The Elvis in All of Us: Responding to “The Seeker King: The Spirituality Biography of Elvis Presley”

There is a saying, “God is like Elvis, you see God everywhere.” In light of Gary Tillery’s The Seeker King, we might say “We are like Elvis, you’ll see us everywhere.”  Elvis Presley once admitted, “All I want is to know the truth, to know and experience God. I’m a searcher, that’s what I’m all about.”  Behind the persona, fame, and fanfare, Elvis was a seeker.  His broad interest in scripture, mystical experience, theosophy, and healing might lead us to describe him as “spiritual but not religious.”  As such, we can see Elvis everywhere, especially in the growing number of persons who are non-affiliated with any religious institution (“the nones”), who still care about their spiritual lives and the well-being of others.

According to Tillery, Elvis received guidance in his religious quest, but the guidance wasn’t enough to prevent a life of dissipation.  Though deeply steeped in the Pentecostal and evangelical Christian traditions of his childhood, Elvis, in Tillery’s account, did not seek serious counsel from Christian religious leaders.  Perhaps, he felt that they could not understand or accept a spiritual quest that was multi-dimensional in nature: Pentecostal, yet Hindu; gospel yet new age; pious yet embodied.  In many ways, we can see Elvis in the growing number of persons who practice multiple or hybrid spiritualities or identify with the inter-spiritual movement.  Many of us who are pastors encounter people who are “in the closet” spiritually: the choir member who practices reiki healing touch; the deacon who goes to a Zen monastery; the church school teacher who spends an hour a day doing Transcendental Meditation; the pastoral caregiver who recites new age affirmations and finds insight in popular texts such as The Secret or The Celestine Prophecy.  Often these people are embarrassed to share their spiritual practices and insights with their pastors; they are afraid that they will be judged or caricatured. They are concerned, even in talking with liberal pastors, that their spiritual paths will be diminished or seen as superficial compared to the faith of the saints handed down through the ages.

Listen, for example, to the tone of an otherwise open and affirming, inclusive pastor, and then ask yourself the following question: If you were a seeker, would you attend this church if this is what the pastor thought of your spiritual quest?

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out that I am

a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual

but not religious.”  Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of

daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status

quo.

Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets.  These

people always find God in the sunsets.  And in walks in the beach.  Sometimes

I think these people never the leave the beach or the mountains, what with all

the communicating with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails, and …did I

mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset![1]

A decade ago, I was inspired to write a book on Christianity and reiki healing touch as a result of encounters with lay leaders, enrolled in my healing class at Wesley Theological Seminary.[2] All of them had experiences with non-Christian religions and various forms of energy work, but none of them had shared their spiritual passions with their pastors.  When I asked why they were silent about what was central to their spiritual lives, they responses included, “I don’t think he’s interested in spirituality,” “I’m afraid he’d think I’m a nut,” “I worry that he would criticize me for my interest in healing.” [The responses were all about “he’s” but they could also have included women clergy as well.]  Sadly, I know many pastors who are afraid to share their deepest spiritual insights and practices with their congregants.

Elvis is us!  Elvis is the millions of seekers who pass by our churches every day, assuming our churches have nothing to offer them, and that the last place to find spiritual counsel is in the church.   I believe we can respond to the many Elvises or Elvi among us.  Those of us who are progressive and open and affirming or welcoming spiritually need to become truly welcoming to diversity, including diversity in spiritual and healing practices.  This doesn’t mean that we are always uncritical, although first we need to listen and understand.  In our roles as pastors, we are called to provide spiritual counsel that helps people live holistic and integrated lives in which the whole of their lives and their many practices fit together. We can do this initially by the following:

  • Making clear that we are open to talk to anyone about anything spiritual in nature, regardless of its source.
  • Sharing our own spiritual journeys.
  • Affirming our openness to spiritual/mystical experiences.
  • Making connections between Christian and non-Christian wisdom.  (Initially, perhaps by invoking the thoughts of highly-respected non-Christians such as Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)
  • Offering classes and speakers on themes in popular spirituality and healing.
  • Offering classes in Christian spirituality.  (Such classes almost always encourage sharing of personal spiritual practices.)
  • Learning a non-Christian spiritual practice.
  • Reading popular and academic texts on non-Christian spiritual practices and sharing their insights when appropriate.

I believe that such first steps, grounded in a strongly committed yet open Christian faith, will provide an open-door to seekers in your church as well as spiritual but not religious persons.  They will know that you, and hopefully your church, are truly welcoming and willing to accompany them on their spiritual journeys.  Perhaps, this is what Elvis needed; perhaps this is what the many Elvises we see everywhere also need to experience a healing and life-transforming spirituality.  Perhaps, this is what our churches need to become truly whole person and vital in spirituality and mission.[3]


[1] Lillian Daniel, When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough:  Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church (Nashville: Jericho Books, 2013), 127-128.

[2] Bruce Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly, Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus, (Kelowna, BC: Woodlake Books, 2005).

[3] For more on inclusive theology, see Bruce Epperly, Loosely Christian: Answering God’s Invitation to a Creative Faith for Today (Denver, CO: Bondfire Books, 2013).

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).


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