On second guessing Elvis

“You want a piece of me?” asked Britney Spears. In so doing, she spoke for every celebrity.  The thing about fame and celebrity is that everyone wants to claim some kind of connection with the singer, actor or sports star.

Elvis is of course the ultimate king of celebrities whose fame has lived on long after his death. So, no surprises then that the 45th anniversary of his death has been marked by a flurry or articles and interviews as people seek that special connection.

He’s even got us Christians at it.  Premier Christianity Magazine offers the headline “The Christian Faith of Elvis.”  The writer argues that

“There is no doubt that his first flush of fame took him off the narrow path. He always acknowledged, however, that his voice was a gift from God. In later years, as he matured and began to reflect on his purpose in life, he became convinced that he was to use his voice to sing of God’s love, goodness and mercy. He had many times in his later years expressed his desire to perform a full gospel concert, and at the time of his death, plans were in hand for this to happen.”

Yes of course there are question marks about his life

“but it depends which part of his lifestyle you are referring to. If you mean his dependence on prescription drugs, his immoral sexual activity, unhealthy eating habits and his occasional temper tantrums, then yes, his lifestyle was out of step with his faith commitment.”

However that must be balanced against the religious aspects of his life from his love of gospel songs and his knowledge of Scripture through to his generosity.  And yes, we can also find examples of him talking about personal faith in God.

Now, let’s be clear at this point, you and I do not know whether or not Elvis at some point repented of his sin and put his trust in Christ. We do not know if he is now in heaven.  It is entirely possible that he did this. We have a wonderful, gracious and loving God who pursues the lost sheep and brings them home.  My concern here is not to attempt to prove that Elvis definitely wasn’t a believer.  That’s not the point or the problem. Indeed, if the author had written that “yes we know about Elvis’s failings but we cannot second guess the great pressure that fame put on him” if it had warned us of the danger of judging and then if it had pointed us to the wonder of the Cross and Gods mercy in Christ then it would have been spot on but probably wouldn’t have got so many clicks. 

The problem I have here is that there is at times in our Christian subculture a need to join in the scramble to buy a piece of celebrities and claim them as our own.  Whether it’s the need to shoe-horn in a reason for us to write about a contemporary issue (and thank you Premier for giving us bloggers just the excuse to do that) or it’s the hope that by claiming this or that famous person we will somehow make Christian faith more credible, persuasive, cooler, I think it’s a trap most of us at some point have been drawn into.

However, when we do that, exactly because we cannot see into people’s hearts and exactly because what we do know publicly ranges from unclear to problematic we can end up making the mistakes I think the article is falling into.

First, we can end up playing down the problematic bits.  I think the paragraph above does that. It downplays sin as being “occasional temper tantrums” and just a small aspect of a person’s life.  I’ve read the paragraph through a few times and I don’t think it comes any close to grasping the horror, the ugliness, the destructiveness of addiction, unfaithfulness and temper.  Sin is played down and excused.

Secondly, we compartmentalise things.  Did you spot that. We were asked to treat the bad aspects of Elvis’ life as something we can look away from and ignore. It is presented as something separate. It’s as though Elvis lived two entirely different lives and we can ignore one of them.

Thirdly, it then sets up a calculation.  The sense we get is that yes there were bad things bout Elvis but when we revisit them in the light of the good then they are outweighed by it.  Sure, Elvis had a temper and was sexually immoral but that’s just one side of the scales. On the other side, we have his generosity, his prayers for others to be healed and his planned Gospel concert.

The risk is that because we don’t actually know whether Elvis had a true life changing, eternity altering encounter with the Gospel, we instead have to hunt around for scraps of religious faith in order to claim him.  And all we have when we do that is a form of religion which is popular but it isn’t the Gospel.

Now this matters because the dangers we see in an attempt to assess a public persona are exactly the same dangers we face in our own lives. We are tempted to compartmentalise, to live two lives, one where our faith is lived out and the other where it takes a back seat. This is I think a particular challenge for men. We are very good at putting our lives into different boxes.  The most tragic example of this I’ve witnessed was a man leading a church kids club before going back home to pack his case and leave his wife and children.

We are tempted to excuse and play down our sin, to lose sight of its ugliness. We are tempted to treat our lives as a balance sheet and hope that God will look favourably on it and the end and decide that the good just about outweighs the bad.

We need to be reminded that this isn’t the Gospel. And that’s good news. I don’t need to excuse my sin because God in Christ chooses to declare me justified. I don’t need to keep up the pretence by putting up the walls to keep the compartments in place because when God breaks in, he shines his light on every part of my life so that he can flood the whole of me with life and forgiveness. I can know his grace and the fulness of the Holy Spirit reaching every nook and cranny, deep into the inner most places. I don’t need the weighing scales to balance out sin versus merit when Christ has cancelled the debt I owe in its entirety.

It also matters because we kid ourselves that celebrities will save the church. As I said before, we rely on these pseudo testimonies from prominent people in the hope that it will make the Gospel more popular and credible.  However, that simply doesn’t work.  People haven’t bene sat at home saying “You know what I’m not going to go to church because of Cliff Richard, he’s just a cheap British imitation of the real deal … now Elvis, that changes everything.”  They are pretty much unbothered and unmoved. In fact, they just see us playing the same game, trying to own Elvis and use him for our agenda. 

It’s better than that though. Not only do the celebrity testimonies not work but we don’t need them either.  Earlier this year I argued that we weren’t dependent on the Queen’s testimony when sharing the Gospel, nor are we dependent on “the king.”  Who needs to take people via the King of Rock and Roll when we can take them direct to the King of Kings.

So, I don’t know whether Elvis had a life changing Gospel encounter. I certainly hope that he did have that far more glorious meeting with Christ than the watered down religiosity described in the article.  However, I do know that God in his graciousness offers that better hope to you and me.

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