I am a baller and life will be phat

jeangreaI attended my beautiful cousin’s wedding a few weeks ago where the pastor joked that he was going to do something unorthodox and not to report him to anyone. (Yes, I groaned at that point.) Anyway, he proceeded to rewrite King David’s 23rd Psalm from first person singular to first person plural! Isn’t that so cute and meaningful? Wow, the psalm just sat there and did nothing before this Denver pastor rewrote it.

Anyway, apparently there is something about that passage from Scripture that just invites people to mutilate it. Lilit Marcus and Patton Dodd write about new hip-hop masses for Newsweek. They show how the Rev. Timothy “Poppa T.” Holder rewrote the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is all that, I need for nothing. / He allows me to chill. /He keeps me from being heated /and allows me to breathe easy. /He guides my life so that I can /represent and give shout outs in His name. / And even though I walk through the hood of death, /I don’t back down, for You have my back. / The fact that He has me /covered allows me to chill. / He provides me with back-up/In front of player-haters, / and I know that I am a baller and life will be phat. / I fall back in the Lord’s crib for the rest of my life.

So true. I AM a baller! Anyway, even with a generous reading of the Psalm, I’m struggling to see where that “represent” portion makes an effective hip-hop translation of the great psalm.

I am reading a lot of this Beliefwatch portion of Newsweek, and I commend a mainstream publication for trying to amp up its religious coverage. I do wish that they would permit their writers a bit more space to flesh out their stories.

For instance, this story takes the angle that hip-hop services attract youth, but does not cite anything objective to support it.

My own work with youth makes me highly doubtful that a hip-hop service would be more attractive to youth than a hip-hop concert. I love rap and hip-hop and I’m absolutely certain that I would not trust some priest to rock the mic better than Jean Grae. I would, however, trust a priest to rock the liturgy better than Jean Grae.

Jean Grae pic from Ms. Mo on Flickr.

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Johnny Cash was more than “spiritual”

Johnny Cash articleI’m holed up in an airport hotel in London and frantically trying to catch up on email. That’s why I am a bit late to this story.

Regular readers of GetReligion will know that we rarely touch reviews and entertainment criticism. We’re a news site. However, in this case, there is a language issue that just bugged me, big time. Or call it a lack of language issue.

So our text is from a Washington Post piece by J. Freedom du Lac entitled “Johnny Cash’s Failing Voice Sang a Strong Farewell.”

There’s a lot of sadness and death in the new Cash album — American V: A Hundred Highways. That’s to be expected. And the writer also makes it clear that facing one’s mortality can make a great artist think about eternity and big questions.

Recorded over the last months of Cash’s life — from 2002 until his death on Sept. 12, 2003, at the age of 71 — the newest “American” album is essentially the sound of a man preparing to die.

Rather than a depressingly morbid recording, though, it’s an elegiac song cycle on which Cash comes across like a man who is very much at peace with the inevitability that’s hovering over him. He’d just like to share some of his wisdom and say farewell before he goes. God willing, of course, for Cash was nothing if not deeply spiritual in the last half of his life.

“Oh, Lord, help me to walk another mile, just one more mile,” he prays on an album-opening cover of Larry Gatlin’s “Help Me,” over a finger-picked acoustic guitar.

OK, yes the Man in Black was “spiritual.” You could even say that he was a Christian, even a born-again Christian. You could say that, but it seems that many mainstream writers have trouble saying it. Perhaps it is hard to use that word when describing one of the greatest American folk artists of the 20th century. Maybe.

Where is the “C” word in this article?

There is Christian doctrine and imagery in this material. Right? That’s an accurate statement?

There’s all kinds of places one can go to read about the sin, salvation and Johnny Cash, especially to the writings of Steve Beard and Steve Turner.

Still, here is what the man said himself, sharing a pulpit with another spiritual guy, the Rev. Billy Graham:

“I have been a professional entertainer,” said Cash, at a 1989 Graham crusade in his home state of Arkansas. “My personal life and problems have been widely publicized. There have been things said about me that made people ask, ‘Is Johnny Cash really a Christian?’

“Well, I take great comfort in the words of the apostle Paul who said, ‘What I will to do, that I do not practice. But what I hate, that I do.’ And he said, ‘It is no longer I who do it, but the sin that dwells within me. But who,’ he asks, ‘will deliver me from this body of death?’ And he answers for himself and for me, ‘Through Jesus Christ the Lord.’”

And all the people said?

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Richards rocks Augsburg’s world

KeithRichardsOK, it’s old news already that Keith Richards plays guitar on the album My Soul Is a Witness. Frank Lockwood of the Lexington Herald-Leader wrote the most playful story about the skeletal rock star’s gospel turn:

The book and compact-disc project is the brainchild of Richards’ sister-in-law, concert vocalist Marsha Hansen.

. . . Hansen, who is married to a Lutheran minister, says she didn’t have to twist her in-law’s arm to get his assistance.

“His understanding of music is very deep — not just rock music,” she said. “He’s particularly intrigued by African-American music, roots music.”

Richards isn’t a Lutheran.

“He probably does not claim a particular affiliation,” Hansen said, “but he loves the music.”

. . . On the recording, Richards sounds like he enjoyed making the music.

“Obviously, you hear Keith chattering in the background. You can hear some of our comments and our laughter. That’s part of the mood of the CD. We had a wonderful time,” Hansen said.

Richards’ wife, Patti Hansen, is the sister of the Rev. Rodney Hansen, Marsha Hansen’s husband and the pastor of Mount Hope Lutheran Church in El Paso, Texas.

I’ve not seen any story this week that picks up on this report by Christopher Standford, published in November 2003 by The Spectator:

Richards married for the first and only time on his 40th birthday in 1983, and it probably saved his life. His bride was the 27-year-old Patti Hansen, a home-town girl from Staten Island, New York, and a devout Lutheran. His in-laws gave a startling interview in which they portrayed Keith as an ‘enthusiastic disciple of Christ’ and that he ‘embraced Christ as a way of life’. Under Patti’s influence, Richards cut back on drugs, attended church from time to time and even started a gentle exercise regime. ‘She’s a wonderful girl; I ain’t letting the bitch go!’ he confirmed in a speech at his wedding reception. Keith may have written ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ back when, but these days much of his life is spent with a woman who attends a weekly Bible study group and who won’t stand for swearing around the house.

Augsburg’s website says My Soul Is a Witness is currently out of stock, which may, in the months to come, be as much of a wry understatement as “Richards isn’t a Lutheran.”

Photo of Keith Richards by Kirill Shabunov, via Flickr.

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Talking about The God Factor

mobycathiSigh. Another late night with rowdy football fans at the pub outside my window here at St. Edmund Hall in downtown Oxford.

Nevertheless, let me jump in for a second to share a link to an interview with an interesting religion writer — Cathleen Falsani, a Wheaton College graduate who works the Godbeat for the Chicago Sun-Times. Actually she does much more than that, which leads to her book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People. She also has a blog called The Dude Abides.

The wonderful faith and pop culture site called Thunderstruck — the much overlooked scribe Steve Beard is the head of it — has a solid interview with Falsani (shown with Moby) conducted by freelance writer Angela Pancella, who may be best known for her work with @U2.

Most of the interview focuses on faith and entertainment, but there is this section that addresses one of the nagging questions that faces religious believers (or nonbelievers, now that I think about it) who work on the religion beat.

Here goes:

In regard to being a religion reporter, how have you chosen how much to reveal about your faith background?

I was never shy about it; it was just a matter of journalistic integrity, and trying to not appear to be biased and all that stuff. There’s a big debate within the religion journalism community about what you should and shouldn’t reveal about your religious predilections. I used to be very, very hard and fast about not revealing anything about myself because I didn’t want to tell people what “team” I was on. I think now it’s a judgment call. I think if you use it as leverage in one direction or another, it’s not right. But when I became a columnist and I was writing about these personal things — when you’re writing in your own voice — you get a very different kind of response from readers, and they were sharing things with me that were very intimate. And then when I started to have more of these conversations with public people, and they were telling me these things, I thought, I really should be talking about this myself. So when it feels appropriate, I let it come out instead of stifling it.

What do you think? Right call?

P.S. Click here for a post I did on this topic long ago — in cyberyears — on this blog.

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Pope demands end to crappy church music

filled with your gloryOkay, I stole that headline. Mea culpa. Anyway, Pope Benedict XVI has harshed on guitars in Mass, according to various media reports. I don’t see why you need the Pope to tell you that if you walk into a sanctuary and see a drum riser where the altar should be that you may want to get the heck out of dodge, but I guess some of us do need a bit of guidance.

Not that I have any opinions on the worship wars.

I was really curious what the Pope actually said about guitars and contemporary styling in Mass. Turns out that what he said and what was reported were about as similar as the police blotter in your local fishwrapper and an episode of The Sopranos. Related, but not quite the same thing. Here’s a typical media report. UPI devoted five paragraphs to the issue:

Pope Benedict XVI is calling for an end to guitars and a return to traditional choirs in the Catholic Church. . . .

The Pope’s supporters say that the music played during mass is a vital part of the communion between worshippers and God, and that medieval church music creates the correct ambience for perceiving God’s mystery, the newspaper said.

But Cardinal Carlo Furno, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, said it was “better to have guitars on the altar and rock and roll masses than empty churches.”

Because, as we all know, bad guitar playing brings the masses into the Masses. Anyway, Catholic News Service quotes Benedict saying that he supports new liturgical music. He just thinks it should be connected to the democracy of the dead, as they say:

“The latest musical compositions of the 89-year-old former director of the Sistine Chapel Choir demonstrate how new liturgical music can be created without ignoring the centuries of church music that came before it, Pope Benedict XVI said. . .

Pope Benedict said, “An authentic updating of sacred music cannot take place except in the wake of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.”

The pope said that in music, as in art and architecture, the church promotes and supports “new expressive means without denying the past — the history of the human spirit — which is also the story of its dialogue with God.”

I mean, I wish he would have used one of his fancy edicts to ban the guitar in Mass, but what he said was much more moderate. In general I’ve noticed that Benedict’s statements thus far tend to focus on the rationale behind big ideas rather than condemnations or pronouncements from on high. Yes, this makes headline and story writing more difficult and less dramatic, but it’s something that reporters should probably get used to.

Having said that, worship wars — as Terry notes — contain ginormously contentious isues. So rather than flighty stories about the Pope banning the guitar, a reporter could use the Pope’s comments as a hook to discuss local church issues.

Photo via Flickr.

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Birth control, Da Movie and MercyMe

gech 0001 0001 0 img0080Every now and then, I see people or groups produce material that makes me think to myself: “Behold, that’s a GetReligion item.” Truth be told, I don’t quite know what to do when this happens. I mean, it’s hard to write a case study about a case study. That’s a bit too Zen for me.

So let me pass along a few recent examples. I’ll try to get rid of as much guilt as I can, all at once.

• First of all, our friend Ted Olsen over at Christianity Today‘s blog has written up the gigantic New York Times Magazine report on the growing debates — among Protestants — about the moral status of contraceptives. You know Olsen is a bit ticked off when he writes that reporter Russell Shorto’s 8,000-word story is “horribly underreported” and “contains glaring errors.” Thus, he argues that:

Shorto is right that religious conservative Protestants have been increasingly critical about the 1965 contraception case Griswold v. Connecticut, and that recent technologies (especially the emergency contraceptive pill) have forced them to reconsider facile support of earlier technologies (like the non-emergency pill). And he’s right in his implication that Catholic-Protestant alliances in the abortion wars (and the reasoning in Pope John Paul II’s writings) have also had a dramatic effect.

But for those who have actually been watching this happen, it’s like reading a U.S. history text that talks about the American Revolution without also talking about colonialism, Reconstruction without the Civil War, and World War II without World War I. Or like trying to read a subway map that only names four stops. His connect-the-dots puzzle only has the numbers 3, 8, 24, and 31, and the only crayon in his box is labeled “anti-sex.”

• Now here’s another puzzle. Radio host and author Dick Staub recently wrote an interesting critique of a New York Times report on the high sales of the Christian band called MercyMe. The story was called “Christian Rock Is Edging Toward the Mainstream” and it was written by critic Kelefa Sanneh. The key statement — the story lurking inside the review — comes at the very end:

In an overwhelmingly Christian country, it may seem strange that Christian rock even exists as a niche genre; if rock better reflected American demographics, then secular rock would be the niche. But at a time when major labels are struggling to create the multimillion-selling stars they depend on, niche status might not seem so bad. MercyMe already has a devoted fan base, a ready-made touring circuit and lots of loyal album buyers. The devil may still have the best tunes (for now), but can he match that business model?

I also thought it was interesting that Staub invited another journalist — Lou Carlozo of the Chicago Tribune — in as a “guest blogger” to take a stab at the issue. Carlozo was B-L-U-N-T:

Until Christian music stresses art over agenda, it can never be anything but second rate. As a music editor at the Chicago Tribune, I have a responsibility to turn my readers on to the best art out there. And as a Christian, I have an obligation to tell the truth at all costs, as I see it. If it’s bad, awkward, mawkish art that Nashville keeps shipping to me like so many day-glo W.W.J.D. bracelets, what choice do I have? I would rather be the voice of one crying out in the wilderness than win the approval of any cabal that is convinced — for all the wrong reasons — that the majority of “Christian” music serves a noble purpose.

Michelangelo makes us cry by depicting the finger-touch of creation in a majestic image. Johnny Cash could break your heart by revealing the serrated edges of his brokenness. Bono makes you wrestle and challenges all assumptions that God is of the right or left wing. None of this is a “business model” to be emulated. These are ways of approaching art and life we are talking about, meant to be done with all the fear and trembling of someone trying to point the way to a higher truth while walking a narrow path.

Oh man, why didn’t I write that?

thedavincicode• Meanwhile, the folks over at the Religion Newswriters Association have published a collection of ReligionLink resources for journalists who are — dang it — preparing for the release of Da Movie.

So, does this movie really matter to anyone out there in mainstream reader-land? The religion-beat consulting squad notes:

The film brings renewed scrutiny of the book’s unorthodox view of Christian history and another round of debate about Hollywood’s handling of faith. With more than 40 million books in print, this thriller novel asserts that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child and that the Roman Catholic Church’s Opus Dei organization will murder people in order to keep this secret. The book drew critical praise, millions of readers in 44 languages, more than two dozen books about issues raised by the novel, and inevitable adaptations: a movie and a video game. The film from Sony Pictures is directed by Ron Howard and includes an international cast headed by Tom Hanks.

OK, that’s all logical. But what’s with this laugh-out-loud suggestion at the site?

Questions for reporters

• Are people who read the book going to see the movie?

Well, duh. You think?

P.S. Check this out: An Opus Dei movie site, complete with The Da Vinci Code Catechism by Father John Wauck. Here’s a sample:

6. Should we really pray over the bones of Mary Magdalen?

Yes. Saint Mary Magdalen is honored by the countless churches and women named after her and by a special Mass on her feast day (July 22). In fact, for more than a millennium, Christians have made pilgrimages to pray in the Basilica of St. Maximin in southern France, where a tradition says that Saint Mary Magdalen was buried.

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Worshiping those Bible Belt Idols

magazine 4covers2You just know that there has to be a religion ghost in there somewhere if the oh-so-cynical folks at the Washington Post Style section are going to get all worked up about a story that pits those strange folks out there in red-zip-code Middle America against the befuddled elites in dark-blue zip codes.

Sure enough, God, church, family, Wal-Mart and who knows what all (where was Mama?) make special appearances in reporter Neely Tucker’s “Who Put The Y’all In ‘Idol’? The Competition Is National but Its Finalists’ Accent Is Unmistakable,” which ponders the mystery of why so many American Idol hotshots are from the Bible Belt, of all places. Let’s go ahead and, with a giant wink, get the opening of the story out of the way:

What is it with this Southern thing on “American Idol,” anyway? Here we go, a national singing competition. It’s lousy with Juilliard proteges, Hollywood High sensations, right? Top-notch overachievers, best-that-money-can-buy training? Um, no.

For five years, the most wildly popular talent contest on American television has been dominated — thoroughly, totally and completely — by kids from Southern Hicksville, USA. Seven of the eight top-two finishers in the first four years were from states that once formed the Confederacy, and five of the seven remaining finalists this season are, too.

Bubba!

And guess what? While the Bible Belt folks — for some strange reason — eat this stuff up like cornbread with milk and honey, the math shows that the mega-vote folks in the big-city rating zones (mostly blue) also appear to like those golden-throated warblers from, what was that phrase again, “Southern Hicksville.”

Now please understand, I say all of this as a person who has, of his own free will, never (it may be dangerous to say this, scientists may want samples of my brain tissue as a control device) seen an episode of American Idol. I mean, if I liked that kind of music I would attend a megachurch.

But what is going on out there in the heartland? Could it be that ordinary Americans like over-the-top emotions when they are woven into shows that do not go out of their way to offend people who think the Tony Awards have gotten a bit, well, strange? Does this have something to do with Baby Boomers liking songs with three chords and a hook? Or is there something deeper? Is America a land of simple people who yearn, bless their shallow little hearts, for simple things?

… (A) softer Southern accent persists, as does the cultural memory of things long gone. There is still an emphasis on church and family, both entities that, in the course of Southern life, heavily influence music, particularly among the working class.

“There’s still an awful lot of old-school singers who got their starts in church, and many mainstream country musicians still do a gospel album,” said John Reed Shelton, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of North Carolina and one of the region’s most respected observers. “Everybody tends to go to church, and Southern evangelical Protestantism, both black and white, emphasizes and rewards musical performance.”

Ain’t that sweet?

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God-free return of T-Bone Burnett?

B000E6UWEE 01 AA240 SCLZZZZZZZ V56189665 A long time ago — nearly a quarter century ago, alas — I had a long conversation with a young songwriter named Bono about a question that fascinated both of us: Why is most Contemporary Christian Music so lame? Bono had, at that point, all but given up hope of finding work by other believers that really fired him up.

After our conversation, I went back to my home in Urbana, Ill., and grabbed some cassettes. One contained some material by Bruce Cockburn, primarily the Humans album. The other was T-Bone Burnett’s Truth Decay. Both were new to Bono and he said he liked them — a lot.

I bring this up for a simple reason: The post-O Brother Where Art Thou? Burnett is about to make another rare visit to the public spotlight, with a new album and, finally, a large anthology of solo and ensemble material from throughout his long and mysterious career in the studio. A glance at the new song titles on The True False Identity certainly suggests that Burnett remains rather faith-haunted. They are “Zombieland,” “Palestine Texas,” “Seven Times Hotter Than Fire,” “There Would Be Hell to Pay,” “Every Time I Feel the Shift,” “I’m Going on a Long Journey Never to Return,” “Hollywood Mecca of the Movies,” “Fear Country,” “Baby Don’t You Say You Love Me,” “Earlier Baghdad (The Bounce),” “Blinded by the Darkness” and “Shaken Rattled and Rolled.”

T-Bone’s wrestling matches with his angels and demons are well known. So I am sort of mystified at this faith-free Newsweek mini-profile by Jac Chebatoris. Read it yourself. Did I miss something? Here’s a sample:

During his 40 years in music, the 58-year-old, Texas-bred Joseph Henry Burnett (he’s been T Bone since he was knee-high) has worked with such artists as Roy Orbison, the Wallflowers, Elvis Costello, Counting Crows, Los Lobos and the bluegrass master Ralph Stanley. He toured with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, wrote music for plays by Sam Shepard and formed a band of his own with a couple Rolling Thunder colleagues. But he’s better known for his work on film soundtracks: the sea-changing, five-time-Grammy-winning music from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”; the Civil War-era country music from “Cold Mountain.” Most recently, Burnett served as executive music producer on the Johnny Cash biopic, “Walk the Line.” For that picture, he tutored Joaquin Phoenix on his musical approximation of Cash, and coached Reese Witherspoon on how to sing like June Carter — which helped her to take home an Oscar.

TruthDecaySee any ghosts in there? Were there any interesting developments in that Dylan tour? And the albums after that? Just asking.

The introduction to a new Billboard interview does start with this:

Given his recent successes as a top-flight producer, it is easy to overlook that 58-year-old T Bone Burnett had a vital yet under-the-covers recording career of his own — as a member of the Alpha Band, which grew from the group that backed Bob Dylan in the Rolling Thunder Revue, and as a solo singer/songwriter/guitarist with a penchant for tunes braced with wit, heartbreak, social commentary and Christian spirituality.

It could be that Burnett simply doesn’t want to talk about faith issues right now and is avoiding the subject, especially in the wake of more painful developments in his private life. That’s his business.

Then again, it could be that he is in a fighting mood and wants to lash out at the religious right and other obvious targets. That’s his business, too.

I still think it’s strange to write about this man’s long and complicated career and leave God out of it. I predict the angels and the demons show up when listeners crank up these CDs on their stereos and iPods.

Turn it up. Don’t avoid the obvious.

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