Bono on sex, God and rock & roll

BonoInRSOne of the more endearing things about Jann Wenner is that he still writes for Rolling Stone nearly 40 years after founding it. His pieces are memorable: a lengthy Q&A with John Lennon shortly before Lennon’s murder, a gang interview with presidential candidate Bill Clinton at Doe’s Eat Place and off a one-page editorial endorsing Al Gore. Whenever Wenner contributes again to the pages of his flagship, you can be sure he’ll bring passion to it.

Who can blame Wenner for claiming some of the best assignments for himself? His cover story for the Nov. 3 Rolling Stone, based on roughly 10 hours of interviewing Bono, is one such assignment, and this time he’s sharing some of the audio in a podcast series.

The first podcast, and an excerpt of the cover story, give Bono another chance to discuss his faith. It’s one of the lengthier and more relaxed conversations Bono has engaged in about religion. (The book Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas offers more.)

One of the most fascinating segments concerns Bono’s understanding of, to turn a phrase of tmatt’s, sex, salvation and rock & roll:

Here’s the strange bit: Most of the people that you grew up with in black music had a similar baptism of the spirit, right? The difference is that most of these performers felt they could not express their sexuality before God. They had to turn away. So rock & roll became backsliders’ music. They were running away from God. But I never believed that. I never saw it as being a choice, an either/or thing.

You never saw rock & roll — the so-called devil’s music — as incompatible with religion?

Look at the people who have formed my imagination. Bob Dylan. Nineteen seventy-six — he’s going through similar stuff. You buy Patti Smith: Horses — “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/But not mine . . .” And she turns Van Morrison’s “Gloria” into liturgy. She’s wrestling with these demons — Catholicism in her case. Right the way through to Wave, where she’s talking to the pope.

The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God. Both recognize the pivot, that God is at the center of the jaunt. So the blues, on one hand — running away; gospel, the Mighty Clouds of Joy — running towards. And later you came to analyze it and figure it out.

The blues are like the Psalms of David. Here was this character, living in a cave, whose outbursts were as much criticism as praise. There’s David singing, “Oh, God — where are you when I need you?/You call yourself God?” And you go, this is the blues.

I’ve sometimes expressed dismay about Bono’s sense of the ribald. This interview helps me understand it better. Thanks to Wenner for sharing his celebrity access with the rest of us, and for engaging Bono on a topic that’s always sure to satisfy those of us who love both U2 and God.

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Yes, Newsweek missed the Church Ladies

NewsweekOprahFor the past week or so, something kept bothering me about the Newsweek cover story titled “How Women Lead.”

I mean, I survived reading the thing (it is soooooo neo-People magazine) and I even marked it up a bit. Then I tossed it on my desk and it has been there ever since, staring at me. If you want to see the basic, non-ghostly holes poked in it, I suggest that you turn to Myrna Blyth’s “Girly Gobbledygook” column at National Review Online.

But I decided pretty quick that there wasn’t much to write about, looking at “How Women Lead” from a GetReligion point of view.

Then somebody sent me a reminder about the recent Christine Rosen “Houses of Worship” essay in The Wall Street Journal. That’s the one with this punchy, even pushy headline: “Church Ladies — Women dominate America’s pews. Is that a problem?” Here is the opening of that essay:

This fall, the entering class of rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative institution, is 34% female. At Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, women are nearly half the student body. At many Protestant seminaries, women pastoral students now outnumber men, and between 1983 and 2000 the number of women who identified themselves as clergy tripled. It seems that Catholic scholar Leon Podles’s prediction of a few years ago, that “the Protestant clergy will be a characteristically female occupation, like nursing, within a generation,” may soon prove true.

Pulpits aren’t the only places that women dominate. According to a recent survey, the typical U.S. congregation is 61% female. Women are also the force behind most lay organizations and volunteer activities and make up the majority of church employees.

Bingo. Now I knew what was bugging me about that shallow Newsweek cover story. Somehow, the team that produced it forgot about the Church Ladies and the tremendous impact that women are having on modern sanctuaries.

This is a big news story. Some social critics will even say that this rise in female power is directly linked to at least three major Godbeat stories — the lack of men in pews, the decline of the liberal mainline and the rise (sort of, the stats suggest more like a plateau) of the new conservative mainstream. 0785260382

Here is what that argument sounds like, with Rosen riffing on the work of David Murrow, author of the book Why Men Hate Going to Church.

Interestingly, Mr. Murrow notes that, among the major Christian denominations, it is the mainline churches that suffer the largest gender gaps in church attendance. These churches, still pilloried by feminists for their patriarchal pretensions, have in fact become spiritual sorority houses. It is the more conservative denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, that have the most even ratios. In these more traditional churches, many of which do not have female clergy, parishioners hear less about cooperation and feel-good spirituality and more about spiritual rigor and the competition to win souls. Churches that embrace male leadership, including the Roman Catholic Church, remain the largest in the country, and the Mormon Church, which also does not have female clergy, is the fastest-growing.

(Personal note: Before people start leaving comments on this, let me confess that my family worships in an Eastern Orthodox parish, the most ancient of churches and one in which women can be saints, theologians, professors, iconographers, apologists and all kinds of things, but not priests.)

The power of religion does show up — very briefly — in the Newsweek mini-profile of Brigadier General Sheila Baxter. I had noticed this reference, with its strong faith language, but this theme had really not been woven into the piece. Baxter testifies:

The other thing that is very important is my spiritual background. I received my calling in the ministry in 1988 when I was stationed in Germany. The Lord called me through a dream. It was 2 in the morning and I jumped up out of the bed. I heard his voice clearly. The next day I talked to my pastor and he put me into a training program. I was licensed with the Church of God in Christ. When I retire, I plan to go to seminary and pursue a divinity degree.

However, note that the Church of God in Christ is a very conservative denomination, in terms of its culture and social views. It ordains women, but this is not a flock that most people would put on the left side of the sanctuary when it comes to moral issues and basic doctrine. This is not the United Church of Christ.

No, I think that the most important piece of Godtalk in the Newsweek package, the one most closely linked to the skyrocketing statistics about women in pews and mainline pulpits, can be found in the profile of the Rt. Rev. Oprah Winfrey.

Come to think of it, this paragraph is the closest thing this cover package offered to a thesis statement. Maybe there is a ghost in there after all.

And behold, Oprah said:

All the women leaders I have met led with a greater sense of intuition than men. I am almost completely intuitive. The only time I’ve made a bad business decision is when I didn’t follow my instinct. My favorite phrase is: “Let me pray on it.” Sometimes I literally do pray, but sometimes I just wait to see if I wake up and feel the same way in the morning.

And millions of Americans said: “Amen.”

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Face it, the Miers nomination is …

Toast btIn a city that is already buzzing with gossip, it takes a really hot story to crank the chatter up another notch. Well, the latest Washington Post twist in the saga of Harriet Miers and God certainly did that. Here’s the bottom line in reporter Jo Becker’s fine story (which deserved much better headlines): Bush’s legal sidekick, while serving as president of the Texas Bar Association, told elite female audiences that she backed what is essentially a libertarian position on abortion.

That will be very hard to spin in Colorado Springs. Thus, Becker reports:

Activists on both sides of the abortion debate said that Miers’s speech … appears to contradict a position she took just four years earlier, when she was running for the Dallas City Council. Then, she told activists at the Texans for Life Coalition she personally believed that abortion was murder and filled out a questionnaire for an antiabortion group in which she checked a box pledging to “actively support” a constitutional amendment banning abortions except to save a woman’s life.

Former NARAL Pro-Choice America president Kate Michelman said the right to self-determination is at the heart of the case law granting a woman’s right to an abortion.

“If you take what she said at face value, you would conclude that she recognizes the right of a woman to choose an abortion as a matter of self-determination,” Michelman said. “She seems to be a woman who over time is pulled in different directions, as many of us are, as she searched for answers.”

Journalists will want to note that the website package includes links to the two key speech texts, both in PDF, here and here. I would imagine that many, many copies of these texts are being printed out in several Christian right offices today, and we can expect MSM stories tomorrow on reactions from all of the usual zip codes.

Unless, of course, somebody you know where leaks you know what about you know who.

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Fred Phelps in the European news

fred phelpsOh to be back in London right now. Or even Paris.

Europe’s Sky News is reporting an undercover “investigation” on highly controversial religious leader Fred Phelps. With reporting like this in Europe on religion in America, Europeans will be loving us about as much the Israelis appreciated their Roman rulers. The problem in this case is that you can’t really fault the Sky News report for overly hyping the basic facts in the story.

A peek at Phelps’ website makes the Sky report seem tame, and his Wikipedia article confirms the belief system portrayed in the article, which follows:

The Sky Report has secretly filmed one of America’s most controversial Christian ministers praising the London bombings.

Fred Phelps says that terrorist outrages and natural disasters such as Hurricane Rita are examples of God’s wrath against countries such as America and Britain for tolerating homosexuals and homosexuality.

Fred Phelps, who set up the controversial Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, told our undercover reporter about the attacks, which killed 52 people:

“Oh I am so thankful that happened. My only regret is that they didn’t kill about [a] million of them. England deserves that kind of punishment, as does this country (America)”.

This is just great. Phelps and his 150 followers (about 90 percent are related to him in one way or another) are now the face of American fundamentalism (a much-abused term, I might add). But according to Wikipedia, even fundamentalists don’t like this guy.

And it gets worse:

Phelps made news just last month when the Daily Telegraph reported that the Swedish royal family were consulting lawyers after discovering that he had made outrageous claims about their sexuality on the internet.

Several members of the Westboro Baptist Church congregation were planning to visit Sweden — placards in hand — ready to spread their message that Sweden is, “a land of sodomy, bestiality and incest”.

I remember how The Washington Post Magazine handled a profile of perennial candidate Lyndon Larouche a year ago. Rather than hyping the craziness of Larouche and his campaigns, it took a very thorough look at the organization and showed it for what it is and how dangerous it can be.

Sky News is doing us all a disfavor in this report. Sure, Phelps has made outrageous comments, but he by no means represents any serious group of Christians or Americans. While you can’t ignore people like this, because there is an obvious news angle for the European broadcasters, this type of reporting does not qualify as quality journalism.

(Note: my criticism in this piece is on the media coverage, not Phelps, who we’ve written about here and here. People can say what they want to say, in my humble opinion, so try to keep comments focused on the Sky News report, not Phelps and his group.)

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An evangelist visits the Naval Academy

usnavalI ran into a minister the other day over at the Naval Academy, a man I’ve known for about 10 years. He was leading a really interesting project, one directly linked to a topic that comes up often on this blog — offensive free speech.

His goal, along with about 50 of his friends, was to do some one-on-one evangelism on the campus, attempting to win friends and influence people. In some cases, he even hoped he could convince people to change their religious beliefs and join his cause.

More than anything else, he hoped to change the hearts and minds of the leaders of the institution so that the leaders could then help change the hearts and generations of midshipmen to come.

It was, pure and simple, a case of religious activists offering a public witness for their faith and their own beliefs, hoping they could win some converts.

At first, academy officials planned to have this evangelist and his followers arrested if they entered the academy grounds and attempted offensive speech with visitors, staff, faculty and the students. After all, the activists were asking for changes in military policies. They were pushing the envelope.

No, this evangelist was not linked to the dangerous work of people like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell — although he worked for both of those men a decade or so ago.

This was the Rev. Mel White, once an evangelical superstar and now one of the nation’s most articulate gay-rights leaders. He had come to the academy with about 50 other gay-rights activists to try to convince campus leaders to reject the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies that require gays, lesbians and bisexuals to be silent about their beliefs and sexual orientation. This was one of the Equality Ride protests organized by Soulforce, which is based in Lynchburg, Va. The main organizer of this rally was Jacob Reitan.

The Washington Post led the rather low-key media stampede that surrounded the event, producing some nice quiet photo opportunities during the misty day before a football weekend on the Annapolis campus. Here is a lengthy chunk of reporter Ray Rivera’s main report:

The protesters wore bright pastel t-shirts printed with the words, “Equality Ride,” which organizers have dubbed the roving protest. The Naval Academy was the second stop in what organizers hope will be a nationwide bus tour to visit college campuses where homosexuality is either prohibited or discouraged.The rally began with a few tense moments. The protesters, mostly students from the Washington area, held hands forming a line along the brick wall outside the academy’s main gate. After a brief news conference, they walked single file through the gate. Reitan was first and, met by two Marine guards, he gave his name and showed his driver’s license. …

(After) a few moments of discussion at the gate today, the guards let Reitan and the rest through. A horde of television cameras and reporters followed close behind. Academy officials insist they did not back down from the arrest threat but that organizers agreed to their terms.

“They came to the gate, they were asked what their intention was and they said they were there as private citizens, and that’s when the decision was made to the let them aboard,” said Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, an academy spokesman.

I ran into White later, while he was working the crowds in the academy visitor’s center and bookstore. He was glad that officials backed down and let people talk. He was very pleased with the heavy media turnout, of course.

At some point, government officials have to realize that people have a right to talk to one another and even to argue and disagree, he said. This doesn’t mean that people — on the right or the left — need to be loud or rude. If you start talking to someone about religion and they don’t want to talk, then you just say, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you” and walk away, said White.

“It’s like all the people who want to censor television,” he said. “You keep trying to tell people like that, ‘Don’t censor us. Just change the channel.’ That’s what this is all about, too. We just want to talk to people and let them know what we think. What’s so scary about that?”

Precisely. The problem, of course, is that one person’s free speech is another’s evangelism or even worse — proselytizing. This is why it’s hard to write speech codes without affecting the left as well as the right.navy chapel int

Rather than talk about something really dangerous — like sex (the Naval Academy) or salvation (the Air Force Academy) — let’s look at another issue. Consider this a parable.

Let’s say some people in authority at a military academy, like teachers or deans, decide to use their clout to change hearts and minds about the environment. Let’s say they show movies about the environment and use standard academy media, bulletin boards and email to publicize the films. Let’s say that, on their own time, they organize meetings — with equal standing to other voluntary assemblies on campus — to discuss environmental issues. Let’s even say that they talk with students about environmental issues and urge students to talk with one another. Perhaps, when students express interest, they even urge students to change their beliefs about environmental issues.

So far so good. Right?

But let’s say that these officials go further and require students to attend these sessions. Let’s say they test students to make sure they have the right beliefs. Let’s say that they even push students to talk during off hours on campus and refuse to back away when students decline to dialogue.

That would be wrong. Right? You bet it would. That kind of behavior is bad — on the left or the right. I would even say it’s wrong in newsrooms.

But what is wrong with talking? What is wrong with free speech and debates about public issues? What’s wrong with people changing their minds on topics, after debates and dialogues in which they are free to take part or to walk away?

I’m glad that White and his associates were allowed to visit the Naval Academy. I don’t think it would have hurt for them to talk to students, if the students had the freedom to walk away. Soulforce teams are planning to visit a number of Christian college campuses later this year. I hope that honest conversations and forums can be held during those visits, without people on either side turning things into tense media events. I hope the press quotes people on both sides accurately.

Free speech is a messy thing and so is religious liberty. But it beats all the other alternatives.

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Coven and state clash, yet again

ALTAR2Maybe it’s just my church-state studies background, but this case about Wicca and public prayer strikes me as a major story and a sign of things to come. We may have heard the last of a witch named Cynthia Simpson at the U.S. Supreme Court, but the splintering of the old Judeo-Christian (and now Islamic) civil religion will continue. Here’s the lead from the Richmond Times-Dispatch story, the only MSM coverage that really mattered.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal yesterday from the Wiccan priestess who was excluded from giving the opening prayer at meetings of the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors. Cynthia Simpson, who calls herself a witch as do others of the Wiccan faith, sued because the county limits its list of clergy invited to pray at meetings to those of Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions.

And I loved this final detail:

Simpson is now studying for a master’s degree in divinity at a Pennsylvania seminary and hopes to be ordained in the Unitarian Universalist Church. She said that church’s beliefs are compatible with the Wiccan faith, which is based on unity with the Earth and the idea that humanity and all things are part of the deity.

A note to newcomers on the religion beat — I heard about this case (more than once, in fact) through journalists operating on the Baptist left. If you care about religious liberties issues, it pays to read Associated Baptist Press on the left and Baptist Press on the right.

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McCain and religion

mccainIt’s never too early to start talking about the next presidential election. The word on the street is that Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is the odds-on favorite for the Democrats while Sen. John McCain is the GOP’s likely choice. Considering we haven’t had a president elected directly from the Senate since JFK, a McCain vs. Clinton 2008 contest seems a bit far-fetched. There is too much time, too many variables and too many candidates for anyone to know for sure.

MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman writes that McCain is attempting to position himself as the reporter’s dream president:

McCain, a Republican from Arizona widely considered to be a good bet to run for president in 2008, gave a glimpse of his strategy for winning over the media during the [American Magazine Conference].

He drew sharp differences with President Bush’s press policies, and said he admired both President Kennedy’s and President Reagan’s approaches. McCain stressed that he favored a system similar to that of Kennedy, in which the media were kept in the loop in a cordial, not contentious, relationship.

Of course, candidates always say that sort of stuff to journalists when they’re gearing up for a presidential run — and McCain is one of the savviest politicians around. He has a reputation for being an office holder who has never met a microphone to television camera that he didn’t like. Over the years, he has honed his skills on news programs dealing with subjects ranging from Vietnam veterans and the invasion of Iraq to family values and even the Arizona Diamondbacks’ World Series victory in 2001.

It’s nice to know that McCain will cozy up tight with reporters, shooting craps and portraying himself as the average Joe. My big question is, How will McCain play out on issues regarding religion? He isn’t exactly know for being all that close to leaders of the Religious Right, but that can change, as we saw with President Bush.

As an adept politician, McCain will do what is needed to gain support. I predict that we will see more than a handful of stories regarding McCain’s ability to court the voting bloc commonly credited with delivering Bush his second term.

We have already seen Clinton take a shot at “getting religion” (sorry Doug), but what have we seen from McCain so far?

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Adulterers, deadbeats and proselytizers

KidmanCruiseI know it’s like choosing a pack of nacho-flavored Slim Jims and two cans of Mountain Dew for breakfast, but I often start reading the Sunday newspaper with Parade magazine. The “I hit rock bottom before I learned to believe in myself again” cover stories, the earnest teenagers of Fresh Voices, the fawning celebrity profiles of Jim Brady’s In Step With — all make for a potent brew of hathos and glurge.

As Catherine Seipp wrote for Salon in 1997, Parade is — for some of us, at least — an irresistible guilty pleasure.

The most hathotic of Parade‘s hathos-laden pages, though, is Walter Scott’s Personality Parade, which Edward Klein has written since 1991. Klein is best known, lately, for his voyeuristic biography of Hillary Clinton.

In this morning’s edition of Parade, Klein endorses the folk wisdom that one must never discuss God with an eye toward changing anyone’s mind. He uses what tmatt has often called “the p word,” which these days sounds like a synonym for brainwashing. The occasion for this wisdom comes from reader Betty F. of Houston, who writes with the socially urgent question of whether Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban are romantically involved. Klein responds:

Sorry, but there’s no scoop. Fellow Aussies Kidman, 38, and Urban, 37, say they’re “just friends” who enjoy each other’s company. Just friends or not, Urban — voted Top Male Vocalist at this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards — is an improvement over some of Kidman’s past hookups: He’s never been married, never fathered a child out wedlock and never proselytized his religious beliefs.

A note to believers of all types: Next time you’re inclined to discuss why you believe your faith is true, remember that such behavior places you in the company of that serially married Scientologist, Tom Cruise, and deadbeat dads. Thanks for the guidance, Mr. Klein.

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