Pod people: Dylan does his Dylan thing

It’s time for another Crossroads podcast, so please click here to tune that in on your computer or head on over to iTunes. We’re talking Bob Dylan and I think that it’s safe to say that Dylan is in better shape right now on the whole China sellout thing than, oh, Maureen Dowd & Co.

I say this because an interesting collection of voices — including some on the left — have started noting that Dylan was far from silent in Beijing, when he took the stage under what he knew would be a hot international spotlight.

For some scribes, the problem was that he emphasized religion, not politics (as usually defined in the mainstream press). He made a statement, but not the right one. But stop and think about that for a minute. Is there any subject in modern China more controversial than religion and religious freedom?

Truth is, Dylan spoke out on politics and religion at the same time. Friends, this is not Dylan’s first rodeo in the public square.

Anyway, I jumped into the fray on the Dylan matter here at GetReligion for a simple, pointedly journalistic reason. How can anyone claim that Dylan sold out and didn’t sing edgy material in China without paying attention to the lyrics of his first song in that historic Beijing concert? I mean, read the words.

I’m happy to say that some people are starting to do that. Here’s a dose of Sean Wilentz blogging over at the New Yorker:

Dylan opened his concerts in Beijing and Shanghai with a scalding song from his so-called gospel period, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.”

I’m gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my best foot forward
Stop bein’ influenced by fools

Presumably, he sang some of the revised lyrics in the version that he released with Mavis Staples in 2003:

Jesus is coming
He’s coming back to gather His jewels
Well, we live by the Golden Rule
Whoever got the gold, rules

Or maybe he sang the original lyrics:

So much oppression
Can’t keep track of it no more
So much oppression
Can’t keep track of it no more

How much more subversive could Dylan have been in Communist China? Especially when he went on to sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and, most unnerving of all, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Depending on whatever agreement he made with them, I’d argue Dylan made a fool of the Chinese authorities, while getting paid in the bargain. He certainly made a fool of Maureen Dowd — or she has made a fool of herself.

I would quibble a bit with the accuracy of some of the lyrics quoted there (it’s “Jesus is calling” on the first line of that 2003 verse). But his blog made all of the essential points. Preach it, brother.

Which is more than I can say about this Jon Wiener piece over at The Nation online. I mean, it starts with a rejection of the Dowd camp, but then he still manages to miss the main point of what Dylan did on that stage. Here’s a big chunk of that piece:

Bob Dylan did not sell out to the Chinese government when he performed in Beijing on April 6. The “sellout” charge was made in the New York Times [1] on Sunday by Maureen Dowd, along with several other people. The problem: Dylan submitted his set list to the Chinese culture ministry, according to the Guardian’s Martin Wieland in Beijing, and as a result the concert was performed “strictly according to an approved programme.”

That’s the reason, Dowd wrote, why Dylan did not sing what she called his “iconic songs of revolution like “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dylan thus was guilty of “a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family.”

The Daily Beast ran a feature headlined “Famous Sellouts,” with Bob Dylan in Beijing in the number-one spot, and William Langley wrote in the Telegraph that “Dylan without protest songs sounds about as useful as Hamlet without the soliloquy.”

But look at what Dylan did sing in Beijing [2], starting with “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”: that song describes a place “Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters/Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison/Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden.” You could call that a “protest song” if you wanted to.

He also sang “Ballad of a Thin Man”: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” I would say that carries a pretty strong political charge.

And he sang “All Along the Watchtower”: “Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth/None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” If you were looking for critical commentary on China today, this would work.

OK, is there anything missing in that commentary? Anyone notice which crucial song — as in the opening number — that The Nation skipped?

I was still steamed about all of this when it came time to write my Scripps Howard piece this week — which was the 23rd anniversary of the start of my “On Religion” column for that national wire service. I opened with the last salvo in China’s war against the nation’s growing wave of unregistered religious groups (click here for details) and then put the Dylan show in that context.

But what’s the big idea? Why are journalists struggling to get this story? Here’s my take:

Many years ago, commentator Bill Moyers told me that the reason so many journalists struggle to cover religion news is that they are “tone deaf” to the music of faith in public life. That image still rings true for me, after 23 years of writing this column for the Scripps Howard News Service and more than three decades of research into life on the religion beat.

For me, the coverage of the Beijing concert was a classic example of this “tone deaf” syndrome. It certainly seems that many reporters attended, but they didn’t hear what they wanted to hear.

You may have heard this already, but many journalists in the mainstream press just don’t “get” religion.

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Pod People: Burning Korans, killing people

In the most recent Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discuss media coverage of the Koran burning, changing funeral practices and Confession.

Since then, our discussions of media coverage of Koran burning and its response have expanded greatly.

One thing I really wish the media would cover is Muslim teaching about burning of Korans. I was digging around for the actual prohibitions and how they’re interpreted by various scholars, and I was unsuccessful. I did find an instance of previous Koran burning — by Muslims:

Hudhaifa bin Al-Yaman came to Uthman at the time when the people of Sham and the people of Iraq were Waging war to conquer Arminya and Adharbijan. Hudhaifa was afraid of their (the people of Sham and Iraq) differences in the recitation of the Qur’an, so he said to ‘Uthman, “O chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Quran) as Jews and the Christians did before.” So ‘Uthman sent a message to Hafsa saying, “Send us the manuscripts of the Qur’an so that we may compile the Qur’anic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you.” Hafsa sent it to ‘Uthman. ‘Uthman then ordered Zaid bin Thabit, ‘Abdullah bin AzZubair, Said bin Al-As and ‘AbdurRahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies. ‘Uthman said to the three Quraishi men, “In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit on any point in the Qur’an, then write it in the dialect of Quraish, the Qur’an was revealed in their tongue.” They did so, and when they had written many copies, ‘Uthman returned the original manuscripts to Hafsa. ‘Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur’anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt. Said bin Thabit added, “A Verse from Surat Ahzab was missed by me when we copied the Qur’an and I used to hear Allah’s Apostle reciting it. So we searched for it and found it with Khuzaima bin Thabit Al-Ansari. (That Verse was): ‘Among the Believers are men who have been true in their covenant with Allah.’ (33.23)

This was during Uthman’s caliphate in the 7th century and was done in response to the multiple recitations available at that time. But wouldn’t it be nice to have more information about why burning provokes different responses among different Muslims?

Once again, there is no one Islam. We could use a lot more basic information in these early reports.

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Pod people: Repent! If God will listen, saith Phelps

This is the last that you will hear from me for some time, I hope and pray, about the Westboro Baptist Church crew. Dear God in heaven, make it so.

Nevertheless, my most recent Westboro post and the new Scripps Howard column on the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., provided the base for this week’s Crossroads podcast. Click here to listen to it, or you can download it at the same link or over at iTunes. The emphasis, once again, is on the legal and theological issues behind the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of this truly radical independent congregation.

However, thinking back on this podcast chat, I realize that we didn’t dig any deeper into one of the questions that people kept asking me in response to my Scripps column this week. People wanted to know what I THOUGHT about this bunch, on the emotional level, the spiritual level, a personal level.

How to respond? Well, much of what they have to say is outright heresy, from the point of view of orthodox Christian and Orthodox Christian theology. I could call it “smoke from the pit of hell” and that would be accurate. But that would also be accurate, in terms of describing my own sins.

So here is a serious answer. In an earlier Scripps Howard News Service column I tried to do a bit of reporting on a key plank in the Phelps doctrinal platform, which is why the church has such a harsh view both of gays and, well, Southern Baptists. Hang tight.

The words of the fifth Psalm are not for the faint of heart.

“Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness. … The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity,” warned the psalmist.

Obviously, says the Rev. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, this passage teaches that God hates the evil liberals who run the Southern Baptist Convention, along with legions of other Americans. Phelps also believes that God hates the pope and plenty of other religious leaders who are called “conservatives,” “traditionalists” and even “fundamentalists” in public debates about faith, morality and culture.

And at the end of the column, there’s more:

According to his reading of Psalm 5 and many other scripture passages, Phelps believes that God hates what he calls “kissy-pooh” sermons that refuse to proclaim that God never, ever forgives homosexuals and many other sinners.

The Westboro website once warned preachers who claim that God will forgive those who repent, no matter what: “You are going to Hell! Period! End of discussion! God’s decree sending you to Hell is irreversible! Hypocrites!”

“That’s Bible preaching,” Phelps told Baptist Press, in a 2003 interview about his beliefs. “You tell [people] that God loves everybody? You’re lying on God.”

Has anyone ever seen this information in a mainstream NEWS report about the Westboro troops? It seems crucial, to me. They literally worship a God who does not love all repentant sinners. They shout “Repent!” but do not believe that all sinners can repent. That is, I believe, a big part of the Westboro story.

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Pod people: Forgiveness & ethics

In this week’s Crossroads podcast we discuss media coverage of Newt Gingrich’s comments on the importance of forgiveness to him. We also discussed the ethics of James O’Keefe’s NPR sting.

I thought it might be worth sharing two other discussions of the latter topic. Pete Wehner at the conservative site Commentary writes about some of what made the NPR sting so interesting and newsworthy:

That said, the technique that James O’Keefe used to snag Schiller does, on reflection, leave me a bit queasy. I understand that sting operations can serve a useful role. But surreptitiously recording conversations of either NPR executives or governors (see the liberal blogger, pretending to be conservative donor David Koch, who taped a phone conversation with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) can easily cross into dangerous terrain. Human nature is weak and can be easily exploited. I and virtually every person I know have said things in private conversations that we would not want recorded and broadcast publicly. And when you add to the mix people who are play-acting and goading their interlocutors, concerns about how the tape was subsequently edited, not to mention the offer of a multimillion-dollar donation, and you are in questionable ethical territory.

I don’t pretend to know where the line should be drawn between responsible investigative journalism on the one hand and irresponsible entrapment on the other. Deceit in the cause of some other aim and some other good is sometimes morally justifiable; sometimes it’s not. But I do know that the tendency we all have to battle is to take delight in watching our ideological opponents trip up in a sting operation but squawk when our allies step into a similar trap, to react one way when James O’Keefe does the recording and another if a liberal blogger or 60 Minutes does it. In thinking through what’s fair, it’s probably worth taking into account this question among others: how would I feel if I were on the receiving end of the sting operation?

And at the Baltimore Sun, television critic David Zurawik writes of his changing views on sting operations. He began by condemning them but now thinks they might have value. He writes:

After listening to a week of discussion and watching the Sunday morning shows today, it astounds how some members of the mainstream media can overlook certain facts that challenge their belief systems.

In discussing the ethics of the bombshell video that conservative filmmaker James O’Keefe made of Ron Schiller, the former head of fund raising at NPR, the conventional wisdom heard again Sunday morning is that mainstream TV news organizations used to use hidden cameras, but, by and large, they don’t any more.

Not true, and the evidence is staring everyone in the face — even as they ignore it.

He shows examples from CBS News and NBC News from the last couple of weeks. He acknowledges it’s a complicated issue, then writes:

In trying to re-formulate my thinking on this, I am starting to believe that such techniques of hidden cameras and microphones might be one of the only ways to get at the lies some people in the media tell us. I am not yet saying they are ethically acceptable, but rather that they are one of the only techniques that have proven effective with media and political liars.

In my view, there’s no doubt that these stings are an effective way to get at the lies. Lying to obtain information is always a possibility. That doesn’t make it ethically defensible, however. What do you think?

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Pod people: Did anyone ask the iHow question?

All together now, let’s recite the W5H journalism creed.

Who. What. When. Where. Why.

And How.

I’m still thinking about that last one, in terms of some of the hilariously bad coverage that we saw the other day of that Confession app that was written for the iPad, iPhone and the iPod Touch. You may recall that the stated purpose of this app was to provide a kind of digital Guide For Confession — by which I mean those printed leaflets that believers have used for generations to help guide them in an examination of conscience before going to confession.

The problem, of course, is that many news organizations could not resist the sexy headline or the nut graph that claimed people were going to be able to confess TO their iWhatever or through their iWhatever — thus contradicting the written materials about the app or, for those who took the trouble to invest $1.99 and download the software, its actual contents.

Here’s a reminder of what happened next, care of my Scripps Howard News Service column on the affair:

“Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been 300 tweets since my last confession,” noted CNN.

In London, The Times opened its story by claiming: “Roman Catholic bishops have approved a new iPhone and iPad app that allows users to make confession with a virtual ‘priest’ over the Internet.”

Note the phrase “over the Internet.” Let’s continue:

The Economic Times report was even more blunt. The headline noted, “No time to visit church? Confess via iPhone.” Then the opening lines went further still, stating: “Users of iPhone can now perform contrition and other religious rituals without visiting church, thanks to a new online application.”

The problem is that these statements were just plain wrong. There is no such thing as a “virtual” priest or a “virtual” sacrament. How could electronic devices allow believers to “perform … other religious rituals”? …

(The) the cracked headlines rolled on with the Catholic League expressing outrage about new stinkers, such as, “Can’t Make it to Confession? There’s an App for That,” “New, Church-Approved iPhone Offers Confession On the Go” and “Bless Me iPhone for I Have Sinned.”

Now, note the phrases “without visiting church” and “church-approved.”

Having royally messed up this story, some journalists then had the nerve to report — when Roman Catholic officials issued statements objecting to the misinformation in the press — that the Vatican had withdrawn its support for the app that supposedly let you do things that the makers of the app never claimed that it allowed you to do in the first place. Or something like that. It was a perfect circle of errors. Catch-22.

I bring this up because of something that hit me just before we recorded this week’s Crossroads podcast. Click here to listen to that or to download it (or head on over to get a copy at iTunes).

In your mind’s eye, travel back to the beginning of this liturgical train wreck and put yourself in the shoes of the journalists who wrote the headlines and reports that started this mess.

Ready? Now ask yourself this elementary journalistic question: “How?”

As in the “how” in the W5H formula. How did these journalists think that these penitents were going to confess through their iPhones, iPads, etc.? Surely each of these journalists had to think about that before writing his or her story or headline.

Picture the scene in your mind. What were the believers going to do? Confess by talking to a priest? They could do that already by telephone, if the church allowed that to happen. Text in their confession? Tweet it? Peck out a confession in an email, line after line, which would then go into a priest’s in-box for a later response through the same medium? Folks could already do that through computers and existing forms of software, again, if the ancient churches allowed that to happen.

There’s another angle to this: Hadn’t any of the journalists who touched these stories ever been to Confession?

I mean, surely there was someone, at least one individual, in each of these newsrooms who was a fully practicing, sacramental believer in a Catholic or Orthodox parish. Newsrooms are supposed to be built on the concept of diversity, right? Surely there was someone in these newsrooms who knew the drill, someone who knew what actually happens in Confession. Don’t you think? What did the editors in these newsrooms think was going to happen in these “virtual” confessions?

I never found a story that answered that “how” question.

How about you, GetReligion readers? Did you see that in any story or hear that question answered in broadcast reports?

D’oh. I can’t believe that I didn’t think question of that earlier.

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Pod people: The tea party + Scientology

I’ve been wondering whether the tea party has somewhat replaced religious conservatives in some of the 2012 presidential election coverage, but maybe it’s too soon to tell. After all, if someone like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee gets the nomination, we probably will see quite a bit of religion coverage.

In GetReligion’s latest podcast, we discuss a recent story about how Iowa’s tea party found religion, raising questions about whether the national tea party movement finds room for social issues or whether that has been pushed aside for fiscal priorities.

Reporters don’t necessarily have to choose either the tea party or religious conservatives, since they might feel similarly about fiscal issues, but the tea party seems to be snagging many of the early headlines. Part of that may be the nature of the media: always looking for something new to cover so reporters can break new ground. The other part of the coverage focus might just be due to the state of the economy.

On the Democratic side, it’s hard to see anything new out of President Obama’s religious background, though false Muslim rumors may continue. Among some of the potential candidates on the Republican side, we could see a candidate coming forward who is Mormon, Catholic or evangelical, so it’ll be interesting to see how much interest groups (and then journalists) focus on religion.

Back to the podcast, we also talked about that massive New Yorker piece on Scientology–really, go read it if you haven’t had a chance. Todd points out that the magazine devoted a word for every self-described Scientology in America–25,000.

My hunch is that journalists love to cover Scientology because of the celebrity draw and its secretive nature. It’s kind of the perfect combination for journalists hungry to uncover juicy details, though because of the limitations, much of the coverage tends to come from people who have left Scientology. Remember that Esquire piece that complained that journalists need to re-focus their energy towards the Catholic Church? Here’s a comment from Nicole Neroulias:

I was hoping GetReligion would comment on this story, and am glad you also singled out that odd Esquire response. As I commented over at [Belief] Beat, it doesn’t pass the smell test–the argument is that we shouldn’t bother investigating abuses and allegations of wrongdoing because the group is small?! (Plus, any Catholic or religion reporter can vouch for the fact that the Catholic Church has gotten plenty of journalistic scrutiny in the past decade… And, it’s not a zero sum game.)

What she said.

If you’re checking in our podcasts, I assume you must be audio people. Be sure to check out the NPR interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross for the author Lawrence Wright’s background work on the piece and The New Yorker‘s mp3 where the author talks about the uniqueness of covering Scientology. Generally, what do you think about the audio pieces that go with a piece: do they enhance the story, feel journalistically narcissistic or something else? What do you look for in audio pieces?

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Pod people: Good news or bad for Copts?

For more than a week now, the mainstream press has been wrestling with the events in Egypt. It’s safe to say that this is the biggest news story, period, on planet Earth right now. I mean, other than Super Bowl XLV.

However, when we were taping this week’s GetReligion podcast — click here to listen to that or to download it — Todd Wilken of Issues, Etc., asked me a really interesting question. He asked if what’s going on is really “new” from the perspective of the Coptic Christians who are the most ancient people group in the truly ancient land of Egypt.

My brain went spinning in circles when he asked that as I tried to figure out an answer.

I mean, yes, what is happening is “new” because the fall of the government of President Hosni Mubarak would certainly be “news” in the sense that it would have to impact the Copts in some new ways different — good or bad — in comparison to recent decades.

Then again, if these events lead to even more persecution than normal, then the proper answer would be to say “no,” because the Coptic Orthodox Church and other smaller groups of Coptic Christians have been undergoing waves of persecution, some worse than others, for centuries. I mean, what’s “new” in that? Tragically, that would be pretty ordinary.

But wait a minute, you could also say that the best answer is “maybe” or “we don’t know.”

It’s possible that Egypt could develop some form of Islamic majority government that actually guards the rights of religious minorities, rights as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I mean, Egypt is in the United Nations, correct?

However, how can a new government emerge from these remarkable protests that truly protects the rights of the Copts and other religious minorities in the sense defined under Article 18 of that document? That’s the one that says:

* Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

However, what if the Gallup people are right, and 88 percent of Egyptians really do want Sharia law (of some form or another) to be the land’s only law or a major source of its law (one that cannot be contradicted)? If that’s the case, and Egypt trades it’s current flawed semi-secularism for some form of Islamist republic, how can religious liberty be preserved for those who blaspheme and insult Mohammad?

So is the right answer to Todd’s question “yes,” “no” or “we don’t know”? What think thee, readers and listeners? How does this uncertainty affect the news coverage?

One other point: Todd also asked me if many or most mainstream journalists have the background knowledge in terms of history and, especially, church history, to cover this story. Ouch.

Perhaps that is one reason that the Copts — 10 percent or so of the Egyptian population and the largest Christian minority left in the Muslim world — remain off so many MSM radar screens. Feel free to listen to the podcast the weigh in on that one, too.

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Pod people: Alabama governor & a divine vision

No, we’re not breaking news here. The Alabama governor and the vision from God referenced in the title are separate items. Smile.

In the latest Crossroads podcast, I discuss two recent posts.

The first post concerned media coverage of newly inaugurated Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s eyebrow-raising remarks at a church:

Bentley, who for years has been a deacon at First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, later in the speech gave what sounded like an altar call. “There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit,” Bentley said.

“But if you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister.” Bentley added,

“‘Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.”

On the podcast, I share my concerns about the lack of context on Bentley’s religious beliefs that accompanied most initial media reports. However, I note that we saw improvement in some of the later coverage, as my fellow GetReligionistas highlighted here and here.

The second post related to a Chicago Tribune story on a pastor who says God told him in a vision to buy a large church building:

Steve Robledo was a newly ordained minister in search of a flock when he had what he calls a vision from God: He was to start his congregation in a grand church building for sale on the west side of Elgin, a brick and stone edifice with soaring stained-glass windows and dark wood pews.

He had no money but plenty of faith, and sure enough, his vision came to pass. Two businessmen and Robledo’s pastor agreed to provide the financing, and soon his fledgling Lighthouse Community Church had its home.

Five years later, though, this mission of divine inspiration has run into earthly trouble.

Robledo’s nondenominational congregation is a fraction of its 200-member peak, diminished by the recession and an internal schism. With contributions down sharply, the church can’t afford to pay its $3,100 rent or fix maintenance problems that have drawn a lawsuit from the city.

On the podcast, I talk about what worked about the story and what didn’t and even opinionate a bit on shrinking news holes.

You can click here and listen to the podcast or head over to iTunes and subscribe to the feed that will put it right in your computer, iPod or smartphone. The podcast is free, and so is the Oklahoma accent.

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