Civil religion and St. Michael, the pop angel

michael-jackson_47719987For generations, presidential inaugurations have served as the high holy days of civil religion for scholars studying the intersection of faith and public life. Want to know about the lowest-common-denominator faith that unites the muddy middle of the American marketplace of ideas? Dissect the religious language that presidents use when standing at that big pulpit on Day One. However, anyone who has ever compared American Idol vote totals with election day numbers knows that pop culture is now the biggest show in town. It's stunning to even talk about the Barack Obama inauguration (37 million viewers) in the same breath, historically speaking, with the Michael Jackson farewell concert (31 million viewers is current estimate), but there you have it.

But how do you find substance -- journalistic, moral, religious, political -- in this kind of show-business event? The family couldn't really decided what faith tradition to emphasize, so the default was a vague, sanitized version of African-American gospel music, crossed with MTV. It was moving, I admit it, but what did it mean?

The A1 feature in the Washington Post showed all of these tensions and more, beginning with a lede that broke free of all previously known forms of journalistic gravity and threatened to float away into ether of creative-writing class exercises. Hang on.

The final, posthumous performance of Michael Jackson was in the transcendent tradition of his previous shows: part musical feast, part religious experience, part examination of a man who seemed not a man, but something else his public was always trying to figure out. Boy? Demigod? Alien? It was, at times and fittingly, odd. There was deep, heartfelt, intimate emotion at the public memorial, but it was mixed with the fantasy and the sequins and the Mariah Carey and the Al Sharpton.

It was very sad. It was very long.

What, pray tell, is the purpose of the word "the" in front of "the Mariah Carey" and "the Al Sharpton"? And if we are going to get picky about issues of religion and Associated Press style, as your GetReligionistas do from time to time, shouldn't that second reference be "the the Rev. Al Sharpton," since the man is ordained?

This feature was not marked as an editorial or even as a work of analysis, yet it wandered all over the place and crossed many journalistic boundaries. Perhaps it was written for the Post's sister publication, nonNewsweek, and editors decided to use it in two locations.

Still, let's give credit where credit is due. This Post piece managed to ask some of the logical questions about the role of religious faith in this remarkable global event.

What a spectacular show it was, performed against a backdrop of simulated stained-glass windows and drifting clouds. ... Was this a concert or a memorial? An arena or a church? The mood of the fans swung between celebratory and morose, interrupting moments of silence to scream, "We love you, Michael!" and gasping, "Oh my God, it's him!" when the casket appeared. ...

The biggest cheers and sighs did not come after the platitudes, or the superlatives, or even the Jesus-like comparisons to the divine ("As long as we remember him, he will be there forever to comfort us," said Pastor Lucious Smith). The biggest cheers came after the assertions that he was just like us, that he was not weird at all. ...

But Michael Jackson was strange. ... The public's transformation of Michael Jackson, from mutant to messiah, took less than two weeks. "Michael ... made us love each other," Sharpton called out. "It was Michael that made us ... feed the hungry."

Say what? Are we talking about a saint, an angel, a demigod?

Meanwhile, at the heart of Jackson's strangeness were confessions, rumors and allegations about sins, struggles and even crimes that violated the teachings of all of the faiths that, at one time or another, he claimed or investigated. But that's kind of the point I am trying to make. It's hard to know, as a journalist, what to make of a civic faith that calls forth powerful emotions and symbols, yet has no content or doctrine that can be defined and discussed.

The faith that blew through the Jackson farewell concert-rally-rite was like a hurricane of fog. It was there. You could describe it. But what was it? That's an important question, if you want to take seriously what this event meant to the people who performed in it, mourned in it or simply watched it. How do journalists dissect fog?

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