Faith is in details: Tragic death of Prince is a story about fame, health and, yes, religion

Faith is in details: Tragic death of Prince is a story about fame, health and, yes, religion

So the news is out that Prince died of an opioid overdose, if a quote from an anonymous law official "close to the investigation" can truly put this kind of information on the record.

That makes the death of this hard-to-label superstar a health story, which means -- since we are talking about a practicing Jehovah's Witness believer -- that his tragic death is also a religion story.

So as you look at the updated news reports on Prince, it's logical to see if they contain (a) references of any kind to his faith and (b) material about ways in which the practice of his Jehovah's Witness faith may have affected his struggles with his addiction and the physical pain that drove it. Believe it or not, the basic Associated Press story ignored all of that.

There are two potential levels of faith content. Reporters can simply say, Prince was a Jehovah's Witness, they are strange religious people who believe strange things about health issues (think a rejection of blood transfusions) and, thus, his beliefs helped cause his death. Or, (b) it would be possible for reporters to talk to experts on this faith, ask specific questions about the legal and illegal uses of certain kinds of drugs, and then let readers wrestle with the results. As you can probably tell, I am pro option (b), since I love journalism.

So here is what readers are given by The Los Angeles Times:

According to authorities, Prince was last seen alive at 8 p.m. April 20, when someone dropped him off at Paisley Park. The musician was apparently left alone that night, without staff members or security.
Prince, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, was “a very private person,” said Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson. “I don’t think it would be unusual, for him to be there by himself.”

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CNN offers fine look at Prince the believer (while missing a key Jehovah's Witness belief)

CNN offers fine look at Prince the believer (while missing a key Jehovah's Witness belief)

It is perfectly normal for mainstream journalists to have to explain complicated subjects to their readers. It's part of the job.

At the moment, political reporters are trying to explain the differences between country-club Republicans, libertarian Republicans, neoconservative Republicans, Log Cabin Republicans, culturally conservative Republicans and Donald Trump. This is tough work. A few years ago I read a newspaper story that managed to explain the off-sides rule in soccer. Amazing!

But when it comes to stories that involve religious doctrine, journalists often stumble or punt. How many solid articles have you seen that explained the crucial doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims?

This brings me to two news features about the final years of Prince, the time in which he retreated even further from public view after joining the Jehovah's Witnesses. CNN offered a fine piece, but omitted a crucial piece of doctrine at the heart of controversies about this religious movement, which many Christians consider a sect or even -- in doctrinal terms -- a cult. The Los Angeles Times, however, managed to give readers a short description of this doctrinal clash.

The CNN piece was quite solid in its fine details about the singer and the believers who knew him as another believer in their flock. Here is the overture:

(CNN) The world knew Prince as a pop star with a flamboyant, larger-than-life stage presence, overtly sexual songs and videos and gifted musical genius. But at the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall, St. Louis Park congregation, Prince was just an understated man in a simple black suit.
"He was exceptionally shy," recalled congregation secretary Bruce McFarland.
Here they called him Brother Nelson and remember him slipping in after the opening song in the Sunday morning service, dutifully holding up his hand, clutching his Bible marked with post-it notes, patiently waiting his turn to discuss the Scripture.

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The artist named Prince: Was he ultimately a rebel for, or against, the Sexual Revolution?

The artist named Prince: Was he ultimately a rebel for, or against, the Sexual Revolution?

So, in the end, was Prince Rogers Nelson a hero of the Sexual Revolution or someone who, as he grew more mature, was a heretic who -- in the name of a controversial faith -- rejected many of the sexy doctrines he previously celebrated?

I'm not sure that there's a definitive answer to that, especially when talking about someone as complex as Prince (or TAPKAP). But I do think that it was crucial for journalists to let their readers know that this was an important question to ask.

In the first stories about the artist's death, the emphasis was totally on Prince the gender-blurring hedonist. But as the day went on, a few counter themes began to emerge.

You could see the struggle (and that's kind of a compliment) most clearly in The Washington Post, where the first news reports about Prince were baptized in his sexy '80s glory, while a sidebar openly discussed changes linked to his decision to join the Jehovah's Witnesses.

In the final obit, the Post team hinted early and, at the very end, mentioned that many seemed afraid to mention. Here's the solid lede:

A musical chameleon and flamboyant showman who never stopped evolving, Prince was one of the music world’s most enigmatic superstars. He celebrated unabashed hedonism, sang of broken hearts and spiritual longing and had a mysterious personal identity that defied easy definition.

The obit hit all of the fine details of the sexy Prince, from erotic guitar eruptions to skimpy costumes. It was difficult, at times, to tell what was happening when, in terms of his music and stage personas. If he never stopped evolving, then it's crucial to be precise about the young prince vs. the mature Prince.

At the very end, the news story offered this:

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