By Thomas Kincaid
Aretha Franklin died August 16, and the world lost one of the great preachers of the gospel. Let me explain.
In his 2010 book To Change the World, James Davison Hunter argues that Christians have thought of “work and social influence” in three main paradigms, all of which he finds unhelpful: (1) “relevance to”; (2) “defensive against”; (3) and “purity from.” Hunter’s treatment is extensive and extends well beyond quick summations, but in short the three labels adequately represent the three paradigms.
Some Christians seek to make their work relevant (1), some seek to defend their work from outside influence while using any public platform solely for evangelism (2), and some see work “outside the church [having] little or no significance beyond their function to provide for one’s needs (3) (p. 248). Hunter documents Christians’ history of “parallel institutions” — parallel publishers, colleges, music producers in their efforts to remain faithful (p. 286).
Hunter points out the ineffectiveness of these paradigms and institutions. His assessments seem broadly accurate to me (although I take issue both with some of his specific diagnosis as well as with some components of his overall prescription), and his vision for what a more faithful (and effective) practice of the arts in particular seems helpful. He writes:
In the visual arts, literature, and music, the first challenge is to simply demonstrate a commitment to excellence in aesthetics (the theory of art) and in the production of artifacts of art generally. I say this is first because such a commitment among Christians generally has been weak over the past century, and among Protestants all but absent. The obligation among artists who are Christians is, among other things, to demonstrate in ways that are imaginative and compelling that materiality is not enough for a proper understanding of human experience; that there is durability and permanence as well as eternal qualities that exit beyond what we see on the surface of life. … In the process, it is possible to symbolically portray possibilities of beauty and fullness we have not yet imagined. (p. 265)
Against this backdrop, I want us to think about Aretha Franklin and her vocation.
Franklin started as a gospel singer. She was trained at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, which her father led. Her song “Mary Don’t You Weep” is plainly as good a Holy Saturday sermon as there is.
What most people in the world know Franklin for is her secular anthems. There are certainly glimpses of the gospel here. One doesn’t have to listen to “Respect” too closely to think of a certain kind of Christian feminism. But plainly, Franklin’s public vocation was more along the lines of what Hunter was suggesting. Franklin didn’t seek to make explicit gospel themes relevant, nor simply use her public platform to evangelize, nor did she work to make sure all her music was absolutely pure from secular influence.
But in an age when it’s common to see what Hunter identifies as mainstream culture makers look askance at Christians, Franklin’s New York Times obituary made significant mention of her deep faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In a time when Christians are tempted to keep their commitments private — or, in some ways just as troubling, to seek vocational expressions that are only for fellow believers (Hunter’s parallel institutions) — Franklin stands out as a Christian who remained a significant contributor to a nation’s culture.
How much poorer would we and the cause of the gospel be if Franklin had just stayed in the explicitly Christian world? How much poorer a singer would she have been? How much smaller would her witness be? In some ways, these are unanswerable questions. But Hunter’s right (in at least this case): Franklin became a better singer and was a better servant of God by exercising her vocation more broadly and avoiding a “for Christians only” subculture.
She certainly knew she was a woman in need of a savior, as is every saint. May she rest in peace, and rise in glory.
One further application. At the parish I serve (Church of the Incarnation in Dallas), we have about 1,400 folks in worship on a given Sunday, split just about evenly between very traditional and contemporary eucharistic worship services. Last summer, we were looking for a new contemporary music worship leader, and we wanted someone who was a blatantly and obviously committed Christian, but who also was active in mainstream music.
Why? For two primary reasons, both of which show up in Franklin’s life: (1) Some of our experience had been that musicians who only do Christian music lack the rigor imposed by the larger community (see the extended quotation from Hunter). Thus, they tend not to be as good. (2) We wanted this leader to model a vocation of using these gifts in the wider world.
We settled on a terrific new musician, Becky Middleton. In this recently released single, you can hear not only her talent, but how she weaves Christian imagery in a secular text (our historic chapel at Incarnation makes a cameo). Not only is such an approach evangelically powerful, but the connection between real human experiences and Christian imagery is helpful to the already converted when artists like Becky, in Hunter’s words, “symbolically portray possibilities of beauty and fullness we have not yet imagined.”