The death of Aretha Franklin on August 16 gives us reason to pause and consider the real meaning of transcendence as it emerges and appears in lived human experience, and how that transcendence gives tangible substance to our Baptist faith and belief in the saving power of Jesus Christ.
To speak of the transcendent is to gesture towards one of the more abstract concepts in theology and Christian faith. Volumes have been written about it by systematic theologians, and it continues to preoccupy our attention even in this increasingly secular age. Practically though, it speaks to the lives that we live and the journeys that we take as we seek purpose and meaning for the time that we have on this earth.
Aretha was the “Queen of Soul” because her voice and her musical phrasing – and the spirit that both articulated – reached something deeper in all of us; and she did it in a way that really no one else with her talents ever did. That is the gift of music. It connects us to that which is beyond us, and it puts us in touch with a power that truly can lift us far beyond the space that our physically body occupies. It can heal our hearts and soothe our souls. The reason why music has always been so central to our religious expression is because of its unparalleled power to aid us in our efforts to understand and appreciate the one who Anselm referred to as “that than which nothing else is greater.”
Aretha was raised in the Black Church, and she was raised by a man who was arguably one of the greatest preachers of his generation. C. L. Franklin was a singer and a preacher who was perhaps most well-known for his “whoop”; but in fact, the substance of his sermons reached as deep as the melody of his songs. At its best, the Black Church experience has provided a training ground for those seeking some sort of purpose and meaning that stretches past the mundane struggles of daily life and circumstance. C.L. Franklin spoke about it on a regular basis.
Aretha learned about the transcendence of God in the institution that has always professed to be the “house of God.” She learned about the transcendent, she sang about the transcendent, and in doing so, she nurtured a faith that by all reports sustained her through the rest of her life, and most directly as she dealt with the series of health challenges that marked its latter years. It is also true that her experiences as a daughter, a mother of four and a twice-married woman were as messy and tragic as her music was beautiful.
I will always draw lasting homiletic inspiration from listening to C. L. Franklin’s sermons, but we know that he was a serial philanderer and a child molester, fathering a daughter with a then-12-year-old girl who was a member of his church in Detroit. Aretha was a motherless child by the age of 10, a mother herself by the age of 14, and she ended her first marriage after reports of being victimized by domestic violence. Her second marriage was done after six years.
“Aretha learned about the transcendence of God in the institution that has always professed to be the ‘house of God.’”
And yet, she transcended all of this, never losing hold of the powerful connection that had been nurtured in her father’s church. She transcended all of her father’s failings, seeing to his care for five years until the day that he died after he was shot by a robber and left comatose. She transcended all of the difficulties of her romantic life, and raised her children with the help of extended family. Her status as a queen was earned with a fortitude and a faith and a determination to overcome a set of circumstances that would have left many other people broken beyond repair. Had her soul not been nurtured in Detroit at a young age, I honestly wonder if Aretha Franklin would have ever been a household name.
“It is not insignificant that her passing comes just four months after we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
It is not insignificant that her passing comes just four months after we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This post-biblical prophet was a visitor to her father’s home, and Rev. Franklin was a staunch supporter of King’s campaign for civil rights in Detroit and around the nation. It was King’s witness that demonstrated to us the real claim that the transcendent power of God makes on our lives if we sincerely profess a faith in Jesus Christ. Aretha was asked to sing King’s favorite hymn, “Precious Lord,” at his funeral, cementing her connection to one who knew God in a profound and transformative way that will impact every generation to come.
The Bible teaches us that we have a treasure in “earthen vessels.” Such vessels are fragile, their beauty is fleeting, and their longevity is finite (even though the expiration date is uncertain). But in as much as we make contact with God’s transcendent power and find a way to articulate it and embody it with these vessels, our living will most certainly not be in vain; and when the angel of death comes for us one day like the angel did for Aretha last week, we will move from transcendent to transcendent, we will move from seeing Jesus in the spirt to seeing Jesus face-to-face.
May the soul of this queen rest forever.