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U2 is 'secretly Christian'? Say what? How long must we sing this song?

U2 is 'secretly Christian'? Say what? How long must we sing this song?

It's not a news piece, but there is a lot of chatter out in mainstream media right now about that Joshua Rothman essay in The New Yorker that ran under the headline "The Church of U2."

I'll be honest. I have no idea what that piece is trying to say, just in terms of the on-the-record facts about the band's history. It's like the last three or four decades of debate about what is, and what is not, "Christian" music never happened. It's like Johnny Cash, Bruce Cockburn, T-Bone Burnett, Mark Heard, Charlie Peacock, etc., etc., never happened. 

Here are the opening paragraphs, including the buzz term that everyone is discussing -- "secretly Christian."

A few years ago, I was caught up in a big research project about contemporary hymns (or “hymnody,” as they say in the trade). I listened to hundreds of hymns on Spotify; I interviewed a bunch of hymn experts. What, I asked them, was the most successful contemporary hymn -- the modern successor to “Morning Has Broken” or “Amazing Grace”? Some cited recently written traditional church hymns; others mentioned songs by popular Christian musicians. But one scholar pointed in a different direction: “If you’re willing to construe the term ‘hymn’ liberally, then the most heard, most successful hymn of the last few decades could be ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,’ by U2.”

Click pause for a moment. 

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Biden and nuns on the bus get (mostly) free ride from NYTimes

Biden and nuns on the bus get (mostly) free ride from NYTimes

Do nuns' habits have coattails? To read a New York Times story out of Des Moines, Iowa, the vice president is trying hard to hold onto them.

His latest effort, on Wednesday, was at a stop for the 2014 "Nuns on the Bus" tour -- not coincidentally, a prime stop also for presidential campaigning. It was a natural to link arms with nuns who have promoted liberal causes like Obamacare.

Biden's reported attitude toward their boss, though, was another matter:

DES MOINES — At a Vatican meeting a few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly asked Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. for some advice. “You are being entirely too hard on the American nuns,” Mr. Biden offered. “Lighten up.”
Last year, Mr. Biden seized on an audience with Pope Francis as another opportunity to praise the sisters who remained the target of a Vatican crackdown for their activism on issues like poverty and health care.
And on a visit to Iowa on Wednesday, Mr. Biden literally, as he might put it, got on board with the nuns.
“You’re looking at a kid who had 12 years of Catholic education,” Mr. Biden, wearing a white shirt and a red tie, said before a backdrop of the gold-domed Iowa statehouse and a “Nuns on the Bus” coach bus. “I woke up probably every morning saying: ‘Yes, Sister; no, Sister; yes, Sister; no, Sister.’ I just made it clear, I’m still obedient.”

In what ways he's been obedient after lecturing two popes isn't clear. The story does note that obedience is the issue also with Network, the nuns' group on the tour. They're a subset of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which, as the Times reports, is under a Vatican crackdown.  

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A story of biblical proportions: WPost tackles plans for $800 million Bible museum

A story of biblical proportions: WPost tackles plans for $800 million Bible museum

I have a confession to make: I"m typing this in a hurry.

I'm headed to Atlanta for the Religion Newswriters Association's annual meeting (see our 5Q+1 interview with RNA president Bob Smietana, if you happened to miss it, and follow #RNA2014 for live tweeting).

So I'm going to make this post short and sweet. Real sweet.

Earlier, we critiqued some media coverage of a planned Bible museum in the nation's capital and found it lacking — here and here, for example.

But the Washington Post's award-winning religion writer, Michelle Boorstein, has produced an excellent, magazine-length story on the gigantic project.

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Tales from the crypt: NYTimes reports on Sheen body battle

Tales from the crypt: NYTimes reports on Sheen body battle

The New York Times took its time getting around to the news that broke Sept. 3 concerning the dispute over the remains of saint-in-the-making Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, but Sharon Otterman's story that went online yesterday is worth the wait.

Otterman, the Times' Metro religion reporter begins with a soft lead before getting to the, ahem, body of the story:

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Peoria, Ill., has already constructed a museum in honor of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, a native son whose Emmy-winning television show during the 1950s brought Catholicism to the American living room. It has documented several potential miracles by him and compiled a dossier on his good works for the Vatican.

It has drawn up blueprints for an elaborate shrine in its main cathedral to house his tomb and sketched out an entire devotional campus it hopes to complete when its campaign to have him declared the first American-born male saint succeeds.

There has been just one snag in the diocese’s carefully laid veneration plans: the matter of Archbishop Sheen’s body.

We are then given some straight-up details: Peoria Bishop Daniel R. Jenky recently announced that the effort to canonize Sheen -- who was nearing beatification -- is being stalled because Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, refused to permit his body to be released from its crypt at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

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Fried-chicken wars: How much should Christianity mix with commerce?

Fried-chicken wars: How much should Christianity mix with commerce?

MICHAEL-ANN ASKS:

Businesses like Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A overtly follow Christian principles and thus promote Christianity. Is it profitable for them to have this ‘brand,’ or do you think the CEOs have some deeper evangelical goal?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

These two remarkable corporations are the largest in the U.S. that operate on an explicitly “Christian” basis, and both have been in the news lately.

The Hobby Lobby craft store chain won U.S. Supreme Court approval June 30 of the religious right to avoid the new federal mandate to fund certain birth control methods the owners consider tantamount to abortion.

Sept. 8 brought the death of S. Truett Cathy, billionaire founder of the Chick-fil-A fast-food empire. His New York Times obituary said that to some he was “a symbol of intolerance” and “hate.” Such journalistic labeling stemmed from Cathy’s son and successor Dan criticizing same-sex marriage on biblical grounds in 2012. Afterward, the firm cut donations to groups that back traditional marriage. No-one claimed Chick-fil-A discriminates against gays in hiring or customer service.

With both companies, Christian commitment is accompanied by prosperity, and the question suggests their religious image may be calculated for “profitable” advantage. 

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Janay Rice and the House of Ruth (yes, that's the Ruth in the Bible)

Janay Rice and the House of Ruth (yes, that's the Ruth in the Bible)

As the media storm continues to rage around former Baltimore Ravens superstar Ray Rice, let's pause for a moment and think about that dose of media criticism that his wife Janay offered yesterday via Instagram.

Was it me, or did the anchors on ESPN seem rather uncomfortable reading the following words?

I woke up this morning feeling like I had a horrible nightmare, feeling like I’m mourning the death of my closest friend. But to have to accept the fact that it’s reality is a nightmare in itself. No one knows the pain that the media & unwanted options from the public has caused my family. To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing. To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass off for all his life just to gain ratings is a horrific [sic]. 
THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don’t you all get. If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you’ve succeeded on so many levels. Just know we will continue to grow & show the world what real love is! Ravensnation we love you!

In the comments on her own post she added: "Hurt beyond words…”

In a short talk with ESPN's Josina Anderson -- when his wife handed him her telephone -- Ray Rice added: "I have to be strong for my wife. She is so strong. ... We are in good spirits. We have a lot of people praying for us and we 'll continue to support each other."

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Why did WaPo run a vague musician profile? It's, well, complicated

Why did WaPo run a vague musician profile? It's, well, complicated

Musician Michael Taylor has a "complicated faith," the Washington Post says. He can slide chords and sing about quests for meaning. Just don’t pin him down.

And the Post's  profile feature on him doesn't try. It collects a lot on the music, family and lifestyle of the indie artist who calls himself Hiss Golden Messenger. His spiritual beliefs, not so much, even though the newspaper headline it "Complicated faith: Searching for God in the songs of Hiss Golden Messenger."

The story reads rather fast despite its 1,600 words. It tells of Taylor's journey from a Southern California upbringing to his current home in Durham, N.C. -- a musical trek from punk to folk-rock to "still-water folk" (a term, however, that isn't defined).

Richards praises Taylor's new album, Lateness of Dancers, though he has trouble pinning down its virtues: "The songs on it feel both ambiguously sweet and deeply personal, but ultimately confident in their own vagueness."

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Death of the Chick-fil-A patriarch: A classic religion-news story with two sides

Death of the Chick-fil-A patriarch: A classic religion-news story with two sides

It's safe to say that Chick-fil-A patriarch S. Truett Cathy was famous, or infamous, for two very different reasons with two radically different flocks of people. After his death, mainstream news organizations faced an obvious news question: What's the lede? What's the angle on this remarkable entrepreneur's life that deserved the spotlight at the top of the story?

You can see that struggle in the summary paragraphs near the top of The New York Times obituary:

Mr. Cathy, who died on Monday at 93, was by all appearances a humble Christian man from Georgia with little education who sold a simple sandwich: a breaded, boneless chicken breast on a soft, white, buttered bun with nothing more than a couple of pickles for garnish.
But as the founder of the Chick-fil-A fast-food empire, he was also a billionaire several times over and, as a conservative Christian who ran his business according to his religious principles, he was at once a hero and a symbol of intolerance. Many admired him for closing his outlets on Sundays and speaking out against same-sex marriage. Others vilified his the chain as a symbol of hate.

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Pod people: Sports and religion, Tim Tebow and ESPN, Michael Sam and the locker room

Pod people: Sports and religion, Tim Tebow and ESPN, Michael Sam and the locker room

It was a quiet little National Football League story, tucked away in the back headlines of the sports pages. Former Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk -- yes, the guy from Harvard -- had been named to one of the quietest, but most influential, slots in pro sports.

The short ESPN report was typical, including the following summary statements:

Matt Birk was named the NFL's director of football development, the league announced Thursday. ...
In his new role, Birk will assist in developing the game at all levels, from players to coaches to front-office personnel. He will guide the evolution of the NFL scouting combine and regional combines as well as the all-star games for prospects, such as the Senior Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game. Birk will also over see the career development symposium and the Bill Walsh minority coaching fellowship program. ...
Birk, 37, played his first 11 seasons in the league with the Minnesota Vikings before joining the Ravens for the final four seasons of his career. He retired after he won his first Super Bowl following the 2012 season. In 2011, he was the recipient of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award for his excellence on and off the field.

Now, in light of the media tsunami surrounding gay defensive lineman Michael Sam, it showed remarkable restraint that ESPN leaders did not mention that this Matt Birk was also THAT OTHER Matt Birk, the husband of a crisis pregnancy center volunteer, the father of six children, the articulate Catholic whose beliefs on marriage had inspired so many headlines. 

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