Prince, who died three years ago this month, has been heralded as an epic singer, songwriter, producer and performer. But a new adjective is being added to his name — theologian.
A St. Paul seminary has launched a project called the Theology of Prince, which explores the spiritual influence of the artist better known for his music than divine inspiration. What started as a contest to reveal how Prince influenced fans’ spiritual lives has resulted in a nearly 400-page online Theology of Prince journal, an online gallery, and educational events now and for the future.
“Even though he sold more than 100 million records and won seven Grammy Awards, little is known about the impact religion and spirituality had on his [Prince’s] music and artistic expression,” said Pamela Ayo Yetunde, an assistant professor at United Theological Seminary in St. Paul, who heads the Theology of Prince committee. “Yet who has not had a ‘holy’ moment listening to one of Prince’s songs or attending one of his concerts?”
As Prince fans across the globe prepare to mark the anniversary of his death on April 21, the project becomes particularly timely. Yetunde views it in the context of expanding theology to the contemporary, not just theology based on older or ancient texts but unfolding in the world today.
Lisa Myers is among the students at United Theological Seminary excited about the project. She never considered Prince anything but an amazing musician. Then she began paying closer attention to the lyrics and symbols of his songs.
She recalled the opening lines of “Let’s Go Crazy,” which start “Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today, to get through this thing called life.” Of course it’s a great dance tune, she said, “but the message that you really need to celebrate life, to sing and to dance and to appreciate it, really struck me.”
Likewise in the song “When Doves Cry,” Myers said doves are a common religious symbol. And the refrain “how can you just leave me standing,” spoke to her as a reminder to reach out to the vulnerable.
The project began in 2017, when Yetunde launched a contest to encourage seminary students to share what they’ve learned spiritually from Prince’s work. That contest was expanded to the public the next year, and people from across the country submitted essays, poetry, artwork, photography and more.
The result is the Theology of Prince Journal; the final pieces went online in December. It features heartfelt stories of Prince’s unexpected legacy.
“He made me feel it was cool to be a Christian,” wrote Thenisha Smith, of Fort Worth, Texas, one of many contributors. “His music shaped the music I prefer to worship to. … The free will concept, that you have a choice, was another element that helped shape my spirituality. Love for everyone is the message both Prince and Jesus left for us.”
As purple fever spread through the Prince fans at the seminary, a tour of Prince’s Paisley Park home and studio was arranged for students. A gallery of student artwork dedicated to him was created and posted on United’s website.
Some churches also were intrigued. First Christian Church of Minneapolis invited Yetunde to speak at its “Justice, Renewal and Theology of Prince” event in 2017. Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis has invited Yetunde to discuss Prince’s theology in September.
“It really piqued my curiosity,” said Bryce Hamilton, a leader at Plymouth Congregational who approached Yetunde about speaking before a Sunday service. “I think people will be interested.”
Yetunde said a reoccurring theme through much of Prince’s work is that the end of the world is near, and that we must be prepared for it and be saved.
“The Book of Revelations was a defining scripture for him,” said Yetunde. “He believed in the second coming of Christ, and it would be a violent coming.”
Yetunde is not the first scholar to explore the spiritual influence of Prince, who was an active Jehovah’s Witness. But it’s an underdeveloped area for serious theological exploration, said Yetunde.
Since Minnesota was Prince’s home, it only makes sense that a Twin Cities seminary would take the lead on this, she said.
With the success of the project, Yetunde said she will be teaching a class next year called “Contemporary Theologians, the Lyrics of Prince and Poetry of Audre Lorde.” She’s open to other venues for sharing Prince’s theological legacy.
“The project tapped into the passion and love that people have for Prince,” Yetunde said. “It offered a forum for that passion and love, and for what that meant to their spirituality.”