From die-hard fans of Aretha Franklin’s music to casual observers of her life and career, a wide range of viewers will be pleasantly surprised by National Geographic’s next installment of its Genius series, Aretha, released this month. The series explores the intimate details of Aretha Franklin’s life and the unique circumstances that gave rise to her undeniable musical genius.
Much like Nat Geo’s creative retellings of Einstein’s and Picasso’s lives, Suzan-Lori Parks’ biopic of Aretha Franklin is about the human behind the icon. But on a much deeper level, Aretha is not simply about the woman behind the music. It’s about the church beneath the woman. It’s about the community of faith that gave birth to and served as the center of gravity for a young, black, female artist whose music simply cannot be separated from the gospel that permeated the core of her being.
Most viewers will already know and appreciate Aretha Franklin’s music, from her chart-topping singles to her best-selling live gospel music album, Amazing Grace. But few of us know the personal narrative that transformed the precocious pastor’s daughter into one of the most iconic figures in contemporary musical history, including the fact that the church is so central to her story.
Aretha is rightly understood as the “queen of soul” because, just like the musical genre she came to define, her own soul was inextricably intertwined with the great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1) who constantly surrounded her, advocated for her as she broke down racial, sexual, and musical barriers, and actively sustained her as she persevered in the face of extreme adversity.
Parks doesn’t paint a sacrosanct portrait of the church, in large part because that wasn’t the church Aretha came to know and love. But neither is it a scandalous or unflattering picture of church life. Rather, the series offers a far more honest and complex depiction of the people of God—one that doesn’t ignore our undeniable flaws yet highlights the underlying goodness, truth, and beauty of what it means to share life together as Christians. In doing so, Aretha offers a more nuanced and human picture of the body of Christ.
Early in the series, as Aretha (Cynthia Erivo) struggles to find her groove with a group of white male musicians that producer Jerry Wexler has brought into the Muscle Shoals recording studio, she lays down a few bars on the piano for a new arrangement she has in mind. Upon hearing her off-the-cuff yet mind-blowing chord progressions, one musician perks up: “That, Mrs. Franklin, is an unknown chord. … Whatever it is, it’s funky.” Another immediately follows, “It’s celestial.” Aretha simply replies, “It’s both at the same time.”
“That was the genius of Aretha Franklin—putting things together that seem at first not to go together and to do so in a way that is as elegant as it is beautiful,” said Parks. “It’s the musical version of Einstein’s E = mc 2.”
A true artist can imagine ways in which two ideas that seem to be in opposition or fundamentally at odds with each other can actually work in concert when brought together, breaking reality open in ways previously thought unimaginable.
Just as Nobel prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek suggested in his work, A Beautiful Question, these realities may very well be the only ones that really matter. For instance, reflecting on the seemingly incompatible but ultimately complementary paradigms proposed by Einstein and Niels Bohr, Wilczek notes that “ordinarily the opposite of a truth is a falsehood. Deep propositions, however, have meaning that goes beneath their surface. You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.”
The creative tension that animated Aretha’s life and artistry cannot be understood as a mere feature of her music. It is, rather, the manifestation of wisdom—a deeper form of truth that emerges from its opposite.
As the series unfolds, it becomes clear that the deeper paradoxical truth that permeated Aretha’s life is the same truth that permeates ours. The community of faith that caused so much of the angst and turmoil she experienced in her life was the very same community that served as the site and source of her musical inspiration.
Her charismatic father was a compelling preacher and a constant advocate for his daughter’s talents. He was also an overbearing stage parent and a womanizer. Her sisters were both the best backup singers in the business and the mothers who helped raise the children Aretha birthed while still a child herself. And the musical director who was unceremoniously thrown out of her father’s church served as a loving and gracious pastoral presence who created space for Aretha to experience healing and restoration after long seasons of struggle and doubt.
What makes Aretha’s relationship to the church so beautifully complex is that it embodies a deeper truth that we so often struggle to accept. As members of this dysfunctional family, we can and should be critical of our collective failures, constantly seeking to root out the hypocrisy, idolatry, and pride that have unleashed numerous injustices on the world.
But also as family (Matt. 12:48–50), Christians do not have the option of giving in to despairing nihilism about the church, because this group of siblings also happens to be the primary object of God’s redemptive project (Eph. 5:21–33; 2 Cor. 11:2–3). Yes, the church is profoundly flawed. But the church is also central to God’s work in the world. It’s both at the same time.
As much as it pains me to witness followers of Jesus (including myself) continually do things that grieve the heart of God, I can no more disown the community of faith than I could my biological family.
I am the proud father of three musically inclined daughters. When I first played Aretha Franklin’s greatest hits album on the vinyl turntable that we recently inherited, from the moment the needle touched down on the record’s surface, it was as if they had been introduced not merely to a brilliant vocalist but to an entirely new way of being in the world. They of course had no other choice but to dance.
Due to its mature themes and adult subject matter (the series is rated TV-14), I wasn’t able to watch Aretha with my young daughters. But as I binge-watched through scenes of young and old Aretha belting out gospel music first in her father’s church and later in The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts (a Los Angeles neighborhood), I realized that the series had left me with the same sense of longing that I felt when I watched my daughters dancing exuberantly to Aretha’s music just a few days before. That sense of longing can be described fairly simply: I miss church. I especially miss the music.
After a full year of lockdown in Southern California, I yearn for the day when my daughters can once again dance up and down on the old, creaky, wooden floors of our small church as we gather together—young and old—to give voice to the gospel. I long to hear the celestial funk that comes about only when our battered, bruised, and beautiful souls are able to meet, mingle, and merge in a collective chorus of voices. When music is turned outward from ourselves and toward the others in our midst—our neighbor, our sister, our brother—that’s when we become two or more gathered in his name (Matt. 18:20).
While watching Aretha, I came to realize what I missed most about church: the chorus of the saints that brings us together through the power of the gospel. It underscores every episode of the series. Even in those moments when it isn’t obvious because it doesn’t come fully into the plot’s foreground, the church still serves as the background condition for all that transpires in the show. In other words, at one and the same time, the church in Aretha is both deeply flawed and absolutely necessary. That paradox is the deeper proposition—the deeper truth—that lies just beneath the surface.
“The church is what [Aretha] always returned to. It was her home. It was her family,” Parks told me. When she lost her way in life or in music, she returned to the church as a source of spiritual and artistic strength, offering her resilience. “You cannot tell the story of Aretha Franklin without telling the story of her church—the community of faith and family of origin that made her genius possible.”
A church like that sounds downright celestial. It’s also pretty funky. Better yet, it’s both at the same time.
Kutter Callaway is associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and co-director of Reel Spirituality. His most recent book is The Aesthetics of Atheism: Theology and Imagination in Contemporary Culture.
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