hymns

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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#RNA2017: Five takeaways from the 68th annual conference of the Religion News Association

#RNA2017: Five takeaways from the 68th annual conference of the Religion News Association

In advance of last week's 68th annual conference of the Religion News Association, the Rev. Thomas J. Reese wrote an interesting column on the state of the Godbeat.

In case you hadn't heard, this oft-quoted priest joined Religion News Service last month as a senior analyst and columnist focused on Catholicism, the Vatican and Pope Francis. His recent column featured a clever headline about "religion journalists singing country & blues in Nashville."

Music City was, of course, the site of this year's RNA conference. Reese wrote:

(RNS) — This week I am looking forward to the annual meeting of the Religion News Association (Sept. 7-9) in Nashville, where I hope to see old friends and make new ones. I enjoy the company of journalists, who are almost always bright, articulate and funny. Religion reporters are a special breed because of their interest in values, religion and the transcendent.
There is also some sadness as I get ready to travel because I know many old friends will not be there. It is not that they have died, although some have. Rather, there are simply fewer religion writers today. They have either been laid off or jumped ship before they got pushed out.
So, when we get to Nashville, I am not sure whether we will be singing country or the blues.

Actually, Godbeat pros sang a few church hymns, as part of a session on congregational singing (and beer):

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New York Times offers faith-free take on rugby fans hijacking 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'

New York Times offers faith-free take on rugby fans hijacking 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'

Let me start by confessing that I know very little about rugby or the fan culture that surrounds it in some parts of the world. In other words, I am an American.

However, I do know a thing or two about church music. Basically, I have been singing in church choirs (and academic choirs dedicated to classical and sacred music) so long that I don't even remember when I started. My childhood memories have always included choirs.

Thus, allow me to make a few comments on half of the material found in a fascinating New York Times feature that ran with this headline: "How a Slave Spiritual Became English Rugby’s Anthem." The story is labeled "rugby," which implies that it was a sports feature. However, it was also featured in the "international" news section of the Times online round-up.

Obviously, I want to comment on the feature's religious content and lack thereof. Here is the overture:

LONDON -- Barely a minute had elapsed in the match between the national rugby teams of England and France when the song first boomed around the stands at Twickenham Stadium.
“Swing low, sweet chariot,” thousands of fans sang, “coming for to carry me home.”
It is a famous refrain and melody. For many in the United States, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” enjoys a hallowed status as one of the cherished of 19th-century African-American spirituals, its forlorn lyrics invoking the darkness of slavery and the sustained oppression of a race.
But here, across the Atlantic, the song has developed a parallel existence, unchanged in form but utterly different in function, as a boisterous drinking song turned sports anthem.

The feature includes quite a bit of material about rugby culture. It also does a fantastic job of describing the symbolic role that this spiritual -- it could also be called a folk hymn -- has played in African-American history.

So what is missing?

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Why don't men like church? Sometimes a story is hard to see because it's just too common

Why don't men like church? Sometimes a story is hard to see because it's just too common

This week's "Crossroads" podcast is rather different from the norm. Please allow me to explain why.

You see, this podcast is not about a story that is in the news. It's a discussion of a larger trend that I am convinced is helping shape some major trends -- in culture, in the church and, yes, often in the news.

Like what? Well, it is relevant to the rise of the "nones," especially the departure of young men from pews. It's also, I have long been convinced, linked to several hot-button debates about the Catholic priesthood. You could make a case that this trend -- centuries old, actually -- is helping fuel the decline of liberal Protestantism in the West, while also causing problems (to a lesser degree, statistically) in evangelical and Pentecostal sanctuaries.

Oh, and then there is that whole "Jesus is my boyfriend" issue in modern church music, in megachurch Protestantism and even in some liturgical circles.

We are talking about the fact that lots and lots of men just don't want to go to church. Go to most churches -- especially struggling churches -- and look around. What is the ratio of women to men?

I wrote a pair of columns about this and, frankly, I have been getting some interesting feedback from readers. People are not neutral on this subject, for sure. They either think this problem is real or they think that people who want to discuss the issue are (a) way too liberal, (b) way too conservative, (c) anti-women, (d) anti-Catholic tradition or some combination of the above (and I could have added lots of other factors that folks put in that mix.)

The columns were based on a series of lectures by the conservative Catholic writer Leon Podles, author of the controversial 1999 book "The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity," that were delivered recently at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore. In a way, Podles -- a former federal investigator with a doctorate in English -- was updating the work in that book.

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New York Times team attends one of the first funerals in Kenya, with eyes open

New York Times team attends one of the first funerals in Kenya, with eyes open

The massacre at Garissa University College in Kenya is now fading into media memory, which is not the case for those of us who continue to be haunted by photos and stories that circulate on Twitter and Facebook among human-rights activists who are growing increasingly concerned about the persecution of the church in Africa and the Middle East.

For the most part, journalists around the world spotted the religious themes in this hellish drama -- with stunning exceptions like the early coverage in The Washington Post.

I was left asking one question: Would this story have received more coverage in television news if someone, early on, had accurately called this the "Holy Week massacre"? There was, after all, evidence that the al-Shabaab gunmen specifically targeted a pre-Easter worship service that had been announced on campus. The bloodbath took place on Maundy Thursday, for Catholics and Protestants in the churches of the West.

Sometimes, all reporters have to do to cover the religion angles in this kind of story is open their eyes and ears and take notes.

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Final nod to confusing themes in Christmas coverage: Time finds that 'Joy to the World' is about Santa?

Final nod to confusing themes in Christmas coverage: Time finds that 'Joy to the World' is about Santa?

A final Merry Christmas to any readers out there who are on the Western calendar and preparing for services tonight or tomorrow for Epiphany (or Theophany among the Orthodox and Eastern Catholics). The 12 days of Christmas are past, unless you are in an old-calendar Orthodox parish that celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7th. We can expect a few news reports on that tradition in the next few days, as always.

Still, we are at the end of Christmas for readers who follow Christian traditions, as opposed to the calendar of the dominant mall culture. With that in mind, let me give a shout out to those of you who sent me email about a truly interesting, if bizarre, little item from the Time online site. I'll slip this one in, right at the last minute.

The goal in this piece was to try to draw a line between the secular and sacred, when it comes to Christmas music. The headline: "TIME crunches the merry numbers behind the most popular Christmas songs of the modern era." The goal, through the study of commercial recordings since 1978, was said to be separating the sacred ("songs about the birth of Christ") from the commercial or secular (songs "about Santa and snow").

You can see the confusion that's ahead for readers, right? Time was defining secular and sacred according to function, not content.

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Not all things considered: NPR on hymns

Let’s get the praise for this story about praise music and hymnody out of the way first.

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A Broadway revival that includes 'Blessed Assurance'

The other day, I wrote a post about the fact that many journalists struggle to understand, to be perfectly honest about it, the role that Christian faith plays in the African-American church. There is a tendency to see the black church as a political institution, and that’s that.

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