One of America’s most celebrated - and most tormented - vocalists has passed away at a tragically young age. It will likely be a few weeks before the exact cause of Whitney Houston’s death at age 48 is made public, but that won’t stop millions from drawing their own conclusions. Her struggle with addiction has been well documented in the press - including a return to rehab last May - and the rumor mill abounds with stories of erratic behavior and a disheveled appearance just hours before her body was found Saturday afternoon. Interestingly, one of the most consistent and well-documented rumors of her last days is that her final performance seems to have been an impromptu duet with Kelly Price at a Los Angeles nightclub singing none other than “Jesus Loves Me,” the gospel standard she recorded for the multi-platinum soundtrack to The Bodyguard in 1992.
Houston ruled urban and adult contemporary radio in the 1980s and '90s with her untouchable voice, as well as her larger-than-life diva persona. Her songs, often supplied by the best songwriters in the business, tended to toggle between uber-romantic meditations on passion, sex and love (“Saving All My Love For You,” “You Give Good Love”) and feel-good inspirational anthems that could easily be considered secular hymns (“Greatest Love of All,” “One Moment in Time.”) She had a history and a relationship with gospel music and faith that informed her work and endeared her to her fans, yet she mostly steered clear of specifically Christian ideas. She deftly referenced these in the service of deeply intimate inter-personal love songs.
That pattern changed in 1996 with her starring role in The Preacher’s Wife, the soundtrack to which includes Houston collaborations with gospel legends Shirley Caesar and the Georgia Mass Choir, among others. Even this blatantly spiritual collection, however, opened with “I Believe in You and Me,” one of the strongest examples of her ability to use sacred imagery in the service of very human sentiments.
That her final public performance may have been “Jesus Loves Me” is fascinating, indeed. But what it means, if anything, about her personal spiritual beliefs and commitments is ultimately known only to her and to God. Even so, after her many years of very public bouts with substance abuse, addiction and toxic relationships, it is certainly cause for comfort that her final hours included those simple, but powerful lines: Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.
Jesus’ love is truly the greatest love of all. The Bible is his authoritative Word. But as much as he loves us we all face the consequences of our actions. Addiction is a deadly and powerful disease. Those untouched by this particular serial killer may never fully understand the way it drives self-destructive behavior in a way that is much more powerful than rational thought or personal will. Addiction chemically re-wires the brain, driving people to engage in behaviors they desperately want to avoid. Lasting recovery requires careful rehabilitation, psychological care and spiritual healing, as well as participation in healthy, life-giving community. It can be extremely difficult - even impossible - for celebrities to find those kinds of relationships.
Even when full recovery is achieved - which is tragically rare - people often face the long-term physical and emotional repercussions of their substance abuse. If Whitney Houston succumbed to this disease, she would be in the company of millions of others, including many faithful Christians. Faith alone doesn’t remove us from trials and consequences in this life. If our Christian culture comprehended that and lived out a resultant life of more generous grace, patience, mercy and love, then maybe fewer people would get pulled into the nightmare of substance abuse and addiction in the first place.
Whitney Houston’s talent will live on. That she had to endure such a long battle with addiction is dispiriting indeed. Hopefully she is now resting whole in the arms of God.