Losing Your Life: What Aretha Franklin's Depiction in Respect Reveals about the Gospel

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It is in your lows where Christ has hidden his highest high, eternal life itself.

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25)

Jesus has a way of making provocative statements that are actually observably accurate. Statements you can see the veracity of even if you aren’t a Christian. Although, it is to Christians that God has given the promise tucked away in this pronouncement. More on that later. For now, suffice it to say, hearing Jesus’ urging to hate one’s life may sound shocking on any given Sunday. However, out there in the real world, this dynamic plays out regularly. For instance, in the celebrity who seems to have it all and yet grinds their life down to nothing.

While this phenomenon may regularly serve as the fodder for tabloids, the movie, Respect, refreshingly depicts it with compassion, and considerably more verve, to boot.

Respect is the new biopic of Aretha Franklin’s life. The movie charts Franklin’s initial rise to fame, her subsequent fall, and finally, her return to the foot of the cross. As such, the church and the Christian faith help to frame the beginning and end of this film. And I am happy to report that, on the whole, the depiction is nuanced.

While Franklin’s origin is compelling, the tension of this film arrives once the young gospel singer’s career takes off. While Franklin initially struggles to find her footing in the recording industry, once she finds it, that success takes on a trajectory of its own.

We tend to think professional success is directly linked to personal wellbeing. And while there may be connections, the truth is the thread between these two areas of our life is just that, a thread. What Respect depicts, though, is what happens when these two parts of a person’s life take on an inverse relationship to one another.

At last, by Christ’s death, neither ascent nor descent has any pull on Franklin anymore. Now, Franklin has been pulled into the orbit of Christ’s victory through his death.

The higher Franklin’s career ascends, the lower her personal life descends. It begins with tenuous relationships becoming even more strained. Slowly, even Franklin’s solid and meaningful relationships start to suffer, too. All the while, Franklin is suffering herself. And while Franklin resolutely bears the brunt of her suffering with patience and grace, the movie shows that despite courage and character, like all of us, there is always a breaking point.

So eventually, even Franklin herself suffers the dregs of her personal life’s descent. There comes a time for Franklin where there is no longer any height her career can climb to that can deliver her from the pull of the decline her life is on. At that point, everything Franklin has managed to achieve means nothing to her anymore.

Indeed, Jesus was right. Loving one’s own life too fervently is the surest way to lose it. This is the part of Jesus’ saying that is observable to even the tabloids. What happens next, though, is the type of gospel shock that is only observable through the eyes of faith.

As the movie progresses, Franklin comes to hate her life. For all its charms, none of them are worth anything to Franklin anymore. It holds no promise for her. At this point in the movie, Franklin no longer tries to resist the descent her life is on. Instead, she gives in to it. She even tries to hurry its destruction along.

Once her own life holds nothing for her anymore, Franklin is finally able to receive the promise Jesus packed into the end of his statement. In losing her own life, Franklin now reaches for something else: Christ’s death. In a compelling scene that depicts how true prayer often begins when we find ourselves at the end of our rope, Franklin folds her hands while still gripping the bottle.

And so at this point, the thread between her professional and personal life is indelibly broken, and it’s this rupture which turns out to be the perfect place for Jesus to plant his cross! The miracle of Christ’s death bears down on Franklin’s life in toto. No longer is Franklin doomed to a never-ending life of chutes and ladders. At last, by Christ’s death, neither ascent nor descent has any pull on Franklin anymore. Now, Franklin has been pulled into the orbit of Christ’s victory through his death.

Respect ends with Franklin’s explicit return to the church and her recording of the (still) highest-selling live gospel album of all time, “Amazing Grace.” The path to recording the album is by no means a cleared one, but the corpse of all Franklin’s past triumphs and failures becomes the welcome mat for this new endeavor. Before the movie ends, Franklin has become so free of all the folderol of success and failure that she becomes a preacher herself. She even preaches to her preacher.

I will leave that lovely little turn for you to experience for yourself when you watch this film. Rest assured, though, dear reader, although your life may take on various degrees of highs and lows, it shares the same shape as Franklin’s, the shape of the cross. It is in your lows where Christ has hidden his highest high, eternal life itself. And just like Franklin, Christ intends for you, too, to get pulled into his upside-down realm, the kingdom of God.

Respect depicts this as well as any film. And getting to watch this play out for a couple of hours is not only pleasant, it’s emboldening. If all that isn’t enough, though, and it is a lot, the stellar music is the icing on the cake. It turns out Jesus’ provocative statement is a prelude for some of the best gospel music on this side of eternity.