Update (1/29/14): The Academy’s board has rescinded the Oscar nomination for the song “Alone Yet Not Alone.” Composer Bruce Broughton, a former member of the board of governors, had emailed the current board during the nomination period. As Variety reports, “Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said, ‘No matter how well-intentioned the communication, using one’s position as a former governor and current executive committee member to personally promote one’s own Oscar submission creates the appearance of an unfair advantage.”
It won’t be widely distributed in theaters until June 1st, but the Christian film Alone Yet Not Alone has already made a huge splash in Hollywood. It was nominated last Friday for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, alongside songs from Despicable Me 2, Frozen, Her, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. But the person behind the microphone is just as surprising as the nomination itself.
Joni (pronounced “Johnny) Eareckson Tada is a well-known Christian author and speaker. In 1967, at the age of 17, she had a diving accident and became a quadriplegic. Her first book (she has written over 50), Joni, has sold over 3 million copies and was one of the earliest books I can remember reading. Since then, she has become a popular speaker and an advocate for people with disabilities. In the video of the song, she opens in prayer for her “quadriplegic body” and asks that God would remove any trace of age or shakiness in her voice.
The trailer for the film hints that it may not be too different from any other historical Christian movie. There are good (white) guys and bad (native American) guys. There are people with German accents. There is a harrowing journey in which everyone’s faith will be put to the test. And the endorsements page reads like a who’s who of right-wing politics and ministries: Rick Santorum, James Dobson, and Tony Perkins, to name a few.
Yet for all the film’s predictability, the song is surprisingly lovely and hymnlike. I spoke with Joni about the unexpected success of this song and how she came to be its voice.
You have become so well known for your writing and activism. Have you always been a singer?
When I broke my neck in that diving accident, doctors told me I’d never be able to sing. I operate on only 51% lung capacity but, oh my goodness, I love singing hymns and gospel songs. To me, it is a great comfort and, what can I say? I guess evidently what I’ve done here in this performance is worthy of attention I really didn’t seek but I’m so grateful for.
Were you surprised to be asked to be part of the recording?
I was. I’m not a classically trained singer. I just don’t have the physical pipes to hit the high notes. Last year, I was speaking at a convention and was weaving a lot of hymns into my message. I was just singing all kinds of my favorite hymns, and I did not realize in the audience were sitting people who were involved in the production of Alone Yet Not Alone. When they heard me sing, they thought, “Oh, let’s get her to sing the theme song for the movie!”
I said, “Well friends you need to understand, I’m no Sandi Patty; I’m no Amy Grant.” But I guess they liked the finished product, and I guess others liked it as well, in that it’s been nominated for an Oscar. How strange! How crazy is that?
How did you feel when you heard the song was nominated for an Academy Award?
A friend called me from back East early last Friday morning and I thought she was playing a joke. I really thought she was playing a joke. But then when I got to the office, I realized, oh my goodness, this is no joke, this is really serious! I looked at the song, and how it’s up against songs from Despicable Me 2, and Disney’s Frozen, and “The Moon Song” from Her and the song from Mandela. All of these people who performed these songs are so talented, they are so skilled. I sit in the shadow of their ability to sing. But somehow, some way, this is the story of the little song that could.
What has this experience been like for you?
It has made me smile. It has made me laugh. It has made me have such fun. Because to me, it is so indicative of the way God does things. He loves to play this game of picking the ill-equipped, untrained, unskilled, nonprofessional to get a job done for him so everybody will know it’s by his power. I have to think that’s what’s happening here. I keep wondering what God is up to, and I think it’s a fun surprise and another contemporary example of how God delights in choosing the weak to surprise the strong.
Here’s what I’m dying to know: What would you wear to the Oscars?
[She laughed at this one.] I have not worn a gown since my wedding day almost 32 years ago. I guess I would have to wear a gown but frankly, I don’t know anything about how one is invited to the Oscars. I’m not up for the nomination, it’s the songwriters (Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel) who are. I’m just along for this fun ride up to the night of March second, and then we’ll just probably have a big Oscar party in our living room. We’ll be cheering on the dark horse, or, as somebody said, this isn’t a dark horse; this is an invisible horse.
You talk a lot about the joy you got from this experience, and about God delighting in people. What is your understanding of the role of fun in the spiritual life?
I was thinking about that question just the other day. Some of our staff went on a whale-watching boat cruise and came across, not a pod of dolphins, but a mega-pod of dolphins. Thousands of dolphins were just swimming along with the boat and weaving in and out of the wake and having fun playing with the bow. It made me think, isn’t that just like God? He loves for his creation to enjoy life. I think a large part of heaven will be play! That serendipitous, throw-it-all-to-the-wind, do your happy dance, and celebrate God’s goodness. As, St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”