London 2012 fetes British ink, film and (gasp!) hymnody

Folks, I have committed a serious sin that I hate to spot among other reporters. When searching for obvious religion, I overlooked the subtle spots.

Let me explain.

Like any good American watching the Olympic opening ceremonies by myself, I took to Twitter to let my freak (ethnocentric) flag fly high.

I tilted my head at all the Abraham Lincolns (then I read that Sir Kenneth Branagh was dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel reading Caliban’s speech from “The Tempest,” got that?) and laughed at delight at Mr. Bean (or Rowan Atkinson). It was a show fit for the queen, and I was eating it up, using the twitters to laugh and mock and do what you do on Twitter. Truly, I was most excited to see if Kate Middleton would announce she’s pregnant, so we would watch the world implode.

The TV sound was down, so I wouldn’t disturb my parents, who generously let me come over and watch on their TV. I was completely intrigued by the history coming out of ceremonies, details I legitimately did not know. I’d ask questions and my friends in the computer would give me the answers. It was like an unedited wiki page, way more fun than listening to Bob Costas.

My dad, meanwhile, sat in the other room reading something very serious and theological. He knows an intense amount of history, including British history, and probably could have explained everything to me. Unfortunately, he walked in during a few pop culture references and he gave up. When Mr. Bean began running in Chariots of Fire, I dragged him back in, saying “Look! This is hilarious!” But yeah, who is Mr. Bean, right? You know those rules of the universe when your parents walk in during the worst parts? Yeah, both my parents legitimately chose to come in right during the PDA make out session (some pop culture reference I still don’t understand). They chose to go on a walk with each other as I continued to watch the madness.

Anyway, the whole time, I’m thinking, “England shaped like a lot of religion, right? I just didn’t see much religion. Give me religion!”

And I said something to that effect on Twitter. And then I said something similar in my previous GetReligion post.

My friends in the computer responded!

I learned all sorts of things, like how differently we understand culture and the media and our place in the world.

Like this:

“There was no C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkein”

Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, did we both watch the same opening ceremony? Yes, there was no C.S. Lewis, but did you not see the Lord of the Rings? The green shire dissappears, Isengard staring at me, with those smoking chimneys and the Ring is forged!! Tolkein was all over it.

This article cleverly said in words what I was thinking!

Maybe I should’ve finished those LOTR movies, I don’t know. Don’t throw something at me. Yes, I acted out what I hate that other reporters do. They want the OBVIOUS. They want to see a cross, they want to see a religious figure or something blatant to agree to pursue some sort of religion angle. For instance, even though I know there are several faith-driven athletes, I couldn’t spot the virgin runner (Lolo Jones) everyone has been salivating over, and that should be so glaring I should spot her in some sort of glow or halo, right?

At least I tried so hard not to embarrass my sports journalist husband who was copy editing Olympics stories last night. There was a time I asked who Jeremy Lin was and he responded by asking who Billy Graham was (it was in the first week of Linsanity). I tell him that my questions help him edit for the common personwoman!

Thanks to kind souls, I also gained from this:

Wait, you’re a religion reporter, and you missed the hymns, not to mention the whole symbolic use of Glastonbury Tor (where Jesus *visited* in childhood) as the focal point?!

In any case, those in the US should know that one of the main stories of the opening ceremony was overtly religious: from its coverage NBC cut (in its entirety) the hymn Abide With Me, all 5 verses, sung in remembrance of victims of terrorism. Why? Religion ghosts perchance?!

Here’s the excerpt:

And, just for the record, the hymns I spotted:


Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer

Good Christian Men Rejoice

Abide With Me

My friends, I confess: I was having more fun reading Twitter than actually watching the TV, so I also completely missed Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams sitting behind the queen (with that dress, how can you look at anything else?) or the nods to Tolkein. Granted, I’m guessing that most of the audience missed those details as well, but as people pointed out, as a religion reporter I should have known!

Has anyone seen any good mainstream religion reporting out of the opening ceremonies? Crowd source! Surely there are some good links to add to this thread that I haven’t seen, even in all my magical abilities to read everything on the internet (or something like that). Remember after Osama bin Laden was killed and people under a certain age had to Google him to see who he was? I can sympathize because it feels like I have to do that all the time.

Part of why the Olympics intimidates me and fascinates me is the nuances that fill the back stories. It’s not just about who won the gold, it’s about countries coming together (or apart) and all the crazy interesting stories behind them. It’s like religion, very nuanced, which can be scary to reporters. For instance, I’m reading about how NBC chose not to air a lesbian kiss, the arrival of female Saudi Arabian athletes, or the tribute to terrorism victims. This stuff has layers! Like religion! Makes you respect sports reporters a little bit more, right?

This is how AFP described it, yet the piece doesn’t go terribly deeply.

A celebration of free healthcare, the trade union struggle, the battle for women’s rights and a fleeting lesbian kiss: the Olympics opening ceremony Friday did not shy away from weighty social issues.

Unsurprisingly, the show devised by Oscar-winning British director Danny Boyle drew accusations from the British political right that it had strayed into “leftie” issues.

When I watch TV I think is “light,” I tend to turn off my “work” brain and turn on my “haha look at those outfits” brain. Still, I have a filter that spots religion that generally doesn’t turn off. So I apologize. I should have seen and broadcasted these little details.

But I also learned another lesson. Crowd sourcing can be incredibly valuable. I have my own filter where I thought one of the songs sung was a Psalm (it’s the tune to a Psalm), given my upbringing in a Psalm-singing church. Everyone comes to religion reporting with some sort of background, whether it’s Christian, Muslim, Hindu, whatever. Even among my GetReligion colleagues, I have learned much about personal experiences in the Episcopal Church, Lutheran differences, Churches of Christ, Eastern Orthodox, being former Mormon, being former Southern Baptist, etc. and I am grateful I have a group I can ask stupid questions to, like “how do you write out the Rev. Is that capped and abbreviated?” There’s the AP stylebook and an RNA stylebook. Or sometimes you can’t be too afraid to just ask.

Sometimes knowing what you don’t know is the most important thing to know.

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  • Karen

    So they had a dance to Abide With Me to non-Olympian Londoners who were killed after the Olympics in Singapore but couldn’t do a minute of silence for the 17 Israeli Olympians killed 1972. And I saw the coverage but not reference to the missing moment of silence. A major ghost.

  • sari

    A deliberate ghost, Karen, because no one cares except Israel and the Jews. I was listening to NPR on Friday while they interviewed the widow of one of the athletes slain in Munich. She had it exactly right: anyone who walks away in protest, and she specified the Arab countries, doesn’t really understand the point of the Olympics (although I think the point was lost a long time ago).

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks for pointing these details out. This is what I love about GetReligion. Readers crowd source and add new info.

  • Pamela Zohar

    Maypoles, Glastonbury Tor and blatant, absolutely BLATANT, LOTR (and Harry Potter), all those hymns and God Save The Queen and you MISSED the religious refs? Bad girl! What did you think of the doves of peace?

  • Mollie

    Did you notice that Deadspin called Abide With Me an “adoptive sporting anthem”?

    What does that mean?

    Also, that was gorgeous. Far and away the most moving dancing and singing of the entire night. How foolish to nix it for a Ryan Seacrest interview.

  • sari

    Tisha b’Av, a major fast day (25 hours no food or water) began last night and will end this evening. In light of the Ramadan coverage, have any inquiries been made as to whether or not Israeli or Jewish athletes are participating in today’s events and if they are fasting?

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    More good points and questions! Though I was secretly hoping someone would explain the make out session…some pop culture reference. :)

  • sari

    Sarah–It would be cool if y’all had an on-going thread for contributors to give a heads up on upcoming holy days. Everyone’s heard of Hanukkah, for example, but how many are familiar with the full cycle kicked off by Rosh HaShanah in the fall? Many articles take the time to explain the significance of Ramadan, but in my fifty-four years, I’ve yet to see an even close to adequate explanation of Yom Kippur, alone or in context.

  • JoFro

    Woohoo, after one year of reading Get Religion and leaving replies, I finally got quoted in an article :D….but yes, apart from the LOTR references, another reader rightly pointed out the hymns!

    Another interesting factoid – the songs sung by the youth choirs for England and Wales are not merely hymns but also happen to be the informal anthems of those two respective countries – England’s Jerusalem and Wales’ Bread of Heaven, which is so thoroughly religious, I was wondering if it put off those who can’t seem to stand any religious references intruding on their perfect secular lives! Just a thought…

    The Welsh are not religious as such and the hymn is connected now to rugby (yes, all those informal anthems are now connected to rugby – we saw that at the opening ceremony)….here’s a link with lyrics to Bread of Heaven -

  • Julia

    There’s at least two hymns named Bread of Heaven which my Catholic church choir sings. They have very different lyrics from the version in that YouTube video. I doubt if those ruggers (isn’t that what they are called) know that Bread of Heaven is Holy Communion. Kind of like Panis Angelicus – the Bread of Angels – written by Thomas Aquinas.

  • Julia

    Did you catch In Dulci Jubilo, an ancient Christmas song, which was played by the Tubular Bells guys,

  • C. Wingate

    I’m still not quite sure why someone in Britain thought that In Dulce Jubilo, which is about as German as it gets, was the right tune for some generic English dancing, but as someone who got all the references up top it’s always striking to see how easily the Brits slip into use of overtly religious material in public when for years here the governing authority was “will Madalyn Murray O’Hair have a cow”. NBC’s commentators seemed fairly clueless about that. I also noted Rowan Williams sitting directly behind the queen, absolutely unremarked upon.

    Karen, the issue of commemorating Munich was one of the few such things explicitly discussed in the broadcast. The impression they gave was that the IOC head as resolutely against including it in the ceremonies.

  • MisterDavid

    @Karen – the bombings in London occured the day after the city was awarded the Games, hence the Olympic relevance.

    @Mollie – Abide With Me is sung before the FA Cup final every year, hence ’sporting anthem’

    @C Wingate – Dulce Jubilo is used by the British for Good Christian Men Rejoice, a Christmas Carol.

    @JoFro – me too! Woohoo!

  • Julia

    Ave Maria playing in the background of this dressage event?
    At least for the first contestant from the US. Do they pick the music that calms their horse?

  • Ken Larson

    We have a church member who is British by birth and who told us that the green hill and the tree that were depicted in the opening are an ancient English reference to Calvary. Can anyone comment on this. Thanks!

  • MisterDavid

    @Ken – no, it’s not a reference to Calvary. Glastonbury Tor is a hill in southwest England with mythological links to Jesus’ childhood & to King Arthur. The opening song in the ceremony (Jerusalem by William Blake) references the Jesus myth.

  • Julia

    The hill looked like one of those Iron Age hill forts that can be seen around various locations in England.

  • Terry

    A little late in the day … but may I point out that the author’s name is TOLKIEN ? Not Tolkein.

    • JoFro

      Ooops! My bad…can’t believe I spelt Tolkien wrong :(