Music

Eric Alterman celebrates Bruce Springsteen as 'Jew-ish' in The Atlantic

Eric Alterman celebrates Bruce Springsteen as 'Jew-ish' in The Atlantic

On occasion at GetReligion, an essay crosses the threshold that evokes no disappointment or sense of incompletion. Eric Alterman — who writes an always provocative column for The Nation on why the mass media are too corporate, too conformist, too conservative — takes a different turn in “Bruce Springsteen Is Jew-ish,” posted Oct. 1 at The Atlantic.

The hyphen in the headline is not a mistake but a wry concession: Alterman does not argue that Springsteen, a son of 20th-century Catholicism in America, is really a Jew. The point is that he is a cultural ally who draws from Jewish scripture and history. 

Alterman’s essay is adapted from “Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen” (Rutgers University Press), which also includes contributions by Martyn Joseph, Greil Marcus, Richard Russo and A.O. Scott.

This sort of writing may be familiar to journalists who take their faith and their rock music seriously. Back in the mid-1980s, I devoted a lot of time to landing an interview with a graduate student at DePaul University who was one of the first to observe Catholicism’s presence in Springsteen’s writing. A famous sociologist, novelist and priest — the Rev. Andrew Greeley — later wrote of Springsteen’s Catholic imagination, and the singer made his divided feelings about Catholicism more explicit in “Springsteen on Broadway.”

To his credit, Alterman acknowledges the uphill nature of his argument straight away:

Bruce Springsteen is the son of Catholic parents and grandparents. There is no ambiguity on this point. And yet, in much the same way that New York football fans have casually annexed the stadium across the river to root for what they like to pretend is their “home” team, some Jewish Springsteen fans are devoted to proving that New Jersey’s favorite Irish Italian son is, if not actually Jewish, nevertheless somehow Jew-ish. Perhaps you thought young Bruce was mostly singing about cars, girls, and getting the hell out of town before he switched gears to focus on the dignity of working folk, the broken promises of the American dream, and more cars and girls. But amid the empty factories, crowded barstools, and swimming holes that constitute the foundation of the Springsteen oeuvre, some detect a whiff of the Chosen.

What’s most refreshing in this piece by a pundit of the political left, writing about a musician of the political left, is the minimal degree of politics used when making this argument.

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Igor Stravinsky (yes, you read that right) and how feature ideas emerge, even during the summer

Igor Stravinsky (yes, you read that right) and how feature ideas emerge, even during the summer

Every summer, The Religion Guy luxuriates in a visit to western Massachusetts, known for outstanding theater troupes, art museums, a dance center, lectures and other cultural offerings all surrounding the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s incomparable Tanglewood music festival. (Disclosure: The Guy’s daughter is a BSO player.)

One BSO concert this July offered two George Gershwin piano features (not the over-programmed “Rhapsody in Blue”) and then “Petrushka” by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), a tuneful and witty ballet score about the life and loves of a classic Russian puppet. That got The Guy thinking about Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet in which musical art exploded into modernity, “The Rite of Spring: Pictures from Pagan Russia” (originally titled “The Great Sacrifice”).

His theme was the worship of pre-Christian Scythians adoring the earth, evoking their ancestors and then choosing a young maiden who danced herself to death as a sacrifice to the gods for a good harvest. The music is creepy, orgiastic, harmonically dissonant and rhythmically jagged. The premiere in Paris provoked a scandalous near-riot as astonished attendees audibly jeered, argued and tussled while the music proceeded.

That in turn brought to this listener’s mind the radical religious contrast between the “Rite” and another Stravinsky work The Guy heard at the Tanglewood debut of Andris Nelsons, who was later appointed Boston’s music director. Back in 1930 the orchestra marked its 50th anniversary by commissioning new works by the likes of Copland, Hanson, Hindemith, Honegger, Prokofiev and Respighi, and wanted Stravinsky to produce a conventional symphony.

Instead, he came up with a unique piece of sacred music, “Symphony of Psalms” for chorus and an orchestra minus violins and violas. This ranks as the 20th century’s finest composition on a biblical theme (any competitors?) and Time magazine proclaimed it one of the century’s three greatest classical compositions, alongside Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Ravel’s string quartet.

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Alice Cooper's 'death pact' with wife? Press needed to include at least one crucial faith fact

Alice Cooper's 'death pact' with wife? Press needed to include at least one crucial faith fact

Hey GetReligion readers: Do we have any shock rock music fans out there?

When it comes to music, I am really a fanatic about a wide range of artists — pretty much everything except highly commercialized country, dance music (various kinds with one chord over and over) and most opera. However, I never really got into the whole glam-shock rock genre.

But it’s hard not to know the name Alice Cooper. What a long, strange road that guy has walked.

So what does this have to do with religion-news coverage? If you have read anything about Cooper in the past quarter century of so, you know that — strange as if may sound — he is a born-again evangelical Christian and very vocal about it. He’s an avid golfer, too. Those two facts may not be connected.

Anyway, a GetReligion reader recently spotted this dramatic headline at USA Today: “Alice Cooper clarifies story about 'death pact' with wife Sheryl Goddard: 'We have a LIFE pact'.

So what is this all about? Here’s the top of this short entertainment-beat story:

Alice Cooper would like to clear things up: He and wife Sheryl Goddard don't actually have a death pact.

"We have a LIFE pact. We love life so much," the 71-year-old rocker told USA TODAY in a statement.

Cooper made many a headline over the weekend following an article in the British tabloid the Daily Mirror that quotes him as saying he and his wife plan "to go together" when one of them dies, because there's "no way of surviving without each other."

"What I was meaning was that because we're almost always together, at home and on the road, that if something did happen to either of us, we'd most likely be together at the time," Cooper added to USA TODAY. "But neither of us has a suicide pact. We have a life pact."

OK, we will come back to that Daily Mirror story.

However, something important seems to be missing here, even in the short USA Today report.

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That mass-media firestorm surrounding 'Unplanned': Is 'censorship' the right word here?

That mass-media firestorm surrounding 'Unplanned': Is 'censorship' the right word here?

So, there’s another one of those “Christian” niche-market movies that’s about to come to a theater near you. Maybe you’re heard about it? Or maybe you have even seen the trailer for “Breakthrough” before one of those family friendly movies at your local multiplex?

There’s a good chance that you have been able to see the trailer, as explained in this Religion News Service piece. That fact alone turns this into a somewhat different “Christian movie in the marketplace” story than the one that “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I discussed during this week’s podcast (click here to tune that in).

Why? Hang in there with me, because this will take some explaining.

Producer DeVon Franklin was “blown away” by the Smiths’ story several years ago when he met Joyce and John Smith and their pastor, Jason Noble, while promoting his film “Miracles From Heaven.” …

The producer said “Breakthrough” builds on the success of the other films he has produced with explicitly Christian messages: “Miracles From Heaven,” which also is based on the true story of a mother holding on to faith as her child faces a health crisis, and “The Star,” an animated film telling the story of Jesus’ birth from the viewpoint of the animals.

And it’s well positioned to reach even more people, he said. Franklin said he was surprised how many movies the trailer has accompanied in theaters since then and by the positive response they have received. He’s seen “unprecedented interest in this type of content,” he said.

Now, if the trailer for this movie is showing in front of lots of mainstream films — like the superheat “Mary Poppins Returns” — and reaching family friendly audiences, then that would mean that “Breakthrough” is rated PG — which it is. The film has also been welcomed, without rancor, into the world of social media.

So how is this different from that other Christian-market movie that is in the news right now? What have you read about “Unplanned” and its attempts to reach the emerging marketplace for faith-driven films?

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Time for a solid update on the changing realities in U.S. evangelicals' retail business

Time for a solid update on the changing realities in U.S. evangelicals' retail business

Hammered by superstore chains and then the online omnipresence of Amazon, America’s bookstores are struggling.

Thus there was more sorrow than  shock when the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Christian Resources announced on March 20 it will close down its chain of 170 brick-and-mortar stores, which sell books, Bibles, curriculum and a variety of other religious products.

Baptist Press reported the gap between LifeWay stores; sales and operating expenses grew from a manageable $2.3 million in 2010 to $35.5 million by 2017. That year, LifeWay’s chief rival, Family Christian Resources, shut all of its 240 retail locations, following the 2013 demise of the United Methodist Church’s 38 Cokesbury stores.

The Baptist collapse raises two themes for solid stories, the limits on what products religious stores should be selling, and the ongoing disruption as U.S. religious retail, dominated by evangelical Protestants, shifts toward online and phone-ordering operations. As a company, LifeWay will continue alongside the likes of family-owned Christian Book Distributors.  There will be ever fewer independent stores surviving to serve as local ministry and fellowship centers. 

 On the first theme, officially Christian stores obviously are not going to sell lottery tickets, randy novels and movies, pop music that degrades women, or books that deviate from their faith’s doctrines. The Baptists’ no-no’s include the prosperity gospel and  accounts of purported visits to heaven. Some respondents danced on LifeWay’s grave over the way its policies reflected the Southern Baptists’ narrowing definition of doctrinal fidelity.

The most-discussed example occurred in 2012 when LifeWay refused to sell “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” a slightly sassy book on the gender wars by well-known author Rachel Held Evans,  published by Thomas Nelson, an evangelical subsidiary of HarperCollins that’s based in Nashville, the same city as LifeWay.  

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Must read on dementia and religion: RNS series offers interesting, informative coverage

Must read on dementia and religion: RNS series offers interesting, informative coverage

What he said.

Once again, Adelle M. Banks has produced a story — actually, make that a series —  that illustrates why she’s one of the best journalists on the Godbeat.

Banks, production editor and national reporter for Religion News Service, is known for her balanced, impartial journalism. Regardless of the subject matter, it’s generally impossible to tell which side Banks favors because she treats everyone so fairly.

Last year, her story on a 75-year-old sanitation worker reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was one of my favorites.

And now — in a world of nonstop hot takes on why 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump — Banks has tackled another fascinating subject off the beaten path.

It’s a series on dementia and religion that is filled with interesting, informative details and respected, knowledgable sources.

And the lede? It’s pretty much perfect:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (RNS) — When geropsychologist Benjamin Mast evaluates dementia clients at his University of Louisville research lab, there’s a question some people of faith ask him:

“What if I forget about God?”

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America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

One of the ways that I celebrate the arrival of the real 12 days of Christmas — trigger alert: which start on Dec. 25th — is by calling up the absolutely fabulous Vince Guaraldi soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

As I type these words we are in the middle of the acoustic bass solo on “Christmastime Is Here,” the instrumental take on that wonderful melody.

I wish I could write a column every year or so about that 1965 Peanuts special. There are so many angles and subplots in the twisted story of how this now legendary show was a long shot to reach America’s TV screens — especially with Linus reciting the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. Oh, and the principalities and powers also thought the jazz soundtrack would flop with Middle America.

Anyway, the editors at America magazine have re-upped an amazing 2016 essay by Jim McDermott that I somehow missed the first time around. The headline: “How ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ continues to defy common sense.”

Let’s consider this a think piece for today, even though this isn’t a weekend.

It’s Christmas. Sue me. So here is the overture:

When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted on Dec. 9, 1965, CBS executives were so sure it would fail they informed its executive producer, Lee Mendelson, they were showing it only because they had already announced it in TV Guide. “Maybe it’s better suited to the comic page,” they told him after an advance showing.

Despite six months working on the show, the animation director, Bill Melendez, felt much the same. “By golly, we’ve killed it,” he recalls telling Mendelson after a screening.

The American public disagreed. In fact, 45 percent of Americans with a television set watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that night, making it the second highest rated show of the week (behind “Bonanza”). The program would go on to win an Emmy and a Peabody, and it has been broadcast every Christmas season since.

Now, here is the special part. I think that this next passage is absolutely magical in summing up just how STRANGE the Peanuts special was when it came out and, of course, it’s just as strange today. That’s the point.

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Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

I have been in and out of Nashville since the mid-1980s and I have heard that great city called many things.

Of course, it is the “Music City,” but I am more fond of the nickname “Guitar Town.”

Southern Baptists used to refer to the national convention’s large, strategically located headquarters as the “Baptist Vatican.” Then again, the United Methodist corporate presence in Nashville is also important.

This points to another reality: The historic synergy between the country music industry and the world of gospel music, in a wide variety of forms (including Contemporary Christian Music). Nashville is also home to a hub of Christian publishing companies that has global clout. All of that contributes to another well-known Nashville label: “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

It’s an amazing town, with a stunning mix of churches and honky-tonks. As country legend Naomi Judd once told me, in Nashville artists can sing about Saturday night and Sunday morning in the same show and no one will blink.

This brings me to a massive New York Times feature that ran with this sprawling double-decker headline:

Nashville’s Star Rises as Midsize Cities Break Into Winners and Losers

Nashville and others are thriving thanks to a mix of luck, astute political choices and well-timed investments, while cities like Birmingham, Ala., fall behind.

That tells you the basic thrust of the story. What interested me is that the Times covered the rapidly changing face of Nashville — many Tennesseans moan that it’s the new Atlanta — without making a single reference to the role that religious institutions have played in the city’s past and, yes, its present.

That’s really, really hard to do. But the Times team managed to pull that off.

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What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

THE QUESTION: Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” — the Easter cantata that is so frequently heard at Christmastime — is probably the most-performed and most-beloved piece of great music ever written. What explains this long-running appeal?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Underlying this theme is the poignant reality that our culture and many of its churches are gradually losing historical moorings that include the excellent fine arts created in former times. So how and why does “Messiah,” which exemplifies the “classical” musical style and faith of 276 years ago, so hold its own today?

By most estimates, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) does not quite equal a peerless fellow German composer and a contemporary he never met, J.S. Bach (1685-1750). But in terms of popularity and number of performances, not to mention seasonal sing-alongs, this one among Handel’s 30 oratorios overshadows Bach’s monumental Christian works such as the “Christmas Oratorio,” “Mass in B Minor,” “St. John Passion” and “St. Matthew “Passion.”

Handel biographer Jonathan Keates tells the remarkable story of the famed oratorio in his 2017 book “Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece” — a good gift suggestion.

In a fit of inspiration, Handel dashed off all of his oratorio’s 53 sections in just three weeks. (Of course tunesmith Bach was expected to turn out a new choral number almost every week.) The first performance in the Easter season of 1742 — in Dublin, Ireland, instead of England — was a triumph.

The London premiere the following March is remembered because King George II stood during the “Hallelujah Chorus” and was imitated by the audience. Listeners have done the same ever since, a tribute normally limited to patriotic anthems. George never officially explained his deed. But it has always been assumed he believed a Christian king should express obeisance to the eternal “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” per the text sung from the Book of Revelation.

There was some trouble with the London gig.

Bluenoses thought it faintly blasphemous that a Christian oratorio was being performed in the secular Covent Garden theater instead of a church.

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