We Have No King But Elvis

Friday, 14 Sep 2012

Since presented via a TV game show, it may be tempting to consider Family Feud surveys inherently frivolous. Indeed, it would not be unreasonable to feel that any public opinion survey unduly emphasizes transitory feelings over more significant perspectives.  For this reason most of us understandably look unfavorably at a politician guided more by polls than by principles.  So when it comes to matters of faith, surely we wouldn’t want to mistake ephemeral opinions for eternal truths, let alone ones gleaned from some survey.

How interesting then to consider how Jesus conducted opinion surveys: “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?” he asked his disciples (Matt. 16:13 ESV).  Survey says (Matt. 16:14):

  • John the Baptist                   43
  • Elijah                                  28
  • Jeremiah                             17
  • One of the prophets              8

And of course, his follow-up question (which would be worth double the number of points if posed on Family Feud) was: “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt.16:15)  Clearly Jesus could have just led with this later question, so he evidently wanted to first establish some context.  Why?  Jesus must have anticipated that none of the answers on the board for the first question would be “the Messiah.”  In pairing the questions he was therefore highlighting just how skewed from public expectations of a messiah was his earthly ministry.

Let’s now look at the top answers from a recent Family Feud survey which asked 100 people, “When someone mentions ‘the King,’ to whom might he or she be referring?”  The results:

Before rushing to condemn the survey respondents, note that the question posed was not “When someone mentions ‘the King of Kings,’ to whom might he or she be referring?”  In fact, the Family Feud contestant who uncovered the “God/Jesus” answer on the board did so by saying, “I’m going to go with the King of Kings, Jesus” (to which Steve Harvey nodded approvingly).  No, we should actually give the respondents great credit for most accurately capturing who folks are referring to today when they mention “the King.”  (And we should feel no shame in seeing the humor in “the Burger King” rounding out this list.)

The only point I would like to make about the responses to this Family Feud question is how it provides a wonderfully simple articulation of the cultural context in which the gospel is presented in our age.  Few people today are likely to mistake Jesus for John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or some other Old Testament prophet (if they could even name one).  No, the expectations of Jesus today are much different: some look to Jesus as a role model for respecting human rights or as a champion of various societal concerns (represented by Martin L. King, Jr.: 3), and a few others—whose “god is their belly”—look to Jesus to help them prosper (represented by The Burger King: 2). But the overwhelming majority of people really want Jesus to be Elvis, a feel-good rock star whose every gyration excites the soul.  But such a Jesus is but a “comic caricature” of the true King of Kings, as Stephen J. Nichols describes this figure in Jesus Made in America.  And this Elvis is but a Jesus impersonator.

James Gilmore is the co-author of the bestselling book, The Experience Economy. A prolific speaker and popular business consultant, Jim has also been a guest on White Horse Inn and has recently written for Modern ReformationJim is a Batten Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. He is also a Visiting Lecturer in Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, where he teaches a course on cultural hermeneutics.


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