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. On the surface, few in this 95-member conservatively dressed, middle class suburban congregation look like they've ever danced to 'Let's Go Crazy."
The story notes that the movement is "often derided in the mainstream," which makes these believers feel "defensive about that lack of understanding." Hold that thought.
The CNN team also did a fine job of noting how faith issues were a constant in Prince's life, even before his adult baptism into the Jehovah's Witness faith in 2003.
Prince Rogers Nelson, born in Minneapolis, was raised Seventh Day Adventist. His early lyrics, while overtly sexual in nature, had tinges of spirituality. On an appearance on the The Tavis Smiley Show in 2009, Prince claimed spirituality touched him as a young child.
"I was born epileptic. I used to have seizures when I was young," he told Smiley. That epilepsy was cured, Prince said. How? Because as a child, he told his mother, "an angel told me so." Prince also told Smiley he doesn't recall that conversation with his mother.
"I like to believe my inspiration comes from God," Prince told CNN's Larry King in December 1999. "I've always known God is my creator. Without him, nothing works."
So what is the controversy here?
At the very end, the CNN features deals with one of the controversies linked to this religious movement -- a well-known doctrine linked to medical care. A key figure in this discussion is James Lundstrom, a member of this Kingdom Hall who had been one of Prince's friends in the faith since 2002. The story noted that Lundstrom serves as a "Jehovah's Witness hospital liaison committee representative in Minneapolis." This is crucial.
Unique to this faith the position is needed in a religion that carries a very specific requirement -- allogeneic blood transfusions, often required during major surgeries, are prohibited. As a hospital liaison committee representative, Lundstrom connects members of his faith with doctors who will honor that blood transfusion requirement. ...
Lundstrom, who said he last saw Prince a month ago at a church service on March 23, bristled at a question about Prince's medical condition. "He was at the Kingdom Hall. He looked fine, talked fine," said Lundstrom.
Other parishioners offered more blunt pronouncements about Prince and an alleged aversion to surgery on his hips because of Jehovah's Witness beliefs about blood transfusions.
"Nobody said he (Prince) couldn't get surgery. Absolutely not," said David Osburn. Osburn, who said his own sister did die in 1979 because she refused blood transfusions, argues today's surgeries are often compatible with Jehovah's Witness beliefs.
"We're not anti-medicine. In fact, we go out of our way to try and find the best medical care we can," said Osburn.
Those who have studied church-state law in American life know that the Jehovah's Witnesses have played a crucial role in testing the limits of religious liberty, because of this teaching that many would argue creates a clear threat to life and health. However, it's important to note (as many judges have) that the Witnesses have long cooperated with researchers on ways to improve low-blood-loss surgery techniques. Thus, this story included that unexplained reference to "today's surgeries" often being compatible with this faith.
So what is the missing controversy? Simply stated, we are talking about the doctrinal clash that caused so many GetReligion readers to send me emails after that Washington Post headline that said (and continues to say, without a correction), "Raunchy Prince was actually a conservative Christian who reportedly opposed gay marriage."
Thus, the question: Are Jehovah's Witnesses really "conservative" Christians?
The Los Angeles Times team covered that same service at the Kingdom Hall near Prince's home. However, it's report included a crucial chunk of material that CNN missed. At least, it's crucial material if readers want to know why millions of traditional Christians consider Jehovah's Witnesses to be heretics.
Let's walk through this:
Over the final decade of his life, Prince worshiped here because he was a fellow believer in the Jehovah's Witness tenets: that Jesus was a savior but was lesser to God, that these are the final days of civilization, that the dead will be resurrected, and that the world will live under a global government lead by Jehovah, a Hebrew name for God. Among the St. Louis Park congregation, Prince wasn't a celebrity but an equal in faith.
So if Jesus is, by nature, a lesser being than God the Father, that would mean what? Later, there is this:
Prince was one of America's most notoriously private celebrities, and few facts about his life were more beguiling than his conversion in 2001 to Jehovah's Witnesses, a faith not recognized as Christian by Catholics and Protestants largely because Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in the Holy Trinity.
Jehovah's Witnesses call themselves Christians, and they admire Jesus, but they don't venerate the cross and don't celebrate Christmas or Easter — or birthdays. They don't gather in churches but in Kingdom Halls. They avoid political involvement and refuse to fight in wars.
Most church historians use the term "sect" to describe a new religious movement that changes a crucial doctrine in the faith from which it has emerged. Belief in the Trinity is certainly a doctrine at the core of, well, Trinitarian Christianity.
The Los Angeles Times team managed to add a bite or two of information on this issue without distracting from the central point of its story, which was to give readers a glimpse of this hidden part of Prince's life. The CNN story was just as solid in accomplishing this main goal, but its producers -- as often happens -- elected to punt rather than deal with this one somewhat complicated doctrinal detail.
Why? Who knows.
For example, Jews and Christians clash -- to say the least -- when they discuss doctrines describing the identity of Jesus and his role in the Godhead. Would journalists be tempted to say that Christians are "conservative" Jews? I think not.
In this case, God is -- literally -- in the details.