Senior pastor of the Bruderhof and social critic Johann Christoph Arnold devoted a recent column on “Remembering the King” recently. No, not that King, but rather Elvis Presley. It might strike some as strange for a writer from a countercultural Christian community like the Bruderhof to be covering a mainstream cultural icon like Elvis (much less a blog devoted to Cardinal Ratzinger), but Christoph Arnold reminds all of us to look beneath the surface:
“Good” Christians often self-righteously dismiss celebrities because they are turned off by the glamour, fame, and excess that surround them. How many remember that behind the frenzied publicity and the scandals cooked up by tabloids is a vulnerable person with emotions—a real person with a heart—and not just a two-dimensional cardboard cutout?1
I had the opportunity to do just that earlier this year. Back in March, PBS television ran the documentary He Touched Me – The Gospel Music of Elvis Presley. Featuring plenty of live footage and interviews with close friends and gospel quartets that backed him up, it chronicles Elvis Presley’s spiritual roots in Southern gospel music and aspects of his life that are seldom publicized — like the fact that he insisted on singing “Peace in the Valley” during one of his appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show (some say it was to “tone down” his rebel image; the documentary claims it was on behalf of his mother), or that after concert performances he would invite his friends to join him in literally all night gospel singalongs.
Shortly thereafter I picked up a copy of “Amazing Grace”, a collection of Elvis’ religious performances (spanning a variety of genres — soul, country, rock, gospel), and I was hooked. The world will remember Elvis Presley for his rock and roll, but from all accounts it appears that there was nothing he enjoyed more than singing gospel. As Gospel Music Association President Frank Breeden recalls:
“After the shows he would routinely sing with the gospel quartets that were used as his backgrounders . . . It was the gospel music that he turned to for inspiration and consolation. He was a person who appeared to be in conflict; he was not doing what he loved for a living … he had a career that had just taken him captive.”2
Or as Cheryl Thurber writes of the “Million Dollar Quartet” (Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash & Elvis Presley) — the recording session at Sam Philips’ Sun Studios in Memphis:
. . . When those rising stars of rock ‘n’ roll sang together the songs they chose to sing were largely gospel songs. It was the shared repertoire that they all knew. They sang other songs as well, such as current rock ‘n’ roll and recent and older country hits, but they seemed to sing more complete versions of the gospel songs. With gospel songs they knew all the words, not just snatches of the choruses. . . . It is clear when listening to the session that Elvis was the dominant force that day — he was the one who started the singing of each song. It is also evident that he enjoyed the singing. This was Elvis having fun. 3
Of course, there are many who — not without reason — see Elvis Presley as the harbinger of moral decay and the corruption of America’s youth. (Fr. Jerry Pokarsky, for example, uses Elvis as a convenient metaphor for the narcissistic character of abuses in the post-Vatican II mass). 4 And by no means should one applaud every star(let)’s excursions into spirituality (I expect Christoph Arnold would have a much different reaction to Madonna’s dalliance with watered-down Kabbalah). But for all of his flaws, and the nature of his tragic demise, there is something about Elvis Presley which Christoph Arnold finds praiseworthy:
here was a unique individual struggling to find his true identity. I am certain that it was through this struggle that God gave him the humor, humility, and kindness that endeared him to millions of people. These traits were even more important than his music . . .
Elvis knew his shortcomings. He was an ordinary guy who battled all the normal temptations. But he also had a vision, as expressed in a comment he made to a reporter:
“I ain’t no saint, but I’ve tried never to do anything that would hurt my family or offend God…I figure all any kid needs is hope and the feeling he or she belongs. If I could do or say anything that would give some kid that feeling, I would believe I had contributed something to the world.”
In other words, for him, relationships were much more important than the glitter, fame, and money he is mostly known for.
I’ll close this little tangent with a quote I found — from an account of one fan’s encounter with Elvis (or rather, a close call with his limo). It may or may not be true, but it’s something I can easily envision coming from Presley:
“I know you consider me your king, but I am not worth dying for, there is a bigger King who is God whom you should be preparing yourself for.”
1. Remembering The King: The Soul behind the Celebrity, by Johann Christoph Arnold. Bruderhof.com.
2. Gospel Music and Elvis: Inspiration & Consolation, by Helyn Trickey. CNN.com. August 26, 2002.
3. Elvis & Gospel Music, by Cheryl Thurber. REJOICE! The Gospel Music Magazine. (1988).
4. Elvis Sightings in the Roman Rite, Catholic World Report January 2002.