Prince, Michael Jackson, and Martin Luther: Reformation Sunday 2019

1999-Allen-Beaulieu-3-e1568149271130.jpg
John 8:31-36

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

I was dreaming when I wrote this; forgive me if it goes astray. 

But when I woke up this morning, could’ve sworn it was Reformation Day.

Well, my friends, here we are for another year — celebrating the five hundred second anniversary, as it were, of the Protestant Reformation, started by Martin Luther, whose name we bear whenever we refer to ourselves as Lutherans. Luther: the monk, scholar, and pioneer who utilized the technology of his day (namely, the printing press) in order to get his ideas out there and to change the course of history as we know it. 

Today, I also want to talk about faith and technology and pioneering and reformation via another pioneer who used the technology of his day: the artist, as it were, formerly known as Prince. 

Whether or not you were alive and aware of pop music in 1982 doesn’t matter, because unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past thirty years, you know this little clip of music. [Click here to listen.]

That drum machine. That blast of sound. It’s iconic. And it’s also musically groundbreaking in ways that I didn’t quite realize until this week. 

No, this isn’t a setup to a joke about partying like it’s 1517. 

All of this information comes from a little podcast called Switched on Pop, which I highly recommend. This week’s guest was Anil Dash, who usually appears on a tech podcast called Function. This week, however, he joined Switched on Pop to talk about his Prince fandom.

You see, that blast of sound and those drums didn’t just come out of nowhere. Prince was fond of using drum machines, at least in part because he didn’t have to worry about contacting actual drummers while he was working in the studio at 3AM. In 1982, before the release of “1999,” he had one called the Linn Machine 1, or LM1. It was created by Roger Linn in the 1970s in order to produce “the most faithful sound” — in other words, it was supposed to mimic actual drums. 

It’s what Prince did with it, however, that made both it and the song groundbreaking. He turned the knobs of the LM1 too far intentionally — much further than the inventor, Linn, intended. The result, as you can hear on the track “1999,” wasn’t the sound of real drums — it was the sound of otherworldly drums. You might even call them futuristic.

From there, Prince added an Oberheim synthesizer and also cranked it up further than anyone else was doing at the time. His goal: to stretch his audience. To be innovative. To figure out what was possible. The result, you’ve already heard: the song “1999.” It was his breakout, iconic single, and one that expanded his audience and launched him to the iconic status that he has today. The song even had a revival naturally, as the new millennium approached almost twenty years ago.

The freedom Prince had with music was based on his knowledge of music and his willingness to take what he was given and innovate. He pushed and expanded and changed the face of music.

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

Someone else heard the song “1999” when it was first released in September 1982. That person, naturally, was Michael Jackson. At the time, he was working on a track called “Starlight,” which was a synthy, soft rock song. Now, you’ve probably never heard a Michael Jackson song called “Starlight,” unless you’re as big a pop music nerd as me. Well, there’s a reason you’ve never heard it. 

You see, when Jackson heard the wall of sound in Prince’s new song, his competitive edge hit him. He also wanted something that sounded like a wall of sound, something iconic, that would make history and help change music forever. The result of this musing, you also know — you may have even heard it recently, as it’s a Halloween mainstay.

[Click here to listen.]

And all of this came from pushing boundaries far past what was originally intended, to include more sounds, louder sounds, bigger sounds. It was, in its own right, a kind of musical reformation that would shape pop music for the rest of the 1980s and beyond. 

My friend Kimble, a UCC pastor, describes theology in different traditions like a stereo. The Presbyterians turn up the knob on God’s sovereignty, while the Episcopalians might turn that one down a bit and turn up sacramental theology. Well, my friends, Martin Luther takes the “grace” knob and turns it way further than anyone had before 1517, and he changed the course of history. He rejected the idea that the clergy nor the institution of the church was the sole arbiter of grace, and he really rejected the idea of the church selling indulgences, or the forgiveness of sin for a price. And so, that fed up monk wrote a little document called the Ninety Five Theses, and depending on whom you ask, he either nailed it to the door of a church or mailed it to the church authorities, but either way, the rest is history. 

Now, this is not to denigrate our Catholic neighbors, of whom we have many. It’s not to denigrate the members of your families who may be Catholic. Christians of all types have tended to take that “truth shall make you free” passage and use it to feel smug, but that’s not the intention. Luther, before all hell broke loose, didn’t intend to create a new church with his 95 Theses, and everything he was saying was originally in an attempt to reform the church he loved so much. Nothing he said was actually all that contrary to Catholic theology; in his view, he was simply calling them back to what he understood the Catholic faith to be. 

Or, as I like to put it when someone tells me they’re Catholic after finding out I’m a Lutheran: “Ah, well, what’s a little damage to a door five hundred years ago between friends?” 

The gist of what Luther wanted to get across wasn’t so much Lutheran as it was just Christian, even if he did crank grace knob all the way up to eleven: the Gospel is a story about God, and salvation is an act of God. By grace we are saved, through faith. 

If Prince produced a wall of sound that hits your ears, Martin Luther produced a wall of grace that hits your heart. He cranked that knob up further than anyone intended, except for Christ himself. 

There is nothing you can do to earn God’s love; you can only live in response to it. 

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Just before that line, when Jesus says “If you continue in my word,” it’s important to note two things: first, that the word translated “continue” is really “abide,” and that when Jesus refers to the “word,” he’s not talking about the Bible since, you know, the New Testament didn’t exist just yet. When the writer of John pens this line in the eighth chapter of the Gospel, he’s calling back to the first chapter: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). What Jesus is saying is “abide in me,” live in me, and I will make you free indeed.

My friends, on this five hundred second anniversary of the Reformation, I want to posit this: that, just like art, and music, and science, and our own lives, faith and theology are dynamic, not static. A healthy faith is always growing, changing, re-forming, discovering new things, all while holding to the core truths that set us free. After all, in music, basic music theory isn’t going anywhere, but in the right hands, some amazing things can happen that would blow the socks off Mozart himself. 

The color for Reformation Sunday is red with the Holy Spirit’s dove logo for a reason, you know: that the Holy Spirit, wild, untamed, creative, is always doing a new thing. The same Holy Spirit that first whispered in Luther’s ear to turn that grace knob all the way up is here today, whispering in our ears, too, if we know how to listen. And while we may have changed some things since 1517 that Luther did not intend and would not recognize, the creator of both faith and music, wild and untamed, is unsurprised. 

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

The truth is that we are saved by grace, by God. Set free from having to earn God’s love, we are free to play, to create, to fail, to learn, to experiment, to grow. And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in the next year as we undertake the synod’s Forward program and look not with fear, but with, creativity at our future. And the Holy Spirit will be there, too.

It’s Reformation Sunday, folks. So turn it up. Amen.

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