Of King and Emperor

The conversion of the King was arguably the worst thing that ever happened to this faith – it brought it into the mainstream. And when we became part of The System, that’s when things started to go wrong. We’d have been better off if we’d stayed on the fringes.

I’m not entirely sure I agree with the above paragraph, but I think it does contain some ponder-worthy wisdom – regarding both of my religions.

Christianity and rock ‘n’ roll.

First, let’s look at rock.

The King and The King meet at last – on velvet.

Alan Freed coined the term ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ in the early 1950s, and the Bill Haley and the Comets tune Rock Around the Clock brought the meaning of the phrase home to millions of teenagers in 1954.

But more than anyone else, it was Elvis Aaron Presley who took the blues-country fusion and catapulted it into the hearts, minds and mainstream of America – and then the world.

There’s no doubt his early contributions to the burgeoning genre were pivotal. My personal favorite Elvis tune is That’s All Right, but Jailhouse Rock is up there, too – and nobody did Long Tall Sally like Elvis.

But I wonder if rock ‘n’ roll was really all that close to the heart of its King – fast forward a decade and he was pelvis-deep in Suspicious Minds, Blue Hawaii, Speedway and My Way. Was he a rocker who quickly drifted off-track way when his star rose too far too fast, or a Rat Pack wannabe with country influences who dabbled in a new artform in its infancy, before anyone (particularly not this very young man from Tupelo) understood what it really was? (More charitably, maybe he was just a monstrously talented performer who loved all forms of music and didn’t feel bound by genre boundaries.)

Either (or neither) way, his impact on RnR is undeniable. But did he help save rock from being a short-lived fad, or did he propel an infant musical style far too soon into a level of prominence it never wanted or deserved – thereby forcing it to mutate into an industry – rather than an artform?


* * *

In very, very broad strokes, as it is with rock ‘n’ roll and Elvis, so it is with Christianity and Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor.

Saint Athanasius helped standardize the books of the New Testament in 367, and Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the state religion of Rome in 380. But it was Constantine’s conversion in 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridge and baptism in 337 (procrastinate much?) – and his policies inbetween – that really got the ball rolling on Christianity’s rise to the mainstream.

Constantine, along with Eastern Emperor Licinius, effectively legalized the faith in 313, with the the Edict of Milan. That undoubtedly came as a welcome relief to Christians who’d suffered nearly three centuries of intermittent state-sanctioned persecution throughout the Empire until that time.

Then in 325, the Council of Nicea, convened by Constantine, helped standardize and unite a squabble-proned early church. This first ecumenical council was probably necessary and positive for the church in general, but wasn’t so Nice-a for the participants who arrived as holy men and went home as heretics.

And as with Elvis, there’s grounds to wonder if Constantine’s heart was really in the faith. Were his pro-Christian actions mostly politically motivated? “The Roman coins minted up to eight years after the Battle of Milvian Bridge still bore the images of Roman gods. The monuments he first commissioned, such as the Arch of Constantine, contained no reference to Christianity,” according to Wikipedia.

And if he was truly a follower of Christ, why did he wait until he was dying to be baptized? “It has been thought that Constantine put off baptism as long as he did so as to be absolved from as much of his sin as possible,” one Wikipedia contributor wrote. Possible, I guess. But it sounds a little like apologism to me.

Regardless of what was in his heart, it’s safe to say that his actions changed Christianity forever. But did they change it for the better? Did he save this adolescent faith from factional fragmentalism and perpetual persecution? Without Constantine, would Christianity have faded into obscurity like so many other upstart ‘cults’ of the Roman Empire, forever denying the Way to a very lost world? Or did he turn a messy-but-beautiful grassroots movement into an orderly-but-lifeless bureaucratic institution?

Do you see the Elvis-Constantine parallel yet?

If Elvis hadn’t helped turn rock into an industry, maybe we would have been spared such stinkers as Nickelback and Europe. Similarly(?), Constantine’s officializing of Christianity paved the way for the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition.

But on the other hand, without Elvis, would we have ever seen the likes of the Beatles and U2 (not to mention Chris Tomlin and Third Day)? Without Constantine, would the world have given us Martin Luther and Mother Teresa?

But the Crusades and Spanish Inquisition didn’t happen in isolation. They were part of a greater tapestry called Mandatory Christianity, and this phenomenon owed its existence to Constantine, perhaps more than anyone else. In Mandatory Christianity, you had to be a Christian (at least on the outside) to participate in society. Failure to go through the right motions could have cost you your job in one century, or your life in another. But society wasn’t really all that concerned about the state of your heart.

At the risk of stating the obvious, that’s directly contrary to Jesus’ central message of choosing Him of our own free will, for the right reasons.

But the good news (for us) is that the Constantine Effect has largely run its course. We’re in a Post-Christian Era – North America today is probably the most secular society in human history. For most of us in the 21st Century, embracing Jesus provides no societal advantage: you’re more likely to be ostracized for choosing Him than not. And I think that’s good, because Jesus’ message was meant to be counter-cultural.

“In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Timothy 3:12 NIV (Translation: If they’re not persecuting you, you’re probably doing it wrong.)

Churches today may be emptier than they were a generation or two ago, but the hearts of the parishioners are fuller, I’d wager. And I think Jesus can do a whole lot more with one fully committed disciple than a hundred fairweather pew-warmers. Maybe this is the generation of Christians that can really come to terms with what it means to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the world.

But was that elongated era of Mandatory Christianity a growing-up period that was necessary to get us to this point? Or was it an initially well-intentioned abomination that veered us so far off-track that it took God more than 1,500 years to bring us back?

That’s a question I’ve pondered Constantly at times, but it’s really an academic issue, isn’t it? Whether God patiently waited for us to arrive here, or He patiently guided us back so we’re finally where He wanted us a millennium ago, God’s patience in this story is unmistakable.

And His great work can now move forward through you and through me.

Elvis said, ‘It’s now or never.’ Thank God Jesus didn’t.

Peace be with you.

Image sources:

About robpetkau

Communications professional by day, amateur musician by night, worship leader (at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Calgary) on weekends and aspiring Bible teacher in my dreams. Grateful husband to the woman who completes me. Doing-the-best-I-can dad to the son and daughter who keep me on my toes. Striving disciple of the GodMan who came, taught and died for me. Thanks for stopping by!
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2 Responses to Of King and Emperor

  1. Elvis and Constantine; this is not a comparison I would have imagined making! Thank you for sharing it Rob, you mirror my own thoughts.

    Regarding the opening quote, I wonder why being “mainstream” is wrong for Christianity? There are plenty of rock bands who maintained their credibility after going mainstream. I understand how being part of the mainstream threatens to undermine the church’s values or encourage Christians-in-name-only to prosper, but we should hardly shun the mainstream. If we’re in the mainstream, then we have a better chance at being heard… and if the mainstream is listening to us, maybe it’s because they heard something they needed to.

    • robpetkau says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Michael! I’m elated that my humble ramblings stimulated some thoughts in a thinker such as you, and I’m honored that you decided to share them here.

      I completely agree that we shouldn’t shun the mainstream. My point is that too often during what I called the Mandatory Christianity Era, we were both in the world and of it. We need to make sure that we’re changing the world — not the other way around.

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