Thursday, August 09, 2007

Faith Works 8-12-07
Jeff Gill

Elvis Has Left the Church Building

Thursday, Elvis Presley has been dead for thirty years.

If he were alive today, he’d be 72.

Why are you snickering?

Oh, right, Elvis may not be dead. A Michigan convenience store owner saw him, there was a sighting on an all-you-can-eat buffet line in Reno, stranded motorists in Tunisia . . . wait, that one was Jim Morrison.


There will be vast gatherings of fans who want to remember “The King,” who will assemble in a candlelight procession passing the site of his grave, and almost equally vast horde of reporters taking pictures of the throng and watching the myriad Elvis impersonators for an elderly version who might be . . . ?

As a Christian, I’ve been asked by skeptics about Jesus, the Resurrection, and Elvis. See, they say, people who don’t want someone to be dead, and gather in ecstatic crowds to remember that important person, whose relics are held as tangible reminders: they can convince themselves that a dead person still lives.

The one point I’ll give such skeptics is that the trade in Elvis relics is real, even if many of the relics are not. Mr. Presley did take to handing out little sweat towels and white scarves in ever increasing numbers, and some of his live concerts show him with a dozen scarves at a time, flicking them one by one to adoring front row fans.

I’ve been in two homes myself where there were what can only be called Elvis shrines, with candles on either side, a picture, suitably idealized, and in a box or, in one home, under a glass dome, the white scarf.

Actually, popular figures have long been prone to after-death appearances. Rudolph Valentino showed up around the county during the Depression, after his untimely death in 1926; his grave has been visited by a series of “Women in Black” leaving a red rose, and no doubt will again, later this month on the Aug. 23 anniversary of his death. Jesse James survived in a profusion of places according to the variety of elderly men who claimed to be the legendary robber who was, they said, not shot by Mr. Ford.

(Edgar Allan Poe has a mysterious visitor to his grave on Jan. 19 each year, which is the mystery writer’s birthday, but Poe himself has stayed safely on the bookshelf with his stuffed raven.)

What sets this kind of phenomenon apart, in my mind, is that the crowds are at the grave, and the appearances are, well, somewhere else. Like Kalamazoo. Elvis doesn’t appear to his friends, his family, or at Graceland, but at fast food joints and salad bars.

Elvis didn’t say he was coming back, didn’t warn his staff about how they’d know when he’d be going in the first place, or how he’d die (he was supposed to start a new concert tour the next day), let alone why he’d be doing all this. Elvis died, rather tragically, and was buried under a mis-spelled tombstone which no one wanted to admit they’d messed up after it was in place.

Actually, not 40 years after Jesus, a Roman emperor named Nero made a big splash with the common folk, cranked out the original “bread and circuses,” loved to play music in public and build himself fancy houses, and killed himself when the bill came due.

For years, especially in the outlying provinces of the Roman Empire where the capitol was seen as the source of misunderstanding and oppression, people had seen Nero as a fellow schlub who understood them and their frustrated desires. And they kept alive a myth for decades that Nero still showed up at parties, the wilder the better.

Yes, there’s a human tendency to want to create mythic heroes who live out our dreams, who make up their own rules and carve their own way through life. And we don’t like their usually tragic ends.

What sets Jesus apart is how he knew his death was a part of his life, and that his appearances after were not meant to erase or obscure the fact and meaning of his dying, but to make sense of that cross and our place at the foot of it. Jesus didn’t show up for his own purposes, but for ours.

Nero and Elvis are emblems of our not-so-secret desire to keep the party going on our terms, while Jesus lives to invite us to a party where a place has been prepared for us.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; share your story with him at