Sola Fides, Sola Gratia

The April 15 issue of Rolling Stone is on the 50 "immortals" of rock 'n' roll. I don't know why we feel such a need to make these lists, but we do, so there it is. Elvis is #3 (after the Beatles and Dylan), and the essay on him is, unmistakably, by Bono. He has interesting things to say about blues and gospel, as well as about the political power of music, and as usual he recycles some of his own prior material in the course of the essay.

Here, for this narrow-topic site, I'm going to quote three things, one a description of seeing Elvis on TV in 1968 that is perhaps as telling about what U2 value as about what Elvis did: Pretty much everything I want from guitar, bass and drums was present: a performer annoyed by the distance from his audience; a persona that made a prism of fame's wide-angle lens; a sexuality matched only by a thirst for God's instruction.

The second is this line, a sort of Philippians 2 or Hebrews 2 comment on our longing for Incarnation: Interestingly, the more he fell to Earth, the more godlike he became to his fans. Gee, I wonder why.

But the most poignant section, to me, is one that suddenly forces the wash of gossip-column images we carry of Elvis' final years into a new focus, analyzing his decline and end in starkly theological terms, as a battle with ho diabolos-- the accuser. Perhaps the shocking spiritual clarity here just suggests that, as one God-haunted international celebrity to another, the writer knows the territory.

When Elvis was upset and feeling out of kilter, he would leave the big house and go down to his little gym, where there was a piano. With no one else around, his choice would always be gospel, losing and finding himself in the old spirituals. He was happiest when he was singing his way back to spiritual safety. But he didn't stay long enough. Self-loathing was waiting back up at the house, where Elvis was seen shooting at his TV screens, the Bible open beside him at St. Paul's great ode to love, Corinthians 13. Elvis clearly didn't believe God's grace was amazing enough.

"Self-loathing was waiting back up at the house." The threads of association from that personified image, for me, run through Genesis 4 ("sin is waiting at the door and its desire is for you") through U2's "Acrobat" ("if you just close your eyes, you can feel the enemy") and on to so many pastoral situations. (Or of course, taking someone who understood "mock the devil and he will flee from thee," to Luther: "When I awoke last night, the Devil came and wanted to debate with me; he rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner. To this I replied: Tell me something I don't already know.")

"He was happiest when he was singing his way back to spiritual safety. But he didn't stay long enough." The ability to name the battle, to perceive the intense theological drama behind those sordid paparazzi pictures, impresses me, but what impresses me more is the insight as to where the fight is won or lost. Most people, and surely most celebrities, do what this piece suggests Elvis did and try to win on their inner accuser's playing-field (sell more records, win more hearts, make more money) -- but that's the one place you always lose. Bono's battle-scarred answer is the right one: Forget all that. Just keep singing till you actually believe in grace.

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