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Elvis, Messiah?

 

Recent Musings
Ramblings of the Muser's Mind Earlier Featured As Current Musings

Will Elvis Become a Messiah?

Regardless of one's religious beliefs, it is fascinating to contemplate how Christianity developed in its first three centuries, and how it then grew over the next seventeen centuries, becoming a major world religion. The New Testament of the Bible of course outlines the travels and correspondence of Peter and Paul, giving the more-or-less official version of the church's early decades.

Nothing in that account, though, really explains how the myth of Christ's life was disseminated, and how it found a place in the collective consciousness of so many people. (If you're offended by the word, "myth" in this context, please read its definition before you write this author.) The truth or error in the Biblical account of Christ's life really has nothing to do with this discussion. If, for the sake of argument, we stipulate that every word of the four Gospels is literally true, the story of Christianity's growth is still a puzzle.

At first hearing, much of the content of the Gospels seems difficult to believe, if not indeed preposterous. A virgin birth, a resurrection, walking on water, raising of the dead are not the stuff of ordinary life. Even in ancient times, such stories would have invited skepticism. But instead of being dismissed as ludicrous, these stories became widely accepted, and later became standards of truth for Christian believers.

It is reasonable to inquire whether the Jewish tradition of expectation of a messiah may have provided the impetus for transmission of the Christ story. But messianic expectation might actually have hindered the early church more than it helped. Biblical and other accounts imply that many of the Jewish faithful rejected this messiah. Non-Jewish people would have been reluctant to embrace the messianic idea at all.

Even if the Hebrew tradition wasn't an impediment to Christianity's growth, and even if the very implausibility of its stories gave them mystical significance and power, the growth of Christianity is noteworthy. Rather than try to explain that growth, this writer has just marveled at it, and wondered how it could be accounted for.

There is another story, though, that most of us today know at least as well as we know the Gospels, that seems to have many parallels to the phenomenon of the myth of Christ. This tale may offer some understanding of the early spread of the Christ myth. The modern figure that is the subject of this fable has been dead only a few years, yet is already the focus of a cult-like following. He has generated legends that overshadow the facts of his life. There are even rumors of his continued life, or perhaps of his resurrection.

Elvis Presley was a singer. He didn't pretend to be a priest or a guru. He was loved, but not worshipped in his lifetime. Yet look what has begun to happen in the twenty years since his death. Notice the parallels to what we know of Christ and the early years of Christianity.

First consider the question of disciples. Elvis had a cultural following when he lived and entertained, but he only had a small cadre of devoted friends in his inner circle. Few people knew him well. Today, there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions who are more than mere fans. These people do worship him. They make pilgrimages to his home-on special occasions such as the major anniversaries of his death-but in huge numbers at all times. Many of them emulate him, dressing and coifing themselves in the Elvis style that was already something of a caricature in the seventies, and is now somewhat bizarre.

Then note the almost spiritual devotion of these disciples. They remember him in candlelight vigils. They kiss his artifacts, and wail in the places he frequented. They speak of him in spiritual terms, claiming his spiritual residence within their psyches.

Of course, this discussion must be headed toward consideration of Elvis's resurrection or immortality. It is a joke to most people, but seems to be believed by others. A web-site tracks Elvis sightings. Tabloid newspapers print one preposterous story after another. This fable, still in its infancy in historical terms, has many of the trappings of a tale of holy resurrection.

Myth spreads differently today than it did in ancient times. Today's myth is both fired and tempered by the nature of twentieth-century communication

Pictures of the faithful filing through Graceland on the recent anniversary of Elvis's death were carried that day on worldwide television. Of course, such news would have been disseminated over periods of weeks or months in the time after Christ's death. Rumors of Elvis's continuing life, or even his resurrection, are printed everywhere. The stories of Christ's resurrection were related mouth-to-ear, or via slow moving letters.

But information that counters the fervor and zeal is also more available to us than it would have been in Christ's time. Most of us probably believe we know the truth about Elvis's life and death, because we feel as if we witnessed it. The talking TV heads in our living rooms reported Elvis's death in believably documented detail, but they never reported his resurrection. So most of us accept the reality of his demise. Yet, extravagant legend seems at times to have overtaken factual reality.

In view of the propagation of this modern myth, the evolution of the Christ myth begins to seem less mysterious. Imagine how much more fantastic the stories of Christ would have seemed than do the stories of Elvis, when the Christ stories were told face-to-face, by a fervent true believer. Imagine how skepticism might have seemed less valid than belief, when there were no verifiable first hand accounts to support the doubt. It is logical that stories about a charismatic figure like Jesus would have attracted zealous disciples, and would have been quickly spread through nearby cultures. It is perfectly believable that those stories would have been widely accepted.

We seem to be as much in need of the supernatural today, as we were two thousand years ago. We seem as willing to embrace the fantastic, the extravagant, and even the preposterous. We seem as hungry for zeal. And today's thirst for the evangelistic helps explain how the same kind of phenomenon may have occurred twenty centuries ago.

It also raises a question about the future of today's myth. Elvis has been dead for only two decades. Already his legend seems to be moving beyond the bounds of mortality. Will people still remember him in two thousand years? If they do, it seems likely that his story will have assumed god-like proportions. It's foreseeable that many will worship him. Perhaps we will even have a new calendar then, and will date the year 1935 as year zero. The time before that year of Elvis's nativity might be counted as the BE period.

© J. C. Adamson, 1997

The Muser isn't the only one who's noticed:
See The Cult of St. Elvis
by Bill and Donna Butler

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copyright © 2010, J. C. Adamson