Remembering the King
Johann Christoph Arnold
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
Coming to this country in the mid-1950s, I 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 fanatic 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
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 their neighbors. They are isolated
because they have to live up to an image, so as not
to disappoint their audience and fans. After a while
this buries the true self and prevents community with
one's fellow human beings.
Our images of others are 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, leaving Elvis to grow up as the
only child? And how many of us really identify with
that poverty and know how it shapes a life? I do,
having grown up in the jungles of Paraguay. As is
often the case, 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.
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' compassion and 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.
Elvis had a weakness for opulence, but his deeper
values come to expression in a wonderful way. 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
"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.
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." The truth is that his life of
only forty-three years had a defining influence on
the culture that made America what it is in the eyes
of the world. Despite his flaws, his life can inspire
any child, rich or poor, to reach out and touch the
lives of others.
Elvis must have felt that his time in this world would
be short. Through this he seems to have received a
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 human,
however obscure or renowned, you may be surprised
to find a great soul hiding. Even beneath the flashiest
[Johann Christoph Arnold is an author and minister
with the Bruderhof Communities (http://www.bruderhof.com).