Elvis never left the church (in his heart)

B00004WJEC 1 09 LZZZZZZZAs I like to mention from time to time, the professionals over at Religion News Service have a digital newsletter in which they send out a link to a "story of the week" that everyone can read if they wish. The sad truth is, it's hard to find RNS copy online if a particular story does not run over at Beliefnet. This week's story was a keeper, especially for gospel music fans, because it focuses on one of the most talented gospel performers who ever lived -- Elvis.

As you would expect, there is a commercial hook for this in a new book by former Elvis backup singer Joe Moscheo, called The Gospel Side of Elvis. But it's still a good story and one that has long interested me.

Frankly, evangelicals have never known what to do with Elvis. He represents the down side of both emotional, charismatic (in several senses of that word) Protestantism and the rise of the whole culture of sex, drugs and rock & roll. As I wrote a few years ago, in a column that ended up in my book:

No picture of Elvis is complete without faith, as well as failure. He was not the first or the last devout country boy to stray in the big city.

... If there is a cautionary tale here, it is another reminder that believers should be careful when dealing with heroes.

... The boy who made his profession of faith in a Baptist church in Tupelo, Miss., struggled to hold on to that faith for the rest of his life. The Elvis story is packed with pain, piety, sin, struggle, glory, guilt and repentance.

This is the territory mined in the RNS feature by Michelle C. Rindels. Here is an especially interesting chunk of the story, which includes several details I had not heard before:

Presley, who was raised in a soul-filled Assembly of God church in East Tupelo, Miss., eventually had to abandon regular church attendance as his popularity skyrocketed. After he nearly started a fan frenzy one Easter Sunday at the First Assembly of God Church in Memphis, he decided to limit his spiritual diet to gospel music recordings and Sunday sermons from his favorite TV preacher, Rex Humbard.

That's why, Moscheo speculates, Presley's after-hours gospel singing and his well-worn gospel records gained greater significance for Presley as a sort of personal time with God.

As his career progressed, though, he began experimenting with numerology and astrology, drifting away from the orthodoxy proclaimed in his favorite hymns. But Moscheo maintains that Presley never departed from his Christian roots.

Enjoy. I have always felt that one of the quickest ways to broaden the appeal of the religion beat is to follow it into the arts and popular culture.

I like to tell newcomers to this work that religion news is like a cross between politics and opera. There is a legal and doctrinal language that is very technical and picky. Then, every now and then, someone simply seems to break into song and you are dealing with a whole other world. It is, literally, an awesome thing.

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