Carol Howard Merritt: You Were Good, Amy Winehouse

I still have the song in my head. The haunted voice of Amy Winehouse echoes through my work, as I answer emails and file papers: "You know I'm no good."

Her voice is clear, strong and beautiful, even in the reverberations. As the song unfolds, we hear how much she hates herself for cheating with her ex-boyfriend. Did she sing this refrain so much that she began to believe it?

Anyone who followed the work of Winehouse knew how good she was. Her melodies soared through her well-produced albums in an array of styles. Even when her body seemed to morph from a robust beauty into skeletal proportions, she still looked lovely. When her eyes became squints and her Cleopatra eyeliner ended up in tear-stained smudges, she was good. I half-heartedly followed her, just as I follow many other outrageously talented train-wreck women who capture our pop culture imaginations.

This week, as I learned of Winehouse's tragic death, I sorted through the first few pages of images that Google served up. Did I keep up my interest in Winehouse because she was my shadow side, living a life so different than my own? I'm a clergywoman who would be mortified if a mere bra strap went astray when I was in public.

But before I go down that worn-out path of superiority that we religious people tend to tread, I must acknowledge that Winehouse and I did have one thing in common: the tendency to believe, "I'm no good."

I'm a Calvinist. If you follow religious movements closely, I must make a distinction. I'm not the ultra-conservative, neo-sort of Calvinist. I'm an old school, progressive Presbyterian Calvinist. From that vantage point, I'm often in conversation with John Calvin's idea of depravity. He explained that we are so "perverted in every part of our nature that by this great corruption we stand justly condemned and convicted before God."

In other words, "We're no good."

This can be an important corrective, in a world where pride and arrogance can run rampant, in this day when saying "I did something wrong" can lead to legal liability or political ruin. When a person is in a position of privilege, a good dose of understanding that we all do some degree of harm is vital. For many of us, having a space where we can confess our faults and take responsibility for our wrongs can be a path to a better life.

Then that song echoes again in my mind, and I wonder if things would have turned out differently for Winehouse if she didn't convince herself that she was no good. What about the many women and men who stay in calamitous relationships and can't figure out a way to get beyond destructive habits? Do they need to hear those damning words echoing in their minds? When we understand ourselves as "no good," does that cognitive framing lead to doomed behavior?

There is another theme in our Christian tradition, one that says we are made in the image of God. God created us and declared that we are good. And when we create, we are participating in the work of God.

I didn't know Amy Winehouse. All I know is the amazing music that she produced and the snapshots that the paparazzi stole. I've also learned that an addiction stole her strong, vibrant life.

But I do know one thing for sure: Amy Winehouse was good.

[Originally posted on Huffington Post Religion page 7/25/11. Read Carol's blog at]