“The message matters, my brother.” Prince Rogers Nelson (Notorious; Issue #4, p.88)
The eulogies are pouring in as one of the greatest musical innovators of our time has taken his final bow. Bands around the world are playing tributes, artists and program hosts are granting interviews or opening shows lauding his talent and influence with praises befitting a messiah, and Saturday Night Live redesigned the entire show yesterday (4/23/16) to be a commemoration of his life and performances. A senator from the Purple Rain’s star’s home state—Minnesota—has even introduced a bill to make the hue the official color of the state.
Ironically, perhaps his only equal when it comes to moving the needle on the proverbial phonograph of pop culture—David Bowie—also shocked the world with his untimely death just over three months ago.
First, credit where credit is due: Prince’s talent was immense. Because of the spirit and the themes of his music and persona, I was never a fan. Quite the opposite—I produced a number of documentaries dusting pop music for the fingerprints of evil spiritual influences and always found Prince to be a fertile source of evidence. Nevertheless, as a writer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, performer, innovator, cross-musical-style virtuoso, impresario and champion for the artist and the art in an often corrupt industry, Prince may have no living peer.
From an eternal perspective, however, his life and talent are also are also a cautionary tale as to where genius can lead when untethered from the “ancient paths” (Jer. 6:15-16) and left to pursue a combination of eroticism, a “follow-your-heart” brand of spirituality and a fascination with speculative, apocalyptic, “Biblical” (so-called) prophecy.
Raised a Seventh Day Adventist, Prince Rogers Nelson was—to use Flannery O’Connor’s useful phrase—ever the “Christ-haunted” artist. Imagery from the Bible, particularly the books of Genesis and Revelation, were frequent themes in his music. The problem is that he merged them with his other primary—at least for the first and most influential half of his career—channel of spiritual/mystical enlightenment: a form of sex magic that would have made the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley, proud. I won’t take the time or defile the reader by quoting lyrics or linking to videos documenting his many debaucheries. They are legion. And legendary.
Another destructive aspect of the sexualized world he fashioned with his lyrics, concerts and persona was the manner in which it rabidly set out to destroy the “male and female He made them” (Gen. 1:27) binary that God wove into the fabric of human ontology in relation to our capacity and call to image our Creator.
Quoting, for example, a Washington Post article describing Prince’s impact on fashion:
“With his frilly shirts and velvet suits, his brocades and silks, Prince played with gender stereotypes and moved us to reconsider our relationship to our own sexuality. He used fashion as an aphrodisiac. It was foreplay and after-glow — and the divinely sweaty middle.”
In his song Controversy he asked, “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” On 1984’s I Would Die 4 U, he sang back, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand.”
Again, the Post:
Using the classical, Greek definition of the word—that is “entrancement, insanity; any displacement or removal from the proper place”—a state of “ecstasy” is precisely what he helped Western culture attain. Less than a generation after Prince—and David Bowie—began to fly their androgynous, ambi-sexual freak-flags high, a majority of their audience has seen their worldview concerning gender and human sexuality turned on its head.
Another area of concern were his not infrequent professions of love and respect—even devotion—to the person and ministry of Christ. “What’s wrong with that?” some will say. “Isn’t that a good thing?” Well, not when they are juxtaposed against the celebration of the very sins that Jesus came and died to atone for and from which to set us free.
Take, for example, what may be his most straight-up Christian song, The Cross. Lyrically and musically? A lot of CCM artists should do as well. The problem lies in its context. On the album in which it appears, Sign o’ the Times, The Cross is nestled in with fifteen other songs, many of which celebrate fornication.
When Prince toured to support the album, The Cross (at times rephrased as The Christ) stood out as the spiritual high-water mark of the concert. Introduced with references to “the greatest man who ever lived” and backed with a gospel choir, he performed the song reverently and gave every impression of really believing in what he was singing about. And I’m not doubting that on some level he did. But then in the next breath, he would segue to a another song from the album like “U Got the Look,” featuring some scantily clad female singer (often Sheena Easton) that Prince would proceed to seduce on stage, thrusting his hips while singing “If love is good, let’s get to rammin’.”
This type of cognitive dissonance was something Prince raised to a sick art form. And only God knows the extent to which his audience was seduced into what may well be the single greatest spiritual problem among “Jesus-loving” theists today: that mental assent to His Godhood, atoning death and resurrection is all that is necessary to be a Christian and go to heaven…that obedience to His teachings—particularly in regard to sex and gender—is optional.
Prince certainly seemed to indicate it was.
In fairness, it’s reported that around 2000—right after partying like it was 1999—he became much more serious about his faith and began to tone things down, even renouncing some of his earlier lyrics and antics. (Sadly, this was brought about, in part, by his becoming a member of the quasi-Christian, anti-Trinitarian Jehovah’s Witness cult.) And since then he has periodically used his platform as a mega-star to share cautionary advice about the misuse of language, sex, intoxicants—among other things—as well as the need to embrace virtue, love and God.
For this we should be thankful.
But even then, the dissonance continued to flow. In 2007, he appeared before a live audience of 140 million people during the Super Bowl and put on what many consider the greatest halftime show ever. But he still couldn’t resist using a prop he employed to much effect two decades before. Back during the 1980’s Purple Rain tour he performed with a guitar that would ejaculate, squirting water out of its end during the climax of “Let’s Go Crazy.” Same guitar, but he did away with the ejaculatory feature for his Super Bowl performance of the song. But still the large, flowing beige sheet was brought out so that the shadow portion of the routine lived on.
And the message remained clear.
Since Prince’s death last Thursday, I have read and listened to a lot of tributes to his life and “ministry.” (All art is spiritual; a lifting of the curtain to see what, if anything, lies behind mere appearances. And the artist’s job is to minister what he or she sees to their audience. Prince understood this better than most.) The overwhelming chorus? Prince encouraged me to be true to myself. To follow my heart…push boundaries…to be proud and let my freak flag fly. To, as President Obama gushed in tribute, be a “strong spirit (that) transcends rules.”
To which the Prince of Peace Prince claimed to love and follow would declare:
“If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:24,25
As His Purpleness has gone to appear before the One who both declared and then lived and died for the nearly opposite worldview Prince’s followers have gleaned from his life and music, I pray that by God’s grace he didn’t, as his chorus plead, “die without knowing the cross.” And that neither do his acolytes.