U2

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

What does it mean when a member of Pussy Riot shows up at a Christian arts festival?

What does it mean when a member of Pussy Riot shows up at a Christian arts festival?

You’ve all heard of Pussy Riot, the defiant all-female Russian punk band that got headlines back in 2012 when several of them interrupted a prayer service -- invading the altar area -- at the Christ Our Savior Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow with anti-Vladimir Putin chants. (Tmatt covered that here). 

Since then, these anarchist/feminists have been known for disrupting everything from a World Cup game to the Moscow subway. But they haven’t been particularly known for any religious sentiments, other than a song addressed to the Virgin Mary called “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away.”

So I was amazed to read a Religion News Service story about one of its members appearing at Greenbelt, a famous Christian music festival held in the U.K.

From its shock-effect name to its defiant activist tactics, little about the Russian band Pussy Riot would suggest that the punk group is on a holy mission.

But after an appearance last weekend (Aug. 26) at Greenbelt, the U.K.’s foremost Christian arts festival, Pussy Riot’s co-founder Maria Alyokhina explained that the act, beginning with the 2012 protest that resulted in two years in a labor camp, should be understood as a “Christian gesture.”

Pussy Riot is better known in the West for its feminism and political resistance -- which almost prevented Alyokhina from making her date at Greenbelt. The Russian authorities had barred her from boarding a plane earlier this month as she headed on a tour of British arts events, telling her she was forbidden to leave the country until she completed a 100-day community service sentence for taking part in an unauthorized protest in April.

But Alyokhina, 30, is not easily deterred. She drove instead, crossing at an unsecured section of the border, and kept going until she reached Lithuania, where she boarded a plane to Britain.

What the festival-goers in England got was Alyokhina and other members of her band putting on a show, called “Riot Days.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Is the Babylon Bee insider 'Christian' funny, or truly funny enough for prime time?

Is the Babylon Bee insider 'Christian' funny, or truly funny enough for prime time?

So what is this week's "Crossroads" podcast actually about?

Well, on one level it's about the "Christian" humor website called The Babylon Bee. But on a deeper level, it's about what happens when the word "Christian" is turned into an adjective defining a form of popular culture. At that point, all kinds of interesting and even distressing things take place. There are news stories in there, folks.

For example, when you hear someone talking about "Christian" rock 'n' roll, doesn't that (if you are of a certain age) make you think of that famous "Seinfeld" episode that included the riff about the car-radio buttons? Here's a flashback, from an "On Religion" column that I wrote long, long ago:

As she pulled into traffic, Elaine Benes turned on her boyfriend's car radio and began bouncing along to the music.
Then the lyrics sank in: "Jesus is one, Jesus is all. Jesus pick me up when I fall." In horror, she punched another button, then another. "Jesus," she muttered, discovering they all were set to Christian stations. Then the scene jumped to typical "Seinfeld" restaurant chat.
"I like Christian rock," said the ultra-cynical George Costanza. "It's very positive. It's not like those real musicians who think they're so cool and hip."

It's all about the world "real." We are not talking about "real" musicians, here. We are talking about "Christian" rock. Thus, when most people hear the phrase "Christian" rock, they probably think of this rather than this (please click these URLs).

What do you think of when you hear people talk about "Christian" movies? Do you think of this or of this?

How about the fine arts? When you think of Christian paintings, do you think of this or, well, of this?

I could go on. "Christian" humor, including satire, is not new -- in fact, it's ancient.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

How did 'Christian' — as an adjective in mass media — come to mean shallow and lousy?

How did 'Christian' — as an adjective in mass media — come to mean shallow and lousy?

On one level, this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) is a follow-up discussion of my recent blog here about the New York Times article that, allegedly, tried to look for Jesus at Comic-Con 2015. That event in San Diego is, as I described it in my discussion with Todd Wilken, the great annual gathering of the pop-culture tribes for a "sacred dance" of hero worship and, of course, marketing.

The Times team apparently went to this event looking for evidence that the emerging mini-industry of films and television miniseries targeting "Christian" consumers -- in this case, "Christian" clearly means "evangelical" -- just isn't with it, or cool enough, when it comes to competing in the pop-culture major leagues. But that article, I argued, really didn't pay attention to (a) the work of Christians in mainstream media and (b) the ongoing debates, decade after decade, about aith questions raised in franchises such as "Star Wars," zombie movies, the X-Men, Doctor Who, etc., etc., etc.

In the end, the podcast ended up focusing on how the term "Christian" -- used as a adjective for marketing purposes -- has in our times become another way of saying shoddy, cheap, shallow and derivative. This led to some obvious questions.

Was J.S. Bach a "Christian" composer? Is Christopher Parkening a "Christian" classical guitarist?

Was J.R.R. Tolkien a "Christian" novelist?

How about C.S. Lewis? How about Jane Austen? How about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? When Fyodor Dostoyevsky sat down to write, was he thinking to himself, "How can I please the 'Christian' marketplace?" How about Flannery O'Connor? By the way, her work was the subject of my "On Religion" column for Universal this past week.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

When faith enters the spotlight, should reporters dig into the personal details?

When faith enters the spotlight, should reporters dig into the personal details?

On one level, this past week's "Crossroads" podcast added a few extra layers of information to my recent Universal Syndicate "On Religion" column about the ministry of the late Father Jack Heaslip (video clip above), an Anglican priest who for several decades was the behind-the-scenes pastor to the members of U2.

But there's more to the podcast than that. Click here to tune into the whole discussion.

The key to the discussion is the conflicted feelings that I experienced, back in 2001, when I met Heaslip at a private gathering on Capitol Hill in which Bono address a strategic circle of Hill staffers who shared his convictions about hunger, AIDS and the Third World debt crisis.

The band's pastor asked if I was with the press and I admitted that I was. He said something like, "Well, we're here to hear that man speak," gesturing toward Bono, and slipped away to the back of the room.

I was very disappointed not to "land" a rare interview with this man, yet, at the same time, I admired the degree to which he managed to stay out of the spotlight and do his work without great fanfare. He didn't want to be turned into a "Father Jack Heaslip, secret pastor of U2 superstars!" headline. Instead, he wanted to continue his pastoral support for four men he had known since they were brash young teen-agers in the nondenominational school in which he was their guidance counselor.

So that journalistic tension is what the podcast is about, really.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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. 

Please respect our Commenting Policy