campaigned for the ordination of female bishops, said that using more inclusive language to describe God would help dispel “the notion that God is some kind of old man in the sky”.
We’re also seeing more and more instances of God as a woman in popular culture including Lars von Trier’s 1996 movie Breaking the Waves and Kevin Smith’s 1999 film Dogma.
If portraying God as a woman upsets some people, portraying the Lord as a black woman, as she is in the 2011 romcom A Little Bit of Heaven (she is played by Whoopi Goldberg) and The Shack, a 2017 Christian drama based on a 2007 book of the same name, sends religious racists into a conniption fit. Joe Schimmel, a California pastor and host of the documentary Hollywood’s War on God, for example, told Christian News Network that The Shack’s “pretentious caricature of God as a heavy set, cushy, non-judgmental, African American woman called ‘Papa’ … and his depiction of the Holy Spirit as a frail Asian woman with the Hindu name, Sarayu, lends itself to a dangerous and false image of God and idolatry.”
Nevertheless, despite the predictable criticism, plenty of people are persisting in trying to overturn the idea that God is an old, white man. Last year, for example, Harmonia Rosales, an artist from Chicago, painted a version of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, reimagining both God and the first man as black women – and it went viral.
Rosales explained to the Guardian that she made God a woman in the painting because, first of all, it just makes sense: “We all come from the womb.” Also, she says, “I made it a black woman because there are so many images as white male figures in power”. Rosales wanted to both illuminate and challenge the way we’re conditioned to think about who gets elevated in culture and show black women, “who are least represented as powerful and godly in any kind of way”, in an empowering light.