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Besides its iconic status in music and in the hearts of bar-goers, the lyrics of Beyoncé’s hit song “Love on Top” invite deeper reflection on the mechanics of sharing a spoken account of Love with another. To her listeners, Beyoncé narrates the feelings and experiences of loving and being loved through images such as the look of a lover that “tastes like a night of champagne,” or a bond that leaves her “smiling from ear to ear.” To the astute listener, Beyoncé’s hit can be heard as a witness and a proclamation. Consider for a moment Beyoncé as an evangelist and the message she is preaching to her listeners: her aim is to share the worth of pursuing love, the experiences it gives and the demands it makes, and how it shapes her relationship to the rest of the world. She recounts her personal experiences with Love in a convincing witness that leaves her listeners with their own choice to make: either to remain unaffected by this sharing, or to be drawn out of themselves and search for the mystery of Love within their own lives. Imagine for a moment that Beyoncé is also instructing us how to provide a convincing proclamation to our own listeners, so that they “by hearing may believe, believing may hope, and by hoping may love” (Instructing Beginners in Faith, 4,8). When heard with an ear willing to discern the deeper meaning of her lyrics, Beyoncé models the anatomy of an act of evangelization: an encounter with a Person, reflection upon that encounter, and the sharing of this encounter with others.
The confession that Beyoncé makes in “Love on Top” is a result of an encounter. The lyrics of “Love on Top” are comprised of words and descriptions about a real person; the entirety of Beyoncé’s message is built upon the experience of this beloved other. Fundamentally, an encounter must involve an interaction between at least two subjects, and in the case of “Love on Top,” this interaction is comprised of two lovers in relationship. When Beyoncé describes this encounter to the listener, her lyrics are not mere introspection about her own desires related to love but are rather directed to and about a Someone. Beyoncé’s lyrics also indicate her own, free response to this powerful and intense relationship; though she might have freely ignored the pursuit of her lover, she instead suggests that this encounter has led her to reciprocate the feelings and actions associated with love.
Beyoncé offers important instruction related to the building blocks of a Christian proclamation. What takes place in an encounter is not the discovery of an abstract principle or teaching; rather, an encounter is an openness to a Someone, and is the foundation of any act of evangelization. This encounter must involve freedom to accept or reject the advances of the Someone, or else it is not a true encounter. Who is encountered becomes the content of witness; having a personal encounter with Christ properly disposes one for the mission of evangelization. In providing a witness, the evangelist first and foremost confesses that this Person is at the heart of Christian identity and is the very reason for belief: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, §1). Just as John Paul II says of catechesis, evangelization must also “reveal in the Person of Christ the whole of God’s eternal design reaching fulfillment in that Person” (Catechesi Tradendae, §5). In other words, Beyoncé calls attention to the foundation of evangelizing witness: encounter with a Person.
“Love on Top” also provides a powerful witness about the concrete realities of an encounter with another. The listener is introduced both to the singer’s tireless search for love , as well as the physical and emotional ways in which this love has been manifested: “Now everybody ask me why I’m smiling out from ear to ear (They say love hurts)/ But I know (it’s gonna take the real work)/ Nothing’s perfect but it’s worth it/ After fighting through my tears and finally you put me first.” These lyrics are not about an abstract idea of Love, but the real implications, feelings, and events of Love experienced. Beyoncé models the next level of constructing a Christian witness and proclamation: reflecting on her own experience and sharing the fruits of her contemplation.
Human experience is where faith takes on flesh and blood; reflection upon this reality leads one to greater awareness of God’s love. In other words, experience is the “locus for the manifestation and realization of salvation, where God, consistently with the pedagogy of the Incarnation, reaches man with his grace and saves him” (General Directory for Catechesis, §152c). Human experience is where human beings can begin to grasp the love and care of God. Just as Beyoncé models the full exploration and savoring of the experience of being in love, Pope Francis calls the faithful to linger over the incarnational character of human experience, as this experience becomes a precious gift to be shared:
The best incentive for sharing the Gospel comes from contemplating it with love, lingering over its pages and reading it with the heart. If we approach it in this way, its beauty will amaze and constantly excite us…There is nothing more precious which we can give to others. (Evangelii Gaudium, §264)
Reflection upon God’s action within personal human experience allows the evangelist to include in their proclamation the explicit ways in which the Person of Christ acts, speaks, and communes with humankind in daily life. When contemplating their own human experience, the evangelist recognizes that the demand that an encounter makes upon them is to share it with others.
The composition of “Love on Top” shows that the artist and experiencer have beheld something worthy of being shared with others. It is simultaneously a proclamation of love and devotion and a subtle narrative of suffering, longing, and finding. Beyoncé affirms that this story and these feelings are not only valuable to reflect upon, but are also lyrical gifts to be given to others.
Beyoncé identifies what experiencing and reflecting upon encounter ask of us next: to share our own, personal witness. “Love on Top” illustrates that this encounter with a Person calls us to the responsibilities of encounter: “The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? (EG, §264)” In the recognition of encounter, the evangelist is moved to share the Person who is the Beloved. This love experienced through an encounter with Christ seduces one to engage in sharing it. In the complete openness to being swayed by an encounter with Love Himself and sharing this Love, the experiencer becomes even more human:
Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption… Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others? (EG, §8)
In the sharing of her own testimony of the powerful nature of love, Beyoncé affirms that the fulfillment of the gift of encounter is its sharing with others. This sharing is not in general, impersonal terms, but is rather the very handing on of a personal account the action of God within a particular person’s human situation. This personal witness that Beyoncé models to love, unfolding within her particular experience, plays a unique, irreplaceable role in the entire mission of evangelization. Like the personal nature of Beyoncé’s lyrics, the personal witness of the evangelist is a privileged form of evangelization:
In the long run, is there any other way of handing on the Gospel than by transmitting to another person one’s personal experience of faith? It must not happen that the pressing need to proclaim the Good News to the multitudes should cause us to forget this form of proclamation whereby an individual’s personal conscience is reached and touched by an entirely unique word that he receives from someone else. (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 46)
The gift of personal proclamation is the sharing of one’s life with God with another. The result of a powerful witness that confesses the love of Christ invites listeners to make their own response, to be themselves “witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48).
Looking to Beyonce’s Love on Top as a guide, we as Christians can identify the key components of Christian witness and proclamation: a personal encounter with Christ, reflection upon this encounter and its significance within human experience, and the sharing of this encounter with others. This structure affirms the very meaning of evangelization, to bear witness to the love of a Person, and the implications of that love for all humankind:
…to evangelize is first of all to bear witness, in a simple and direct way, to God revealed by Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to bear witness that in His Son God has loved the world – that in His Incarnate Word He has given being to all things and has called men to eternal life…the fact that for man the Creator is not an anonymous and remote power; He is the Father: ‘…that we should be called children of God; and so we are.’ (EN, §26)
Besides being a staple of campus dive bars, for wedding DJs, and in the line-ups of overzealous karaoke enthusiasts, “Love on Top’ invites one to consider the method in which Beyoncé chooses to make her own confession of a relationship with the beloved. To the evangelist, Beyoncé models through her own proclamation a formation in the how-tos of evangelization. We have seen the “simple and direct way” in which Beyoncé proclaims a witness to Love. She urges us to center our focus on the Beloved we encounter as the center of our message, acknowledge the way that the Beloved interacts with us in this encounter and our entire lives, and to make a gift of ourselves to others through our witness to this encounter. Consider for a moment that Beyoncé is instructing us to have our own “Emmaus moment” as evangelists, recognizing our own encounter with Christ, asking ourselves “Were not our hearts burning within us?” (Luke 24:32) as we consider our experiences, and set out to return again to the task of evangelizing with a new sense of mission and fervor to proclaim of Christ:
Baby it’s you
You’re the one I love
You’re the one I need
You’re the only thing I see
Come on baby it’s you
Colleen Campbell holds a BA in Pastoral Ministry from the University of Dallas, an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame, and is currently a PhD student studying Catechetics at the Catholic University of America.