Belfast Telegraph

Why Elvis and Johnny Cash are more at home in church than you might think

Music of Elvis and Cash encompasses struggle between good and evil and is ideal for church, maintains Gail Walker

The congregation of St Canice's in Eglinton were rocked - both literally and metaphorically - when Elvis impersonator Andy Rodgers led the worship with a show featuring a number of Presley's most famous hits including Blue Suede Shoes and All Shook Up as well as gospel numbers such as Take My Hand Precious Lord and How Great Thou Art. The routine featured three costume changes: Army Elvis, 1968 Comeback Elvis and Las Vegas Elvis.

The idea was the brainchild of St Canice's minister the Rev Paul Hoey, who said: "Last year I heard Andy Rodgers sing at a concert. As I listened it began to dawn on me how many of the songs related to the message of the Church."

The night was certainly a success, with the church packed to the rafters and worshippers coming from as far afield as Belfast and Dungannon. Indeed, it was so successful that it may be followed up with a Johnny Cash-themed service.

More: Worshippers all shook up as 'Elvis' performs during church service in Northern Ireland

Rev Hoey said the event - the first of its kind in Northern Ireland - was "partly an Elvis gig and partly an act of worship".

Perhaps, not surprisingly, there has been something of a backlash, with some questioning the appropriateness of an Elvis tribute gig in a church. And maybe in retrospect there may have been fewer hurt feelings if the 'gig' had been held in the local church hall.

I can sympathise with those who feel that it simply isn't fit for secular songs to be sung in a place of worship.

Many traditionalists will be scandalised, but the idea of a string quartet performing among the pews mightn't have raised the hackles so much. And, indeed, many are now inured to the plink plonk of a teenager at a synthesiser and his mate battering a drum kit...

Of course, we need to remember that both Elvis and Cash were stars who were also avowed Christians. Their relationships with what they perceived to be their God were central to lives and their artistic output.

Even a cursory awareness of the culture they sprang from would reveal that - like Whitney Houston, for example - these were people for whom the Bible and its potent metaphors of sin and redemption remained central to their lives and music.

Both Elvis and Cash were from Ameica's Deep South, the buckle of the Bible belt, and - as seems a peculiarly local theological bent - both saw the sinner and the saint curiously intermingled in the individual. Elvis was raised in the fundamentalist Pentecostal tradition; Cash in the Pentecostal Baptist. Theirs was a kind of visceral, born-in-the-bone faith where the God and the Devil - again both literally and metaphorically - were wrestling within us.

We have a bit of that type of thing in our own psyches right here in Northern Ireland.

The body and the soul. Sometimes complementing each other, sometimes at war with each other.

Presley's critics when he burst on the scene were right - he embodied everything that was risky, tempting, seductive and young. Impossibly handsome, impossibly gifted, he came to represent the 20th Century more than any other single individual. Yes, while it would have happened anyway, it would have happened differently: Elvis ushered in the modern world as we know it.

Cash was even more problematic. 'The Man In Black' represented modern man helplessly tossed between his better and his bestial nature. Was there ever a meaner, more nihilistic line in modern music then Cash's "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" from Folsom Prison Blues?

And yet at every stage in his career, through all the vicissitudes of his vexed life, Cash's fascination for the watching millions was grounded in the greatest spectacle: God vs the Devil; Good vs Evil; the Light vs the Dark. They were dualities that were to shade his work right to the end - he reads from Revelation in The Man Comes Around.

Of course, these were flawed people and critics are right to highlight their failures. Both had periods of drug abuse - oddly, in both cases, largely on prescription medication.

But both were also great Gospel singers. Their songs of praise such as Presley's His Hand In Mine, Amazing Grace, In My Father's House, Peace In The Valley, and Cash's Were You There, He Turned Water Into Wine as well as of course the bleak later recordings like God's Gonna Cut You Down are compelling precisely because their lives - like ours - are hopelessly mired in personal failures, foolishness and downright selfishness.

Elvis says "Before you abuse, criticise and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes."

It's hard not to listen to such recordings and not feel moved by the power, the authenticity of their struggles.

Whether you believe in religion or not, in God or not, those are a reminder that great forces in life are at play - that we can do good, do evil, fall in our own eyes and the eyes of others, judge and be judged, be punished and still be redeemed.

And deep down in the places beyond reason and logic, we recognise those truths, those trials and dangers in the authenticity of their recordings.

The truth is, in our 21st Century, voices such as Elvis and Cash carry the message of salvation often more vividly and more engagingly than any number of well-meaning clergy. Yet they too were humble enough to recognise that a simple pastor could have a message of hope, even for megastars.

In any case, the whole point is to get people in through the door of the church. The challenge facing pastors nowadays is not simply to satisfy the grey occupants of a few pews on a Sunday, but to engage directly with younger people - even if the 'younger' people attracted by Elvis and Cash may be in their 50s and 60s! That's how far behind the times the beleaguered churches have fallen. It's not as if it's rap artists and hip-hop performers who prowl the aisles, scarifying old Mrs Annett in her fox fur.

Whether it's a homeless person looking for a pew to sleep on for the night, a drunk wandered in to the back of the service, or a couple fancying an evening of high-octane ballads before a curry, it's all about attraction rather than preaching, and it's the Church's job then to make the most of the opportunity presented to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

In that context, it is perhaps churlish to quibble about whether such 'performances' are fit for a place of worship.

If there is one thing that both these gentlemen evidence, it is that, contrary to the old criticism about modern music, the Devil, in fact, doesn't have all the best tunes.

Not by a very long chalk.

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