Worshiping the King of Pop

I came so close to being able to avoid the Michael Jackson worship service held at the Staples Center. But I caught a few minutes while feeding the world's hungriest baby. (Seriously, I think I gave birth to Otesanek.) I caught the "We Are The World" group sing and a couple of teary eulogies.

The New York Daily News had reported that the Jackson family couldn't agree on which religion would guide the service. So they went without one. And yet there were many religious elements in the service. During my brief watching experience, the screen was filled with interfaith symbols. According to the eleventy billion news reports out there, a few people sang "Gospel" and sometimes "Gospel-tinged" renditions of Michael Jackson hits.

Lionel Richie, viewable above, sang a beautiful rendition of "Jesus is Love." But by and large the service was more vaguely spiritual than anything else. The Associated Press described it well in their lede on the memorial service:

Michael Jackson's public memorial started out more spiritual than spectacular Tuesday, opening with a church choir singing as his golden casket was laid in front of the stage and a shaft of light evoking a cross as Lionel Richie gave a gospel-infused performance.

Pastor Lucious W. Smith of the Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena gave the invocation, followed by Mariah Carey singing the opening performance with a sweet rendition of the Jackson 5 ballad "I'll Be There," a duet with Trey Lorenz.

"We come together and we remember the time," said Smith, riffing off one of Jackson's lyrics. "As long as we remember him, he will always be there to comfort us."

The service began with Smokey Robinson reading comments from Nelson Mandela, Diana Ross and other friends of the King of Pop. Following a long silent period inside the venue, piano music and a gospel choir kicked things off with a stained-glass motif in the background.

A quibble: Other stars gave Gospel-infused performances. Jennifer Hudson, for example, sang "Will You Be There" in a Gospel style. But "Jesus is Love" isn't Gospel-infused so much as just Gospel. It's a devotional song, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer described it.

But everything else in that lede is best described as straight-up civil religion. We usually think of civil religion as a political phenomenon. But it's a cultural phenomenon as well and this memorial had it in spades. The sanctification of Jackson's lyrics and the deification of Jackson -- in that one pastor's invocation alone -- are good examples of the phenomenon.

I think the writer could have mentioned the larger-than-life image of Jackson, arms outstretched, on the screen behind the stage. Others caught it. Here's The Guardian critiquing the "adulation, hyperbole and showbiz razzle-dazzle tinged with more than a hint of religious symbolism":

Throughout, the symbolism of Jackson as a Christ-like figure - misunderstood, persecuted and snatched away from his fellow humans before his time - was subtle but unmistakable. The opening gospel number, sang as the gleaming gold coffin adorned with roses was laid at the foot of the stage, featured the refrain "one more time we are going to see you," a clear reference to both Jackson and the son of God.

Later, as John Mayer launched into a blues instrumental version of the Jackson hit Human Nature, a concert image of Jackson with arms raised in a pose straight from a crucifixion painting, and light pouring out from behind him was projected on the overhead screen.

Precisely. Not bad for these immediate write-ups. And while I would love nothing more than to never again see, hear or read another story about the Gloved One, it would be nice for some reporters to explore a little bit about what all this civil religion means.

As a Lutheran (and we're sort of known for our funerals), I was rather mortified by this memorial service. For us, the funeral is a time to talk about what God has done in Christ for the deceased -- not how awesome and Messiah-like the deceased was.

The problem with such eulogistic services is compounded when the sins of the deceased are so, well, public. So even with the few minutes I saw, this memorial and the amazing and widespread reaction to it made me want some much meatier coverage. People talk about how Jackson tried and/or failed to find meaning in his life. But what about all these fanatics -- what are they searching for? And what is the media searching for when it does this 24/7 news coverage? Rather than the silly navel-gazing I know we're going to get, it would be nice to see some coverage that asks some more difficult questions than the obvious ones about the news cycle going overboard.

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