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Published Date: March 1, 2023

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Galilee’s Got Talent! How the Arts Empower Women

Women have always suffered from power inequality. Since the beginning of civilization, it’s been hard to be a woman in a man’s world. In the Roman empire, we can easily classify society as patriarchal. Women could not vote or hold office. Women were rarely invited into rooms where important things happened.[1]

But in virtually all social systems there are exceptions. As I was thinking about where ancient women—including Jewish women—found amplified voices and channels to exercise power and influence, my mind immediately turned to famous women-led songs in Scripture. I think of passages like Mariam’s victory song (Exodus 15:20–21), Deborah’s battle hymn (Judges 5:1–31), and last but not least Mary’s Song of Praise in Luke 1:46–55. The song is classically titled “The Magnificat,” from the Vulgate (Latin translation): Maria magnificat anima mea Dominum: “My soul glorifies the Lord.” Here is this teenage small-town Jewish woman, pregnant, and she belts out one of the world’s most profoundly beautiful songs.

These examples reflect the power of the arts to shine a spotlight where normally people are left in the dark. It is certainly that way today (and we will come back to that in a moment), but it appears to have been true in the ancient world as well. Where women were seen as simple-minded, gullible, and people who should be seen and not heard, the arts sometimes served as a social leveler with the power to raise women up higher than before. We don’t know many women writers from antiquity—their works have been carelessly discarded by men—but we do know of women like Sappho, a Greek poet, and a female orator named Nossis of Locri. And then there were the hetairai, the female companions at male drinking parties. Classicists tell us these women were far more than just lady escorts.[2] Many of them were musicians, singers, dancers, and poets; professionals of the arts with educational training far exceeding many of the men’s wives and even some of the men themselves. I can’t tell you these Greek entertainers were treated with respect—they were probably treated no better than a well-trained hostess at Hooters. But it may have been slightly better than merely serving the sexual needs of the partygoers, as was true with the prostitutes, many of whom were slaves. This is just one example of how women, then and now, tried to find ways to better themselves in spite of the many patriarchal barriers.

Modern Women in the Arts

In the modern American age, while women’s civil rights and liberation movements were often stifled until the 1970s, women steadily rose in fame and influence in the entertainment and arts industries. Increasingly throughout the twentieth century, female music artists became millionaires with large followings, and all of a sudden had the voice and opportunity to shape culture and politics: Aretha Franklin in the 1960s, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, and Cher in the 1970s, then Madonna, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, Alicia Keys, and now Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and Rihanna—Rihanna has an estimated net worth of $1.8 B. (That’s 500 million more than Jay-Z, by the way.) And internationally, we could talk about influential female musical artists like Edith Piaf (France), Mina (Italy), Teresa Teng (Taiwan), and Bab L’Bluz (Morocco).

Now, we don’t have time to explore how the entertainment industry is exploitative. Numbers don’t tell the whole story. But the point I want to make is this: the performing arts have long been a place where talent and content matter, and things like where you came from, who your parents are, your skin color, and sex—these are not absolute barriers in the way they have been in politics and even in the church. Hollywood even tried to draw out this gender “blind” system in 2002 with American Idol and in 2006 with America’s Got Talent. These shows explicitly claimed that talent alone deserves recognition. The whole point is if you got the chops, you got a shot, no matter who you are. (Ironically, these shows still tend to choose thin and toned, light-skinned, good-looking men and women for finalists. The Voice came along in 2011 as a truly “blind” selection process.)

Mary the Bold Artist

Okay, back to Mary. We are processing the matter of glass ceilings and how women find ways to exercise their voice, influence, and power. What is remarkable about Mary is that she is often treated as a stock character in most of the New Testament stories where she appears. The Evangelists are content just to note that she was there. A familiar face in the crowd. Or a necessary character with a one-liner to keep the plot moving forward: Hey Jesus, they ran out of wine (see John 2:3). But it is remarkable Mary gets significant dialogue at the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, and the lyrics of her song are nothing short of breathtaking. Scholars are right to observe that she is more like a narrative-aware character, previewing the plot of the story, than  just a teenage girl with a song in her heart.[3] Her vocabulary is sophisticated, her parallelism is educated, her biblical knowledge is scribal, and her spiritual insight is prophetic. Her song has rightfully influenced Christian tradition and history, incorporated into Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican liturgies. Bach put it to music as the “Magnificat in D Major.” Nicaraguan peasants continue to use it as a liturgical song in their services, proclaiming the good news of God’s justice for the sake of the poor. Whether read or sung, Mary’s Magnificat inspires all who hear it.[4]

The Power of the Arts

Why is it that the Arts have been such a powerful medium and context for the empowerment of women? There are many reasons, more than I can explore here. But three major reasons come to mind.

Talent on Display: History has often clung to destructive stereotypes of dim-witted women who have little to add in intellect or imagination. But the arts time and again showcase women of incredible talent—female hymn writers beginning with Kassia the Nun in the ninth century, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, and in modern times Fanny Crosby and Charite Lees Smith (the latter who wrote “Before the Throne of God Above”).

Soul-touching Discourse: Music and the arts have the ability to break down barriers, I think, because they tap into a shared experience and shared need of connecting to the soul and humanity of the other. We enter into another person’s experience, grab ahold of their fragile and wonderful living being, and for a moment we can see the world through their eyes. Hatred in public and political discourse is often facilitated by dehumanizing the other, attacking their “dangerous” ideas, and pushing their human dignity away to the vanishing point. But the arts invite us into identification and personalization. It’s harder to objectify or hate someone when you have seen their soul.

Staying Power: The arts touch our hearts and occupy our thoughts using media that gets stuck in our ears, eyes, and minds. It’s like that chorus you can’t stop singing. This is why it is probably true that worship music leaves a deeper imprint on our minds than the sermon (especially if the sermon is boring!). Humans are designed to be shaped by the arts; they stir our imagination and leave an imprint on our lives. There is a reason that music is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide.

I am not saying women should simply “stay in their lane,” reserved to the arts. I have learned and gained much from women governors, business leaders, scientists, professors, pastors, and more. What I am saying is that the arts then and now have been places of power and transformation for women who want to leave a mark on the world. You can be a single woman in Canaan, trying to lead a nation during their most wicked days (Deborah) or you can be a poor Galilean teenager, unexpectedly pregnant (Mary); whatever the case, the Spirit bursts inside and releases inspiration to the world. Art translates universally—it connects. So, to the many excellent women artists who believe they have something to give the world, you stand today with Mary, let your soul cry out, and—to quote Chance the Rapper, “Child of God, just do your thing.”

Photo by Alena Darmel on Pexels

[1] See generally Sharon K. James and Sheila Dillon, ed., A Companion to Women in the Ancient World (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012); Eve D’Ambra, Roman Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[2] See Aleksander Wolicki, “The Education of Women in Ancient Greece,” in A Companion to Ancient Education, ed. W. Martin Bloomer (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 313-314.

[3] See Brittany Wilson, “Between Text and Sermon: Luke 1:46-55,” Interpretation 71.1 (2017): 80-82.

[4] Amanda C. Miller, Rumors of Resistance: Status Reversals and Hidden Transcripts in the Gospel of Luke (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 111; more generally on the Magnificat see 89–132.

Related Reading

Women Make Up a Majority of the Church—So Why Don’t We Sing More Worship Songs Written by Them? 

“The Serpent Has Suffocated in a Woman”: Eve and Mary in the Liturgical Songs of Hildegard of Bingen 

Mirroring a Creative Creator with Art 

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