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Pop gods: it's all representational

Deepak Chopra says:

"Michael Jackson and the God Feeling

In startling ways pop culture mirrors long-standing spiritual arguments. In an age where the stage has replaced the pulpit -- where the line between the two is all but invisible -- morality is played out in the lives of celebrities. This is an unsettling phenomenon. Princess Diana slips into the role of Holy Mother almost equal with Mother Teresa. Michael Jackson's call to "Heal the World" in a pop song spreads to every corner of the planet and probably touches more people than the Pope's annual Christmas message.

With the sudden, sad death of Michael Jackson, whom I knew well for twenty years, a specific point of theology comes to life and haunts us. I'm thinking of Manichaeism, a Gnostic doctrine born in Persia in the third century, whose central idea is "the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness," as the Wikipedia entry puts it. Manichaeism pictured the destiny of the world, and each soul, in terms of black versus white, and so potent is the idea that it has permeated race relations, cultural divides, wars, and the whole tendency to demonize "them," those people who are different from us and therefore exist outside the light.

It's hard not to see Michael Jackson as a pop martyr to this kind of either/or thinking. His hit song, "Black or White," insisted that "it don't matter if you're black or white," something he deeply believed in. His skin changed from black to white because of vitiligo, but the public and press mistinterpreted this as a conscious attempt to change his skin and took it as the mark of someone who didn't know what world he belonged in. But I don't want to trade in symbols. As a real person, Michael struggled between extremes, and his vulnerability to the shadow side of human nature was very poignant. The tabloids consigned him to the dark side via cheap, sensationalized stories that verged on the ghoulish (stories he fed with behavior that flirted far too much with transgressive behavior). But the other aspect of Manichaeism was also there, an evangelical desire to bring light and healing to the whole world. The paradox of how one person could be so innocent and so disturbing at the same time remains a mystery.

I began to ponder Michael's nature after I received an e-mail that pointed to "the transcendent feeling he inspired in so many people with his music and his dancing. There was almost a religious, ritualistic feeling to it. He seemed to be in another zone when he was performing and took others with him." I agree, but the wider phenomenon is the "God feeling" communicated to millions of people through pop culture. Princess Diana played a key part, as Bono and Sting still do, as Live Aid concerts do. A transient mass communion substitutes for the traditional communion offered in church; a global feeling of oneness transcends the unity of small religious communities.

The flaws in this God feeling are obvious. It doesn't last. Strangers are brought together for a moment, usually through mass media, only to return to being strangers once the moment is gone. The message being communicated is far simpler than the doctrines and dogmas of organized faiths. All of which can make the God feeling seem superficial and sentimental. Did Michael Jackson really heal the world in any meaningful sense? Did it help Princess Diana to be elevated to saintly status when in reality her private life contained more than its share of trouble, confusion, and turmoil?

None of us are in a position to say. Communion is an actual phenomenon, however, and without it, we would feel much more alone and divided. In Afghanistan a pop talent show known as "Afghan Star" is watched by half the country's population. On the surface it looks like any other imitation of "American Idol," until you learn that this show is the most important vehicle for warring tribes and divisive religious traditions to view each other in peace. Via TV entertainment, "they" don't look as dark and ominous to "us." One is reminded that pop communion may, in fact, be the only kind that doesn't exclude anybody. The God feeling is important just because it isn't bound by doctrine and dogma. No one is outside the fold. When an audience lights candles and sways to "Heal the World," a space is created where nobody is unholy, no religion can exercise its imaginary exclusive patent on the true God. To the extent that Michael inspired such a feeling, he healed his own demons and ours, if only for an hour.

In some way that merges psychology and faith, Michael Jackson did play out the ancient split between dark and light; he was deliberately Manichean in his dangerous game with the media but also deeply divided. I come away feeling deeply distressed that he was imprisoned by a theological idea that has caused so much damage and distortion over the centuries. There is no cosmic war between dark and light, as I see it. Only one reality exists, and it's the human mind that judges and categorizes. We blow our own manmade suffering into grandiose cosmic schemes, and then we bow down and worship effigies to our own self-judgment. But that's an argument for another day. Today I linger on the rare thing that Michael accomplished. He inspired the God feeling in millions of people, and even amidst the grief at his sad undoing, a remembrance of that feeling comes through."

By Deepak Chopra | June 29, 2009; 7:48 PM ET

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7/03/2009

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