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Remembering the King

August 16, 2017 by

Today marks forty years since the death of Elvis Presley. Why should we as Christians care about that? Good question, and one that the late Johann Christoph Arnold asked – and answered – right here on Bruderhof.com in 2003. We decided to republish this tribute for you to appreciate.


Elvis Presley

“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.”—Pablo Picasso

When Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977, our country lost a remarkable man. Many people remember only his talents, his fame, his success, and his wealth. For others, the outstanding image is that of his tragic end, when he slowly succumbed to the ravages of medications. But as most fans know, there is always more to a life than what the mass media portray.

I came to this country in the mid-1950s, and had the privilege of shaking Elvis’s hand at a high school concert. From that moment on, the King was part of my life, even though I never learned to appreciate his music. In fact, I often felt disgusted by his style and the fanatical response it evoked in his audiences.

Yet at the same time something attracted me to him, because I felt that here was a unique individual struggling to find his true identity. I am certain that it was through this struggle that God gave him the humor, humility, and kindness that endeared him to millions of people. These traits were even more important than his musical talent.

Popularity and wealth often obscure the real person. I have met many famous people – politicians, Hollywood and sports stars – and often found them to be deeply lonely, because their material comforts hinder them from relating to others. They are isolated because they have to live up to an image, so as not to disappoint their audiences and fans. After a while this stardom buries the true self and prevents community with fellow human beings.

Our understanding of others is often shallow. Every biographical piece on Elvis mentions, for example, that he was born in the humblest of circumstances in Mississippi. But how many of us know that he had a twin brother who was stillborn, and Elvis grew up as the only child? And how many of us really identify with material poverty and know how it shapes a life? I do, having grown up in the jungles of Paraguay. The deprivations of Elvis’s childhood seem to have given him a deep hunger for fellowship with others and a desire to serve them by giving them something to be happy about – even if only a song.

“Good” Christians often self-righteously dismiss celebrities because they are turned off by the glamour, fame, and excess that surround them. How many remember that behind the frenzied publicity and the scandals cooked up by tabloids is a vulnerable person with emotions – a real person with a heart – and not just a two-dimensional cardboard cutout? How many know, for instance, about Elvis’s compassion, about his philanthropic endeavors, which often received no publicity at all? Close friends say he quietly paid hospital bills, bought homes, supported families, paid off debts, and did much more. His generosity continues through a foundation whose charitable work is yet another facet of his legacy.

Take an interest in everyone, however obscure or renowned, and you may find a great soul hiding.

Elvis had a weakness for opulence, but his deeper values come to expression in anecdotes from his life. Before a childhood birthday of his daughter, he told a friend what he wanted most for her: “I want Lisa to know what the important things in life are. Money is not important – it is fleeting, and all this is just vanity.” Elvis knew his shortcomings. He was an ordinary guy who battled all the normal temptations.

But he also had a vision, as expressed in a comment he made to a reporter: “I ain’t no saint, but I’ve tried never to do anything that would hurt my family or offend God.… I figure all any kid needs is hope and the feeling he or she belongs. If I could do or say anything that would give some kid that feeling, I would believe I had contributed something to the world.” In other words, for him, relationships were much more important than the glitter, fame, and money he is mostly known for. Despite flaws, Elvis’s life can inspire any child, rich or poor, to reach out and touch the lives of others.

Elvis once made the remarkable statement, “Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t going away.” Perhaps Elvis felt that his time in this world would be short. It seems God gave him down-to-earth wisdom that is clearly felt through reading about his search in life, and through pondering such statements as: “The image is one thing and the human being is another. . . . It’s very hard to live up to an image.” And “Don’t criticize what you don’t understand, son. You never walked in that man’s shoes.” Such words reflected his personal experience.

It is these things that make Elvis important to me, and they are what I would like to pass on to my children, and to you. If you take an interest in every person, however obscure or renowned, you may be surprised to find a great soul hiding. Even beneath the flashiest surface.

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About the author

Johann Christoph Arnold and his wife, Verena

J. Christoph Arnold

Johann Christoph Arnold was a senior pastor of the Bruderhof, founder of Breaking the Cycle of Violence, and the author of...

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  • Thank you

    Lisa Lynch
  • This is such a wonderful and inspiring tribute to Elvis. I have been a fan of Elvis ever since I heard his first recording. I especially love to hear his spiritual songs of which he has many. My favorite is "How Great Thou Art". I have seen many tribute artists over the years and everyone of them tell of Elvis' love of God and they always sing his spiritual songs. God gave him a gift of voice and music and he used that gift until the day he died. May he Rest In Piece. I thank Christoph for his gracious words of love and peace for Elvis.

    Sharon Daw