The legacy of Elvis Points to the real King

Thirty-five years have passed since Elvis Presley died (if indeed he did die!) on 16 August 1977. Each year, up to 70,000 fans make a pilgrimage to Memphis to commemorate the anniversary of the death of the man dubbed “The King of Rock and Roll”.

His music, and the memorabilia and royalties from his songs continue to generate millions of dollars in income every year.

What is it that prompts this curious, but enduring legacy? Some analysts have speculated that the Elvis phenomenon cannot be explained without taking people’s innate spirituality into account. It certainly may be a facile conclusion to dismiss the Elvis mania as simply a fanatical expression of human idolatry. Is it that perhaps the case that this obsession with a long dead rock and roll star reflects a search for the spiritual fulfilment that is hinted at in a number of the Elvis songs?

‘Hound Dog’ is one of the best-known Elvis songs, and interestingly, Frank Thompson’s famous poem “The Hound of Heaven” describes God in exactly such terms, reflecting the belief that God seemed to be permanently pursuing him, no matter where he went. Quite possibly Elvis knew something of this himself, as he once made a very insightful comment:, saying “Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t going away.” And Jesus Christ is the one who said, “I am the Truth. No one comes to the Father except through me”. God is a seeking God who isn’t going away, and he has a longing to be reconciled with lost people.

Equally familiar is the poignant song “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” which continues to strike a chord with vast numbers of people. I read recently how some people still talk to Elvis as if he’s there. One such fan stated, “I sit and talk to him. I feel he hears what I say to him and he gives me the will to go on when things are really bad.” The longing for a lasting companionship, and an understanding relationship is a dimension of the spiritual emptiness that many people feel. Christian faith, of course, is centred on a relationship with God, a fact that is often missed. The widespread perception is that Christianity is primarily about believing dogma, doctrine and creeds and is demonstrated in being kind to grandmother and the cat. In reality, of course, the intimacy of God’s relationship with us is illustrated by Jesus’ revelation that even the hairs of our head are numbered.

The lifestyle of Elvis portrayed in the media is one of extravagant opulence, but a closer examination reveals how relationships were more important for him than the glitter, the fame and the money. The song “Love me Tender, Love me True” speaks of a quest for a love that is ongoing, dependable and which doesn’t disappoint. The source of such love can be found in God alone, and somewhat unexpectedly perhaps, another song that Elvis recorded confirms that truth. It is not widely known today that the only Grammy Award that Elvis received for a single was for his 1967 recording of the famous hymn “How Great Thou Art”.

Despite his tormented life and drug-induced death, “The King” in a strange way points us to the real “King”. Many Elvis Presley fans will tell you “Elvis lives”. The diehard admirers may subscribe to the conspiracy theory that the reports of Elvis dying in 1977 is just a myth, but the phrase is generally used in a metaphorical way rather than a literal one. They are simply affirming the continuing power of his music in inspiring millions of people the world over.

Christians, however, can say that “The King lives” because the supernatural power of God raised Jesus from the dead, and today his risen life is being experienced and lived out in his disciples.

Elvis Presley is sadly dead, but countless people are still trying to connect with a life that inspires them in their thirst for significance, fulfilment and acceptance. Some therapists encourage their patients to get in touch with their “Inner Elvis”. As the world commemorates the anniversary of his passing this month, perhaps we should be looking beyond our “Inner Elvis” to Someone greater. The fulfilment that people seek is found not in making a pilgrimage to Graceland, but in seeking the real grace that is offered to all of us, because Jesus lives.

Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He currently lives and ministers in Bristol.

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