THEOLOGY AND PRINCE
Theology and Pop Culture Series
Those interested in theology and popular culture; scholars of social justice, racial identity, LGBTQ+ studies, and gender studies; as well as Prince “fams” will find new ways of viewing Prince’s old and new works
Prince was a spiritual and musical enigma who sought to transcend race and gender through his words, music, and fashion. Raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist and later going door-to-door as a Jehovah’s Witness, he expressed his faith overtly and allegorically, erotically and poetically. Theology and Prince is an edited collection on theology and the life, music, and films of Prince Rogers Nelson. Written for academics yet accessible for the layperson, this book explores Prince’s ideas of the afterlife; race and social justice activism; eroticism; veganism; spiritual alter egos (with a deep dive into the dark character of “Spooky Electric”); a queer listening of the Purple Rain album; the theology of the Graffiti Bridge film (featuring interviews with co-star Ingrid Chavez and other collaborators), and a story from Texas of a Christian worship service designed around Prince’s music in the wake of his passing.
WHEN GOD APPEARS EVERYTHING CHANGES
PRINCE & PENTECOST
Rev. Dr. Suzanne Castle
Have there ever been such gloriously true and radically welcomed words as those penned by Prince to begin his anthem Let’s Go Crazy?
Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.
Those words have great meaning to a community of like-minded artists and spiritual journey-ers in Fort Worth, Texas. A group of God-followers, crafting stories of faith that unleash love and creativity into the world, transform the mundane into sacred spaces around the table. This group, affectionately calling themselves REFUGE, and during the season of Pentecost in 2016, crafted a worship gathering in a creative arts studio that bore witness to that radical welcome to gather and get through life. It had been mere weeks since the passing of Prince, and this community routinely created worship that fused cultural realities, stories, music and norms, with the ancient pattern of spiritual life. It seemed only fitting on a holy day, such as Pentecost, to lift up the life of Prince, his fire and zeal.
The beloved of Refuge were focused on God’s fire of witness, service and grace and how those gifts lead one into a new life. In fact, the mantra for the evening became:
We love, radically. We feed, generously. We hope, unabashedly— as we gather on this bit of water and dirt in the grand design of this particular star system, as beloved creatures, and we pull together to do this thing called life.
This becomes the context for this chapter: a creatively quirky sort of church gathering for a high holy day merged with the sounds and words from Prince. I guess you could say that Fort Worth, Texas is not the mecca of places that pop into people’s minds when they consider creative worship gatherings, but this group of justice-minded, culturally-conscious folks are passionate about doing life together. One regular attender routinely described our ragtag fellowship as “the Sunday family dinner version of church…” and so we are. Living life out loud over grand feasts, multi-sensory worship experiences and artful engagements in the community. Often we still refer to one another as “family and Refuge as our home.”
As its curator, my role was to craft engagements in uniquely artistic ways, and so, each month, these souls would gather for activities like pop-up art in the street, starting a robust discussion of culture and church in a local bar, gathering birthday party supplies to hand out at the local food pantry and worship alongside each other. This chapter will focus on how this group of people created a service around theophanic moments with the music of Prince as its playlist. Different aspects of the worship gathering will be highlighted, with anecdotes and musings on the power of the word, music and visual components to create a life where Beloved is the moniker.
WHEN GOD APPEARS EVERYTHING CHANGES
April 21, 2016, started out like any other Thursday with the hurrying up of human children, accompanied by a furry one, to get breakfast down, get in the car, get to school, and start the commute with the pup in the backseat and my tunes blaring. I was listening to my satellite radio, jamming away to some dance beats when I heard that Prince had been found unresponsive in his home. Immediately the channel began to play Prince music, with musings from people calling in expressing their grief. Within minutes my cell phone was blowing up, as the have-you-heard-this and the I-can’t-believe-Bowie-and-now-Prince text messages from friends and loved ones came flooding in. I’m not ashamed to say the death of Prince threw me for a loop, as I knew how actively he was engaged in producing, writing and continuing to push the boundaries of sound.
Somewhere in the midst of my foggy reverie, the sounds of a mourning guitar without a bass line burst through and the goosebumps commenced as one of the biggest hits from the album Purple Rain sang deep into my soul. “When Doves Cry” was able to sound out my grief. Speak my grief into the air. Console and move me when I was still processing the news of yet another death in the music scene that would forever alter how music is woven for years to come. By the end of the day, I was not alone as many of the Refuge people began messaging that we absolutely must begin to consider how to honor the music and movement of Prince.
We began to conspire and knew that May 15, 2016, was the perfect date: a high holy day in the church calendar, Pentecost Sunday, when we would be celebrating the many manifestations that church had taken. Soon, it became apparent to our creative team that a visual symbol of fire alongside a retrospective of Prince’s music would be the way forward. Through his music, fire imagery and liturgical elements we would explore what happens when God appears, most notably through fire, and how nothing is the same afterwards.
THEOPHANY + PRINCE
We dove into our creative assignment with almost a crazed grief: processing, writing, dreaming, imagining, and the project became a balm of sorts to the collective mourning. As we developed our worship imagery, we delved into the nature of theophanic events and explored instances that are not solely limited to the biblical narrative. The reported appearance of God/gods to humans is found in many instances of literature such as Greek myths, and in popular culture, such as the smoke monster that has a special connection with the character John Locke in the popular television series Lost. It was in these epiphanic moments of theological and cultural exegesis that we began to notice patterns of theophany with the works of Prince: his grand usage of pyrotechnics in performances, his word choices of being God in Flesh throughout his body of work, and his wish to be seen as a symbol and not letters constructed as a name.
In the chapter “I’m Your Messiah” author Tourè expounds how Prince regularly writes and sings as if bearing the presence of God to humanity. His ballad “I Would Die 4 U” sings of Prince being a messiah and comes full circle in verse 3:
I’m not a human. I’m a dove. I’m your conscious. I am love.
In the party anthem 1999 the same holy-come-to-earth visions abound as Prince takes on the voice of God and assures us that we won’t be hurt because
I only want you to have some fun
and as Toure explains “[e]ven if you don’t know or notice all the Biblical allusions, when Prince gives us his voice as the voice of God… it subtly acculturates us into thinking of Prince as akin to God.”
It became clear that our playlist would need to craft an arc of celebration, confession and communion for our theme to emerge. We settled on designing our worship around moments of embracing God’s presence in story and how our songs and reflections would move us from despair to hope. We dove into our creative project and prepared, as only mere days were left until our gathering, knowing that “at Refuge, you [are] loved for just being you…” and that we needed to offer space “for people to share creativity and talents….clergy or non-clergy, all are welcome to share their story.”
LET’S GO CRAZY
We dove into our creative process and quickly realized that our space design would be crucial to the overall experience, and so we took our rectangular, strip-mall creative arts studio and made a flattened oval of chairs to encircle the space, with a table as one component of the circular structure, that included our visual monitor, and another table placed in the center, covered completely in various unlit candles of different sizes and colors, draped in shades of red and purple. Being together in a circle seemed most appropriate as we were gathered, anticipating the Holy among us, and holding on to each other in our reality. Around the edge of the chairs, there were large candle stands, filled with lit candles. Being on the inside of a light circle created a deeper mystery that evening, and as one person shared “made me feel as if nothing I was facing in my week ahead could keep me from the embrace of our Creator.” At one edge of our space were red, orange and yellow balloons, strewn about on tables and floors. At another edge were tables spread with the loveliest array of cakes, munchies, olives, cheeses, wine, beer and water. You could not help but walk into our venue with a prickling on the skin, knowing something special was being birthed: “it’s as if we are here to celebrate in our funky way, without the shallow trappings of a funeral or kid’s birthday party.”
Indeed the atmosphere was quite palpable, with people from tweens to the retired buzzing around sharing how the week had gone, plates overflowing with edible delights and the humdrum of electronic funk playing softly in the background. As our team shepherded people to seats, I strode to the center table, raised my wine glass with a warm welcome, shouted “Happy birthday Church!” and then together we clinked glasses as we said “Grace!” Grace as a toast has become a habit of these people; a moment to stare into the eyes of another beloved, share a bit of the pain and joy of the days since we last gathered, and lay over each of us that elusive gift of grace for what has been, is and will be. It’s a redeeming moment each time we gather and the perfect launching point for the experience of Pentecost.
Quickly I sought to share the visuals of what it means to imagine God as a flame/ember/evening fire/roaring fire/wildfire and how this was the image we were holding together for Pentecost. We briefly conversed about how when a flame appears, everything changes: cold becomes warm, the dry brush becomes lit, the dark becomes enfolded in light. Our reflection ensued as we were surrounded in candlelight and a visual screen of a burning car. After a few moments, each of us were invited to consider what in our world needed to be set on fire: expectations, stress, grief, etc., and before we could move on with our being together, we must let those things burn away to be present in the here and the now. In the moments that followed, all that was heard was the churning sound of metal being consumed by fire, as worshippers were left alone with their thoughts.
Without fanfare, a reader began to recite Exodus 3:1-5, altered by the creative team, which ended with the instructions to “take off your shoes… we stand before the fire of God’s presence.” Each person removed their shoes and placed them together near the centered altar table in an act of submission, while each candle was lit on the table. When all was completed, voices shared in a unison prayer of welcome:
The word of the Lord is a fire in my heart and a hammer in my bones.
May the fire embrace us.
May the fire deliver us.
May the fire purify us.
May the fire enliven us.
May the fire roar.
May the fire spread.
Fire of God, we welcome you.
Then our music leader responded: “We are singing the music of Prince, an artist who felt passion deep in his bones, whose lyrics cried out for Presence, Light and Love. Together let us be before our God in a sense of joy, belonging and praise” and the sounds and videos began, calling everyone to praise with Prince’s anthem Let’s Go Crazy. The voice of Prince merging with us, the people, over the church organ and rock band was intense. The song set a deliberate trajectory as we chanted about temptations bringing us down and coming together to a world of joy [where]
you can always see the sun, day or night.
FLAMES OF HOPE AND ACCEPTANCE
The energy was amazing! Laughter abounding, people dancing; the atmosphere was truly electric as joy filled every crevice. The worship leaders took the environment seriously and allowed for it to dissipate at will, slowly, awkwardly in an attempt to place each worshiper in a vulnerable place. As the sounds quieted and people began awkwardly shifting their feet, I invited everyone to take a moment away from the party, and be open about sadness and longing. Clustered in groups of two or three, worshipers began to share their hearts openly as arms embraced, and hands were held. One worshipper noted that encounters like this one “provided me a safe and non-judgmental space to worship despite my faults.” After a few minutes of sharing, the long wailing vamp of When Doves Cry began to fill the space, over which we were reminded that Prince often noted that this song was an anthem for tragedy and loss, and that we live in hope for better days. We also shared how Prince kept actual doves at his home in Minnesota, named Majesty and Divinity. Without fail, each person began to sing along, some with tears welling up. In those moments it seemed that joy and sorrow could easily commingle, for we were not alone. As the song ended, and our voices drifted away, silence was shared for one minute, with nothing but the sounds of a fire crackling. A small dove fluttered on a dark screen with the words:
be with the Holy in silence as you consider the flames of hope
Once again a reader began to recite scripture, this time using Isaiah 6:1-7 from The Message Bible and inviting us to reclaim our shoes and put them on. Afterwards, we were invited to write on a piece of paper, something we were holding onto that created guilt and unease, and place it in a large glass cylinder. The reflection was composed to use magician’s flash paper. Using this special paper would allow us to ignite it into a brilliant flame when touched by a lighter, without any residue left behind. When everyone had completed placing their papers into the container, I lit them on fire, and after they disappeared, recited: the fire of God’s acceptance.
It was a powerful moment. We had just heard how the seraphim had flown near the lips of the prophet Isaiah and cleansed Isaiah’s sins with a warm coal. Without any shame-speak or yelling, a simple reflection allowed people to consider the power of God’s flames to bring hope into any situation. The youngest worshiper present that evening recalls this service as a reminder that “worship doesn’t have to be in a church; and you don’t have to be a part of a certain community to be welcomed. Everyone comes just like they are and it’s beautiful.”
LIVE 4 LOVE
The Voice is an English translation of scripture by the Ecclesia Bible Society that gathered Bible and language scholars, other writers, poets and artists to create a Bible that seems like a story, often in a screenplay format, including narration and notes. The creative team decided its rendition of the Acts 2 Pentecost story was appropriate, and thus we gathered a narrator, three Pilgrims, three Skeptics, and a person to portray Peter in a reader’s theater format. Each character was given a sign to wear with their “name” on it, and they clustered around the center altar for the reading of the passage. Surrounded by candles, balloons, and a video monitor with flickering flames, the reading challenged us to harken back to a chaotic day, when there was great mistrust among different people groups, and political chaos.
The sermon began with me reading my blog post ”Dearly Beloved,” paying tribute to Prince after his death:
Surely it can’t be true. Hours after the news has broken that the artist known as a symbol and a name, Prince, died of complications from influenza I’m still in shock. I’m in a haze.
I don’t know if it is because of my cultural icons that were formative in my growing up years are leaving the planet, or if it is because I’m feeling my age, or if it is because we are a culture obsessed with anything BUT death, but I’m in a funk… and not the kind Prince and the Revolution played.
Have there ever been such gloriously true and radically welcomed words as these:
Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.
What a way to gather people. What an invitation to be who you are. What a simply perfect phrase to even out the playing field of the game of life.
Here we are, gathered on this bit of water and dirt in the grand design of this particular star system, beloved creatures, and we are to pull together to do this thing called life. To love, radically. To feed, generously. To hope, unabashedly.
For today, it was nice to hear Prince tunes and memories instead of the political nonsense. Today, we the beloved, gathered. And it was holy.
Of course I had to recognize that we had learned, in the weeks since his death was first reported, that Prince died of what was likely an unintentional drug overdose of Fentanyl. It was important to share the pain management realities so many were facing, and the hard effects on loved ones.
The sermon waxed and waned from images of fire and chaos, to the relief of community to hold all things together. “How can we expect for the social landscape of pain, loss, and confinement to cease, when we are too busy hoarding our love? Silos of love won’t last, and will indeed grow darker and darker unless we unleash our love as the only thing that will help life continue to prosper as the beloved of God, beyond our own agenda, our own family, our own ways.” Each movement was building upon the thought that when God appears, everything changes. Throughout, anecdotes of Prince were peppered, to lay the groundwork for sharing a song that would bring the community to the Table of Love, our communion feast.
GHETTOES AND FLOWERS
One of Prince’s least performed tracks, The Cross, became a seminal component of the gathering created for Pentecost. Originally this song was part of the triple-album anthology that was to be titled Crystal Ball, but the project was pared down and became one album entitled Sign O’ the Times released in 1987. Our team found it interesting that in later years, after Prince found the Jehovah’s Witness tradition, Prince would change the title of this song in the few times he performed it live, and would refer to it in a set list as The Christ.
As the sermon wound down, and I invited the hearers to consider how God’s embers were burning in the least likely places of the nooks and crannies of our lives, I turned to begin sharing how God’s grace is there, even when we seem surrounded by darkness, chaos and upheaval. “Even Prince,” I continued, “did not go spouting the name of his God from stadiums and clubs, but nevertheless, had a way with language to create imagery that carried you into his deeply held beliefs that God always shows up, your life changes and redemption becomes your mantra.” In those moments, the video began in the quiet and the lyrics to this song were passed out among the celebrants, as each person was asked to reflect on how relief comes among God’s blessing, when you unburden yourself of the chaotic norm and instead become a part of something bigger than the one. For this, I preached, is the Pentecost reality: “to recapture a sense of the light of God within you and others, that builds together and warms a world so ready to throw you away.
And the song began. And we collectively smiled through our tears as his voice tore through our reality and moved us into the realm of God:
Ghettos to the left of us
Flowers to the right
There’ll be bread for all, y’all
If we can just, just bear the cross, yeah.
And when the song faded off, and our tear-stained lyric sheets put aside, a member of our team stood among us and invited us to be witness to the flame of the Holy inside each of us, ready to be reignited once more as the agents of hope to the world. Her brief communion meditation forced us to consider the role we would each play to represent the realm of God to the world: so as we feed on the gifts from God, we go and gift back to the world. As we prepared to gather around the table, we shared this version of the Lord’s Prayer:
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and for ever. Amen.
Slowly, as I Would Die 4 U began to croon in the background, worshipers gathered together in
the center of the flame-edged circle to partake of bread and wine, hugs and tears, hope and
Mystically, communion was finished before the song completed, and suddenly voices filled the space as together, unexpectedly we had our own Spirit-bathed moment. Each of us began to jump into the final stanzas of I Would Die 4 U, and before long the track wasn’t heard, but only voices singing together:
I’m not a human
I am a dove
I’m your conscious
I am love
All I really need is to know that You believe
Yeah, I would die for you, yeah.
Slowly we unwound from our unanticipated visit from the Holy, assured of hope, and together we ventured to a prayer station of balloons. In this area of the room, we were asked to jot down a hope we had and to pray over that hope. Then I gave our final blessing:
God is not about ashes but newness, and we are embers of grace and hope.
As people prepared to continue in fellowship, asking questions about what schedules were ahead, considering jobs and school, each person was asked to take a balloon that held someone else’s hope, and attempt to unleash that hope into the world in some way during the week. Stories emerged of individuals’ favorite Prince songs, and many more recollections of how his music had been an important part of our lived reality. One such worshiper noted later that “worship at Refuge brought what seemed purely secular into the realm of the sacred in creative ways that helped me to see and understand that all is sacred.”
DREAM, IF YOU CAN, A COURTYARD
In retrospect, as the curator for this experimental fusing of Prince and liturgy, I wish I had been exposed to some of the findings in his vault that are just now coming to light. How powerful would his own words have been as a piece of the sermon with his own “sermon” originally streamed in 2000 but largely unheard until it was re-released online by Revolution Television in 2017? His prelude to One Song includes his own theological exegesis of the power of choice and the impact our choice to love would have on the world as we begin a new era: 2000. He states that the world needs to be brought out of its man-made state of “chaos, disorder, and illusion,” and then claims to have the answer:
Returning the leadership back into God will allow mankind to achieve its original collective goal, which is union with God. Ideas contrary to this goal should not be blamed or persecuted – just simply ignored.
And two-thirds of the way through his exploration, Prince sings in a theophanic interpretation as the voice of God:
I am the one song
And that one song is free
All things come from this one song
The garden and the tree.
As one of the co-creators for this service asserted, “[this] church unleashed the creative spirit with amazing worship that deepened the spiritual connection with God!” Sharing our powerful testimony of the encounters we have with the Holy One gives access to what some deem the mystical and unbelievable realm. Could we imagine that courtyard, gathered together, where dreams collide in never-ending happiness, where 200 balloons go up, where the great tree shades all under her branches as we feast together, sharing our love without limits and singing of the One-Who-Lives?
"Theology and Prince is a rare punch of pop culture scholarship--impeccably researched and head-noddingly insightful but packaged in a pair of purple leopard-print spandex pants. This is a book about Prince told from the perspectives of people whose lives would not have been the same without him. It’s touching, personal and gosh-danged funny. It pulled me in and shook me out, much like the way Prince still draws me in from whatever funky galaxy he’s currently gracing with his presence. Prince lovers, lusters, likers and the Prince-curious, this book is 4 U."
"Prince is perhaps the most singular pop musician of his generation, and his unapologetic faith marked him as a transgressive for both the music and church worlds. Theology and Prince assembles an array of brilliant voices to illustrate that Prince was not liminal but creative….You hold a book that may very well inspire you to see possibilities where before there were only borders and boundaries. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to party like it’s 1999"
"I love how each chapter was unique."
"Brilliant advice throughout the book for wherever you might be on your speaking journey."
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