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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  • http://newine.wordpress.com ultraguy

    A golden-calf moment if there ever was one. Great commentary. May God forgive such gross idolatry.

  • Dave G.

    This reminds me of Princess Diana. In the end, both were tabloid fodder. The bulk of the coverage of both was based on scandals and sensationalism. Suddenly, when both died, we were informed that their humanitarianism was the only reason we ever cared, and each one was lifted up and venerated far beyond what the historical record can validate. I’m not sure why it happened that way, or what the connection happens to be, but to me it’s England’s Rose all over again.

  • Steve Walker

    Thank you for an excellent commentary. The past week has tragic for two reasons: the level of the media frenzy and
    the overwhelming level of celebrity induced idolatry that is
    now the heart of American culture. Ultraguy was spot on, ” a
    golden-calf moment”. If you don’t think we are a Post-Christian nation you were not paying enought attention yesterday.

  • Christine Moore

    Since you saw only a small part of the ceremony, here are a few things worth pointing out:
    *This was not a funeral, it was a memorial. (And organizers mentioned it was to be in part a celebration of his life..)
    *Since Jackson had a worldwide audience during his lifetime, it seems the inter-faith symbols were respectful of the people of various faiths watching. Does being respectful of people who have another faith equate to denying your own?
    *I think if you had heard the closing prayer (did you?), you would have heard Pastor Lucious W. Smith of the Friendship Baptist Church (who said words to the effect that the king of pop is bowing to the King of Kings) ask for everyone in agreement with his praying in the name of Jesus to say ‘Amen.’
    *Aren’t Christ’s followers supposed to be Christ-like? Why would you conclude by celebrating the good that Michael did in his life that he was portrayed as a Messiah?

    Cicely Tyson mentioned in an interview following the service that (paraphrasing) those who choose not to see how Michael was a uniter and not a divider simply do not want to see. Amen.

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  • http://lutheran-101.blogspot.com Rev. A. J. Wollenburg

    Good post, Mollie. And we in the church who have people who watch this garbage on TV day in and day out and who then see it being copied by the methobapticostal churches in American evangelicalism (with their constant lust after all things entertainment-related, from worship style to coiffed hair and bejeweled fingers to super-duper suit of clothing of the “evangelist” du jour)wonder why so many who call themselves “Christian” think that their own funeral should resemble this sort of popularity mess, funerals which invoke the whole Golden Calf episode and worship of Baal scenario of Old Testament fame. Would that people died in the real hope in Christ their Savior so that this nonsense would be totally unnecessary. Alas, so long as folks hope in all things besides Christ, and as long as preachers (well intended but naive or just cheap “burying Sam’s” who are in it for the money) continue to accommodate folks thus, the world will continue to have such silly funerals . . . it is, after all, all they have. :-(

  • Dan Crawford

    Thanks, Mollie. You showed a great deal of restraint and charity in your commentary for what was surely one of the most grotesque events in recent history. America’s famous media critic and one of its two leading living mummies spent most of his program last evening spilling superlatives all over his coverage of the event. It must have been a true life-changing event for him.

  • Connie


  • Dave G.

    Would that people died in the real hope in Christ their Savior so that this nonsense would be totally unnecessary.

    Don’t assume that all who have funerals apart from those you describe as preferable die without the real hope in Christ their Savior. :)

  • Renee

    Doubt you felt that way about Elvis.

    The song usher sung, was actually a Michael jackson song. The only songs that weren’t were the stevie wonder song and smile.

    It was a memorial service, not a funeral service they serve different purposes. At a funeral – yes you talk about GOD and the deceased position with him, however at the memorial, it is the time for each individual to remember the deceased. This even includes shedding light on parts of the person’s life that others may not have been aware of.

    How you dont know that is beyond me.

  • Lindy

    MJ did not come back alive in 3 days so I guess that settles the issue of him being the Son of God

  • DeRon

    Its all good cause a good source said that a famous Pastor/Choir director who helped on Man in the Mirror, minister to MJ three weeks before he died..And he accepted….God knows what He is doing…..

  • steve weatherbe

    Adulation for Michael Jackson in a seriously religious way is not new. I remember 20 years ago Jehovah Witnesses–young ones–were at least briefly caught up in the belief he was the Archangel Michael and his presence on earth presaged the Second Coming. Of course, JWs have been,, notoriously, predicting the Second Coming since World War One

  • Ted Smith

    Mormons too are known for their funerals–we take them very seriously. While all funerals tend to focus of the good aspects of the deceased (and downplay their failings), turning them into Christ-figures it all a bit much. As a Mormon, I know that other Christians disagree with our view of Christ–but I think we can all agree He is not Michael Jackson.

  • Chris

    I would really like to read more about your justification for calling this civil religion. I think I get it, but it doesn’t really fit my paradigm.

  • Lorit

    There’s no spiritual value, only remembering his past.

  • T. C.

    Interesting. As a Baptist Pastor I am getting ready to do a funeral for a person that didn’t know Christ. What do you do on such occasions? You read the obit, and then you present the Gospel. One of the things I always say at such times, is “If great aunt / uncle, so and so, were able to come back right now, they would want you to know something”, and then I present how “God” say’s is, The Way, The Truth, and The Life. This is a perfect opportunity to present, “The Real Gospel”, to all those hurting throngs of civil religiosity out there. I have already done that for our youth group. Amen?

  • Deanne


    Millions of little members of the worldwide F.F.A. (Future Followers of the Antichrist) have finally learned how to find a certain part of their lower anatomy and quickly touch it while dancing – thanks to Michael Jackson, the highest paid Lower Anatomy Toucher of all time! Special thanks also go to the Jesus-bashing, Hell-bound Hollywood moguls who were just as quick to see higher profits in lower anatomies! [Just saw this opinion on the web. Other grabby items on MSN, Google, etc. include "Separation of Raunch and State," "David Letterman's Hate, Etc.," "Tribulation Index becomes Rapture Index," and "Bible Verses Obama Avoids." - something for everyone!]