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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Johnny Cash's table fellowship

johnny cash hurtA friend at the Baton Rouge Advocate once remarked on the cognitive dissonance of singing the folkie Communion song “Sons of God,” which uses a chirpy melody for its chorus of “Eat his body, drink his blood / And we’ll sing a song of love: / Allelu, allelu, allelu, alleluia!”

I remembered my friend when I saw an article from the New York Post‘s Page Six feature that began with this sentence: “Johnny Cash spent the final months of his life performing strange Christian rituals with oddball music producer Rick Rubin.”

The Post was summarizing, in its precious style, an 11-page article from the October issue of Vanity Fair. The article, published Sept. 7, is no longer available for free in the Post‘s archives, but another piece — a glib summary of the Post‘s glib summary — is available here.

The Post also claimed that Cash was considering suicide, citing this remark as proof: “I’m gonna come out to L.A. for a month, and we’re gonna work, and we’re gonna continue doing all the stuff on my program. And when I get back home, I’m gonna have a big party on the lawn of my house, invite all of my friends over, and I’m gonna push my wheelchair into the river!” The remark actually reflected Cash’s delight that a doctor sent by Rubin had helped him regain his ability to walk.

Now that I’ve seen David Kamp’s article — none of which is available at Vanity Fair‘s skinflint website — I’m happy to say it is an affectionate tribute to Cash, to Rubin and to their exhilarating decade of recording music together.

Further, Kamp’s article shows an informed interest in theology:

Rubin is not what you think he is. The long hair, the Hell’s Angels beard, and the wraparound shades he wears in public suggest a standoffish, substance-abusing ogre who speaks, if he speaks at all, in noncommittal grunts — a grouch savant fluent only in the visceral language of rawk. In fact, he’s chatty and thoughtful, with the dulcet speaking voice and gentle mien of a divinity student. . . . The shelves of Rubin’s library, in his home just above the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, are crammed with religious texts and path-to-enlightenment guides: the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, The Great Code (Northrup Frye’s definitive lit-crit companion to the Bible), how-tos on both raja and hatha yoga, Listening to Prozac, Mind Over Back Pain, something called The Knee of Listening, by someone called Adi Da.

. . . Cash, though a devout Christian, didn’t dismiss Rubin’s patchwork spirituality as hooey. A fellow bibliophile and comparative-religion junkie, the antithesis of the stereotype southern rustic with a suspicion of fancy book learnin’, he delighted in his producer’s pan-theological curiosity. Out of their frequent discussions of religion developed an odd custom, certainly unprecedented in producer-artist relations: for the last few months of Cash’s life, he and Rubin took Holy Communion together every day, even if they weren’t physically in the same place, and even though Rubin, who was born Jewish and doesn’t profess allegiance to any one faith, is not technically eligible to receive the sacrament.

“Open communion” is a heated debate in some denominations, including (perhaps too predictably) the Episcopal Church. For non-sacramental Protestants, in contrast, there is less basis for objecting to a highly individual approach to Communion. The Post never makes clear what it considers so strange about Cash’s habit — that he shared Communion with a pan-theological seeker, that he guided Rubin through Communion by telephone or that he sometimes used crackers and grape juice instead of bread and wine.

One of Kamp’s richest details is that this shared interest in Communion emerged from Rubin’s fascination with the flamboyant TV evangelist Gene Scott of Los Angeles:

“He’s this old, eccentric, really smart, crazy person,” says Rubin. “He’s often belligerent to his audience. But at the same time, when he actually teaches, the teaching is unbelievable — just scholarly, brilliant, more like a university class than like a typical sermon. He did all these shows about Communion, and it really moved me. I was brought up Jewish and had never done a Communion. I made a copy of the tapes and sent them to Johnny. At first he was wary, because the guy’s really bonkers. But at the end of it, he was crying, and said, ‘I’ve heard 50 sermons on this topic, and that was, by far, the best teaching of that that I’ve ever heard.’”

The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that Scott would undergo surgery because his prostate cancer has spread to his bladder. It shouldn’t be difficult to imagine Rubin — and even the late Cash — praying for Scott this week.

For more details on Cash’s final years, see Steve Turner’s new biography, The Man Called Cash. The audio version, available on CD and in MP3 (iTunes), is read by Cash’s longtime buddy, Kris Kristofferson.

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U2 debates: How long must we sing this song?

bonofamily2000Since the headline and photo give away basic subject, it would be hard to turn this into a “guess who this is” trivia game. So the following quotes are from Bono, the often inspiring and often infuriating (and he would agree with both terms) lead singer of U2.

But we can still have some fun with this. So the game is to name the time frame of the following quotations.

On the improvisational nature of songwriting:

“I was so restrained in trying to express myself that I had to resort to another language, to a way somebody else had expressed it a long time ago in a Gregorian chant. Hence, the Latin. And that’s the way it ended up. It ended up in Latin because I couldn’t find the kind of English words to say what I needed to say. I still have trouble talking about it.”

There’s more. What about the foundation of the band’s lyrics?

“I’ve spent most of my life avoiding labels. I don’t intend to adopt one now. . . . I like to think people feel it. They just don’t want to allow themselves to feel it. I mean, everybody feels it. Everybody.

“I can’t accept a belief that I just came out of gas, you know? That we as a race just exploded into existence. I can’t believe that, and I don’t think others can, really. Maybe they can accept it on a sort of ‘thin’ level, but not really deep down. Deep down, everybody is aware. . . .

“Things around can shock us into a realization of what is going down. When we look at the starvation, when you think that a third of the population of this earth is starving and crying out in hunger. I don’t think you can sort of smile and say, ‘I know. Well, we’re the jolly human race. We’re all very nice, really.’

“I mean, we’re not. People have got to see what is going on.”

Now let’s do the same thing with another set of quotations. Can you identify the time frame for these?

“Feelings are stronger than ideas or words in a song. . . . You can have 1,000 ideas, but unless you capture an emotion, it’s an essay. I’m always writing speeches or articles for causes I believe in. That’s probably what I would have done if I wasn’t in music, but that’s not songwriting. . . . Songwriting comes from a different place. Music is the language of the spirit. I think ideas and words are our excuse as songwriters to allow our heart or our spirit to run free. That’s when magic happens.”

And here are two more clips from the same context.

“I was always interested in the character of David in the Bible because he was such a screw-up. It’s a great amusement to me that the people God chose to use in the Scriptures were all liars, cheaters, adulterers, murderers. . . . In the Psalms, David questions God, ‘Where are you when I need you?’ Blues has this sort of honesty that gospel music doesn’t have. Gospel music is the stuff of faith. It tells you about where you are going. The blues tells you where you are. God is much more interested in the blues because you get that honesty.”

“You know, songwriting really is a mysterious process . . . because we’re asking people to expose themselves. It’s like open heart surgery in some way. You’re looking for real, raw emotions, and you don’t find that by sticking to the rules.”

OK, ready for some answers? The second set of quotations are from a remarkable Los Angeles Times feature story by the veteran rock writer Robert Hilburn. The article is available for those registered with the newspaper’s Calendar section or by clicking here, which takes you to a U2 fan site.

I call this interview remarkable for two reasons.

First, it offers some wonderful insights into the WAY the members of U2 write and arrange their music, even if it is fairly vague about why they write their music and the origins of some of its content. For example, it’s a bit vague to note that there are “spiritually tinged themes” that are woven through much of the U2 canon. Anyone who has read a few U2 interviews knows that “Where the Streets Have No Name” is not just a song about, as Hilburn puts it, a “vision of a world free of religious and racial divide.” I also thing that there was more to the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and, thus, the song “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and a salute to a doctrine of nonviolence. I think its pretty easy to parse Bono’s “one man betrayed with a kiss” reference.

That said, the article might have a few religious ghosts dancing between the lines, but there are enough clear and accurate references for most readers to know what is going on.

The second thing that amazed me is the degree to which Bono and company’s remarks in the Hilburn article echo what they were saying earlier in their career.

Which brings us to the first set of quotations. I cannot give you a URL for that article, because the World Wide Web did not exist in the spring of 1982, when a van full of young musicians from Ireland rolled on the campus of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. These quotes are from a “Backbeat” column I did in the local News-Gazette way back then.

Without boring you with the whole interview, just let me say that they worked on songs (according to my soundcheck notes) the same way back then that they do now. There are quotes — 22 years apart — on the “garage band” style of their rehearsals and the basic big, broad rock themes of their instrumental work. There are the same kinds of references to wanting to cover subjects larger than, as Bono told me way back then, the turf covered by a band such as REO Speedwagon. Note the hunger quotation in the 1982 interview, when the singer only a few years away from being a teenager.

And one final fascinating tidbit from Hilburn. Love him or hate him, Bono has been shaped by his Christian conversion in the context of a Charismatic — with a big C — house church. References to spiritual gifts (speaking with the “tongue of angels”) are scattered through the years. He freely admits that he has some of the strengths and many of the weaknesses of this rather freewheeling branch of modern Christianity.

Thus, Hilburn offers this strange description of the origins of some U2 lyrics.

Bono’s improvisation in the studio often starts with him just muttering sounds that seem to fit the flow of the music being created — “Bono-eze,” his bandmates call it.

“When Bono starts going through his Bono-eze, it can change what we’re playing and take the song in a different direction,” Mullen says. “If he’s doing something very intense, it might not even be what he’s saying, but the way he’s behaving, the way he’s throwing the microphone around. The energy and intensity helps shape the song.”

Long, long ago, U2 had to record the October album in a matter of days after Bono lost (or someone stole) his omnipresent notebook in which he writes down his song lyrics and other music-related thoughts. So the singer stood at the microphone, prayed and then sang whatever came into his heart and mind — even if the words came out in Latin.

It appears that this may have evolved into “Bono-ese.” Either that, or Hilburn is not used to interviewing Charismatic Christians. It sounds to me like U2 is, to a remarkable degree, the same band, wrestling with its angels and demons.

Whatever. Hilburn’s article is must reading for anyone interested in U2, pop music, songwriting or “all of the above.”

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Hasten down the mighty wind (Creeping Fundamentalism X)

After being booed during her Saturday night performance and ejected from the Aladdin hotel and casino, Linda Ronstadt is on the fast track to reverential treatment in the entertainment media. Now that she’s been subjected to the cruelties of a Las Vegas crowd — which typically doesn’t travel to the neon oasis to hear odes to filmmaker Michael Moore’s patriotism — it’s best not to predict what Ronstadt will have to say about these lumpen Americans.

Even before that incident, however, Ronstadt unburdened herself of a few thoughts about America as a whole and the political and spiritual right in particular.

America first: “I saw a movie recently about a camel and these people in Mongolia [our wild guess: The Story of the Weeping Camel], and I relate to them better than people here in this country,” she tells George Varga of the San Diego Union-Tribune. “It looks like (Germany’s) Weimar Republic to me here.”

That’s in a sidebar bearing the title “The diva speaks.” She’s just as prone to non sequiturs in the mainbar: “This is an election year, and I think we’re in desperate trouble and it’s time for people to speak up and not pipe down. It’s a real conflict for me when I go to a concert and find out somebody in the audience is a Republican or fundamental Christian. It can cloud my enjoyment. I’d rather not know.”

Ronstadt does not explain how she deduces that someone in the audience is a Republican or a “fundamental” Christian. Would true fundamentalists — who, as we know from various pundits, do not read, are irrational and plan to hasten the end times — have any interest in hearing Ronstadt sing “You’re No Good” or “Heatwave”? If she’d rather not know about their politics or faith, doesn’t that mean, at least for Republicans or fundamentalists, it’s actually not “time for people to speak up and not pipe down”?

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A case for separating church and pop

5neat 01An item from Episcopal News Service begins:

Picture this: an altar; an earth-shattering sound system; people of all ages “jamming to the groove”; and an Episcopal bishop rapping and feeling the beat.

“My sistas and brothas, all my homies and peeps, stay up — keep your head up, holla back, and go forth and tell like it is.” With this proclamation, Bishop Suffragan Cathy Roskam of New York sent people on their way at the Bronx’s third Hip Hop Mass, held Friday, July 2 at Trinity Church of Morrisania. . . .

OK, now we all know the agony of bishops who are down with the peeps. Now imagine If some musicians had only pursued the episcopacy:

Top 10 High-Church Hits

1. Purple Reign, the Rt. Rev. Prince Rogers Nelson (Diocese of Minnesota)

2. You Picked the Wrong Bishop to F— With, the Rt. Rev. Ice Cube (Diocese of Los Angeles)

3. That Ain’t No Rag, it’s the Constitution & Canons, the Rt. Rev. Charlie Daniels (Diocese of Tennessee)

4. High on the Jesus Seminar, the Rt. Rev. Kinky Friedman (Diocese of Texas)

5. My Sweet Lord (theme song of the United Religions Initiative), the Rt. Rev. George Harrison (Diocese of California)

6. Goin’ to the (Civil but Obviously Nonsacramental) Chapel, the Rt. Rev. Phil Spector (Diocese of Massachusetts)

7. Imagine, the Rt. Rev. John Lennon (Diocese of Newark)

8. Obviously Five Believers (in the Hermeneutic of Oppression), the Rt. Rev. Bob Dylan (Diocese of New York)

9. Mennonite Surf Party, by the Rt. Rev. Billy C. Wirtz (Diocese of North Carolina)

10. Pass the Peace, the Rt. Rev. Maceo Parker (Diocese of West Tennessee [Memphis])

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Richard Thompson's Natural Law satire

Nobody could accuse singer-songwriter Richard Thompson of being a pawn of the religious right. Thompson expressed standard-issue contempt for fundamentalism in an October 2003 interview with writer Greg Kahill of Discussing Thompson’s album Old Kit Bag, Kahill wrote:

“Outside of the Inside” finds Thompson, a Sufi, discussing the way faith blinded the former rulers of Afghanistan to all things modern. “Generally speaking, it’s about fundamentalism — Muslim, Christian, whatever — and they’re not people I’m fond of. I think they are bigots and stupid people, who use a little bit of power to lord over others.”

Some writers have expressed surprise that Thompson, a longtime Muslim, would criticize others of his faith. “Well, I don’t know if I can be considered ‘a devout Muslim’ — that’s a comparative term,” he says. “I’d probably be at the liberal end of any religion, whichever one I chose. But I see the Taliban as medieval and ignorant, offering a very narrow interpretation of a religion.”

In recent months Thompson has been performing “Dear Janet Jackson,” a hilarious song that avoids both the hell-in-a-handbasket protests of the Right and the equally shrill it’s-all-about-Bush-administration-censorship murmurings of the Left.

Thompson’s song proposes a startling idea: that the female breast is designed to nourish a baby. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever heard to a bawdy rock & roll song built on a Natural Law assumption.

Here’s a portion of the opening stanza:

Now I couldn’t help but notice there
that you’ve got a pair of beauties
and if your other duties
as a diva give you time
there’s lots of hungry babes out there
that need something to chew
a new role as a wet nurse
might be just the thing for you

And a portion of the bridge:

That’s what they’re there for
That’s what they’re there for
Who are we to ask the why or wherefore?

The song is a crowd-pleaser, as is clear in this MP3 recorded in late March at Tarrytown, N.Y.

If this is typical liberal Sufi humor, let’s have far more of it, please.

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Dr. Alice Cooper: Integration of faith and hearing loss

AliceCooperLet me be the first — chicken in cheek — to chide The Arizona Republic for going with an Associated Press report instead of assigning one of its own reporters to cover such a fascinating Godbeat story in its own backyard. I look forward to the photos and coverage of the actual event.

How can they pass this up?

Christian university to honor Alice Cooper

School’s in for shock rocker Alice Cooper.

Cooper, whose hits included School’s Out, is being awarded an honorary doctorate by a Christian liberal-arts college.

The 56-year-old will be given the honorary degree at Grand Canyon University’s commencement ceremony Saturday.

The rocker, whose classic albums include Killer and Welcome to My Nightmare, has been a financial supporter of the school, university officials said.

Well, I think the black robe and colorful hood will look cool. If the honorary doctorate is in theology, that would lead to a blood-red academic color scheme. But it would be better if it was a degree in music. This might allow Cooper — now a born-again Christian and active community volunteer — to become one of the very, very few people teaching popular music studies in Christian higher education. One can hope.

“Alice Cooper is a guy who made it big in a very tough business and has made his faith a priority,” university Vice Chairman Michael Clifford said in a written statement. “He can become a real mentor for our students, sharing his knowledge, valuable contacts and real-life experiences in the performing arts.”

Meanwhile, entertainment writers in England will have to wrestle with the new Dr. Cooper later this summer. It’s clear that they don’t quite know what to make of him.

X-clusive: Alice Cooper Returns To London

One-time shock-rocker, now tee-total golf-lover Alice Cooper has announced details for a special one-off London show. Expect make-up, a legendary rocker swiping at thin air with a riding crop and more gore than you can shake a stick (or riding crop) at. The exclusive one-night-only show takes place on June 27 at the Carling Hammersmith Apollo in West London.

Here’s what we need. We need Baptist Press to cover both the commencement rites and the concert.

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Attention journalists: Want reader reactions? (Heed Doug's post)

This may seem like a strange thing to do, but I want to encourage readers who are working journalists to do something after they have read Doug’s latest post on music tends in the church. Google the following words and then hang on — “worship wars.”

You see, North American churches don’t just fight about sexuality. Many of them — oldline Protestant, Catholic, megachurch evangelical, you name it — are also fighting about music (and other forms of post-Matrix worship media, to a lesser degree). This topic will turn into a theme on this blog for a simple reason — the cultural issues related to music are symbolic and all of this stands for larger doctrinal and liturgical issues in this era.

As the old saying goes: What’s the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.

This is news. Of all the topics I write on year after year, the “worship wars” columns generate the most reader response. And there are similar stories in Judaism and other faiths. Check out the “flexidoxy” subplot in David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise. Or note that some of the wildest acts of doctrinal deconstructionism are taking place in some of the most conservative churches. Let me share a hint of this from five years ago:

The worshippers may gather in a candle-lit sanctuary and follow a liturgy of ancient texts and solemn chants, while gazing at Byzantine icons.

The singing, however, will be accompanied by waves of drums and electric guitars and the result often sounds like a cross between Pearl Jam and the Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. The icons, meanwhile, are digital images downloaded from the World Wide Web and projected on screens.

The people who are experimenting with these kinds of rites aren’t interested in the bouncy Baby Boomer-friendly megachurch praise services that have dominated American Protestantism for a generation. They want to appeal to teens and young adults who consider “contemporary worship” shallow and old-fashioned and out of touch with their darker, more ironic take on life. They are looking for what comes next.

The plasma-screen-ready theology of tomorrow is evolving. But the music wars are the heart of the matter right now. The whole world of mainstream evangelicalism is turning into an FM radio dial packed with consumer niches. Pollster George Barna talked with Protestant pastors, “worship leaders” and other church professionals and discovered that 90 percent of the conflicts reporting in their congregations was rooted in music.

“What we know about Americans is that we view ourselves first and foremost as consumers,” said Barna. “Even when we walk in the doors of our churches what we tend to do is to wonder how can I get a good transaction out of this experience. . . . So, what we know from our research is that Americans have made worship something that primarily that we do for ourselves. When is it successful? When we feel good.”

Welcome to Oprah evangelicalism? It’s snappy, it has a beat, and you can dance to it. With your hands lifted into the air.

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