On Prince, Evangelicalism, and Being an Outsider

It wasn’t a post that many people read, but back when I used to write more about such things, I admitted having grown up with almost no exposure to popular music, even that of my hometown:

Growing up, I listened to almost no pop music. (I went to a birthday party in 3rd grade and my friends — friends? — decided it would be fun to dress me up like Boy George. “What’s a Culture Club?”, I asked, as they put a red chapeau on my head. Then I asked who Michael Jackson was and my social status was cemented for ten years.) Then I got to college and suffered a profound case of homesickness at a time when, off all bands, Soul Asylum had a huge radio/MTV hit. Astonished that my hometown was producing popular music (“Who’s Prince?”), I dug into SA’s back catalog and quickly realized (a) that they had produced material much, much better than anything on Grave Dancers Union and (b) that they weren’t nearly as good as The Replacements.

“Who’s Prince?” has been in mind ever since hearing that that he died this past Thursday, just 57 years old. While I’ve spent a decent amount of time since college updating my musical knowledge (to the point where I convince myself that I can write knowledgeably not only about a well-established legend like Bob Dylan but an up-and-comer like Jason Isbell), all that backtracking never took me down a road that led to Prince. It’s not that I don’t appreciate his brilliance — as a guitarist, songwriter, singer, producer, etc. But I responded to Prince’s work much the same way I respond to operas: with admiration, but without understanding or love.

Prince performing in 2008
Prince performing in 2008 – Creative Commons (Penner)

So my experience of Prince’s death and the subsequent outpouring of emotion has been much like that of NPR reporter Sarah McCammon:

…as flashes of purple filled my social media feeds from friends mourning Prince’s death, I just felt numb – and like an outsider, watching a ritual I couldn’t fully join…. while my friends were quoting Prince lyrics and reminiscing about going to Prince concerts, and strangers were gathering to mourn in Minneapolis, I just felt… like I was peering in the window of someone else’s wake. My friends were all in the same funeral procession marching by, and I was standing by watching.

Unlike McCammon, the Christian home I grew up in wasn’t charismatic or especially legalistic, and pop music never became the source of secretive rebellion that it became for her. (For that matter, she at least listened to Christian stars like Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant; not me, to the enduring amusement and/or envy of some of my Bethel colleagues.) But I think her conclusion points to an experience that is still familiar to most of us with evangelical backgrounds:

After Prince’s death, and Bowie’s a few months ago, and Michael Jackson’s several years back, I recognized, cognitively, their importance. I felt sympathy for my friends who felt their loss. But mostly, I’ve felt isolated from all of you who share these ties, and regret for what I missed. These cultural figures don’t just speak to us as individuals; they join us together as a community. They create touchstones –without which, it’s easy to feel like an outsider.

Arguably, the sensation of being an outsider — of being “in the world, but not of it” — is a defining tension of evangelicalism. Unlike some of our fundamentalist, radical Reformation, and monastic brethren, we’re leery of disengaging from secular culture. But most of us emphasize personal holiness as a kind of set-apartness, and our gatekeepers keep us hyper-vigilant about the dangers of secularization and accommodation. So it can feel like we’re striving both for immersion and distance as we move through culture.

Trending searches on iTunes this morning - all are Prince or songs by him
Trending searches on iTunes this morning…

So it’s been fascinating to read evangelical reflection on Prince. Not surprisingly, most want to remind everyone that he was actually a person of faith. (Though this might be the one and only time that evangelicals embrace someone who became a Jehovah’s Witness.) Those who are thinking more deeply about his body of work attempt to convert it from a celebration of sexual freedom to something else.

No one goes for it, in this respect, more than worship pastor Mike Cosper, who first plumbed the connections between sexuality and spirituality and then marveled at Prince’s creative abilities:

In a secularized world drained of spirituality, Prince appeared to be an outlier, a magical person, a visitor from either a past or future where spirituality remained vibrant and mystery abounds. His public persona was a curated effort at sustaining that sense of possibility. It’s no wonder his work featured sexuality so prominently: Sex is one of the few places that a secularized imagination maintains space for the possibility of transcendence….

Prince’s life should remind us Christians of how truly wonderful it is to be human. He wasn’t actually more than human; but neither was he mere dust, or the product of a million cosmological accidents resulting temporary consciousness and animation. He was, instead, an image bearer, one who so clearly reflected the Creator’s own jaw-dropping creativity and power. The monstrous sounds Prince unleashed into the world came from hands that were fearfully and wonderfully made. He was a creature, as in a creation, and he lived a life that echoed the new-making work of God in the new-making work of his art.

They’re not unconvincing arguments. Nor do you have to be an evangelical to make them. (See Touré’s op-ed in the New York Times, on “Prince’s Holy Lust.”)

But they’re the kinds of arguments that I would reach for. For people who genuinely loved Prince and found joy and (yes) pleasure in his music — for the people who made pilgrimages to Paisley Park, who danced all Thursday night at First Avenue, who are spending today listening to The Current play through Prince’s catalog alphabetically (currently at ‘P’) — I suspect that they would sound like the arguments of an outsider, who still can’t love something worldly except at a distance.

Here, as in so many other situations, I think that evangelicals need to resist the urge to explain and instead embrace a ministry of listening.

2 thoughts on “On Prince, Evangelicalism, and Being an Outsider

  1. Did you know that Prince got married (one of the three times) at evangelically-oriented Park Avenue Methodist Church in Minneapolis? It was all very hush-hush with a canopy extending from the church door to the curb where Prince’s limousine would park. That was back when a number of Bethel faculty attended there. (I don’t know if that is still the case.)

    This is one time when I will have to disagree with you, Chris–and with some of the people you quote. I remember when there was a “Prince store” Uptown (near Hennepin and Lake Avenues). I wandered in one time and hurried out as quick as I could. The ethos of the store, like Prince’s music, was erotic in a fairly extreme way. I guess in my dotage I’m returning to my Pentecostal-Holiness roots or they are growing stems and branches in me.

    I am of the opinion that our current crop of evangelical young people are increasingly discarding traditional sexual norms (and I don’t refer only to Puritan norms!) and divorcing sex from biblical fidelity so that almost anything goes. I attribute that much to the music they grew up on. At least in the 1960s and into the 1970s the lyrics were somewhat veiled. I honestly never knew what most of the lyrics of the pop bands I listened to (against my parents wishes) meant. I found out later and was shocked. (E.g., Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman”).

  2. I, too, am unfamiliar with Prince or his body of work, both from my method of upbringing and my own personal taste.

    Were you able to read some of the comments on the NPR article? Many of them ran along the lines of “Oh, you don’t know / don’t like [X]? You were brought up in a conservative household? Your mind must be warped by fundamentalist religious indoctrination!”

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