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.”

Yes, it is an early report. Nevertheless, here is your basic Jehovah's Witness reference, a passing remark that is even more shallow than the norm.

But later in the story, whether the left-coast Times team knew it or not, there was this interesting and highly relevant information:

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is assisting the local sheriff’s office in trying to determine whether Prince used painkillers or other controlled medications that should have been obtained from a licensed doctor, or were improperly prescribed to him, a law enforcement official told The Times.
“The question is how did [Prince] get the drugs -- or did someone bypass the prescription process. Doctors are permitted to dispense but only subject to stringent requirements,” said Harry Nelson, an L.A. attorney who counseled two of Michael Jackson’s doctors following the singer’s death.

Why is this relevant? Check out this short statement of Jehovah's Witness basics, in response to the question, "Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Accept Medical Treatment?" This is the complete article:

Yes, Jehovah’s Witnesses accept medicine and medical treatment. While we try to take care of our bodies and maintain good health, we sometimes “need a doctor.” (Luke 5:31, Easy-to-Read Version) In fact, as was the first-century Christian Luke, some of Jehovah’s Witnesses are physicians. -- Colossians 4:14.
Some treatments conflict with Bible principles, though, and we reject these. For example, we don’t accept blood transfusions because the Bible forbids taking in blood to sustain the body. (Acts 15:20) Likewise, the Bible prohibits health treatments or procedures that include occult practices. -- Galatians 5:19-21.
However, the vast majority of medical treatments do not conflict with Bible principles. Therefore, personal choice is involved. One Witness might decide to accept a particular medicine or treatment, while another Witness might reject that same treatment. -- Galatians 6:5.

So what if Prince, wrestling with pain caused by years of over-the-top stage performances, was given legal pain killers that were -- according to his faith -- either perfectly acceptable or were, note the reference to "personal choice," were in a gray doctrinal area linked to the conscience of the individual believer.

But then the pain went on and on. At some point, Prince faced a choice.

Consider this passage from a long New York Times story about the superstar's final days:

[Prince] held three concerts in Canada before returning home on March 23 and attending a service at his Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, dressed in a suit and tie, his hair slicked back.
Prince was baptized into the faith in 2003 under the guidance of Larry Graham, a bass guitarist whose band regularly performed with Prince and who moved his family to Minnesota to be near the entertainer. As a witness, he would go door to door with a fellow congregant in their three-suburb territory, quoting the Bible and introducing himself as Rogers Nelson.
“He was very into spiritual things,” Mr. Graham said. “He already had been interested in the Bible and a love for God.”
Associates said that Prince’s dedication to religion, in addition to his commitment to pure living, may have contributed to a sense of shame about his growing dependency on medication.

Note that powerful word "shame," a term that is familiar to any believer who has struggled to follow the doctrines of a demanding faith.

At this point, reporters could pursue an important religion story, centering on the tragic death of a complex celebrity. That's an option, here. Right?

It's crucial to stress that all kinds of religious believers struggle with addictions and behaviors that cause them shame -- from workaholism to pornography, from video games to binge eating, from alcohol to, yes, pain killers. Some of these stories are tragic, some are triumphant and some are both, at different times in a struggling person's life. Sin is real.

This is what St. Paul, who knew a thing or two about thorns in the flesh, was talking about in Romans 7:15:

"I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."

In this case, it isn't enough to say: Just do it.

Does anyone have the time to cover this story? Just asking. This story is bigger than Prince, and that's saying something.

FIRST IMAGE: Screen capture from a YouTube video. The YouTube video contains excellent concert images, as well as cheesy, out-of-date opening remarks. Have patience.

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