My role as musical journalist is immediately nullified by the majesty of Whitney Houston’s voice. No amount of technical knowledge or clever rhetorical ability will capture what the world already knows: It will be a very long time until any comparable singer rises to the stratosphere of American pop music. Through her unforgettable performances, she gave the world the gift of a gaze into greatness. She touched millions of people, without relying on sexual suggestion or marketing gimmickry to sell herself. She used only her voice and charisma. It is heartbreaking that she, in the end, could not find the joy in her life that she gave to millions of people with her music.
Still, many may reflect on Houston’s life through the cynical lens of scandal and failure. She had her share of both, to be sure, and no one has to live with the painful fallout more than her mother and daughter. But she also had a life in which she comforted and consoled not only her fans, but her friends and family, with a humor and grace guided by her faith. Anyone who has followed the wall-to-wall media coverage following the untimely death of Whitney Houston has been reminded of what many fans and followers may have forgotten as they watched her soar to mountainous heights in the music and movie businesses. She was a devoted Christian whose mother, the great gospel singer Cissy Houston, raised her in the church, and whose friends, especially the Winans family, continued to shape and form her faith as she became a superstar.
All people wrestle with demons—some deadlier than others. Her earthly struggles of the flesh may have cost her her life, but that does not mean her spirit cannot live eternally, or that her spirituality in life should be called into question.
On Saturday, Feb. 18, Whitney Houston’s family and friends gathered at the Baptist church where she first sang in Newark, N.J. They said goodbye and celebrated her life. They reflected on the gifts that she gave them and the world: her wonderful music, her kindness, her generosity and her love. Filmmaker Tyler Perry spoke about the strength she showed when candidly discussing the self-inflicted hardships of her life, and how she would always turn back to a reaffirmation of her faith in God. BeBe and CeCe Winans laughed through tears as they remembered her surprising them with stage clothes for their first tour. She justified the expense of the wardrobe by asking: “We’re family, right? You’re broke, right? I’m rich, right?” and then said, “I love you.” Kevin Costner recalled trading stories about their childhoods in church on the set of The Bodyguard. He spoke compassionately about her insecurities when preparing for a screen test, and spoke admiringly about her charm, warmth and faith.
It was Pastor Marvin Winans, however, who made it unmistakably clear in his eulogy that Whitney Houston had one more gift prepared for the world when she made her passing. Praising Cissy Houston’s decisions to hold the memorial service for her daughter at the New Hope Baptist Church and allow television cameras access, he said, “You brought the whole world to church today.”
In honor of the songstress, millions of people watched a four-hour broadcast of a rousing and riveting service of Christian grace, strength and joy. In a culture where Christianity is too often tarnished by figureheads caught in scandals of hypocrisy, and in a society where religion, of all kinds, is too often transformed into a cartoon of ignorance, Whitney Houston’s funeral was a blessing.
My great friend, Edward R. Ward, a Catholic priest, theology instructor and terrific author, makes the point that religion’s harshest critics often identify the worst element of a church, doctrine and faith, magnifying and scrutinizing it, while neglecting to acknowledge the enormous history and philosophy they’ve left behind.
The going home service for Houston showed the world the best of Christianity. The world saw a community gathered in the friendship of mourning. The world saw the passion of praise put into the gospel music that informed the pop sensibilities of Houston. The world saw artists of excellence, such as Tyler Perry, Kevin Costner, Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys, lift their voices and elevate their talent to honor their lost friend and their living God. The world saw a message of inclusion, unity and mercy. Pastor Winans addressed the popular misconception that a life of Christian service is boring and mundane, and the behavioral choice for those who “have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.” He recited John 10:10, shouting the words of Jesus, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”
For decades, Whitney Houston gave the world a vision of greatness, and a performative magic both mysterious and miraculous. Though her own life saw its share of darkness, her passing set a stage for the sharing of light.
David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books). He is also a columnist with PopMatters. For more information visit www.davidmasciotra.com.