The most irreverent book I own is a satirical little softcover called The Two Kings: Jesus-Elvis. It catalogues the messianic “parallels” between these two world historic figures.
- “Jesus was a Capricorn. Elvis was a Capricorn.”
- “Jesus’ entourage, the Apostles, had twelve members. Elvis’ entourage, the Memphis Mafia, had twelve members.”
- “Jesus was Jewish. Elvis played racquetball at the Jewish Community Center in Memphis.”
The book came out in 1994. The ’90s were that kind of decade—a noisy spiritual parade of mutant theologies, angel sightings and (un)holy laughter. Elvis worship, Elvis religion, was part of the scene too.
Yet now, 25 years after his death, despite the many slated events commemorating all things Elvis this week, it’s hard to find the sacred Elvis theme anymore, not in the world we live in now.
For a while, the hottest thing in popular religion was speculation about the otherworldly cult of Presley, his celestial-celebrity status since his sudden death in 1977 at age 42.
In the ’90s the argument was made that Elvis’ post-mortem popularity could only be understood in religious terms: The mournful crooner who fell spectacularly from grace had an unspeakable power to comfort people. It was evidence of religious devotion. How else to explain the wide river of devotees making pilgrimage to Graceland, nearly one million people annually? How else to account for the candlelight vigils, the folded messages at his grave site (“Thank you Elvis for prayers answered”)?
At one remarkable conference in 1996 in Oxford, Miss., folklorists and scholars puzzled over the sacred nature of the Elvis phenomenon in an age drained of official spiritual passion. Their speculations were provocative.
“Millions who have no other contact with a spiritual life respond to Elvis,” said author Ted Harrison, who wrote the book Elvis People.
Perhaps Elvis would emerge as the first “Protestant saint” and we’re witnessing the birth of a new faith, the Elvis faith.
“Maybe not a religion in a traditional sense but a spiritual movement,” he said.
He managed to find parallels between the Elvis cult and classic religion:
- Shrines: Some people keep Elvis altars at home.
- Denominations: Elvis fan clubs sometimes quibble over the details of his life or even whether he’s alive or dead.
- Charitable giving: The fan clubs raise money for good causes, citing Elvis’ example.
- Priesthood: Elvis impersonators are unofficial Elvis representatives at public gatherings. Inevitably, there have been tiffs over whether fans will accept a “woman priest,” that is, a female Elvis impersonator.
“In 200 years hence, I imagine it’ll be like a traditional church, a respectable church with a hierarchy,” Harrison remarked at the time. “It’ll be a distinct add-on to American Christianity, a breakaway from a certain form of Southern Protestantism.”
Other commentators had other theories.
One argument insisted that Elvis’ charisma and music aroused feelings of “homesickness” in his fans, homesickness akin to longing for the sacred and ultimate deliverance. Elvis, in this view, was powerful because he embodied a furiously contradictory image of teen-age rebellion, innocence, forbidden-fruit androgyny, doomed Southern honor, Bible-belt religion, sexual liberation and American consumption excess—all at once.
Another theory was that Elvis’ sexy stage moves purged young people of secret feelings of guilt about their own budding sexuality. In later years, Elvis ended his concerts with a hymn, conferring blessing upon the roiling emotions of ecstasy and release that seized his fans. His sudden death left fans unfulfilled on their spiritual quest for deliverance from a sense of sin; their longing continues.
The search for a theology of Elvis might deserve a hearty snort of skepticism. In its defense, it was often a sober, good-humored attempt to divine the allure and staying power of a rock ‘n’ roll icon, a sweet-faced Mississippian who seems to give solace to millions.
But the anarchic elements of Elvis devotion—the Elvis sightings, the paranormal legends about his Tupelo birth, the occasional new Elvis church—were never far away, not in the 1990s. Giddiness was in the air. Overheated prosperity emboldened us to push beyond the staid precincts of official religion.
We demanded new images to explain our lives in a 24-hour cable world. We found new concepts to toy with—”I’m spiritual, not religious” became a mantra. Elvis could be enlisted to corral some of the perennial unfocused energy of American spirituality. So could that other cultural phenomenon of the ’90s—angels, or, at least, books about angels.
Since Sept. 11, we haven’t heard much about either of them as likely redeemers to save us from ourselves or our geopolitical quandaries. The fans lighting candles at Graceland this week know the world is a more dangerous place this year, a more grown-up place.
An answered prayer from the singer of “Heartbreak Hotel” might not be enough for making sense of the new century.
Ray Waddle, religion editor of The Tennessean newspaper from 1984-2001, is a writer in Nashville.