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Katy Perry: Spiritually-led life is religious, but not?

Katy Perry attends on day 1 of the Capital FM Jingle Bell Ball in London, England
Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Reading a Jan. 23 blog about entertainer Katy Perry on Religion News Service (RNS), one can’t help but wonder whether this popular singer, had she been born in a different century, might have been a great worship leader, by the standards of early Christians (before everything became so formal and predictable).

According to a noted religious historian, Alexander MacDonald, Christian worship in its classic period (until after the death of the apostle Paul) was “enthusiastic, in the full religious sense of the word: it was God-inspired, Spirit-filled ... belief in the Spirit as the dominant operative influence in worship was cardinal.” MacDonald says the influence of the Spirit was experienced as early as Pentecost, when the disciples felt “a new power working within them.”

This power took various forms: some gained the ability to speak in tongues, called glossolalia; others received the gift of prophecy. Paul, in his letters of First Corinthians, lists other types of gifts, including giving wise advice, studying and teaching, healing the sick, doing miracles, and preaching. Of course, not all of these would routinely appear in a worship setting; they might occur, instead, outside the meeting place, in the course of a typical day.

So how does that connect with Katy Perry? First, a little about her early background: she’s the daughter of two Pentecostal ministers, was raised in Santa Barbara, California, and once recorded her songs on a Christian record label.

According to RNS blogger Laura Turner, one of Perry’s recent songs, “Spiritual,” combines references to traditional Christianity–including speaking in tongues–mysticism, and Buddhism. “That seems not to be too far from Perry’s own take on spirituality,” says Turner.

Turner goes on to say, “[Perry] believes in ‘a cosmic energy that is bigger than me,’ although she has abandoned many of the teachings of her parents. (‘I do not believe God is an old guy sitting on a throne with a long beard…I don’t believe in heaven and hell as a destination.’)” So that’s Katy Perry, “spiritual but not religious,” but definitely spirited and nontraditional in the way she approaches life. Rules are out, unconventionality and spontaneity are in.

If one considers historian MacDonald’s description of the first Christians, it wouldn’t be unusual to jump to the conclusion that some of those early believers may have had something in common with Perry.

MacDonald, for example, talks about the style of leadership demonstrated by these Christians, concluding that the apostles and prophets who were responsible for governing the church’s affairs were not systematic or methodical types, but rather “men [or women] distinguished for their inspired thought and utterance.” When it came to leading worship services, evidently, individuals of this type favored diversity over “fixed and settled forms of worship,” in MacDonald’s opinion.

For instance, MacDonald says that Paul’s letters describe early Christians’ typical worship meetings: “Some will sing, another will teach, or tell some special information God has given him, or speak in an unknown language, or tell what someone else is saying who is speaking in the unknown language.”

Singing, of course, was certainly recognized as a spiritual gift (another connection to Perry); some think it was probably a part of worship, although this has not been confirmed by historical accounts as unequivocally as one would like. (Perhaps music’s unsavory past, owing to its use in pagan worship, may have been a reason for downplaying it in Christian services.) Another historian, Allen Cabaniss, described one scenario in which singing or chanting took place as a “spontaneous performance by individual persons.” He, too, points to several Biblical references, including Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which seem to encourage “quoting psalms and hymns and singing sacred songs, making music in your hearts to the Lord.”

MacDonald chimes in with his own analysis: “There was in this Spirit-guided worship an ardour, a freshness, a variety, a sincerity, and a creative power, that have sent their pulse-beats throbbing through the worship of the centuries. Because of their experience of the Spirit, these first worshippers felt within themselves that they had access to the living sources of power. They looked on others, plain people like themselves, and beheld them suddenly made possessors of hitherto unsuspected capacities and gifts.”

This doesn’t sound that different from Katy Perry’s belief in a “cosmic power,” and the way she demonstrates her own brand of spontaneity, whether spiritual or show biz-related.

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