Did Bono swim the Tiber?

Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard — who is not famous because of his sources in the world of rock ‘n’ roll — recently (a) broke a big story without knowing it or (b) made the kind of picky mistake that U2 fans get hot and bothered about. I am wondering if anyone else out there spotted this and can tell me whether the reference is accurate or not.

So what is the story?

Bono grew up in Dublin with a Protestant mother and a Catholic father, which is a big thing if one is Irish. U2 grew out of friendships in a Protestant high school. Very early on, several members of the band became active Christians in the context of a charismatic house church (check out October), a very free and non-starched form of free-church Protestantism.

It is hard to stick a label on Bono’s faith these days, but he is usually assumed to be a member of the progressive evangelical camp. I know that the band remains close (he joins them on tour from time to time) with the evangelical Anglican who was the chaplain at their high school.

Nevertheless, Barnes made this reference in a recent story titled “Pro Bono: The president and the singer make common cause on Africa” that jumped out at me:

Bush has twice invited Bono to the Oval Office to discuss Africa. The first meeting, in 2002, was joined by several White House aides and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Catholic leader in Washington. Bono is a Catholic.

Now that’s a major story and I have not seen a reference anywhere else.

Yes, that rosary that you see around Bono’s neck came from Pope John Paul II and the singer is as comfortable quoting Catholic sources as evangelical. That’s the rosary that, when the pope died, Bono hung over his microphone stand under a solo spotlight as a quiet tribute.

Still, has anyone out there heard of Bono actually swimming the Tiber?

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The soul of the Rev. Al Green

I think it was Elvis Costello who once, when asked if he believed in miracles, thought about it and said something to this effect: Well, I have seen Al Green. That is a start, if you want to find the holy grail of R&B. But what about the Rev. Al Green?

That’s a bigger story. I have, for a week, been trying to get a link up and running to this fine news feature by music critic George Varga at The San Diego Union-Tribune. This story takes the spiritual side of Green’s work seriously, but does not turn him into some kind of shaman.

The key to the whole situation is that Green’s talent is real and so is his faith. The questions about the tense turf in between the stage and the pulpit are real, too. But this is not a new question. Others have been there and managed to hold both sides together. But it is tricky. Varga basically deals with the facts and lets this Green update unfold. Here is a solid chunk of it. Enjoy.

(It) wasn’t until recently that Green, who in April was ordained as a bishop by Pentecostal Bishop Albert E. Reed of the Church of God & Christ in Memphis, really felt comfortable embracing non-devotional music. And he is still stung by the scorn heaped on him from various religious circles, including members of his Memphis congregation, for recording a pop duet in 1988 with Annie Lennox. . . .

The song was a remake of Jackie DeShannon’s uplifting 1969 hit, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” But no matter. His outspoken critics were incensed that Lennox wasn’t born-again, and they let him know it — especially after the song became a Top 10 pop hit.

“‘Put a Little Love in Your Heart?’ What could be more religious than that?” Green asked. “I just couldn’t understand their (objections). “There is a whole cauldron of religious people having such frustrations with love and happiness. . . . And I didn’t have any problem with that, otherwise I wouldn’t have sung it. I started evaluating all the things they had a problem with, and they had a problem with everything. So I went to re-evaluate, really, what all they had problems with. They had problems with everything that doesn’t seem to have a Jesus righteousness, a God reflection, to it.

“But not only did God make Sunday, He made Monday, too, and Tuesday, Wednesday. . . . So if God made all those days, he’s in all our days, not just the one you want to put him in.”

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Bono defends U2's "Streets"

There isn’t a strong religion-news hook to this next item from the Chicago Tribune, unless one assumes that any story involving U2 and Bono has a neo-messianic theme in there somewhere between the lines.

Or maybe religion really does have something to do with this unusual in-print encounter between the U2 frontman and music critic Greg Kot, which ran online with the headline “Bono: ‘We need to talk.’” The Tribune page for the Q&A has several interesting links to previous stories that let you know where this all came from.

Suffice it to say, Kot thinks U2 has gone stale and old-fashioned, during the current hot-ticket tour. The band is performing too many of its classics, he thinks. On top of that, he is upset about U2′s “Vertigo” ad — done for no pay — on behalf of the iPod universe.

Just to get specific about things, Kot wants to know why U2 is so fond of songs like that old-fashioned, non-ironic, hyper-sincere chestnut, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” What’s up with that?

Bono was rather ticked off and called Kot up, requesting a heart-to-heart on the record. That’s the source of the Tribune update. They cover all kinds of ground, but the many U2 fans-of-faith will be especially interested in what Mr. Sunglasses has to say in defense of that old “Streets” song.

It seems that it does play a crucial role in the band’s inner world. A certain place is going to freeze over before this particular justice-hungry glimpse of a New Jerusalem shows up in an ad.

We have turned down enormous sums of money to put our songs in a commercial, where we felt, to your point, where it might change the way people appreciated the song. We were offered $23 million for just the music to “Where the Streets Have No Name.” We thought we could do a lot of good with that money. Give it away. But if a show is a little off, and there’s a hole, that’s the one song we can guarantee that God will walk through the room as soon as we play it. So the idea that when we played it, people would go, “That’s the ‘such-and-such’ commercial,” we couldn’t live with it.

All in all, it is a very interesting exchange for music fans and especially for those who have followed U2 for a long time. I do get the impression that the music critic isn’t all that fond of the Catholic-Presbyterian fusion side of the band. Kot wants more Zoo TV-style experimentation. The U2 base still wants three chords and the truth.

But forget U2 for a minute. Three cheers to Bono and Kot for even having this conversation and then putting it into print. There are many, many religion-related stories that I wish could receive this kind of follow-up attention in a major MSM outlet — printed on dead tree pulp or online in bytes. More!

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Hymns abide

SingingCongregants.jpgOn Palm Sunday I visited a mission congregation that’s largely on my theological wavelength. I would have felt entirely at home if sound theology alone made for rewarding worship.

Then I encountered what has become a common problem on the Anglican Right: substandard music. When the priest was about three-fourths of the way through the traditional Palm Sunday Gospel reading — the lengthy description of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his trial before Pilate — I suddenly heard the sort of doleful and mawkish harmonica-playing that would occur around a bonfire at summer camp.

This caused two immediate thoughts for me: “What the hell?” and “Oh, please, don’t let this be what I think it is.”

Once the Gospel reading was done, the congregation sang through a Taize chant (“Jesus, remember me”), and then the harmonica solo returned. Even if the solo had been played in the style of the beloved Bob Dylan, I would have considered it a distraction from the point of the Gospel.

The Daily Telegraph brings welcome news about a survey of people who watch the BBC series Songs of Praise. The headline says it best: “Traditional songs beat the ‘happy clappers’ hands down in search for Britain’s best hymns.”

Michael Wakelin, the show’s executive producer, offers an explanation filled with good old British common sense:

“It takes a long time for a hymn to settle into the national consciousness,” he said. “For a classic hymn you need a very substantial piece of music and a very substantial piece of poetry. I think modern hymns will take their place eventually, but they are battling with the likes of Charles Wesley.”

And there’s an interesting political thread running through the story, offering a contrast between a tut-tutting bishop and a conservative politician who has her priorities straight:

The shortlist is likely to prove highly controversial — not least because of the much-loved songs that have not made it to the final round of voting. We Plough The Fields And Scatter and All Things Bright and Beautiful, among the most performed songs in Britain, both failed to make the final list. By contrast, Jerusalem and I Vow To Thee My Country, which many worshippers contend are not hymns, made it to the final 20. Originally entitled Fight for the Right, Jerusalem was a favourite of the suffragette movement and has subsequently become the anthem of the Women’s Institute.

But I Vow To Thee My Country has actually been banned in some churches. In August the Bishop of Hulme, the Rt Rev Stephen Lowe, asked local churches to prohibit it because it expressed “inappropriate sentiments for Christians to hold”.

He said the hymn was a “dangerous” example of rising English nationalism.

Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative MP and a practising Catholic, said: “Strictly speaking, Jerusalem and I Vow to Thee My Country are not hymns. But I am not particularly dismayed that they are on the list. I think I Vow to Thee My Country is there because it is one of the very few outlets for patriotism which we still have left in the country.”

Miss Widdecombe’s favourite, How Great Thou Art, which was inspired by a Swedish folk melody, made the list.

“It is about the majesty of God,” she said. “It is not petitioning or asking for anything, it is merely celebrating God’s glory.”

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Christ-haunted GQ

creationfest.jpgGQ + CCM = Laff riot.

At least that’s the formula I would expect. In a PR release on Jan. 18, GQ added to my dread that barrels of snark would be on tap: “Rock music used to be a safe haven for degenerates and rebels — until it found Jesus. Now Christian-rock concerts have become a quiet force in America drawing worship and money and swaying the devoted. GQ correspondent John Jeremiah Sullivan went deep into Creation, the genre’s biggest annual festival, and found that the Lord rocks in mysterious ways.”

In his opening sentences, Sullivan shows just how easy it would be to phone it in:

I’d stand at the edge of the crowd and take notes on the scene, chat up the occasional audience member (“What’s harder — homeschooling or regular schooling?”), then flash my pass to get backstage, where I’d rap with the artists themselves: “This Christian music — it’s a phenomenon. What do you tell your fans when they ask you why God let Creed break up?” The singer could feed me his bit about how all music glorifies Him, when it’s performed with a loving spirit, and I’d jot down every tenth word, inwardly smiling. Later that night, I might sneak some hooch in my rental car and invite myself to lie with a prayer group by their fire, for the fellowship of it. Fly home, stir in statistics. Paycheck.

Instead, Sullivan has written an 11,000-word essay, in which he pokes fun at himself (as he drives a 29-foot RV to the Creation Festival), makes new friends with a group of young men from West Virginia and faces his conflicted past as a onetime believer.

Sullivan has some fun at Creation participants’ expense, but it’s not vicious and much of it is funny:

Their line of traffic lurched ahead, and an old orange Datsun came up beside me. I watched as the driver rolled down her window, leaned halfway out, and blew a long, clear note on a ram’s horn.

Oh, I understand where you are coming from. But that is what she did. I have it on tape. She blew a ram’s horn. Quite capably. Twice. A yearly rite, perhaps, to announce her arrival at Creation.

. . . For their encore, Jars of Clay did a cover of U2′s “All I Want Is You.” It was bluesy.

That’s the last thing I’ll be saying about the bands.

Or, no, wait, there’s this: The fact that I didn’t think I heard a single interesting bar of music from the forty or so acts I caught or overheard at Creation shouldn’t be read as a knock on the acts themselves, much less as contempt for the underlying notion of Christians playing rock. These were not Christian bands, you see; these were Christian-rock bands. The key to digging this scene lies in that one-syllable distinction. Christian rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off of evangelical Christians. It’s message music for listeners who know the message cold, and, what’s more, it operates under a perceived responsibility — one the artists embrace — to “reach people.” As such, it rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability (the artists would say clarity), which in turn means parasitism. Remember those perfume dispensers they used to have in pharmacies — “If you like Drakkar Noir, you’ll love Sexy Musk”? Well, Christian rock works like that. Every successful crappy secular group has its Christian off-brand, and that’s proper, because culturally speaking, it’s supposed to serve as a stand-in for, not an alternative to or an improvement on, those very groups.

But Sullivan takes the greatest editorial chance in revealing that he’s an ex-evangelical who still can’t quite forget Christ:

Why should He vex me? Why is His ghost not friendlier? Why can’t I just be a good Enlightenment child and see in His life a sustaining example of what we can be, as a species?

Because once you’ve known Him as God, it’s hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being — the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things — the pull of that won’t slacken.

And one has doubts about one’s doubts.

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BonoSNLThere’s been no mainstream media coverage of the moment yet, but Bono threw down another gauntlet for the FCC on Saturday Night Live this weekend. During the show’s closing credits, and while riffing on U2′s chestnut “I Will Follow,” Bono mounted an audience member’s lap and began thrusting.

Several blogs are abuzz about the show, describing U2′s set as “re-legitimizing music on Saturday Night Live” or simply the “Best SNL Performance Ever.”

On a religion note, Bono recently put in a good word for “the religious instinct” in an interview with Jon Parales of The New York Times. But he also offered the standard disclaimer about what his faith is not:

“To have faith in a time of religious fervor is a worry. And, you know, I do have faith, and I’m worried about even the subject because of the sort of fanaticism that is the next-door neighbor of faith. The trick in the next few years will be not to decry the religious instinct, but to accept that this is a hugely important part of people’s lives. And at the same time to be very wary of people who believe that theirs is the only way. Unilateralism before God is dangerous.”

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Why should the devil have all the bad music?

Mandm True story: Your humble scribe once got sucked into a conversation with a guy who thought his own taste in music should settle the argument for what is good and hip and cool. A few minutes in, I let slip that I enjoyed the songs of the late lamented crypto-Christian rock group Creed, which launched my friend on a whale of a rant.

He said the group was Very Bad and he questioned how I could claim to like them with a straight face. He got worked up and yammered on a bit but here was the kicker: “Their music is so derivative.” I shot back: “ALL music is derivative.” Objective observers might have wondered if his head was going to explode as he considered that one.

All of which is a long way of explaining that I’m not reflexively down on Christian rock. Sure, it’s often too preachy, and the unofficial Jesuses per minute quota is a bit much, but rock is supposed to be a populist art form. If Christian artists often sounded like their secular counterparts with more uplift and less faux Satanic posturing I could fall back on the fact that even the Rolling Stones began as a cover band.

That said, I’m still trying to process the news that Jesus rockers have decided to ape the most annoying thing to emerge from the world of official rock since “We are the world.” In the Washington Post last Friday, entertaining religion writer Hanna Rosin reported from the front lines of a Rock the Vote- (and Vote for Change-) like effort to use Jesus rock to sign up young evangelicals to cast ballots for whichever candidate best represents their values in the political arena. In other words, Bush.

The movement, which flies under several banners, including Redeem the Vote, has been using pop Christian music to register as many young churchgoing voters as possible, with some success. I encourage readers to follow this link to Rosin’s story and read it for the fun details and the sometimes loopy quotes. Contemplating our strange new world in which the Southern Baptists are sending around an 18 wheeler that used to belong to the Charlie Daniels Band just might be the perfect respite from the nail biting and nervous poll watching of this dreary election day.

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You guzzle your crutch and shove it up your nose

Entertainment writers tend to be — how shall I put this? — very, very secular. Because of this demographic bias, they often have certain blinders. Hit Christian movies can sneak up on them like special forces troops creeping through tall grasses to find the enemy and rip their throats out. Now that I’ve got your attention with that rather . . . grotesque simile, I’d like to clear a story off of the GetReligion assignment desk.

Michael W. Smith is a huge name in the Christian music scene. According to one source, fans have purchased over ten million of his albums, and that is probably low-balling it (here’s his not terribly helpful website). He’s also written a few best-selling books and is a friend of President Bush.

Steve Taylor is possibly the most controversial artist in the history of evangelical Christian music (often called CCM). When I played “Lifeboat” for my college roommate, he called it the most offensive thing he’d ever heard. The controversy over “I blew up the clinic real good” got Taylor’s album pulled from stores and his tour in Australia was basically cancelled.

Back in the eighties, Taylor also managed to regularly enrage the devout. “We don’t need no color code” was a send-up of Bob Jones University’s anti-miscegenation policies. He railed against evangelical conformity and easy believism, praised the pope, and regularly mocked televangelists. In one interview, he rather forcefully rejected the idea that all Christian rockers should do altar calls: “I resent the sometimes fascist mentality on the part of some Christian bands, like their way is the only way and if you don’t do that you don’t care about kids or something like that.”

In the mid-nineties, Taylor put his solo career on a long hiatus and decided to work the other end of the music industry. He produced and wrote songs for groups such as Guardian and the Newsboys in their prime. He founded Squint Records, which signed and promoted bands such as Sixpence None the Richer (think “Kiss Me”) until the company was sold out from under him in 2001. After that he dabbled in several film projects.

The point of all this? Taylor started shooting a movie, tentatively titled “The Second Chance,” in Nashville in early October, starring Michael W. Smith in his first acting role. This has potential hit written all over it and yet the coverage so far has been almost non-existent. A Nexis search of the last 60 days netted only one substantial mention of the movie and that, it turns out, was a press release. CCM magazine, the Rolling Stone of Christian rock, has run a few items, and a number of fan sites have pitched in with details, but that’s about the end of the list.

My suggestion to entertainment reporters: Don’t let this one catch you off-guard.

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