Michael Jackson as pop theologian (and celebrity god)

Wondering this morning if there was a religious dimension to the life — or death — of Michael Jackson, I came across reports that he had converted to Islam.

Somehow I had missed it.

Reading several reports from last year about his conversion, it’s not clear to me that he really did become a Muslim. The guy was pretty reclusive, after all. And he could have changed his mind by now. But it’s possible.

We know that he spent most of his life as a Jehovah’s Witness. And that he was, well, Michael Jackson, with everything that being Michael Jackson entails.

Anthea Butler, an historian of American religion who is in residence at Harvard Divinity School’s Women’s Studies in Religion Program, writes on ReligionDispatches today that MJ was something of a tabloid god.

If you think about it, it makes some sense.

It’s been over the last 25 years or so — the age of Jackson — that America has become a celebrity-worshiping nation. I know we’ve always loved Marilyn and Bogart and Bing and all those guys, but things have been different since the ’80s.

Celebrities now dominate the news, the royalty of our culture. And Michael Jackson was the king — or a god.

Butler also notes the spiritual, if humanistic, component of MJ’s songs. And I guess you can find it, if you can put aside some of the ugliness and weirdness that surrounded the last third of his life.

She writes:

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Yet, for all of the crass tabloid fodder, Michael was his best when singing these hopeful songs that called listeners to become a better human being. He most certainly reached more people than the average religious figure, and his songs had an affect on an entire generation weaned on MTV. His own religious journey, from his childhood as a Jehovah’s Witness, to a foray in the Nation of Islam, to finally professing Shahada to become a Muslim, shows an interior struggle, despite all of the fame, to find the peace he so often sang about. In all of the accolades and obituaries to come, Jackson will never be called a theologian, though he was one. A Pop theologian, to be sure, but a theologian nonetheless. Struggling with his humanity, half man, half child, he danced as much to entertain I suspect, as to take away his pain. In the dance, he became transcendent, divine. And in the end, it was the very body that he used to beguile millions that failed him.

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(AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

ADD: Deepak Chopra, who was a friend of MJ’s and had contact with him in the last few days, shares his thoughts about the Mysterious One on Beliefnet.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.