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 media portray.

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 his music.

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 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.

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 surface.

[Johann Christoph Arnold is an author and minister with the Bruderhof Communities (


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