Dylan works around China’s bosses?

Is there anyone in American popular culture who intrigues and frustrates journalists of a certain age — the Baby Boomer elites — than Bob Dylan? The man is a walking history book, when you combine the landmark events in his life with the confusing but gripping map that is his canon of songwriting.

That’s why it was big news when he agreed to take his road tour that never ends to Beijing, where the Communist authorities insisted that he play by their rules when picking songs for his set list. Now there’s a tug of war that could have been an amazing subject for musical, cultural, political and, yes, theological commentary, since this man’s songs many-layered songs are packed with subtle themes as well as baseball-bat-to-the-head commentary.

This is what the Washington Post served up at the top of its report from the front lines:

BEIJING – Rock music icon Bob Dylan avoided controversy on Wednesday in his first-ever appearance in Communist-led China, eschewing the 1960s protest anthems that defined a generation and sticking to a song list that government censors say they preapproved, before a crowd of about 5,000 people in a Soviet-era stadium.

Keeping with his custom, Dylan never spoke to the crowd other than to introduce his five-member band in his raspy voice. And his set list — which mixed some of his newer songs alongside classics made unrecognizable by altered tempos — was devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones.

In Taiwan on Sunday, opening this spring Asian tour, Dylan played “Desolation Row” as the eighth song in his set and ended with an encore performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” whose lyrics became synonymous with the antiwar and civil rights protest movements. But in China, where the censors from the government’s Culture Ministry carefully vet every line of a song before determining whether a foreign act can play here, those two songs disappeared from the repertoire. In Beijing, Dylan sang “Love Sick” in the place of “Desolation Row,” and he ended his nearly two-hour set with the innocent-sounding “Forever Young.”

There was no “Times They Are a-Changin’ ” in China. And definitely no “Chimes of Freedom.”

OK, let me confess that I am a minor-league Dylan fan. I’m not a fanatic who named his children after the guy, but I have been paying close attention for several decades. Anyway, the first question that popped into my head after reading the top of this story was, methinks, rather logical: So what was the opening song of this rather symbolic show? I mean, Dylan has a history of sending signals with the first words out of his mouth (think about that HBO special with Tom Petty years ago, when Dylan opened with “In the Garden”).

I mean, I assume that the Post reporter was there, right?

Luckily, there are websites out there that sweat the details on this type of question. The following set list looks short, for a Dylan show, but the opening number seems like a logical choice — that is, if one assumes that Dylan may have framed his thoughts about politics, faith and freedom in a less obvious way.

In other words, he opened with “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” Thus, it appears that the first words out of his mouth were these:

Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules
Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my good foot forward, and stop being influenced by fools.

So much oppression, can’t keep track of it no more
So much oppression, can’t keep track of it no more
Sons becoming husbands to their mothers, and old men turning young daughters into whores.

Stripes on your shoulders, stripes on your back and on your hands
Stripes on your shoulders, stripes on your back and on your hands
Swords piercing your side, blood and water flowing through the land.

There’s quite a bit going on there in this song from his gospel classic “Slow Train Coming,” not the least of which is that “stripes” reference to torture and religious oppression. Perhaps a message for the millions of believers in the underground church in China, including the saints in prisons? And who would the “fools” be, in this case?

Then, if he sang the song straight (always a question with Dylan), he later would have added:

You can mislead a man, you can take ahold of his heart with your eyes
You can mislead a man, you can take ahold of his heart with your eyes
But there’s only one authority, and that’s the authority on high.

Did the principalities and powers in the Chinese government parse that one carefully?

Then again, there is a chance that Dylan used some of the new lyrics from the version of this song that appeared on the tremendous 2003 “Gotta Serve Somebody” disc in which gospel music greats performed many of his classics. In that version, Dylan joins up with the great Mavis Staples and, in part, belts out this message. This would not comfort the business lords of the new China.

Jesus is coming, he’s coming back to gather his jewels
Jesus is coming, he’s coming back to gather his jewels
We live by the golden rule, whoever’s got the gold rules.

Anyway, it does not appear that Dylan went silent in China. It appears that he did not perform some of the obvious political songs that the Post team would have recognized and, thus, considered important. However, it seems that Ron Gluckman and the team at the Wall Street Journal was paying attention, with that final reference to the opening declaration in “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” Kudos, for not missing the obvious!

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Bach, TV ads and i-confession

Via Rocco Palmo’s Twitter feed, I came across this Miami CBS affiliate story about the Roman Catholic archdiocese there launching a television campaign about the sacrament of penance:

The Catholic Church is trying something different to get people’s attention.

The Archdiocese of Miami is launching a television campaign to encourage people to confess their sins.

“Confession is for Catholics the way to have the sins that they have committed after Baptism to be forgiven,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski to CBS4′s Jorge Estevez at Saint Martha’s Church in Miami.

The idea to shoot the 30 second spot came from Archbishop Thomas Wenski who wanted to remind Catholics of the meaning behind confession.

“The sacrament of penance is more about knowing we are loved, that our god is merciful, and that he forgives us,” said Archbishop Wenski.

The Archdiocese of Miami hopes to remove any anxiety attached to the sacrament of confession.

There’s not much to say about the story — it’s fairly brief and only offers one perspective. But it did get me thinking (again) about how much of what passes for religion news fails to accurately convey the life of the church. I’m Lutheran and my pastor has been gently encouraging us during Lent to avail ourselves of the opportunity for private confession and absolution. And truth be told, private confession is a pretty interesting story.

But it’s also, like, 2,000 years old. So how do you cover something that’s ancient when the church down the street is running a Whoopee Cushion series for Lent? Which one are you going to cover? And what are the consequences of giving coverage to one Lenten practice over another?

But there are ways to cover confession, reconciliation, etc., even if it is an ancient practice. Picking up on a new television campaign is one. Archdiocese of New York and Diocese of Rockville Center have a campaign called “i-Confess” that uses social and digital media to generate interest in the practice, culminating with an all-day confession event in mid-April.

The Miami television ad is embedded above. I do think the choice of having my favorite Lutheran composer accompany the ad is worth noting!

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More than a sex covenant?

The Los Angeles Times has joined the chorus of news organizations reporting on the Crystal Cathedral’s controversial choir covenant.

I complained Wednesday that the matter had blown into a full-scale national media brouhaha without a single current choir member being quoted by name.

I wish I could report that the Times benefited from my enlightening post and took my advice.

Nope, didn’t happen.

Instead, we have another shallow report focused on the covenant’s statement that “sexual intimacy is intended by God to only be within the bonds of marriage, between one man and one woman.” And we have another story with no choir members quoted.

Even the Times’ headline leaves a lot to be desired:

Crystal Covenant sex covenant stirs controversy

Sex covenant?

Read the entire document. Is it a sex covenant? Or, just perhaps, is it a more wide-ranging doctrinal statement than that?

Indeed, beyond a mere church debate over homosexuality, the covenant seems to be part of an ongoing Crystal Cathedral dispute involving doctrine, a disgruntled former choir director and the clash of past and present in the post-Robert H. Schuller era. To wit:

On Wednesday, church founder Robert H. Schuller said he strongly disapproved of the covenant because it goes against what he has built his church upon.

“I have a reputation worldwide of being tolerant of all people and their views,” he told the Orange County Register. “I’m too well-educated to criticize a certain religion or group of people for what they believe in. It’s called freedom.”

In the comments section of my original post, someone named tmatt called attention to an element of this news story that I neglected:

I think one other point must be stressed.

The Crystal Cathedral has long been known as a pioneer of a kind of vague, foggy, optimistic, post-doctrinal approach to Christianity. … Many critics of the church have — over the decades — considered this bad and an open door to trouble.

It appears that, facing decline and struggle, the congregation’s leaders have decided to veer back toward Christian doctrine, as defined by most Christians through the ages.

That’s an interesting story. Maybe it could be covered?

Maybe indeed.

Or maybe tmatt’s just preaching to the GetReligion choir. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that line.)

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Charlie Sheen, Hannah Montana and God

Of all the areas where media coverage of religion seems weak, celebrity news has to be up there. For a recent example, you can read this Associated Press account of Billy Ray Cyrus lamenting the effect of his daughter’s fame on his family. He apparently says, in a recent interview with GQ, that the Disney TV show “Hannah Montana” destroyed his family, caused his divorce and is sending daughter Miley Cyrus spinning out of control. At the end of this brief story, we learn:

He said the Cyruses and their six children were all baptized before leaving Tennessee for Los Angeles to inure themselves against evil and he believes Satan is attacking his family.

The reader who sent this story in says he wishes Cyrus’ actual quote had been included. He notes that he’s never heard of “inure” being used in association with baptism. To “inure” means “to accustom to accept something undesirable.” It seems to be the wrong word choice no matter what the reporter was going for. I notice that other versions of this story use the word “protect” in place of “inure.”

Either way, in what church is this taught? Particularly, as the reader points out, in a church where children are brought to baptism? The thing is that Cyrus sounds like he really wants to talk about the role religion played or could have played in his family. It’s a shame it’s not handled with more care.

For a really interesting piece on celebrity and religion, you might be interested in this Wall Street Journal article “God at the Grammys: The Chosen Ones” by Neil Strauss. He looks at the particular phenomenon of musical superstars thinking that their careers are part of a divine plan. He says he used to think those shout-outs to God were either signs of humility and gratitude or affections of the same. The truth, he says, is more interesting:

Before they were famous, many of the biggest pop stars in the world believed that God wanted them to be famous, that this was his plan for them, just as it was his plan for the rest of us not to be famous. Conversely, many equally talented but slightly less famous musicians I’ve interviewed felt their success was accidental or undeserved–and soon after fell out of the limelight.

As I compiled and analyzed these interviews for my new book, I reached a surprising conclusion: Believing that God wants you to be famous actually improves your chances of being famous. Of course, from the standpoint of traditional theology, even in the Calvinistic world of predestination, God is much more concerned with the fate of an individual’s soul than his or her secular success, and one’s destiny is unknowable. So what’s helping these stars is not so much religion as belief—specifically, the belief that God favors their own personal, temporal success over that of almost everyone else.

It’s not that the media never notice the way celebrities talk about God, but usually we just see either bland acceptance or snarky dismissal. This piece argues that what these celebrities — including sports celebrities — are doing is a “competitive theism, a self-styled spirituality that can be overlaid on any religion and has nothing to do with personal morality.” The faith gap is what sets the merely famous apart from the ridiculously famous.

There’s much more in the piece, full of reported commentary.

Finally, I wanted to highlight this NPR article on Charlie Sheen. In “The Charlie Sheen Problem, Now Thrown Into Stark And Public Relief,” Linda Holmes notes the tremendous ethical problems surrounding the addiction problems of the actor.

There’s no way to deny these problems or the fact that many, many people have careers that are reliant on the success of his (inexplicably popular) sitcom. In a piece also backed up with lots of interesting reportage, she writes:

But when your producer is openly fearing that your star is killing himself and he’s saying as much on screen — those two vanity cards are not just about personal problems; they are both about dying — and when your star is calling up radio hosts to say he might not have that much sanity left, so you’d better get some of it while you can, do you just bring everybody back to work and move on?

Don’t get me wrong: The crushing power of money in Hollywood is not a new phenomenon. The cynical “they’ll use him up until he’s dead” argument is the easiest one to make, and the most obvious. …

Maybe it’s an old story. Maybe it’s just the way these things always go. But it’s interesting to wonder how much money is spent on PR and image management and meticulous handling of one’s persona when, in fact, for some people, it doesn’t matter at all. Why does Charlie Sheen even have a publicist? What, at this point, would he really need a publicist to fix? Is there anything that would put a dent in him?

Ah, the ghosts! It’s taken as a given that Hollywood’s god is making money. But I was hoping to find quotes from religious scholars — and others — about the ethics of this belief system and whether other belief systems have something to say about it. In every paragraph of this story, I was thinking about what my church would have to say about how to handle such a thorny situation. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how these perspectives are rarely included in stories.

Still, a super interesting piece about the intersection of ethics, celebrity and capitalism. And if you want an overtly religious discussion of Sheen’s travails, you could do worse than this piece over at the National Post, riffing on Chesterton’s observation about men looking for God when they knock on a brothel door.

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MIA: ‘The Nun Who Kissed Elvis’

Once again, let me stress that I know that newspapers and magazines are going to have to receive payments — somehow — for the work they produce. It’s hard to keep giving your product away day after day and stay in business.

At the same time, the digital world wants to be interconnected and the ability to link — somehow — to news reports is part of what the blogosphere is all about. This drives traffic to sites. It provides feedback. Yes, this is also what helps sites such as GetReligion to do what we do. I admit that.

So I would like to comment on the recent Entertainment Weekly story that ran under this grab-you headline: “The Nun Who Kissed Elvis.”

I would like to, but I can’t. Not really. And I’m not alone. It seems that quite a few people would like to comment on it. As the MediaBistro noted:

Because Thom Geier’s February 4th-11th Entertainment Weekly interview feature “The Nun Who Kissed Elvis” was never posted online, it failed to get passed around the Internet the way it should have. In great detail, he outlines how one-time Elvis Presley co-star Dolores Hart turned her back on Hollywood in 1963 to become a Benedictine nun at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT.

The caveat is that she has remained an actor’s branch voting member of the Academy, which allows for the detailing of some pretty hysterical Oscar season activities. Last year for example, she was very unpopular with the other nuns because she chose to give Avatar her 2009 Best Picture vote instead of The Hurt Locker. But the real kicker is the way she views her Academy DVDs:

Hart watches the films in her basement office, a 12-by-12 foot room with high ceilings and a slanted floor that was once the art studio of one of the order’s founders. … Her TV is a 20-year-old model that sits on a stand. “It’s a tiny little thing, maybe eight inches,” she says. “I never got past to the big stuff.”

No wonder Hart flipped when she got to see Avatar in 3D on the big screen. She insists she can discern just fine on her eight-inch TV, but someone in Hollywood, get this nun a plasma screen!

And then there’s the part about watching Natalie Portman’s masturbation scene in The Black Swan, which really isn’t anything new to a sister who has listened to young people open their hearts and souls in decades of spiritual retreats. You know, it’s the old “nuns are so out of it” thing, only this nun used to be a Hollywood actress. It’s an interesting angle, sort of.

All in all, this is an interesting profile and it spends — justifiably — quite a bit of time on the factors that went into Hart’s decision to enter the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn. At the top of the list was her decision to walk away from her fiance and her wedding date that loomed in the near future. That’s all well and good. It’s also interesting that Hart has, to some degree, kept in touch with her roots — especially when a much more famous actress, Patricia Neal, came to the abbey to wrestle with the tragic issues that dominated several decades of her life and work. Was Hart the sister who yelled and cursed right back at Neal during one of their counseling sessions?

There’s some good material in this article. However, what is striking — surprise, surprise — is that her faith and its role in her life-changing decision is given very little attention, until the very end of the article. Even then, it’s hard to write a length piece about a nun without mentioning one particular man in her life, as in Jesus of Nazareth. And what about the Catholic Church? Did love of the church play any role in all of this?

I realize that Entertainment Weekly is a publication that managed, somehow, to be world weary in its very first issue (I think I still have that filed away somewhere). This is not the publication to which one turns for spiritual depth. So be it.

But still, come on people. The story ends with a dash of faith. Why wait until the end?

Even though she hasn’t appeared on a soundstage in nearly 50 years, Mother Dolores still considers herself an actress. Only now, she says, she channels her training into being a better Christian, more empathetic and attuned to the lives of others. … At the Abbey of Regina Laudis, Mother Dolores believes she has found the role of a lifetime, performing daily for an audience of One.

Meanwhile, I know that, to see what I am talking about in this post, readers really need to see the whole text of this feature.

Sorry about that. Let’s hope that, sooner or later, the EW business model let’s that happen.

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Grace, karma and Boy George

When you think of someone doing right by the Church of Cyprus, you probably don’t think of Boy George. And yet there he was, returning an icon he’d bought (without realizing its origin) in 1985, years after the Turkish invasion. The BBC writes:

Boy George — real name George O’Dowd — said he was “happy the icon is going back to its original rightful home.”

“I have always been a friend of Cyprus and have looked after the icon for 26 years,” he added. “I look forward to seeing the icon on display in Cyprus for the moment and finally to the Church of St. Charalambos from where it was illegally stolen.”

But what I thought was interesting about the media coverage was the language used by CBS/Associated Press in reporting on the same:

Singer Boy George is in store for some good karma.

OK, so CBS/AP went with a Hindu or Buddhist line on the matter. All the better to make a reference to George’s 1980s hit “Karma Chameleon,” you see. (Later the story refers to George as an “icon.”) But that’s not the language that George used. According to the BBC story linked above, he said the icon “graced” his home.

Meanwhile, there is another important question that no one seems to have asked: Why did George want the icon in the first place? Mere art?

In other icon news, Ann Rodgers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has an interesting piece regarding the local Orthodox community. It begins with the Rev. George Livanos’ excitement over being asked to host one of the most beloved icons in Orthodoxy — the 715-year-old Kursk Root Icon. The piece discusses many of the miracles the icon is said to have wrought and also explains icons to the average reader:

In Orthodox theology, icons are far more than pictures. The church teaches that they convey the word of God through imagery, much as the Bible does through writing.

“Icons are windows into Heaven,” Father Livanos said. “The people who are portrayed in the icon are those who have lived amongst us who offered themselves as living sacrifices and made God the sole purpose of their existence. … They are to remind us of what we are called to be and who we truly are.”

I did find the headline curious: “Miraculous Orthodox icon on display here this week.” That seems a bit authoritative for a mainstream story about the icon. On the other hand, putting quotes around Miraculous would make it seem like you were using scare quotes. Would you change the headline? How?

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When religious icons die

I have a bit of an embarrassing confession to make: Before she died Sunday, I’d never heard the name Debbie Friedman.

Never has there been greater evidence that I’m merely Jew-ish but not really a Jew than this ignorance. Turns out Friedman, who was only 59, was a legendary Jewish musician and singer, best known for rewriting Jewish prayers for a new generation of American Jews.

And Friedman’s death has been covered in the mainstream press. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times both ran short obits today. But that coverage has paled in comparison to the attention her death has received in the Jewish media. In publications like The Forward, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, Friedman coverage has rivaled, if not overwhelmed, coverage of the Tucson shooting rampage (of which at least two of the victims, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, were Jewish).

The Jewish Journal, for instance, published eleven tributes online from LA-area rabbis, cantors and Jewish leaders. The paper also published a handful of news story prior to and after Friedman’s passing, and also streamed her funeral live.

The coverage I’ve seen of Friedman’s death raises the question of just how mainstream media should treat a major event within a religious community, particularly when the impact of that event may be limited to that community. To the average reader, Friedman was not Bob Dylan, but read one of the JewishJournal.com tributes, like this one from Rabbi Paul Kipnes, and you’ll realize that to some people she meant much, much more:

To understand the depth of the grief sweeping across the Jewish community, one might recall the profound sense of loss that permeated our world upon the news of the death of John Lennon. When Lennon died, the world lost one of the greats — a singer, composer, poet, visionary and serene commentator on the excesses of his world. Similarly, Debbie’s death removes from our midst one of gedolei hador (the great of the generation).

Debbie Friedman touched more lives and brought more people into Judaism through her music than — I would argue — any rabbi who has ever opened his or her mouth. She has connected people to their Jewish spirituality more than any composer around the world. Debbie was not just a singer/songleader; she was a poet and liturgist. She was an inspiring artist, who was uniquely able to translate the ancient words of our Jewish tradition into engaging musical pieces that spoke anew to a generation alienated from the inherited formal melodies of their parents.

Sad as it was, I certainly didn’t feel that way when Kurt Cobain took his life. But Cobain’s death got more than just a mention on the obituary page.

Sure, Nirvana helped changed the alternative music scene. What though about a musician who helped a religious community communicate with God as they had not before? Should mainstream media give pop culture any less attention simply because the actor/musician/artist focuses on religious expression?

The LA Times, though not the NYT, recognized that one of Friedman’s many masterpieces, “Mi Sheberach,” Hebrew for The One who Blesses, is the traditional prayer for healing and it was sung been members of Tucson’s Jewish community as a prayer for Giffords. NPR also recognized this, and replayed a 1997 interview in which Robert Siegel asked Friedman about the place of such a prayer in a Reform temple:

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Early on in Reform, there was a leaning toward more intellectuality and less emotional, less spiritual, that anything that was a-rational really didn’t have a place.

And I think that the greatest breakthrough that has happened in these past maybe 20, 25 years, is that those walls are crumbling, that people have found now that we need to be integrated human beings that both know and think and also feel.

SIEGEL: And for a generation of American Jews, the music that evoked feeling was often the music of Debbie Friedman. She died in Orange County, California, of complications from pneumonia.

Friedman’s wisdom is even more powerful if you listen to the interview, with here music in the background, here. I apologize is, like me, your eyes start watering for an otherwise unexplainable reason.

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A 12 days of Christmas mystery

Let me begin with the obvious: A merry, merry 12th day of Christmas to one and all, if you are among the handful of Western Christians who mark this as the end of the traditional Christmas season (as opposed to the nonsectarian season between the first showing of “Elf” on cable TV and the first day of Christmas, which is Dec. 25).

Right now, if you search Google News for “12 days” and “Christmas,” this is what you get. Click here.

As you will note, there are a few stories mixed in there that focus on actual traditions in different cultures linked to the 12th day (or night) and the feast of the Epiphany. But as a rule, the mainstream press has moved on.

This is understandable. I mean, the Christmas ads have run their course.

However, a long, long time ago, 10 days or so before Christmas in fact, Religion News Service released an interesting news feature related to that famous folk song that everyone knows about this season, as in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The key issue in the piece centers on this question: What is this song about and do the images in it have anything to do with Christianity? Here’s a key piece of the story:

Given their unsuitability as gifts, how did dancing ladies, piping pipers, and a bevy of birds become part of one of the season’s best-known carols? What, if anything, do they symbolize?

It depends on whom you ask.

The song has French origins, and was published in an English children’s book called “Mirth without Mischief” around 1780. Most people believe it began as a memory game sung at Twelfth Night parties. The 12 days of Christmas in Western Christianity refer to the time between Christ’s birth on Dec. 25 and the arrival of the Magi to honor the newborn, known as Epiphany, on Jan. 6.

In recent times, the song has been searched for coded references to Catholic doctrine, ancient Egyptian holidays, Roman myths, and the menu at medieval feasts. It has even become an annual index of economic inflation. Purchasing all the gifts from “Twelve Days” would cost about $23,400, an increase of more than 9 percent from last year, PNC Financial Services Group announced last month.

In the 1990s, a story began floating around the Internet that “The Twelve Days” was used as a secret catechism by Catholics persecuted after the Reformation in England. The “true love” who offers the gifts refers to God, according to this theory. The partridge is Jesus, the two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments, the three French hens represent the virtues of faith, hope and charity, and so on.

This point of view about the mysterious song actually predates the Internet. However to see a perfect example of the digital-era phenomenon, click here for a sample. This particular version begins like this:

In 16th Century England, it was a crime to be a Catholic. Catholics were forbidden to practice their faith publicly and privately. Throughout history, when Catholics were persecuted they found little traditions to practice their faith and to recognize other Catholics. Thus came along “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to help young Catholics remember the tenets of their faith without getting caught.

Now, the minute people start pinning the “urban legend” label on this kind of message, that sends you straight to the oh-so-picky and invaluable people at Snopes.com, the vast web library that is ground zero for online myths and all kinds of modern folklore. The RNS report includes some solid information from those to accept the Snopes.com verdict that this “hidden catechism” view of the folk song is simple FALSE, with a big red warning label.

However, if you dig into the lengthy Snopes.com report, you will see that this subject gets a bit more complex. You’ll also see that I have been interested in this mystery for a long time.

In my opinion, it’s almost impossible to make a definitive judgment on the origins of any piece of folk music that is as old, and popular, as this one. Thus, I kept hunting until I found the Catholic priest who wrote the article that kicked off all of the chain letters, forwarded emails, etc., etc. It appears that this secret catechism story began with a Father Hal Stockert’s research into the lives of embattled Jesuits in Elizabethan England.

In the column, I noted:

One detail fascinated the priest, a reference to English Catholics using many symbolic songs and poems — some serious, some light-hearted — to help them cling to their faith. One children’s song may have been part of a dance or a game and focused on the season between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

It began: “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.”

In the midst of his other research, Father Stockert took a few notes about “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and later wrote an article about the song for friends and parishioners. He posted this article — complete with documentary references — on an ecumenical computer site in 1982, back in the early days of online networks.

From there, the article went everywhere, with some Catholics and scores of Protestants writing and rewriting the text to suit their own purposes and biases. Alas, there is a sad twist in the priest’s version of the final fate of his article:

Most importantly, none of these articles include his bibliographical references.

“I’ve got all kinds of people writing me demanding references for my work,” he said. “I wish I could give them what they want, but all of my notes were ruined when our church had a plumbing leak and the basement flooded.” Meanwhile, he said, his copy of the original article is on “a computer floppy disk that is so old that nobody has a machine that can read it, anymore.”

As it turns out, the priest and the skeptics at Snopes.com are not all that far apart on many of their conclusions and Stockert was quick to say that — back in 1999.

This [Snopes.com] site claims it is a secular song, probably with French roots. This “Twelve Days of Christmas” may also have become confused with a Christian song, which dates back to 1625, that is often called “In Those Twelve Days.”

It is also possible, said Father Stockert, that a French song was claimed by English Catholics or that the two songs were blended.

“I’m sure there are elements of legend in this,” he said. “But if it is a legend, it’s a legend that dates back to the days of Queen Elizabeth. Maybe somebody will go dig this all up again.”

There you go. Maybe RNS can follow up its fine story with even more research. The key to the mystery behind this strange little song is still out there somewhere.

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