Thursday, September 3, 2009

Elvis, Jesus & Memphis.

     Since this is my first entry I figured that I would start it with a story.  I think that it will help illustrate where my mind is at with the way Christianity is playing itself out in America in the 21st century.

     A couple of summers ago I took a road trip down to Tennessee.  Brian, a friend of mine fresh out of the Marine corps, came along with me for the ride.  I'll tell you this, if you want an efficient and disciplined trip, take along an ex-marine corps sergeant.  I had initially planned for a trip of about 5-6 days in length.  Thanks to Sergeant Brian, we did the whole thing in 3 days.  The only down side of having Sgt. Brian along was that he refused to go to all of the BBQ places I wanted to eat at.  "I was a fat kid all my life.  I'm NOT gonna be fat again!"  Such is life.
     Anyway, Sgt. Brian & I are both big history geeks.  Seeing the sights in Nashville & Memphis was fantastic.  We checked out Andrew Jackson's estate...the Hermitage. (Personally, I never liked him as President for what he did to the Cherokees & the U.S. banking system, but that's for another time) We saw the Grand Ole Opry, Beal St., The ducks that swim in the fountain at the Peabody hotel, and ate at B.B. King's joint.  But by far and away the most interesting sights was going to Elvis's "Graceland" mansion & Sun Studios.
     Graceland is surreal in it's own right.  It's as if the mid-1970s were frozen in time.  Shag carpet on the ceiling of the Jungle room, the burial plots of Elvis & his loved ones...all very fascinating in a voyeuristic sort of way. (I've been told that the tomatoes in the garden grow sideburns.  But I don't know for a fact) 
     What is more interesting then the place itself are the people who flock to see Graceland.  I'm not actually a huge Elvis fan, but I do love history & music.  This place really is a "must see."  Sgt. Brian & I showed up a little after 9am and the area was already packed with folks.  I doubt that I have ever seen so many grown men in pompadours in my entire life. (That's that famous Elvis hairdo in case you didn't know) There were folks from all over the world at Graceland, and I must say that seeing a fellow from Japan dressed as Elvis is quite a treat in it's own bizarre way.  More than 30 years after his death, Elvis is still worshipped by millions of people around the world.  Not bad for a guy who died of a heart attack while going poop. (I try to visualize the poor EMT fellow that had to pry his corpse off of the toilet.  It's not pretty)

     For me, what was even better than Graceland was seeing the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis.  For many, this is the studio where Rock n' Roll began.  Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course Elvis all recorded there.  Apparently the studio went into decline over time as Sam Phillips, the owner, got bigger and better digs elsewhere in town.   Never the less, the studio was essentially resurrected in the 1980's when U2 recorded portions of "Rattle & Hum" there.  Now, the studio is the only one of it's kind to be on the list of National Historic Landmarks, and thus can never be torn down.
     So Sgt. Brian & I walk from Beal St. to the studio. (Bad idea, that.  Memphis tends to be a bit hot in August) When we arrived, we took a tour led by a local musician named David Brookings.  David sells his CDs there, and I would highly recommend his album "The End of an Error."  Other than being a musician, this guy can really tell a story.  The story he told as we wandered through the studio goes like this...

     In 1954 Elvis was fresh out of High School.  He had come to Sun Studios to record a few songs for his mom...only $4 a pop.  Apparently, the real brains behind the studio was Sam Phillip's secretary, Marion Keisker.  Sam had the dreams & visions.  Marion had the practical business sense.  At any rate, Marion was so impressed with Elvis' voice that she made a note to save an extra recording of his singing to give to Sam later.
     Elvis would come back to the studio from time to time to pester Sam about recording him.  Nothing much came of it for a while.  However, the pestering seemed to have paid off, because Sam eventually relented.  On July 5 of 1954 Elvis was in the studio goofing off with a version of "That's all Right (Mama)."  Sam was so stunned by what he heard that he had them restart the song and recorded it immediately.  Elvis was a white kid who sounded "Black."  the very thing Sam had been searching for.  One of the back up musicians, Bill Black, remarked "Damn.  Get that on the radio and they'll run us out of town!" (Don't forget, this was back in the days of Jim Crow.) 
     3 days later, Sam got his buddy, a local DJ named Dewey relation I believe, to play the song on his show.  With in one hour's time, the DJ had played the song 14 times because his phone lines were flooded with requests.  Thus, a star was born.  The irony is that Elvis had no idea at the time.  Apparently, he was busy working at a local movie theater while the song was playing.
     Now while David Brookings was telling us this story, he flipped on a recording.  Someone had set up a tape recorder near the radio just by chance and had recorded a portion of that very radio show.  Sure enough, there was "That's all Right (Mama)" playing while the DJ talked over it in his extremely thick southern drawl.  When it was over, David points to a microphone that I was standing right next to and he says "That is the very microphone that Elvis used, and that "X" on the floor is where he stood when he sang that song."  I looked down at my feet and take a guess at where I was standing?  I can tell you that there hair on the back of my neck stood straight up!  It was almost an out of body experience.  A person only gets so many sensations like that in this life.

     Now there were some other sights that Sgt. Brian & I noticed while in Tennessee.  They have a lot of churches in the South.  I live in Minnesota and it's not that churches are uncommon here, but when I say that churches are everywhere in the South, I mean EVERYWHERE.  I noticed something odd while driving around Memphis.  I saw a sign for a church named "Old Faith Baptist church."  A few blocks later I saw a church named "New Faith Baptist church."  A couple of blocks from there I saw a sign for another church called "New OLD Faith Baptist church."  No, I am not making this up.  I tried to research those names on the net, but I didn't get much.  However, it did get me thinking.
     It's quite possible that at some point those three churches were all one congregation.  All the members met as one body and worshipped together.  Then at some point it's possible that a few members got into an argument over some doctrine central to the christian faith like "How many angels can dance on the head of pin," and split up over it. 

     My contention is that the church in modern America has largely lost it's "First love."  That is that we...and I include myself in this, have taken our eyes off the prize and instead have concerned ourselves with issues that are NOT central to the faith.  As such, we have a bit of an un-civil war going on in the church.  Anyone who has paid any attention to our culture knows that we are rapidly going the way of Europe and becoming a "Post Christian" culture. (I would argue that this is a good thing, but that's for later.) The church is failing our culture because we are more consumed with splitting theological hairs than we are with simply living in community with each other and staying deeply & richly in love with Jesus.
     I want to say that theology is very important.  However, as far as priorities go, is worrying about Predestination vs. Free Will, and things of that nature which we allow to divide us, more important than than the commonality of two believers loving Jesus and helping each other in their struggles?  I think you now have an idea of where I am trying to go with this blog.

     When Elvis would hit the stage fans would go completely ga-ga.  Women would work themselves into a screaming frenzy.  Many of them would simply pass out.  Jesus seems to have had a similar effect on the folks up in Galilee.  Those people would following him all over the place.  So much so that you read plenty of stories about him simply trying to get away so that he could just get some rest in.
     What if, what if today, the church in America felt that way about Jesus?  What if we, who call ourselves believers, giggled and swooned at the very mention of his name?  What if our love for Jesus was so powerful that it would almost make us pass out when we even heard his name?  I've thought about that for many months now and I still have no clear answer other than to say that the church in America would behave rather differently than it does, I would certainly be different than I am...and our culture might just be a bit different too.
     Elvis was a "god" who changed history, but who ultimately died on a toilet.  He is still worshipped over 30 years after his death.  Jesus IS the "Visible image of the invisible God," and he is NOT dead.  Plus, he probably looks a lot better in a jump suit too.
     I have some serious struggles in my life, and they honestly aren't that much fun.  However, if they ultimately bring me into a deeper relationship with Jesus, then what did I lose in the process?  Not much, I would wager.  I doubt that I will ever be able to love Jesus the way he truly does love me...which I really do know I don't deserve.  But I also know that Jesus' love is so much greater than I will ever be able to comprehend in this life, and there is great joy in that.  It is my hope that the church in America will know that love and fall IN love all over again.
     "Wise men say that only fools rush in," but I would respond that only a fool would NOT rush into a love like that.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building...but Jesus is still here and always will be."


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