Fall 2009, Vol. 12, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

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Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Family Ties

Sanford and Wife

Who Killed George Tiller?

Obama in Cairo

When Push Comes to Twitter

Airing the Syrian Laundry

Our Crowd

The Irish Map of Hell

The Baptists Shrink

The Episcopalian Split

Claiming The King's Soul


New books

Claiming the King's Soul
by Andrew Walsh

Michael Jackson’s untimely and unexpected death on June 25th restored the King of Pop to the main stage of American popular culture, where he had played a starring role for much of the 1970s and 1980s.

The news of Jackson’s death—apparently by a drug overdose—caused a multi-media frenzy that lasted almost all summer but reaching its peak at Jackson’s July 7 funeral in Los Angeles, which, the New York Daily News reported, was “the second most-watched funeral ever, after Princess Di’s.”

“Michael Jackson is still dead,” the Philadelphia Inquirer’s grumpy columnist Karen Heller opined on the morning of the funeral. “The Michael Jackson Industrial Death Complex, however, thrives in its infancy. Dead Michael is fuel for tabloids, chat shows, and cable news because, clearly, the economy, two wars, and nuclear-arms talks are not newsy enough.”

The Jackson saga presented too much grist for the mill: a talented child superstar who evolved into a child-man; a global entertainment phenomenon-cum-recluse; a generous benefactor and spectacular spendthrift; a middle-aged Peter Pan or possibly pedophile whose career reached its nadir when he was acquitted in a 2005 criminal trial on charges of sexually abusing children whose friendship he had cultivated.

While there was plenty of attention to the creepy side of Jackson’s life in the media, his death was treated, as blogger Robert Schlesinger noted in a June 26 comment on, as an “all-consuming, world stopping EVENT.” In line with that perception, NBC and ABC suspended regular programming the evening after his death was announced to broadcast special memorial programs.

The hoopla continued until early September, when Jackson was interred at the most appropriate place imaginable—Los Angeles’ celebrity-studded Forest Lawn cemetery. Throughout, the central conundrum was how to comprehend what Lisa Robinson, in the September issue of Vanity Fair, called Jackson’s “unparalleled fame and dark troubles.”

One way to go, ABC News’ Charles Gibson remarked in his broadcast coverage, was to forget about the complexities of Jackson’s life: “People have gone back to the music,'” he told Martin Bashir, whose 2003 documentary on Jackson led to the 2005 criminal trial. “It's as if the last 10 or 15 years didn’t happen.”

And while most people did indeed seem willing to focus on the music, that didn’t resolve the question of why they were willing to overlook so much.

A better interpretive route, and one explored more often by foreign (and particularly English) journalists, was to look at the powerful religious forces at play in and around Jackson and, in particular, at the salience of African-American religion in contemporary American and global culture.

Jackson, who had emerged as a stellar example of the “spiritual but not religious” American, manifested a kind of suffering and brokenness in his life and work that appealed powerfully to many people. His version of R. Kelly’s “You Not Alone,” for example, had become a standard at funerals all over the world.

Since breaking from the Jehovah’s Witnesses in young adulthood, Jackson was associated at least briefly with a slew of religious movements, even as he consorted with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. Michael Paulson of the Boston Globe captured this protean religious identity in a brief piece published on July 5:

“The King of Pop was a Jehovah’s Witness. A Muslim. He accepted Jesus before he died. The Vatican loved him. There’s even a Jewish angle of sorts. Not to mention the unending discussion of what it meant to call him an icon, or an idol.”

Paulson went on to note that in recent years there had been widespread discussions about both Jackson’s conversion to Islam and to evangelical Christianity. Both rumors flared up at Jackson’s death, notably when his brother Jermaine, a Muslim, declared at a press conference that he wished for his brother, “May Allah be with you always.”

To be sure, the New York Daily News had begun knocking down reports of Jackson’s conversion to Islam as far back as 2003. But the Chicago Sun-Times kept the story alive, following up a speech by Minister Louis Farrakhan on July 26 that described Jackson as a “Messianic voice” and “an archangel of sound, song, and dance” by quoting a Jackson aide who insisted that “Michael again was thinking closely about becoming a Muslim.”

Christian friends thought otherwise. Christianity Today’s online service reported in late June a “web frenzy” over reports among a circle of Christian music artists of Jackson’s born-again experience just before his death. One June 28 Bully! picked up comments made by Erica Campbell of the Gospel duo Mary-Mary on her Facebook page.

Under the headline “Good News—RIP Michael Jackson,” Campbell wrote. “Last night we received some good news from Terri McFaddin-Solomon who is good friends with Sandra Crouch. Three weeks ago Sandra and Andrae spend some time with their close friend, Michael Jackson. Michael asked Andrae to play, “It Won’t Be Long and We’ll Be Leaving Here.’ Michael then prayed with Sandra and Andre and accepted Christ into his heart. Now he’s singing in the heavenly choir! Our hearts rejoice!”

Christianity Today then rolled back the rumor, noting on June 29 that “initial rumors that the King of Pop had accepted Christ may have been false.” The Crouches had issued a statement saying they had prayed with Jackson and discussed the “anointing of the spirit” but added that there was “NO actual sinner’s prayer.”

Muslims and Christians weren’t the only ones to stake their claims. Earlier in the decade, followers of popular Kabbalah had suggested that Jackson was deeply involved in that movement, as had Scientologists during Jackson’s brief marriage to Lisa Marie Presley.

“Everyone wants Jackson’s soul in their own bit of paradise,” concluded the ascerbic Tim Adams of the London Observer, in long analytical piece published October 4 that provided the best account of Jackson’s complicated spiritual journey. At the turbulent center of that journey, Adams theorized, was the volatile tension between Jackson’s mother, Katherine, who remains a fervent Jehovah’s Witness, and his father, Joe, a driven, ambitious, and irreligious man.

“Katherine tried to bring all of her boys up as Jehovah’s Witnesses, in part to balance the influence of their wayward father and their life on the road,” Adams wrote. “Of them all, Michael, who said on various occasions that he wanted nothing more than approval in his mother’s eyes…stayed true to the faith the longest.”

Jackson continued to attend Witness services and to make weekly mission trips around Los Angeles with his mother as late as 1988, a commitment he recalled fondly in a column in 2000.

In 1988, wrote Adams, Jackson “finally decided that the religion was not compatible with his life and he formally left the church, which for Jehovah’s Witnesses is “the unforgivable sin. Thereafter it seemed he had a God-shaped hole in his life. Jackson’s soul was up for grabs to any religion that could whisper persuasively in his ear.”

“The religion that Jackson really believed in most, though, was the fairytale he told himself about his lost childhood,” Adams wrote. Others accepted this too, but usually without the sneer.

Permeating the discourse about Jackson after his death were comparisons made to Christ and his suffering, particularly by African-Americans. Most of these stressed the unfair accusations against Jackson and his sufferings at the hands of a stern father.

This motif reached truly grandiose proportions in the hands of Cornell West, the Princeton philosopher and religious thinker, who told PBS’ Tavis Smiley on July 7 that Jackson’s difficult later life was “almost like a crucifixion, in terms of the cross you have to bear. We reap the fruits of the resurrection, in terms of the power that emanates from [Michael Jackson’s] sacrifice. He sacrificed his childhood because he loved us so. He didn’t just entertain us, he sustained us.”

The crescendo of diffuse religious competition culminated in the dispute among the surviving Jackson brothers, men of various religions and no religion, as they planned the funeral. As reported by Joe Kemp and Samuel Goldsmith in the New York Daily News July 6, the brothers “couldn’t agree on which religion should guide the King of Pop’s memorial service, so they’re going without one.” Instead, they “opted for a non-denominational event.”

At first, the funeral seemed likely to turn into a giant spectacle—with a fan lottery for tickets and Los Angeles officials beseeching those without them not to flood the streets of the city. Most commentators were expecting a vulgar Hollywood blowout.

Glitz there was. Jackson was borne into the Staples Center in a gold casket. There were 20,000 in attendance. The brothers wore matching yellow ties and a single silver glove in homage to their brother. There were eulogistic comments from Brooke Shields, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, and Berry Gordy, who called Jackson “simply the greatest entertainer that ever lived.”

 Yet, to almost everyone’s surprise, the three-hour-long funeral turned out to be a dignified affair. “A spiritual farewell for Michael,” the Newark Star Ledger summarized in a typical headline. “Jackson’s sincere sendoff left little room for weirdness,” echoed the Chicago Sun-Times.

Non-denominational meant, it turned out, mainstream African-American Protestant. While symbols from many world religions were on display in the Staples Center, the tone and most of the content of the service came straight from the black church playbook.

Jackson’s coffin was brought into the hall while a gospel choir sang, “We Are Going to See the King”—Jesus, not Jackson. Later, Andrae Crouch’s choir sang Crouch’s own “Soon and Very Soon We Will See the King.”

Gladys Knight sang the Lord’s Prayer, Lionel Richie sang “Jesus is Love,” while pointing a finger skyward. Singer Judith Hill sang Jackson’s “Heal the World,” and prompted her mother to tell Christianity Today that “it seems like God put her there for a purpose—to bring hope. We’re praying that the Lord will use her music and she will be an ambassador for Christ through her music.”

Even Mariah Carey closed her rendition of the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There,” by calling out, “Thank You, Jesus.”

The Rev. Lucious W. Smith, the pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena, presided with an inclusive touch:

“First and foremost, this man was our brother, our son, our father and our friend. In his very beautiful and very human heart, Michael Jackson wanted nothing more than to give love to the world. May this moment of remembrance…bring comfort and healing to those who loved our friend.”

There were many times that “the memorial went back to church, reminding fans in attendance that this was a service, not simply a concert,” Los Angeles Times’ music critic Ann Power reported July 8. “The gospel elements also reinforced the connection between Jackson’s career and the civil rights movement made in speeches by several political leaders, including two of Martin Luther King Jr.’s children, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, and the Rev. Al Sharpton.”

“‘He outsang the cynics, he outdanced his doubters, he outperformed the

pessimists,’ said Sharpton of Jackson, making a strong contribution to the fascinating process of Jackson’s posthumous rehabilitation as an African American hero.

“‘Don’t focus on the scars, focus on the journey. Every time he got knocked down, he got back up,’ Sharpton concluded.”

And so, in the contest over Michael Jackson, it seems pretty clear that the winner was the black church tradition. That’s not altogether surprising, given the backgrounds of those who shaped and conducted the service. And given the increasingly central role of African-American religion in the broader culture.

In this day, African-American religiosity conveys dignity, conviction, and religious authenticity without making anyone nervous. As Jackson’s funeral showed, fervent talk about Jesus is neither inauthentic nor exclusive when it comes from black voices.


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