WASHINGTON—Although I do not entirely rule out having tried to imitate his moonwalk on a moving skateboard in my earlier years, I was more fascinated by Michael Jackson’s public persona than by his lyrics, videos or eclectic version of rock music. He was a modern heretic, something that tells us more about the times we live in than about the King of Pop.

All ages have had their heretics. Up to the modern era, they involved a challenge to the laws or morals emanated from religious orthodoxy. Socrates was sentenced to death because he offended the Greek gods with his probing philosophy. Simon the Sorcerer, the first heretic of the Christian era, tried to prove his divine powers through levitation but was stopped in midair by the apostles’ prayers—after which he cascaded back to Earth, broke his limbs and was duly stoned. The Gnostics, who looked at the rotten world and concluded that God was imperfect, were persecuted. Pelagius, who attacked the dogma of original sin, was banished from Rome.

In the Middle Ages, many of the iconoclasts who were ordered by Leo III to remove images from churches, were killed. The Albigensians, who denied that Jesus could become flesh and still be divine, triggered a crusade against them. And so on—all the way to Erasmus and Luther.

In modern times, with the growing separation of church and state, the increasing respect for individual rights and the reins placed on political power, heresy lost its place in much of the West. It was gradually replaced by other forms of social defiance: public figures who went against the prevailing customs, and sometimes laws, in more superficial ways. The freer the society, the less relevant the old concept of heresy. Which is why we look upon dissidents under communism, Islamic theocracies or military dictatorships as the real heirs of the heretical tradition. In other words, the emergence of tolerance gradually displaced heresy to the peripheral confines of Western civilization and those parts of the East where some kind of implacable orthodoxy persists.

But the West did not lose its hunger for heresy. There are many who defy (what they think is) convention all the time; when they become public figures, they have a following. If they are able to bewitch the imagination of millions of people through their artistic talent, as Michael Jackson did, then that following can be enormous.

Those hungry for heresy sometimes ascribe more meaning to their human idols than they themselves would be comfortable with. Lady Diana came to be seen as the “people’s princess,” as Tony Blair aptly called her after her death, because her constant tussle with Buckingham Palace had seemed to millions of people reminiscent of the old struggle between the nobility and the crown that had clipped the mighty wings of kings and queens. Likewise, people wanted to see in Jackson someone who defied physical and biological laws, whether it be gravity (the moonwalk), the modal register (that falsetto countertenor), genetics (his evolving skin pigmentation) or aging (the Neverland Ranch).

It is easy to dismiss all of this as eccentric, weird and banal—and it might be eccentric, weird and banal not to. But there was clearly enough talent mixed in with Michael Jackson’s character traits, and enough imagination, to place him, in the eyes of millions around the world, well above other pop culture figures. He seemed to speak not only to their sensorial instincts but also to their sense of heresy, their dissatisfaction with the world, and a vague though powerful urge to turn it upside down. That connection translated into a loyalty on the part of his fans that survived the tremendous trauma brought about by persistent allegations of child molestation, one of the greatest taboos of our age.

I would submit that, however frivolous it may seem to those who were not fans of his and given that our society continues to hunger for heresy, the Michael Jackson variety is much less harmful than many others—including, for instance, the tendency among intellectuals in the United States and Europe to despise the blessings of the so-called “consumer society” and exalt the “pristine” value of political and economic institutions that amount to no more than tyranny in less developed parts of the world.