Wednesday, July 08, 2009

A "Communal Wafer"?

That's how one popular culture expert on CBC Radio described the funeral of Michael Joseph Jackson. One of the throng watching the proceedings in a Toronto plaza claimed, "Only Michael could bring the world together." Many agreed with this sentiment, perhaps best expressed in the Anthem "We are the World" sung at the climax of Jackson's memorial service yesterday. Yet others cynically disparaged the shirking of its responsibility by the global media, claiming that there were far more important things happening in the world (for a sample, see Michael Trapido's catalogue here), and that the memorializing of "the king of pop" was better left to the dedicated entertainment channels--a distinction increasingly anachronistic in today's world. Indeed, the "event" of MJ's memorial service becoming a mass-mediated site of global communion invites some theological reflection, and I can't resist the temptation.

I grew up with MJ's music, and can remember him with "The Jackson 5" on the Ed Sullivan Show as a 12 year old, as the front man of "The Jacksons" as a teen in the disco years, and of course the transcendent pop genius of his solo careerin the 1980s. I especially remember sneaking into the room in Bible College where they kept the recording machines for Homeletics class (we weren't allowed TVs in our rooms) with some of the other guys. The contraband tape was not porn, but the extended video of "Thriller." It was one of the first videos I'd ever seen, though I'd never, indeed no one had ever, seen anything like it. We watched it again and again, mesmerized by MJ's ability to narrate, to colour narrative with a range of emotions, with his body. (If you haven't seen it, go. Watch it. Now). The day of his memorial service I downloaded about 40 songs from his extensive catalogue, and remembered.

The iconic music can't be easily separated from the iconic man. Nor should we try, even though the arc of his life (that included Thriller) could not have been plotted easily in that Bible College room. And Jackson's life, especially in the past decade, if nothing else has had an air of carnival about it. The seclusion punctuated by brief and sometimes bizarre public appearances, the media frenzy around child-abuse allegations, and the theme-park attempts to recapture lost childhood were the marks of someone for whom the limelight was both toxic and invigorating. And the memorials to that life, near and far, while celebrating the music did so with an air of carnival. There was a troupe of Newfoundlanders, for instance, who had made a video performing the dance moves from Thriller in St. John's by the harbour. And outside the Staples Center, as one reporter averred, it was indeed a circus. People dressed as Michael moonwalked as others bought T-shirts and special commemorative hot dogs. Elephants joined the funeral procession (well, actually they'd arrived the night before as part of a real circus), featuring a gold-plated casket covered in red roses.

But inside was a different story. There was an air of dignity, solemnity, and reverence. And that venue was transformed into a church by the performances which included not only pop music, but hymn, speech, and procession. Perhaps there was ambiguity in the singing of "soon and very soon, we are going to see the King" as the casket was brought in. But the meaning was soon shifted from the "king of pop" to the King of Kings; the sentiment no-one dared challenge was that Michael was already in the presence of that King. But the slippage was not entirely resolved. Speaker after speaker sought to remove ambiguity from the "circus life" of Jackson, displacing it onto the mass media. Rev. Al Sharpton, addressing the Jackson children, opined: "Wasn't nothin' strange about your daddy. It was strange what he had to deal with." [I have to confess that while the addresses of MLK's children were deeply moving in this regard, Marlon's farewell at the end and Paris Michael's coda alike tear-wrenching, I found the "America at its best" speech by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee nauseatingly self-serving and transparently partisan.] Even "behind the wall," the myth-making continued as the king of pop was transformed Saint Michael the Martyr.

Of course, this was too much for some--witness the diatribe of another politician, Peter King. Indeed, that Jackson himself was and is a site of struggle has continued to be evident through the coverage of his death. This was addressed not only in moral questions about the goodness of his actions, but in the very nature of Jackson's ambiguous racial identity. While one African American fan spoke of how his dictum "it doesn't matter if you're black or white" empowered her as a public person, Jamie Foxx claimed Jackson as "one of ours... that we shared with the world." Paradoxically, the same body could be a site of both non-racialism and Black pride. While Foxx is right in saying that Jackson's was music rooted in Motown, soul, and gospel, it's also true that Jackson's was perhaps the last and best true "popular" music, a music that transcends barriers of race, class, and religion.

I don't want to add interpretive excess to what is already an event of excess, but I think Jackson's struggle--the disappearing nose, the bleached skin, the straight hair, the ageless and strangely asexual appearance of his latter years--can be read as a struggle to embody a genuine catholicity (which we might define theologically as "a wholeness that brings wholeness") which draws all particularities into itself. Certainly the desire of his fans which coursed through MJ's body--and body of work--for a "we" that makes up humanity can only be realized in another body: the broken, disfigured, and Jewish body of Jesus Christ.

I'm arguing that "We are the World"--with its symbols of cross, cresent, and Star of David morphing into each other like so many consumer choices in a global shopping mall--must give way to "the world in a wafer." For the Eucharist, writes William Cavanaugh, gathers all times, all places, all particularities together in a way mass culture can only parody. For Cavanaugh, the eucharistic gathering is not a virtual gathering mediated electronically, but a real gathering in and through the real presence of the triune God in each locality. Such a gathering does not efface difference, cosmetically removing the marks of particularity ("difference," in Kenneth Surin's phrase, "as mere difference"), but affirms it. This affirmation of difference doesn't thereby invoke identity wars, for in Christ's body dividing walls (Jew-Gentile; male-female; slave-free; black-white; young-old) are broken down. And we see, experience, participate in this performance of the Body of Christ not through twittering comments to a web site in cyberspace, but by sharing real bread and wine under trees in the African veld, inside the tin shacks of a township, surrounded by the cold stone of a cathedral, or any other space "where two or three gather" in Jesus' name. This is a performance that brings us close in memory to the origins of the people of God in God's covenant, and in anticipation to the consummation of history.

In the performance of the Eucharist--and in extending that performance into works of mercy and justice--we share in the sufferings of the body of Christ around the world, and await the time--indeed participate in the time--of global healing of God's world.

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