Arts

Read it all: The New Yorker offers a stunningly good take on the 'Christian' rock wars

Read it all: The New Yorker offers a stunningly good take on the 'Christian' rock wars

First, here is yet another tmatt confession: I am so old that I attended one of the original “Jesus music” rock festivals held in Texas in the early 1970s. Then I went to Baylor University during the era when various branches of Word Records in Waco were releasing early albums linked to what would become Contemporary Christian Music.

There’s more. Anyone digging into the roots of “folk” and later “rock” music inside church doors will eventually hit a 1967 landmark — the “Good News” folk musical by Bob Oldenburg. Who played the role of the “skeptic” the first performances? That would be my big brother, Don, who was playing a ukulele before it was cool.

As a journalist, I have been covering the “Christian music” wars since the late 1970s and, of course, that topic ended up in my book “Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture.” The key theme: CCM is music defined by unwritten rules about lyrics and the belief that all “Christian art” should, in reality, be evangelism in disguise.

Hold that thought. I wrote all of that to add punch to my praise for an almost unbelievably good New Yorker feature by Kelefa Sanneh that just ran with this epic headline:

The Unlikely Endurance of Christian Rock

The genre has been disdained by the church and mocked by secular culture. That just reassured practitioners that they were rebels on a righteous path.

It opens with a quotation that left me stunned. I have read shelves full of books about “Christian rock” and have never been clubbed over the head with these words.

Try to guess the minister who had this to say in 1957, addressing whether gospel music could be wedded to rock ‘n’ roll. This Baptist pastor from the South was blunt:

Rock and gospel were “totally incompatible,” he explained: “The profound sacred and spiritual meaning of the great music of the church must never be mixed with the transitory quality of rock and roll music.” And he made it clear which he preferred. “The former serves to lift men’s souls to higher levels of reality, and therefore to God,” he wrote. “The latter so often plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths.”

Who said that? That would be the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Take it away, Aretha Franklin.

It’s hard not to quote every other passage in this must-read piece, which punches all the right buttons — from the copycat “Jesus is my boyfriend” style of worship music to battles over loud drums and heavy-metal guitars. Yes, U2 is in here. Ditto for Bob Dylan.

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Veritas Forum invites college students to think through 'life’s hardest questions”

Veritas Forum invites college students to think through 'life’s hardest questions”

It’s back to school time, and how’s this for a bracing lineup of campus lectures in just the past four weeks?

At Yale University, distinguished philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, who is an atheist, hosted a top theologian, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews to jointly ponder “Living Well in Light of Death.”

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat visited Ann Arbor to advise University of Michigan students that “Faith Is Not a Sideshow.”

At arch-rival Ohio State, a panel on “Living and Dying Well” consisted of a physician, a biological ethicist, and a specialist who helps patients with end-of-life planning.

Bob Cutillo, a physician working with Colorado’s homeless, spoke at the Mayo Clinic and its medical college on “The Doctor’s Gaze: Some Ancient Opinions on How We See Our Patients.”

Then it was celebrated attorney Rachael Denhollander, leader of the sexual abuse victims in the Michigan State and USA Gymnastics scandals and among Time magazine’s “100 most influential people.” Her double-header this week at New York University, then Columbia University Law School, addressed how justice can be reconciled with religious faith and forgiveness.

So began the season for the Veritas Forum of Cambridge, Mass., which organizes campus lectures to address “life’s hardest questions” from traditional Christian viewpoints that it believes academe neglects. To date there’ve been Veritas events at 185 colleges and universities, including at all but one of America’s top 25 schools in the new Wall Street Journal rankings.

Lecture topics run the gamut, for example “What Does It Mean to be Human?? “Is There Truth Beyond Science?” “Does Science Point to Atheism?” “Is Tolerance Intolerant?” “Contradictions in the Bible?” and “What Makes Us Racist?”

The concept is particularly intriguing due to heavy involvement of conservative or “evangelical” Protestants, often depicted in the media as anti-intellectual or at best mediocre thinkers.

The journalism hook?

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Is Israeli TV drama Fauda a harbinger of the news industry's coming iteration?

Is Israeli TV drama Fauda a harbinger of the news industry's coming iteration?

The cable television and online streaming explosion has produced a golden age of visual, fictionalized, but ripped-from-the-headlines story telling. Some religious and political conservatives may disdain the liberal-leaning views that many of the shows unabashedly embrace, but for those who create the programming it's an unprecedented era of opportunities.

It's also an era of unprecedented, and often confusing, crossover between news and entertainment. From shows dramatizing or spoofing Washington politics, to those cherry-picking storylines from current international intrigues, it’s often hard to tell the two apart, where fact takes leave and artful fiction enters.

As traditional news platforms continue to implode -- and loose their ability to devote adequate resources to in-depth, reporting-based investigative journalism -- it’s a trend that, for the foreseeable future, is likely to continue, for better or worse, but more likely the worse for informed civic debate.

Personally, I find great artistic merit in many of these shows. I also appreciate their willingness to highlight some of the social ills that plague our -- and virtually every other -- nation. That and because I relish a well-written and well-acted product. It helps to remember that I'm an ex-Los Angeles reporter who spent time on the Hollywood TV and film beats, and who also briefly worked in the feature film industry.

Still, I limit my watching because, well, because the shows are binge-watching addictive and I don't want to spend too much time watching TV, no matter how good and entertaining it may be. I’m old-fashioned. I’d rather waste time reading non-fiction, which my reactive mind argues is somehow healthier for me. But that may just be my generational snob appeal.

In a sense, all the fictional dramas I’m drawn to are some writer’s fantasy, but I tend to be drawn to the show's based on the possible, meaning that while I have little interest in a “Game of Thrones,” a series such as “Big Love,” the departed HBO show about polygamy-practicing, fringe Mormons, quickly sucked me in because of my interest in religious groups and the show’s artistic mastery (and a fantastic cast).

Likewise, my deep interest in Israel’s fate and that of the Middle East in general, has drawn me to the Netflix (in the U.S., anyway) show “Fauda,” which I have allowed myself to devour in binge-size bites.


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Churches for sale: New York Times visits a sexy former Catholic sanctuary in Quebec

Churches for sale: New York Times visits a sexy former Catholic sanctuary in Quebec

In case you have been on another planet for a year or two, let me state something rather obvious.

Lurking behind all of the confusion about what is and what is not "fake news" (click here for tmatt a typology on that term) is a reality that should concern journalists of all stripes. It is becoming more and more obvious that readers are having trouble telling the difference between hard news and analysis/commentary work.

For example, consider the New York Times piece that ran with this headline, "Where Churches Have Become Temples of Cheese, Fitness and Eroticism."

At the top of this piece is this label -- "Montreal Dispatch."

Now, is that part of the headline or is that a clue to readers that this is some kind of ongoing analysis feature in which the reporter is going to be given more freedom, when it comes to using loaded language and statements of opinion?

I'll confess that I don't know. I do know that this feature is an amazing example of the GetReligion truism "demographics shape destiny and doctrine does, too." It's a great story and one that will, at this moment in time, cause further pain for Catholic readers. But there is one, for me, disturbing passage that I want journalists to think about, a bit. Hold that thought.

At the center of this piece is the sanctuary known as Notre-Dame-du-Perpétuel-Secours -- which was once a Catholic parish in Montreal. Here is a long, but essential, summary of the changes that have taken place there.

The once-hallowed space, now illuminated with a giant pink chandelier, has been reinvented as the Théâtre Paradoxe at a cost of nearly $3 million in renovations. It is now host to, among other events, Led Zeppelin cover bands, Zumba lessons and fetish parties. ... And it is one of dozens of churches across Quebec that have been transformed -- into university reading rooms, luxury condominiums, cheese emporiums and upmarket fitness centers.

At another event at the church, devoted to freewheeling dance, dozens of barefoot amateur dancers filled the space and undulated in a trance-like state in front of its former altar amid drums and chanting.

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Why do so many 'woke' activists on cultural left know little or nothing about religion?

Why do so many 'woke' activists on cultural left know little or nothing about religion?

For years -- decades even -- I have been active in the whole "media literacy" cause, trying to help Americans (especially in religious circles) understand more about the role that mass media play in our culture.

During these same decades, I've heard journalism educators -- on the cultural left and right -- argue that the same thing needs to be happening in elite newsrooms and even educational institutions, only in reverse.

Let's stick with the journalism angle: One of the main reasons that pros in our newsrooms often do such a lousy job of covering religion is that there are so few editors and managers who know any thing about religion. Let me stress that the issue is not whether these journalists are religious believers. The issue is whether they know crucial information about the lives, traditions and scriptures linked to the lives of millions and millions of believers who reside in this culture and often play roles in public life.

I've mentioned this before: I'll never forget the night when an anchor at ABC News -- faced with Democrat Jimmy Carter talking about his born-again Christian faith -- solemnly looked into the camera and told viewers that ABC News was investigating this phenomenon (born-again Christians) and would have a report in a future newscast.

What percentage of the American population uses the term "born again" to describe their faith? Somewhere between 40 and 60 percent back then? I mean, Carter wasn't telling America that he was part of an obscure sect, even though many journalists were freaked out by this words -- due to simple ignorance (or perhaps bias).

This brings me to this weekend's think piece in The American Conservative, a magazine defined by cultural conservatism not conservative partisan politics (thus the presence of several big-league #NeverTrump scribes). The double decker headline on this piece asks:

Woke Progressivism’s Glaring Religion Gap

Identity politics demands that we "educate ourselves." So why are its practitioners so often ignorant of religious belief?

Here is Georgetown University graduate student Grayson Quay's overture, which ends with a stunning anecdote:

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In the end, was journalist Tom Wolfe 'cool' or not? Well, he sure was proud to be a heretic

In the end, was journalist Tom Wolfe 'cool' or not? Well, he sure was proud to be a heretic

Once upon a time, there was this era in American life called the Sixties. As the old saying goes, if you remember the Sixties, then you really weren't part of them -- which kind of implies that the only people who remember the Sixties were Baptists, or something like that.

Anyway, lots of things in the Sixties were "cool." Some things were even "groovy," although I thought -- at the time -- that no one who was actually "cool" would have fallen so low as to use the word "groovy." 

Whatever the word "cool" meant, journalist Tom Wolfe was "cool," while at the same time being "hot." If you dreamed of being a journalist in the late Sixties and early 1970s, then you knew about Wolfe and you looked at his writing and thought to yourself, "How does he DO that? That is so cool."

Revolutionaries were "cool" and traditionalists were "not cool."

So with that in mind (and as an introduction to the content of this week's "Crossroads" podcast), please read the following quotation from a 1980 Rolling Stone interview with Wolfe. The key is to understand why, at one point, he calls himself a "heretic." This is long, but essential:

RS: I believe it was in the New Republic that Mitch Tuchman wrote that the reason you turned against liberals is that you were rejected by the white-shoe crowd at Yale.

WOLFE: Wait a minute! Is that one by Tuchman? Yeah, oh, that was great.

RS: He talked about your doctoral dissertation. 

WOLFE: Yeah, he wrote that after The Painted Word. It went further than that. It was called "The Manchurian Candidate," and it said in all seriousness that I had some-how been prepared by the establishment, which he obviously thought existed at Yale, to be this kind of kamikaze like Laurence Harvey -- I think that's who was in The Manchurian Candidate, wasn't it? -- to go out and assassinate liberal culture. I loved that.

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Memory eternal: Was there a moral compass at the heart of Tom Wolfe's best journalism?

Memory eternal: Was there a moral compass at the heart of Tom Wolfe's best journalism?

I was a journalism major in the first half of the 1970s, an era in which -- even at Baylor University -- everyone who wanted to be a journalist was reading Tom Wolfe. I even dreamed that Wolfe would venture down to Waco and write the definite magazine piece on just how crazy things really were in Jerusalem on the Brazos.

Even in the Bible Belt, Wolfe was the essence of hip, cutting edge journalism. Of course, everyone assumed this also meant "liberal," whatever that word meant back then.

As you would expect, his writings returned to my radar during my graduate work in 1981-82 at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Then there was a lull until the explosion of criticism of his reporting/fiction in "A Man in Full" and "I Am Charlotte Simmons." 

As I read press reactions to those novels, something hit me: Some of the gatekeepers in elite American media were truly afraid that Wolfe might, well, have a moral and cultural point of view that was guiding his sniper-like attacks on American culture.

Oh. My. God. Might the man in the white suits be some kind of "conservative"? Should these books be read while listening to Bob Dylan's acidic, countercultural work on "Infidels"? Was Wolfe a heretic? Hold that thought.

My task here is not to criticize or even to summarize the many, many Wolfe obituaries and tributes that are -- with good cause -- being published right now. I recognize that it takes genuine chutzpah to try to write about Wolfe, or even to write about other people writing about Wolfe. The subject is just too big, too colorful and too complex.

So right now, I would simply like to make a few observations about the articles in The New York Times and New York magazine. After all, everything begins and ends with Wolfe (a transplanted Southerner, of course) and the city that he stalked for half a century, decked out in the white suits that he called "Neo-pretentious" and “a harmless form of aggression.”

Let's start with a symbolic fact about Wolfe's life. The Times noted:

He enrolled at Yale University in the American studies program and received his Ph.D. in 1957. After sending out job applications to more than 100 newspapers and receiving three responses, two of them “no,” he went to work as a general-assignment reporter at The Springfield Union in Springfield, Mass., and later joined the staff of The Washington Post.

How many people finish a Yale doctorate and then head straight into an entry-level job on a newspaper city desk?

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Diamonds, divas, devils: Where Catholicism, fashion, satire, news and commentary mix?

Diamonds, divas, devils: Where Catholicism, fashion, satire, news and commentary mix?

There’s been a lot written already about that killer fashion show in New York last week that mixed Catholicism and celebrities with couture designed by people who grew up in the faith but no longer attend church.

There were no hair shirts to be seen, but everything else that could be linked to Catholic practice or devotion was on display on peoples' bodies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Benefit on May 7. The annual event is a high holy day of fashion where guests vie to see who can have the most outrageous get-up.

Catholic traditions range from guardian angels to Guadalupe icons; all of them infinitely easier to cast into film and culture (has anyone done a movie about Protestants like Martin Scorcese's "The Silence" about Jesuits in 17th-century Japan?). The Met, in the biggest show it's ever staged, tried to draw them all in.

So we read first, from the Associated Press:

NEW YORK -- Delicate veils, jeweled crowns and elaborate trains made up the holy trinity of haute couture at Monday’s religion-themed Met Gala.

Bella Hadid held court as a gothic priestess (is that a thing?), as her gold-embroidered headpiece fanned out over a simple black corset and skirt. The dramatic look was topped off with a structured, embossed leather jacket, emblazoned with a gold cross.

Kate Bosworth’s pearl-encrusted veil draped over a shimmering tulle gown by Oscar de la Renta, while Mindy Kaling donned a regal, blue-jeweled crown with a feminine silver gown and navy gloves. Kaling stars in the upcoming “Ocean’s 8,” a jewelry heist romp set at the Met Gala.

If anyone can make a mitre modern, it’s Rihanna. The Grammy-winning artist arrived dripping in pearls and crystals in a Maison Margiela Artisanal minidress and ornate robe. 

This AP piece (two writers were apparently assigned to the occasion) did include a reference to the actual Catholic prelate in attendance:

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Guilt folder chatter: What happens when newsworthy topics are 'covered' in entertainment?

Guilt folder chatter: What happens when newsworthy topics are 'covered' in entertainment?

Faithful GetReligion readers are familiar with our "folder of guilt" concept. If you live online, you have one, too.

It's the large stack of emails that you know you need to deal with, but more urgent (or less complex) emails keep arriving, day after day, week after week. The digital layers between you and the "guilt" emails get bigger and bigger.

The difference here at GetReligion is that some of us have -- literally -- created "guilt" folders in our email software to protect certain stories or op-eds or online discussions that we know we should deal with, somehow, someday. Like today.

This brings me to a 5-star "guilt" discussion that took place recently among the GetReligionistas. This one was important because it cut to the heart of what we do here and, to be blunt, what we may or may not be doing in the future.

The basics: GetReligion has, for 14-plus years, attempted to critique the good and the bad in mainstream coverage of religion. We have deliberately tried to avoid writing about opinion and analysis journalism, other than making references to add depth or perspective to posts about hard-news coverage. We also have the weekend "think piece" feature that points readers to all kinds of journalism about issues linked to religion and, thus, religion news.

Meanwhile, trends in the Internet age have weakened the wall between straight news and advocacy news (#DUH). We know that and we have struggled to cope with that.

But we also know that many of our culture's most important discussions of religious issues and events are taking place OUTSIDE of the journalism world -- in entertainment. That's one of the reasons I left a newsroom in 1991 to teach mass-media studies at a seminary.

So what is GetReligion supposed to do with debates about "news" topics that take place, to cite one example, in a show like HBO's "Silicon Valley"?

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