I was wondering how long I could hold out before blogging about Michael Jackson, and now I know the answer: six days.
In those days since the King of Pop died, I've now seen so many items about his faith that my head is starting to spin. He was a Jehovah's Witness. A Muslim. He accepted Jesus before he died. The Vatican loved him, but was that right? There's even a Jewish angle of sorts. Not to mention the unending discussion of what it means to call him an icon, or an idol. Some folks have suggested that his funeral will shed some light on his final faith practices, but I'm not holding out much hope for that.
Here is a brief Michael Jackson religion roundup. Make of it what you will:
- Jackson was raised a Jehovah's Witness, and there have been a variety of unconfirmed reports that at some point he was disfellowshipped by the Witnesses. Back in 2000, Jackson penned an essay for Beliefnet about his relationship to the Sabbath, and in it he discussed doorbelling to preach for the Witnesses:
"Sundays were my day for 'Pioneering,' the term used for the missionary work that Jehovah's Witnesses do. We would spend the day in the suburbs of Southern California, going door to door or making the rounds of a shopping mall, distributing our Watchtower magazine. I continued my pioneering work for years and years after my career had been launched."
- Jackson's brother Jermaine is a Muslim, and there were some reports during Michael's life that he, too, converted to Islam. The Times of London rounds up the evidence in an item headlined, "Was Michael Jackson Muslim?"; there was also a roundup on Global Voices. Imam Zaid Shakir blogged about Jackson's conversion to Islam, and then retracted his blog item, concluding, "There have been many reports throughout the media concerning Michael becoming Muslim. Allah knows best as to their veracity.'' Perhaps my favorite development on the role of Islam in the Michael Jackson story, though, was this correction that ran Saturday in The New York Times, revising a comment that Jermaine Jackson made at the hospital where Michael Jackson died:
"The article...misstated part of a comment that Mr. Jackson’s brother Jermaine offered for Mr. Jackson after speaking with reporters. He said, “May Allah be with you always,” not “May our love be with you always.”
- Not to be outdone, Christianity Today tackles the question, "Was Michael Jackson a Christian?" The evangelical magazine explores, and then essentially debunks, suggestions that Jackson accepted Jesus just before his death. "Initial rumors that the King of Pop had accepted Christ may have been false,'' the magazine concludes.
- The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, meanwhile, offers a story on Michael Jackson's "Jewish Ties,'' which turn out to be quite complex -- he said some offensive things, he was friends with a rabbi, he flirted with kabbalah (who didn't?) and it's possible that at least two of his children are technically Jewish because Jackson's ex-wife Debbie Rowe, who has been thought to be the biological mother of the children, is Jewish. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a onetime friend of Jackson, wrote a generous appraisal for Beliefnet; Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the head of the Reform movement, offers a far more critical assessment, asking,
"Is it really necessary, however, now that he is dead, for those who speak in the name of the Jewish community to be joining in the adulation and offering excuses for his actions?"
- Some in the Catholic community are similarly conflicted. L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, published a generous appreciation of Jackson's legacy, prompting Tom Heneghan of Reuters to observe: "It’s not every day that the Vatican newspaper suggests that a man accused of pedophilia and said to have converted to Islam might be immortal. But that’s what L’Osservatore Romano did today." Over at American Papist, Thomas Peters is not amused, calling the Vatican paper's assessment "fawning'' and suggesting that it could never have appeared in a parish newsletter:
"Jackson, it should be noted, from all outside accounts, lived a tortured existence and the circumstances of his death should prompt an outpouring of fervent prayers for his soul, not these gushing, Hollywood-esque bon mots about how his "myth" will survive "serious and shameful" accusations. All the artistic success in the world, we must realize, is a basket of straw if your personal life was a spiritual, human wreck. I really dig Michael Jackson's music, but as a Catholic, I don't have to buy into the myth that great art makes a great man. Michael Jackson's best chance to "never die" is the mercy of Christ, not his best-selling record."
I suppose it's not all that surprising that an entertainer who often seemed confused, or confusing, about race, gender and sexuality, would also leave us wondering about his religious beliefs. Here's Juan Cole, blogging about how religion fits into the Michael Jackson identity swirl:
"Jackson was a man of multiple identities, which helped account for his enormous worldwide popularity. It seems clear that he was deeply traumatized by his rough show business childhood, and that things happened to him to arrest his development. Just as a stem cell can grow into any organ, Michael's eternal boyishness made him a chameleon. Increasingly androgynous, he expressed both male and female. A boy and yet a father, he was both child and adult. In part because of his vitiligo, he interrogated his blackness and became, like some other powerful and wealthy African-Americans of his generation, racially ambiguous. Toward the end of his life he bridged his family's Jehovah's Witness brand of Christianity with a profound interest in Islam. He was all things to all people in part precisely because of his Peter Pan syndrome. A child can grow up to become anything, after all."
(Photo, by Hasan Jamali for The New York Times via AP, shows Michael Jackson wearing a black abaya while exiting a shopping mall in Bahrain with one of his children, also veiled, and a security guard, on Jan. 25, 2006.)