Elvis the Spiritual Seeker

Source: Cathleen Falsani’s Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) 22-24.

For background on this series, see Falsani Series. Quotations are in italics.

Did you know the only Grammy awards Elvis ever won were for gospel recordings?…Offstage, Elvis, who was reared in an Assemblies of God church in Tulepo, Mississippi, spent hours singing gospel tunes with his entourage as a way to relax and, perhaps, self-soothe. According to what his daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, says in the audio tour Bubba and I listened to as we spent a couple of hours moving reverentially from room to room in Graceland, Elvis was a real spiritual seeker, especially later in his troubled life. He was always looking for something and read loads of books on religion and spirituality

…On [Elvis’ desk] were several spiritually themed books, including a copy of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet and Erich von Daniken’s Gods from Outer Space. I guess he still hadn’t found what he was looking for…Many people–many Christians, for that matter–might scoff at the idea that Elvis, with all of his overindulgences, addictions, and peccadilloes, also could have been a believer. I think Bubba and I both left Graceland with the bittersweet impression of Elvis as an incredibly gifted, tragically flawed man who lavished love and outrageous gifts on his family and friends, desperately tried to reconcile staggering fame with personal heartache, but in the end felt alone, empty, and lost.

Yet the faith that Elvis had as a child, and that Bubba and I share, promises that it doesn’t matter whether he could pull it together in the end. Grace fills that gap. While it’s true that you may lose your religion during the course of a lifetime, you never lose your salvation. Once you let Jesus in your kitchen, he just keeps on making peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and he never leaves.

These quotes really stood out to me, since I can identify and not identify with them at the same time. Like Elvis, I am somewhat of a spiritual seeker. Spirituality is a good, clean way for me to self-medicate. I look for spiritual autobiographies whenever I visit my public library, for I’m interested in how people find meaning as they cope with life.

And the books that I read are not always Christian. I read one about an orthodox Jew who rediscovered his Judaism through a “Jesus year” of intense exposure to Christianity. I recently read a book about a Jewish man who studied the dominant non-belief in Sweden and Denmark, as he asked the people of those countries how they dealt with tragedy and death in light of their lack of religious faith. Right now, I’m reading a book by a Japanese brother and sister, whose spiritual perspectives are quite different from one another. The brother is a financial wiz who writes self-help books, and the sister is a Buddhist nun who was ordained by the Dalai Lama. Their book relates how they have taught each other and grown in the process.

For my daily quiet time, I have read the Bible, but right now I’m reading other books as well. I am about two-thirds of the way through the Koran, and I have books of Hindu and Buddhist Scriptures lined up for my next projects. I still read the Bible every day, however, through a daily Bible reading plan that enables me to read the whole Bible in a year. And I also do my weekly quiet time, in which I study a chapter of the Bible. I’m listening to a sermon on I Samuel 19 right now!

What am I looking for? One thing is consolation. For what I mean by that, read my Joan of Arcadia post, Joan of Arcadia: Desolation and Consolation. I desire inspiration, inner peace, wholeness, and wisdom about how I should live my life. Another thing I seek is knowledge. I wonder what other religions teach, how people find fulfillment in life, and if other religions are necessarily all about self-fulfillment (something tells me that Islam may not be). Sometimes, my search really inspires me. Other times, it does not. But the search is worthwhile either way.

Am I shopping for a religion? I’m not sure. I really did not know much about other religions when I became a Christian, and I naturally assumed that Christianity was right and other religions were wrong. Right now, I wonder if that is indeed the case. Some (e.g., John Hick) claim that God is present in other religions. Is he? I don’t know. I’m not even sure if I can know, since we don’t directly hear the voice of God, but rather competing claims about what God does and thinks. But I can learn about other religions and see what I find.

Christianity still inspires me on some level, especially when it focuses on grace, God’s love, wisdom, and personal growth. When it gets into Jesus being the only way to salvation, however, I feel rather uncomfortable. I was eating at Taco Bell this afternoon, and there was a poorly-dressed elderly woman eating behind me, as she sucked up her sinuses and made me sick in the process. She said “hi” to one of the workers and asked how he was doing, and he replied that he was being bad. She replied, “But that’s why Jesus came to earth–for those who are bad.”

I’m not sure why her statement turned me off. Part of it may have been that my reading of the Koran and portions of the Bible instills in me the notion that God accepts those who do good, while he punishes those who are bad. “Maybe it doesn’t matter if one believes in Christ,” I have thought in the past, “as long he or she lives a fairly righteous life.” Yet, at the same time, I’m still drawn to God’s grace and forgiveness. The idea that Christianity is about what Christ has done for us rather than what we can do for God actually appeals to me. I guess my problem with the woman’s statement was that it was so Jesus-specific, and I didn’t find it inclusive of people on other spiritual paths. But I think I was wrong to belittle her Christian faith in my mind. I don’t want to become hardened and condescending.

I don’t entirely care for Cathleen Falsani’s statement about salvation, since it evokes for me the Armstrongite stereotype of Protestantism: that one can babble a few words about accepting Christ, go out and live in sin, and still be assured of salvation after death. That’s not exactly what I find in the Bible, which emphasizes righteous living and perseverance in the faith (e.g., Matthew 10:22; Colossians 1:23). Plus, I didn’t care for Cathleen’s reference to “peanut butter and banana sandwiches.” That sounded icky and corny to me, and she comes across as much more level-headed on her YouTube videos (e.g., here).

But I’d like to think that God recognizes and honors our thirst for him, even though we are complex, messy creatures who are mostly mixtures of good and bad. Abraham Lincoln may not have been the most orthodox Christian on the face of the earth, but he still felt a dependence on God. Elvis had his hang-ups and looked to drugs to self-medicate, but he still wanted to feel the love, grace, goodness, and healing power of God. Doesn’t that count for something? Can saving faith be a thirst for the divine?

I hope so, but there are still plenty of passages about the necessity of believing in Jesus for salvation (John 14:6, Acts 4:12, etc.). I can’t just blow those off and remain a Christian in good standing.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to Elvis the Spiritual Seeker

  1. Mary Lane says:

    Thanks James. I think it interesting that the name ‘Elvis’ means ‘grace,’and the name ‘Presley,’ means ‘priest of the meadow,’ and that Elvis was referred to as “the King of Rock,” and Christ is the King that is the Rock of ages.
    BTW, I am not an Elvis fan, but just thought those things interesting. Elvis had alot of respect for his mother, and so did Christ.


  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Mary Lane. Does Elvis mean grace in a particular language?


  3. Mary Lane says:

    I believe that I read that definition under the Hebrew word, but it may have been English. I like ot look under firstnames.com or where ever they put the baby names now.
    Of course in Hebrew “El” refers to God.


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