Monday, November 16, 2009

Preslianity: Religious Devotion to Elvis Presley in America

Just for the kick of it earlier today, I Googled my name and the title of an essay I wrote in fulfillment of requirements for a sociology of religion class during my senior year at Kenyon College that was published in the Fall 1992 issue of The Wittenberg Review (a journal which I believe is now defunct). The essay is entitled, "Preslianity: Religious Devotion to Elvis Presley in America."

Much to my Google-searching surprise, I discovered that Dr. William S. Abruzzi, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Muhlenberg College, has been using my essay as one of the required readings for his "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Movements" class. A link from the website for this class entitled "Saint Elvis the Divine" includes excerpts from my essay (although on the site Dr. Abruzzi gets my name wrong as Charles Bryant Owens).

I couldn't resist e-mailing Dr. Abruzzi to share my amazement that anybody would even know about my essay, much less be assigning it for a college class. He wrote back:

I begin my class on religious movements with a discussion of the question "What is a religion?" It is in this context that I use your article. It understandably disturbs a number of my students to consider Preslianity a religion, but I want them to be aware of the variety of movements that anthropologists would lump under the category of religious movements. I also have them view the film Mondo Elvis, which they also have great difficulty accepting!!

Among other scholarly and pop culture sources, I cited the 1984 documentary film Mondo Elvis a number of times in my essay. If you haven't seen this film, then by all means do yourself a favor and rent or buy it. It's one wild ride!

Just for the fun of it, and bearing in mind that I wrote it half a lifetime ago, here are some excerpts from my essay "Preslianity: Religious Devotion to Elvis Presley in America."

The image of Elvis Presley is deeply embedded in American culture. Fifteen years after his death the tabloids continue to print sensational headlines about Elvis sightings and the magical powers possessed by the King of rock and roll. Some fans even devote their lives to Elvis. Viewing the devotion Elvis' popular image as a form of secularized religious consciousness provides a means of understanding both the fascination of American culture with Elvis and the worshipful adoration of his fans. But it also provides an understanding of the values that define us all as Americans. This point of view discourages the judgment that Elvis devotees are fanatics. Rather, their religious devotion explicitly reveals the idolatrous ultimate concern shaping the identity and values of all Americans in a secular society: the pursuit of a consumer lifestyle and the consumption of products. ...

The idea of a secularized civil religion illuminates the meaning and function of the popular image of Elvis in the American consciousness. By rising from rags to riches, Elvis perfectly fulfilled the values of the American dream paradigm. Most Americans are familiar with the basic story of Elvis Presley, particularly his humble beginnings as a poor boy in Tupelo, Mississippi, his recording a song for his mother in Memphis, Tennessee, his gaining a recording contract with Sun Records in Memphis, and his rise to the most internationally acclaimed music personality in the world. And given his extraordinary charisma as a performer and as an individual, the myths later to arise through the medium of popular culture are more easily understood. Dr. Raymond Moody, in his book Elvis After Life, compiled a list of fifteen qualities attributed to Elvis. Outstanding in this list are such qualities as "kindness, warmth and sincerity," "generosity," "being a good son," "humor," "sadness," "influence on others," "loyalty to his friends," "law and order," and "strong religious faith." Such attributes are critical for maintaining the purity of the deified popular image of Preslianity's Elvis. While the pop image of Elvis bridges class lines through the media, the majority of individuals expressing religious devotion to Elvis are largely confined to the white lower middle class and the working class [cf. Melissa Olson & Darrel Crase, "Presleymania: The Elvis Factor," Death Studies 14 (May-June 1990): 281]. Essentially, Elvis' image authenticates a consumer lifestyle to those most in danger of becoming alienated from its excesses. ...

Elvis' popular image functions religiously as a mediating symbol between the everyday lives of average Americans and the "transcendent meaning" of the alternate reality of consumerism [Peter Stromberg, "Elvis Alive?: The Ideology of American Consumerism," Journal of Popular Culture 24.3 (Winter 1990): 13]. "The deification of Elvis" by consumerism and the dissemination of Elvis' image through popular culture demonstrates the important function of celebrities in consumerism:

Celebrities are deities because they are the most significant mediators in American consumerism; like the Christian deity Jesus Christ they are at once human and God. They are the ones who participate in two worlds, the world we all live in and the world we all aspire to [Stromberg, ibid., p. 17].

But Elvis' popular image is unique in its abiding appeal. Because Elvis' pop culture image symbolizes the "American dream," it functions as a Christ figure in consumerism. As mediator between the two worlds posited by consumerism, Elvis embodies the larger, abstract reality of consumer culture. Spiritual experiences with Elvis personify consumer culture as warm and caring while simultaneously allowing it to transcend the ordinariness of everyday experience. ...

The documentary film Mondo Elvis underscores both the religious fervor surrounding Elvis and the grounding of Preslianity in consumerism. At the time of the funeral, a picture of Jesus, an open Bible, and an American flag with "God Blessed America! He Gave Us Elvis" were next to the grave. Gift shops across the street from Graceland sell souvenirs such as "Authentic - From Elvis' Yard - A Bag of Dirt from Graceland" and "Prayers Answered - The King Lives! - Elvis Sweat." Jim Miller points out in an article for Newsweek that "Elvis still gets mail - one or two letters every day" and that "Graceland ... draws more than 500,000 visitors a year" ["Forever Elvis," Newsweek (August 3, 1987), p. 48]. And every year on the anniversary of his death, a candlelight vigil is held in which thousands of fans, many openly weeping, place candles by the grave or under a statue of Jesus with Presley inscribed at the bottom. The vigil itself is highly ritualized. The "faithful circle Elvis' grave with lighted candles - extinguishing the flames with their first glimpse of the rising sun" [Neil Asher Silberman, "Elvis: The Myth Lives On," Archeology 43.4 (July-August 1990): 80]. ...

The traditional religious institution of the church has taken note of the rising devotion to Preslianity. Richard Corliss quotes the Rev. Robert D. Martin in Time on the rise in religious devotion to Elvis:

"This has all the markings of the rise of a new religions," says the retired Episcopal minister from Hernando, Miss. "Elvis is the god, and Graceland the shrine. There are no writings, but that could be his music. And some even say he is rising again. The August week is more like people going to Lourdes than to an entertainment event. People genuflect before his grave. Women have come to Memphis to deliver babies, claiming Elvis is the father and that he will come down from heaven when the boy is 16 to anoint him - sort of like Jesus in the Jordan River" [Richard Corliss, "The King is Dead - or Is He? The Elvis Cult has the Makings of a Rising New Religion, Time Magazine (October 10, 1988), p. 91].

The parallels between the pop culture story of Elvis and that of the Biblical stories of Jesus are striking, although not surprising given civil religion's use of Biblical imagery. Both Elvis and Jesus started in humble and poor settings, both attracted followings and gained widespread fame through their charismatic personalities, and Elvis was "crucified" by the pressures of the music industry as Jesus was by the Roman authorities. ...

... with the American dream becoming more difficult for lower middle class and working class Americans to obtain, making Elvis paradigmatic of that myth allows him to "exist from day to day in the fabulous world beyond" while simultaneously underscoring that he is "no different from you or I"; as "the divine mediator" of consumer culture, Elvis through his image proclaims both the possibility and the desirability of participating in the American dream of the consumer lifestyle [Stromberg, ibid., p. 16]. The materialism of the American lifestyle is thereby religiously justified. ...

In addition to spiritual experiences, some people express their devotion to Elvis by dedicating their lives to him. One woman interviewed in Mondo Elvis provides an excellent example of this type of religious devotion. While in the military, she married, and soon afterward saw Elvis in a movie. She then declared to her husband that she loved another man and that he would just have to accept it. He later became so furious over her love for Elvis that he divorced her. One of the grounds for divorce was "excessive devotion to Elvis Presley."

When her youngest daughter died, she buried her with a copy of "Burning Love" in her hands and wearing the same dress the little girl had worn when Elvis brought her on stage at a concert. Following the funeral she went to an Elvis concert and claimed that her sanity was restored by the show's end. And when Elvis died, she remembers thinking "what are we gonna do, how are we gonna live? He's gone" (Mondo Elvis). She promptly left New Jersey to live in Memphis so she could "be with Elvis." The film makes it clear that Elvis is a spiritual presence for her. As another woman in the documentary described it: "If you really believe in Elvis, if you are a good person ... [and] if you follow God ... Elvis can heal you" (Mondo Elvis).

The life of this woman demonstrates the reality of genuine religious devotion for the popular image of Elvis. It legitimates her daughter's death, the collapse of her marriage, and her very world view. Her devotion provides a context of meaning and validation that transcends the everyday world. In this sense it is best understood as religious. This woman has literally given up everything for Elvis. On the surface, the price for her devotion appears to include estrangement from the larger social world and alienation from her family.

Yet it must be emphasized that she shares the consumer lifestyle with the larger social context. Only her explicitly religious expression of it as Preslianity places her on the fringe of society in the eyes of other people and to adherents of more "respectable" faiths. That the pop image of Elvis provided this connection to a "higher reality" reveals that, far from being completely alienated from the world, this woman has actually reintegrated the values of consumer culture at a different level of human experience. Those who call devotees of Preslianity "extremists" or "fanatics" would do well to examine their own participation in the rites and rituals of consumerism and to remember that the emergence of new forms of religious consciousness are usually met with hostility and derision by those identifying with the established institutions of society. ...

However, popular culture's legitimation of consumer values through the image of Elvis is accomplished by masking those aspects of Elvis' life that could lead to disillusionment with Preslianity and to challenging the values of the consumer status quo. The popular image of Elvis veils the darker side of the singer's lifestyle. Jim Miller highlights this dark side in Time Magazine:

To the uninitiated, the cult of Saint Elvis must seem ludicrous. Here, after all, was a pill-popping junk-food addict who enjoyed shooting television sets and didn't think twice about jetting to Denver for peanut-butter sandwiches. Yet for all of his fabled excess, Elvis, if anything, has only grown. He's become a complex figure of American myth: as improbably successful as a Horatio Alger hero, as endearing as Micky Mouse, as tragically self-destructive as Marilyn Monroe. There is the saintly Elvis who loved his mom, gave away Cadillacs and ... all but walked on water. And then there is the Rabelaisian Elvis - a hungry good ole boy whose ability to satisfy his every whim, from synthetic opiates to Eskimo Pies, eventually killed him [Jim Miller, "Forever Elvis," Newsweek (August 3, 1987), p. 48].

The popular image of Elvis is what Jim Miller calls "the saintly Elvis." By spreading this image, consumerism intentionally fails to reveal the essence of the singer's early image: that of a rebel against white, Protestant social norms. In a highly ironic manner, consumerism has transformed Elvis into a paradigm of the very social values his early stage presence undermined. More sinister is the cover-up of Elvis' excessively consumeristic lifestyle. Implicit within Preslianity is a theodicy that denies the reality of Elvis' dark side by hiding it from critical scrutiny.

Peter Stromberg's analysis of consumerism as ideology is relevant here. After defining consumerism as religion, Stromberg comments on the reason why consumerism's kerygma (as proclaimed through advertising) that "the potential consumer ... will be a changed person if the product is acquired" passes largely unnoticed in American society:

The reason for this is that we are all believers. Consumerism is so convincing that it seems not an ideology bu a simple fact. Is it not true that wealth can purchase comfort? Is it not reasonable to believe that through consumption a person can enter a more comfortable world, a relative utopia? Have we not seen it ourselves, to some extent perhaps experience such a transformation as our own fortunes have improved?

Comfort, however, must be distinguished from perfection. The world of the advertisement is not so much comfortable as lacking any discomfort. Thus while the ideology of consumerism seems reasonable in the face of actual experience - indeed every religion must do this - it offers a perfect version of the future that belongs not to the realm of economic realism but rather to that of fantasy [Stromberg, ibid., p. 13].

The negative side of Elvis' life is denied to shroud the potentially destructive "fantasy" of "the ritual nature of our economic activity" and its excesses [Stromberg, ibid, p. 13].

Excerpts from Charles Bryan Owen, "Preslianity: Religious Devotion to Elvis Presley in America," The Wittenberg Review: An Undergraduate Journal of the Liberal Arts 3/2 (Fall 1992): 101-118.

Here is Elvis impersonator Artie Mentz, who is featured in the documentary film Mondo Elvis and whose story I cite in my essay:

And here's the real thing:

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