Saturday, 26 November 2011

Is "I Am What I Am" Blasphemous?

I've come up in defence of Lady Gaga's song “Judas”, which many people consider blasphemous. I even enjoy Marilyn Manson's song “Eat Me, Drink Me”, which I'm sure other people might find blasphemous too. (No the song is not making reference to Jesus' invitation; it actually alludes to Alice in Wonderland.)

The song that really makes my hair stand on end is probably not one that most people would raise and eyebrow over, and I doubt it's intention was blasphemous. It is “I Am What I Am”, originally from the Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles (1983-1987), but made famous by Gloria Gaynor. Some might be mistaken to think that it is because the song was written by a gay man, Jerry Herman, or taken up by the gay community as a gay pride anthem, that makes me think of it as blasphemous. That's not it at all.

Rather, it is the hook of the song “I am what I am.” This is practically an exact quote from Hebrew: אהיה אשר אהיה, which is commonly translated into English as “I AM That I AM” or “I AM What I AM” or just abbreviated as “I AM”. It is a quotation from Exodus 3:14, one of the most famous verses in the Old Testament (Torah).

“I AM What I AM” is God's name for God; this is what God calls God-self. The expression is not merely an ambiguous self-description, it is the most sensible description that a perfect and perfectly self-sufficient entity could describe itself as. There is nothing else higher, or remotely equal to God. Even the term “God” is an inferior construct. God, therefore describes God-self by God-self: I AM What I AM. This expression is one of the seven holy names for God in the Torah.

Is it any wonder that when I hear Gloria Gaynor sing “I am what I am,” that I cringe, and when she follows up with “I am my own special creation” and so equating herself to the Creator that I flinch? Of course, these are all associations in my own mind, coming from my own interest and knowledge in philosophy and theology.

Unlike the Church and religious people that have many opinions about what constitutes blasphemy, the Bible (i.e. Torah), only truly has one thing that is really considered blasphemous and that is equating oneself with God—setting yourself up as God. When Jesus described Himself as the “I AM”, in other words equating Himself with the God of the Old Testament that spoke to Moses, the Jews wanted to stone him because they believed it to be blasphemous. One of the reasons Jesus was crucified is because he basically proclaimed that He is God, that He is the “I AM”.

I don't think Jerry Herman really intended to write a blasphemous song, but I just can't help to make the association when I hear the words.

One of the comments that got the most thumbs-up for John Barrowman's rendition of “I Am What I Am” in the YouTube video above is: “Some people hate that he's gay. I hate that he's so g*d damn perfect.” I agree.

The song teaches an important principle: it is important to know and accept who you are. Millions of people live unhappy lives because they feel uncomfortable in their own skins, uncomfortable with themselves, uncomfortable with who they are. The song declares that your “live's a sham” until you make peace with yourself. I understand this. And I accept that there is a truth in that. For that reason I also like the song. I used to suffer from low self-esteem too, so I know the truth to this.

Still, whenever I hear someone sing it, I cannot help thinking of a puny little human being declaring him- or herself to be the Great God Almighty—the Self-Sufficient, Uncreated, Infinite, I AM.

So is the song “I Am What I Am” blasphemous? Probably not any more than Frank Senatra's “My Way”.

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