Oh, come all ye Jihadists!

And now for something completely different.

What we have here is the kind of commentary on the news that GetReligion tries to avoid, since the purpose of this blog is to offer criticism — positive and negative — of actual religion-news coverage in the mainstream press.

However, every now and then figures in the mainstream press simply say things that offer insights into what they actually think about religious issues and that, one could argue, offers insights into the coverage offered by their news organizations.

This brings us to an eyebrow-raising exchange the other day on NPR’s “On the Media” between host Bob Garfield and Aaron Zelin, who runs the Jihadology.net website.

The topic of the broadcast was described this way:

Voices of jubilation were heard all across the American media this week following the news of Osama bin Laden’s death. But one voice not likely to be heard in the mainstream media was that of Al Qaeda supporters, who reacted to the news in online forums.

You can listen to the exchange, if you wish:

Or here is a slice of the transcript, in order to show context:

BOB GARFIELD: Was there anything on any of the sites that you frequent to suggest Al-Qaeda and its 20 years of the most violent sort of mischief has maybe come to naught?

AARON ZELIN: I’ve not seen any evidence of that. Those who already believe that bin Laden is dead cite how when the leader of the Arabs in Afghanistan in the ’80s against the Soviets died, the Jihad continued. And then they gave the example of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He died, and the Jihad continued. So they still believe wholeheartedly that Al-Qaeda will keep on going and that the Jihad will continue, and that in the end they will be victorious.

BOB GARFIELD: Can you give me some specifics of the rhetoric that you’ve seen?

AARON ZELIN: Yeah, sure, I could give you some quotes.

“Please let them celebrate. They are celebrating their own end. Osama is in the heart of every Muslim, even those who don’t admit it publicly.”

There are some disturbing ones, such as, “I’ll cut the head of everyone who says Sheikh Osama is dead.” And then there’s this one — this is interesting: “Coming, oh, America, coming, oh, Jews, coming, oh, rejectionists” — which they’re referring to Shi’ites — “coming, oh, Kufar, secularists and apostates. Arrivals are coming and they are bringing the coffins with merciless devices.”

BOB GARFIELD: Wow. Come all ye faithful.

AARON ZELIN: Definitely. They believe in this stuff. Even if it sounds a little crazy to us, it’s not crazy to them. It’s completely rational because they have a completely different worldview.

(CUE: Audible sigh)

As the co-founder of this website — the honorable Douglas LeBlanc — put it in his note alerting us to this spew-your-coffee classic: “Why Garfield would cite a line from a joyous Christmas hymn in response to an apocalyptic list of targets — well, it boggles the mind.”

Consider my mind boggled. How do you feel about this, worthy readers?

Consider the comments pages open for interpretations of what, precisely, the NPR star was trying to say with this snarky zinger.

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Phoebe Snow, RIP

I was sad to see on Twitter the other day that Poly Styrene had died. I’d been a big fan of her music. Not much later, I read that Phoebe Snow had died. I’d kept up with news about Poly but realized that I hadn’t heard what was going on with Snow in a few years. I came across the CBS morning news video embedded here on Roger Ebert’s blog at the Sun-Times. It’s several years old but it was full of detail and I was sobbing by the end. If you’re at all a fan, you will be well served to check it out.

Here’s the lede of the Associated Press report on her death, as published by the Kansas City Star:

It wasn’t long after the release of “Poetry Man,” the breezy, jazzy love song that would make Phoebe Snow a star, that the singer experienced another event that would dramatically alter her life.

In 1975, she gave birth to a daughter, Valerie Rose, who was found to be severely brain-damaged. Her husband split from her soon after the baby was born. And, at a time when many disabled children were sent to institutions, Snow decided to keep her daughter at home and care for the child herself.

The decision to be Valerie’s primary caretaker would lead her to abandon music for a while and enter into ill-fated business decisions in the quest to stay solvent enough to take care of Valerie.

Snow, who worked her way back into the music performing world in the 1980s and continued to perform in recent years, died on Tuesday from complications of a brain hemorrhage she suffered in January 2010, said Rick Miramontez, her longtime friend and public relations representative. She was 60.

Snow never regretted her decision to put aside music so she could focus on Valerie’s care. She was devastated when her daughter, who was not expected to live beyond her toddler years, died in 2007 at 31.

“She was my universe,” she told the website PopEntertainment.com that year. “She was the nucleus of everything. I used to wonder, am I missing something? No. I had such a sublime, transcendent experience with my child. She had fulfilled every profound love and intimacy and desire I could have ever dreamed of.”

There are key distinctions between this report and the CBS News one embedded above. But it’s clear from both — from everything you can read about her — that Valerie Rose was the focus of Phoebe’s life.

I wondered, while watching the video, how she had such strength to raise a child alone, to turn her back on an unbelievably promising music career. I wondered whether her religion played any role. There’s no religion to speak of in the video report. The AP report tells us only that she was born Phoebe Ann Laub to white Jewish parents.

We have to go back to a 2008 profile in the San Francisco Chronicle to learn the answer:

Yet, when it comes to her own listening, Snow says she always comes back “to the original R&B guys, James Brown, Sam Cooke. I was just listening to the original group Sam Cooke was in. What were they called? The Soul Stirrers? They were so good I almost fainted. A lot of that Baptist stuff is so powerful. Tremaine Hawkins, Aretha … that’s the stuff I really grew up listening to.”

From a religious standpoint, though, Snow embraces neither Judaism nor Christianity. She’s a Buddhist, a practitioner of the Nichiren Shoshu style, whose practitioners chant “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” as a meditation tool. She says her practice is the main thing keeping her going after the death of her daughter.

“When Valerie died, I thought I would rail against my religious practice,” Snow says. “I questioned it at first for obvious reasons. But then my faith deepened. I became much more devoted. I found, almost … I’m trying to find the right word to describe it … sanctuary.”

Apparently she converted in 2002, according to this old PopEntertainment.com profile:

She says, “If you had told me at any time before the year 2002 that I would be chanting for hours at a time at a Buddhist temple, and that I would travel fourteen hours to Japan and chant day and night, I would have laughed out Phoebe Snowloud in your face. But I have had a very profound and visceral experience, at a very low point in my life. I was a sad sack. A friend called me and said, ‘I’m having a Buddhist meeting in my house.’ She was not an arm twister. She was really laid back about it.

“She said, ‘And we’re going to have a little pot luck afterward,’ and I said, ‘Oh!.’ Food was my nemesis. I wonder if it was the food that got me there, but I got there. I had such a profound experience the first time I chanted. Don’t try to intellectualize it. Don’t try to categorize it. Don’t try to explain it. Because you can’t. It’s beyond comprehension. That’s where faith comes in. If you have faith, you can do anything. Don’t try to understand.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if a reader didn’t have to go searching for information about the religious life of the recently deceased!

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Pod people: Dylan does his Dylan thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe he sang the original lyrics:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A tin ear for religion

Last month, I highlighted media coverage of campaigns to get worshipers to confession. I needled the Miami Archdiocese a bit for using Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major to accompany their television advertisement. Johann Sebastian Bach is my favorite Lutheran composer, in a very crowded field. I was surprised that a couple of commenters didn’t know he was Lutheran, on account of how well regarded he is as a musician, composer and theologian.

Lutheran churches throughout the world offer Bach vesper services where the rigorous theological underpinnings of a given work are explained before they’re performed by choirs, soloists and ensembles. When I attended my first of these, at a Lutheran church in Baltimore, I was shocked to learn that the different parts were written to express various theological concepts. Learning these things helps make the music even more sublime. You can get a taste of this from reading this brief explanation of the Trinitarian and Catechistic Connotations of the Clavier-Ubung III.

I mention all this because quite a few readers sent along a recent New Yorker review of Bach performances and releases. It’s actually a lovely review from a very talented music critic. And being that it’s a review of Bach’s sacred music, it attempts to engage the religious throughout the piece. Here, for example:

More than half of the sacred cantatas were written between 1723 and 1726, when Bach was in the early years of his long, and often unrewarding, appointment as the cantor of the Thomaskirche, in Leipzig. For extended stretches of the liturgical year, he produced one cantata a week, and for the most part he refused to take the easy path of reworking older pieces, whether his own or others’. Instead, in what seems a kind of creative rage, he experimented with every aspect of the cantata form, which traditionally served as a musical meditation on the Scriptural readings of the week. There are intimidating fugal choruses, sublimely extended operatic arias, frenzied instrumental interludes, weird chords galore, episodes of almost irreverent dancing merriment. To hear the entire corpus is to be buffeted by the restless energy of Bach’s imagination. Recently, I listened to around fifty of the cantatas during a thousand-mile drive in inland Australia, and, far from getting too much of a good thing, I found myself regularly hitting the repeat button. Once or twice, I stopped on the side of the road in tears.

Readers also submitted the response to the New Yorker piece by Lutheran publisher Paul McCain, who found the review wanting. He describes what it’s like to read secular media coverage of Bach’s sacred works:

No matter how often one is disappointed by articles on Bach’s sacred music, published in secular periodicals, there is always hope that maybe, just maybe, the article will be objective enough actually to recognize that J.S. Bach was a committed orthodox Lutheran composer, no, make that a Kantor, a servant of the church, and…there are actually committed Christians who keep his sacred music alive, like Masaaki Suzuki, of the Bach Collegium of Japan, precisely as a way to witness to their Christian faith, but alas, the latest example of such an article is another disappointment. It simply boggles my mind that such a key ingredient in really understanding who Bach was and why he did what he did is so blithely ignored and overlooked, even when there are references to the specifically Christian content of his sacred music works. I suppose it should not be a disappointment, but alas, it is.

Here’s an example from the New Yorker article of a reporter, perhaps struggling valiantly, to grasp the meaning of the St. John Passion, but failing utterly, to come up with anything more than a recognition of morality and human helpfulness, which, I suppose, is the right place to start, but the glorious good news of the Passion of Jesus Christ, is missing entirely from the reporter’s view.

He goes on to quote a portion of the New Yorker review that focuses on one portion of the oratorio to the exclusion of the ultimate message. As soon as I read this critique, I realized that the review never even mentioned that Bach was Lutheran, much less anything about the Gospel message so many of his sacred works highlight and celebrate.

A commenter to McCain’s critique wrote:

A Univ. of Michigan professor told us students years ago: “Bach was not only an organist and composer; he was a theologian, as well. To fully appreciate much of Bach’s work, you’d better learn some Lutheran theology, for he regularly put it to music.

The secular press, with all of its “sophistication”, is ignorant of such words as “incarnation”, “redemption”, “resurrection”, “sin”, “expiation”, and “justification” used theologically. Consequently, they see, and comment upon, only the “horizontal” (human) expressions in Bach’s music, to the exclusion of the “vertical” (divine) ones. They hear his music with a “tin ear”, for they hear only “art for art’s sake” rather than “Soli Deo Gloria”. And, as to the latter, they ask: “What’s that?”

I wanted to highlight these responses not only because they explain so clearly what anyone who knows about Bach’s theology finds lacking in a review such as this (again, as otherwise brilliant as it may be). But doesn’t it seem like something similar could be said about so much coverage of religion news?

So many reporters and editors aren’t even really familiar with the vocabulary of religious adherents, much less how one’s theology informs day-to-day affairs. That ignorance leaves stories about religion and its adherents muddled, or at least less vibrant than they should be.

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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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