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Amy Winehouse: Toward A Theology of Suffering

Almost every great artist/ performer over the last 50 years has struggled with their demons. But their struggle has given us some of the best art, music, dance, poetry, books, and even theology. One of my favorite quotes is in the DVD extras of the film Bruce Almighty when Bruce is having a conversation with God (Morgan Freeman) and asking him why he didn’t save this young man when he was brutally picked on as a kid. God simply answers and says that if the kid had not gone through that pain and hurt, the poetry and literature he wrote about, which inspired many later in his life, would have never come to fruition.

Most of us have a theology which takes us far from pain and suffering. We have tended to label being “Blessed” with affluence and wellbeing. We tend to see those who suffer as being “lost” or even worse, in “sin.
” I remember spending almost an entire semester trying to convince a young college class of mine at a private Christian university that there were actually homeless people who were Christian and had a strong relationship with God.

Amy Winehouse was no different than any of us who struggle with issues—she just had a difficult time keeping them hidden. If she had been a nameless person strung out on some corner, no one would have probably paid her any mind; just another person addicted and “messed up.” But in our religion of celebrityism in this country we tend to loom over deaths like this with perplexity. Moreover, we tend to be “shocked” when deaths like this happen.

That said, was Amy some saint or theologian? I cannot say as I have not studied her music and or lyrics. I do know, however, that many young people adored her and loved her music. My point in all of this is that Winehouse obviously struggled with some real demons and chose an unfortunate route to deal with those issues that arose in her life. Still, within that pain, we were able to see a side of a person most do not get to see. When one lives in the glasshouse of fame, everything is on display. Moreover, when that pain emerges—and it inevitably does—it is there on display for all to see. Winehouse gave good music and was a very talented person; very little argument there. Yet, her pain was too overwhelming and it consumed her to the point of death.

So why didn’t God just “save her,” or send someone along to help? Going back to that conversation with God and Bruce, a difficult place for many of us to live begins to arise when that intersection between pain/ suffering and “being blessed” meet. Why didn’t God just “save” the boy? Or anyone who suffers for that matter (nations, cultures, people groups, entire countries)? Why didn’t God just stoop down and make things ok? We have had a consistent disconnect with pain as it relates to real Biblical theology; all of the disciples of Jesus lived very painful lives and most died miserable deaths for Christ and the burgeoning movement called Christianity—then deemed as a cult. We miss that Jesus Himself had no “place for his head to lay” and that the early Christian churches were piss broke, pooled all their money in a pot, and lived simple lives—at many times filled with pain. Why didn’t God just hook ‘em up? Put them up at the 5 star Bethlehem Hyatt? Give them Silicon/ Greek Valley donors? It is a difficult place to live with the tension that God does not always “show up” when we want God to. It is challenging to see someone like Winehouse so young and talented be cut down at a tender age. We want answers; most seek those answers out in dysfunctional ways such as telling ourselves—and those around us—that God has a plan; but when you’re in pain, what in the hell is that so called “plan?” If I’m living a “good life” why should I suffer? Why should my loved ones die? I prayed, fasted, and have lived for “you” God…hook me up!

That spiritual disease that Timothy Keller calls the Younger Brother syndrome in the parable of the prodigal son is a beast to overcome; we want God to bless us on our merits and take us from this suffering. In this worldview, we shouldn’t be the ones to have it hard; we “earned” God’s love and now deserve to be treated with some pious respect…dammit.

I suspect there is more to God in the complexities of suffering. At the end of the day, it produces some excellent artistic and literary work. Moreover, often times, as a result of this pain many are touched by that particular person or persons. Take for example in the case of Curt Cobain; his music remains a powerful voice of the hurt he experienced; thousands have learned from that and could/ can identify with similar life pain. In that identification process there is a method at work; an elementary attempt to make sense of 1) the pain and 2) where God might fit into this space. Pain is never easy to handle. We can try to make a grimace face and “suck it up,” but at the end of the day it is still difficult to bear. Having the ability to identify with someone “like you” is a powerful help in the journey to healing. Artists like Winehouse provide some of that identification.

There is the tendency to write off artists like Winehouse and say they’re just “lost” and too “worldly.” I would hope those of you reading this are beyond that rudimentary argument. For many in real pain are well outside the basic theological presumptions as it relates to pain and desire real access to a God that heals and can relate to their pain. There will always be the small group of those that follow their leaders blindly into whatever they do; including killing themselves if their figure does. Yet, that does not mark the thousands of people who legitimately identify with that person and use that person—indirectly and vicariously—to help them in their pain and time of need.

I believe that is also part of “being blessed” and in God’s “plan.” Mystery is a strange place to reside when a lot of contemporary evangelical Christianity teaches “answers” based theology. But if you are in a challenging time, I strongly encourage you to sit in that mystery and ambiguity for a while; take in the pain. In the excellent documentary film on race relations in the U.S. The Color Of Fear, a person named Roberto says something very powerful that I want to leave you with as you process this area of theology. I think it captures part of the theology of suffering and where God is at work: “Stretch out your arms and take hold of the cloth that covers you with both hands. The cure for the pain is in the pain. Good and bad are mixed. If you do not have both, you do not belong with us.”


Thoughtful article. As a Christian who has struggled through incredible pain & hardship the last few years, I can really ressonate with what you are saying. Good stuff.

Thank you! Appreciate that.

I'm not in agreement that a "theology of suffering" argument can be made with respect to an artist whose suffering was, apparently, self-inflicted. I'm less inclined to place a positive "spin" on this so-called suffering as a benefit with regard to artistic merit. I think this is a total misapplication of a "theology of suffering." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his Discipleship, makes a strong case for a theology of suffering based on suffering in participation with Christ, and as a result of identification with him, rather than merely suffering the consequences of our poor choices. Also, the artistic expression argument is somewhat trivial, in that one is basically participating in this "suffering" vicariously through the lens of entertainment. If one truly wants to participate in the suffering of humanity, I recommend rolling up one's sleeves and ministering to the poor, the needy, the addicted and the destitute. This is more in keeping with the example Christ gave us - not admiring the pain expressed in another's "art".

You forgot to mention that she passed GoECart

I had an extraordinary son who, at the age of three told me that Jesus had just spoken with him and that his message was that "everything is going to be all right." Two years later, Peter asked me why God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden. . . "He didn't have to--he was God." Yet he had such a sense of man's need for redemption, for a Savior, and that same year, he asked for salvation.

Six years later, changes and perceptions began to change. By age 14, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Through the years, he tried many drugs and was never able to abandon the use of alcohol and marijuana. Yet he experienced such extreme mental states and emotional anguish.

On his 27th birthday, Peter left us by suicide. I was the last to see him alive and the one to find him the next day.

I miss him terribly but with a selfish anguish that still hits at night. Yet I also envision him standing in sunlight in an open field bound only by deep but welcoming woods. I anticipate his calling to us when we go home. I also am glad he is in the Cloud of Witnesses rooting for me as I work here on earth.

Sometimes, I feel merciful because of God's grace and want to reach out and give hope to so many people around me (which is much of what I do as a commmunity advocate who works with other peers with a diagnosis of psychiatric illness). But sometimes I wonder how God continues to fuel my work when I see so much pain and long myself to have eternal rest--and know it will come in His time.

I share this because like my son, I feel the pain of others so deeply. I imagine Amy Whitehouse did, as well. And Curt Cobain.

It does not matter whether we are artists, activists, passivists or what--the thing is that we must, in spite of the pain, find Hope as a foundation. This is why God as one who extends himself to us wants us to find our Hope in Him. Sometimes it is only this sacred Hope that keeps us on earth to fulfill His purposes, rather than jumping from Earth's edge to be with Him in eternity.

Kudos to this guy for his hardwork. What impresses me is that at the age of 12, he is doing something for his cause. That is pretty impressive. At 12, I was doing normal stuffs a typical 12 year old is expected to do. - Dan Scicente

Her debut album Frank was successful in the UK and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. Amy Winehouse is known for her for her deep contralto vocals and her eclectic mix of musical genres including R&B, soul and jazz. - Carmack Moving and Storage

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Daniel White Hodge, PhD, a Hip Hop scholar & cultural theorist focuses on race relations, film, cultural trends, and spirituality. His book, The Soul Of Hip Hop (IVP) deals with the theological gospel of Hip Hop culture & its people.