Christ-haunted GQ

creationfest.jpgGQ + CCM = Laff riot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one has doubts about one’s doubts.

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Constantine, faith, reality and politics

Constantine_1One of the classes I teach at Palm Beach Atlantic University is called “Exegete the Culture” and it focuses on the religious content of popular culture and the influence of mass media on the church. The class is built on the concept of the “signal,” defined as a single piece of popular culture that addresses a topic of eternal interest to people of faith.

Once you have found a signal that is of interest to the people you are trying to reach, the next step is to figure out what the creator of the signal was actually trying to say. I call this “finding the secular subject.” Once you have found this big-button topic, you can move on to applying the teachings of your faith to that same subject.

The problem, of course, is that it is often hard to find out precisely what some of the artists of popular culture are trying to say. Often, it seems that they do not know. I mean, “knowing” is such an old-fashioned concept, you know? Also, some artists are not interested in telling potential ticket buyers what the signal is all about. In the end, it is often hard to find interviews with the artists in which they clearly express what they are thinking.

But it’s fun to hunt. More ministers need to try doing this, before stepping into pulpits and unloading.

I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s hard for students to stop and think about the contents of their entertainment. It’s just a movie. Right? It’s just a TV show. It’s just a song. Why ruin it by taking it so seriously? This stuff doesn’t affect us. Right?

At the moment, many of my students are interested in Constantine, the latest franchise to spin off from the world of comic books. It’s a fable about heaven, hell, angels, demons, relics, rites and a shotgun shaped like a cross. I wrote about this recently for Scripps Howard. The lead on that column: Hell looks really cool, when seen through a Hollywood lens.

I was amazed at the degree to which some of the writers and artists were interested in the spiritual content of their film, but not anxious to address the central question: What were you trying to say? Then again, perhaps they knew that what they were trying to sell might now be all that popular in certain American zip codes. This is part of a larger story that we have tried to follow here at GetReligion, even before the fall of Alfie and the rise of The Incredibles.

What do I mean? Check out the end of this New York Times interview with actress Tilda Swinton, who plays the gender-neutral angel Gabriel in Constantine. The angel goes insane. Why? Perhaps he/she was lashing out at the reality-based community?

Hang on, this gets complicated.

Gabriel is not a baddy. He becomes insane because he starts to think that if you wrap yourself in God’s clothes you can do anything you want, and it ain’t true. There is something insane about a lack of doubt. Doubt, to me anyway, is what makes you human, and without doubt even the righteous lose their grip not only on reality but also on their humanity. The idea that Gabriel takes things into his own hands, decides that the way to get the most souls into heaven is to torch the place, is extremely modern.

Q. How so?

In that the attitude of righteousness is a reason for pretty much anything now. What’s shocking is how easily that’s peddled today. It’s like Gabriel’s rationale. I don’t remember the exact lines, but it’s essentially, “My job is to get as many souls as possible to heaven, and I have noticed that you are at your most spiritually open when the place is in flames, so I’m going to torch the joint.” It’s a beautiful piece of reasoning, and it’s a righteous argument, but it’s terrifying.

Q. Religious absolutism can be found in many places.

True, there is all sorts of religious extremism all over the place, but the reason for this partly has to do with the fascist attitudes and language of absolutism coming from Washington. It’s challenging for people outside of America that Bush was re-elected. It means we’re all going to have to work a lot harder to understand what so many more Americans than we thought really want. It’s an identity shift in our minds about America and maybe for many Americans as well.

Q. And you think this film will resonate along those lines? . . .

I don’t think there is any way that it won’t. Actually, there were a couple of moments in my speeches that were more politically on the nose, and they were cut, and I’m actually glad they were. We don’t want to date the film, but also we don’t want to alienate people who need to do new thinking about this. We’re not only preaching to the converted, but we also want to speak to those people who think they know what righteousness is.

Who says Hollywood stars are not interested in evangelism?

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Ghost in the British white flight story?

big_ben.jpgIt was one of the most interesting stories in Great Britain this last week.

No, no, no, not that story.

Not even this one.

I’m talking about that Migrationwatch UK report containing the giant religion ghost that the MSM over there did not want to deal with (unless I am missing something with my online searches).

Here is the full text of a Nic Cecil story in The Sun. Read it all, then we can play spot the ghost.

Tens of thousands of white families are pouring out of UK cities as immigrants move in, a controversial new report claims. The exodus is creating an increasingly divided society, says the study for independent think-tank Migrationwatch UK.

It found that 600,000 more people left London for the regions between 1993-2002 than arrived in the capital from elsewhere in Britain. Those moving out were believed to be mainly white. In the same decade, the number of immigrants arriving in London went up by 726,000.

Migrationwatch said there were similar changes in Manchester and Birmingham. Chairman Sir Andrew Green said: “The development of increasingly parallel societies in some of our major cities is extremely undesirable. Government immigration policy is exacerbating this trend.”

The report follows a study for the Greater London Authority last year which showed the proportion of whites in London fell by almost eight per cent in the 1990s.

Want another clue? Here is a BBC report on the same subject. What’s missing in this scenario? The ghost is not the whole story, but it is certainly part of the story.

Spot the ghost?

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See you later, alligator?

popepraying.jpgThe Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights issued a press release yesterday denouncing a “vile column” distributed by the Universal Press Syndicate titled “Death for the Pope.”

The document contained a statement by League President William Donahue. The “kindest thing” that could be said of the columnist, opined Donohue, “is that he’s gone off the deep end”:

“It matters not a whit that he calls the pope ‘a major historical figure,’ because even the most inveterate anti-Catholic must acknowledge as much. Indeed, even the biggest Catholic basher in the world is not likely to write, ‘So, what is wrong with praying for his death?’ If you have to ask, sir, then you are beyond hope.”

So who was this heretic who openly pined for the pope’s death? Hans Küng? Frances Kissling? James Carroll? Gary Wills? Try William F. Buckley Jr.

Yes that William F. Buckley Jr. In his syndicated column (which one reader sent to me with a note that read “Dude, this column has GetReligion post written all over it”), Buckley began, “At church on Sunday the congregation was asked to pray for the recovery of the pope. I have abstained from doing so. I hope that he will not recover.”

Buckley did quite a bit of throat-clearing before he got around to explaining why he would not join in the entreaties for the pope’s recovery:

[T]he pope almost died the day that he was taken to the hospital. “We got him by a breath,” one medico leaked the news, and another said, “If he had come in 10 minutes later, he would have been gone.”

The temptation is, always, to pray for the continuation of the life of anyone who wants to keep on living. The pope is one of these. In the past, he recorded that he did not plan ever to abdicate, that he would die on the papal throne.

Buckley called it “presumptuous” to suppose that John Paul’s decision not to abdicate was “motivated by vainglory” and then proceeded to do just that:

What exactly he had in mind we do not know, but can reasonably assume that he was asserting pride in physical fortitude, consistent with his days as a mountain climber and a skier. Perhaps there is an element of vanity there.

“We must have great faith in the pope. He knows what to do,” said the Vatican secretary of state. Buckley rejoined,

What to do includes clinging to the papacy as a full-time cripple, if medicine, which arrested death by only 10 minutes, can arrest death again for weeks and even months. But the progressive deterioration in the pope’s health over the last several years confirms that there are yet things medical science can’t do, and these include giving the pope the physical strength to coordinate and to use his voice intelligibly.

“So,” the old polemicist concluded, “what is wrong with praying for his death? For relief from his manifest sufferings? And for the opportunity to pay honor to his legacy by turning to the responsibility of electing a successor to get on with John Paul’s work?”

An interesting discussion of this column can be found in the comments threads of Amy Welborn’s Open Book. One reader called Buckley’s proposal the “Euthanasian Prayer.” Welborn herself has refrained from comment except in one headline: “Pope to Buckley: ‘Suffer this.’”

I was not surprised that Buckley wrote this column or that it generated a lot of debate. Buckley has been dropping broad hints lately that old age is closing in on him. This has affected the way he thinks about this world and whatever comes next — though I argued in my recent Books & Culture appreciation that this shift has been a long time coming.

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Ghost — sort of — in the SI swimsuit show

godgirl2.jpgFirst things first. Readers need to know that the three males involved in editorial work here at GetReligion decided that this was the best photo to accompany this post. It was the most modest photo and it was the wackiest one, as well.

I was going to say that the brief television career — as far as we know — of the born-again swimsuit superstar Shannon Hughes was an example of a reality-TV-era story that contained a religion ghost. Then I realized it wasn’t really a ghost. The religion angle is right there for all to see, especially in reporter Ed Bark’s rather restrained entertainment feature in The Dallas Morning News.

Here’s the basic plot. Hughes played the coveted role of Bible Belt babe on NBC’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search series. This was your basic “dream job” contest. Think The Apprentice with sun and way, way fewer clothes. Hughes lost out to a lass from Las Vegas. And that religion angle?

Ms. Hughes, a 2003 graduate of the University of Texas at Dallas, had openly portrayed herself as a moral but free-spirited Christian throughout Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search. During the opening part of last week’s final Bora Bora photo shoot, she agreeably wore only a lei and micro bikini pants.

“You can still be a sexy Christian. I don’t think God’s gonna be against that,” Ms. Hughes said memorably.

She was philosophical during Wednesday’s phone interview. “Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “God just has better things for me ahead. Maybe he just thinks I can handle this disappointment better.”

So there you go.

After thinking this over for a few minutes, I wondered if there isn’t a really good Los Angeles Times Magazine cover story hiding in all of this. Last year, one of my best students down here at Palm Beach Atlantic University briefly flirted with the idea of accepting an invitation — she is an athlete, journalist, model and actress — to leap into the last round of competition to join a Survivor cast. She took a pass.

We talked about it and came to one conclusion: Reality television executives must love the idea of casting the innocent Christian who gets to look strange and, if the producers play their cards right, slides into temptation with plot-friendly results. I don’t watch these shows much, but I have read enough to know that this is an important feature in many post-Real World shows. There has to be demographic research behind this trend.

Meanwhile, what’s up with Shannon’s boots?

P.S. Here is a Baptist Press update on the Christian couple in the new Amazing Race on CBS. Anyone out there have a favorite religious believer in a reality TV role?

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The Shanley debate

shanley.jpgThe major dailies published appropriately subdued stories earlier this week about the conviction of the Rev. Paul Shanley on charges of raping a Sunday-school student during the 1980s.

These paragraphs by Pam Belluck of The New York Times cover the details mentioned in most other stories:

As the verdict was read, Mr. Shanley stood straight and betrayed little emotion. His accuser, who spoke publicly about his accusations over the last three years but asked news organizations not to name him during the trial, stood in the first row, rocking back and forth with tears in his eyes and a smile on his face.

Now a 27-year-old firefighter, the accuser testified that Mr. Shanley would pull him out of Christian doctrine class beginning when he was 6 years old, and would orally and digitally rape him in the bathroom, the pews, the confessional and the rectory of St. Jean’s Parish in Newton.

Mr. Shanley’s lawyer, Frank Mondano, had argued that what Mr. Shanley was accused of was logistically impossible given the layout and crowded nature of the church on Sunday mornings. Mr. Mondano also argued that the accuser had concocted the charges in order to prevail in his civil suit against the church.

Shanley’s conviction made me aware of an amazing package of articles I missed when they appeared in the Jan. 14 edition of the National Catholic Reporter. The Reporter published an essay by Sister Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry, who worked with Shanley in the early years of gay activism within American Catholicism.

Gramick confesses that she was nervous about seeing Shanley again after nearly 20 years, then describes how some of her anxieties diminished:

My anxiety was somewhat allayed as I lunched with Terry [Shanley's niece] in the mall near the county jail. She believes her uncle, who has been like a father to her, is innocent. The four individuals who have brought indictments against Paul all base their claims on repressed memories, a concept regarded with skepticism by leading mental health professionals. Terry believes there is not sufficient evidence to convict her uncle. Furthermore, her uncle told her he had never raped a child or forced anyone to engage in sexual acts, and he would not lie to her. If he were guilty, would he have given himself up to the district attorney’s office?

Both Gramick and David France, in his article “The jury should still be out on Paul Shanley,” object to media reports that describe Shanley as helping to found the North American Man-Boy Love Association.

Gramick writes:

The allegation is based on a 1978 article, which reported that Paul spoke at a conference about the legal aspects of sex between men and teenage boys. The conference was not a meeting of the association, which did not exist at the time. Paul was only one of many speakers, including lawyers, psychologists, ethicists and activists. The article did not state that Paul advocated man-boy sexual relations. In fact, his file contains written testimony to the contrary. He does not condone the sexual seduction of children. After the conference, some participants decided to form a Man-Boy Love Association at a caucus Paul did not attend.

And France writes:

So why is he called the most serious pedophile priest ever to surface in the crisis? Partly because of his alleged NAMBLA link, but in fact, he was never a member of NAMBLA, nor did he ever attend a NAMBLA meeting. His crime was to attend — along with other clergy — a conference from which a caucus spun into the North American Man/Boy Love Association. He appeared, in fact, to idealize men just barely over the consent age — and, if they were vulnerable enough, to take advantage of them.

Shanley was a hero [for his gay-rights activism] and a predator, but perhaps not a criminal. That is the unusual set of facts we know so far.

Maureen Orth, who wrote a profile of Shanley in the June 2002 Vanity Fair, takes apart Gramick’s essay:

Sr. Jeannine Gramick obviously has never read the 1,600-plus pages of the Boston archdiocese’s file on Paul Shanley. I have. Had she done so before taking up his cause, she would have seen that there were complaints about Shanley’s inappropriate behavior toward minor boys going back nearly 40 years and that the diocesan-appointed psychiatrist who finally examined him in 1994 concluded, “Fr. Shanley is so personally damaged that his pathology is beyond repair.”

. . . Sr. Jeannine mentions that it is a tragedy that so much money the church could be spending for the poor instead has to go to paying off victims. I agree it would be ideal to spend the money in other ways, but where was the hierarchy’s vigilance and concern that should have occurred throughout the years but did not? Where was its moral center? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that when someone commits a transgression against another, justice requires that the harm be repaired and the injuries be compensated. For someone like Sr. Jeannine to make fatuous statements about Paul Shanley’s presumed innocence without a real knowledge of his actions — or of the church’s doing absolutely nothing to stop him for over four decades — is not only sad, it is shocking. Her charity is glaringly misplaced.

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Dawn of the deed: Was the mistake fatal?

cartoonDawn.jpgMy first full-time job in journalism was on the copy desk at a daily in Champaign, Ill., so I have been on the other side the editing process. I would like to make three comments about the Dawn Eden affair, based on what we know so far. I have never met Dawn (the logo is from her blog) and I hope we can discuss this sooner, rather than later.

1. In the newspapers where I have worked, the changes she made would have been considered on the pushy side, but not fatal. They are right at the point where you should clear them with an editor, or the reporter, if you can. No way you get fired for this stuff. The blogging on company time issue is something else — a whole new source of tension between journalists and their bosses.

Of course, we are talking about abortion. There is a reason that almost all of the media-bias studies end up returning to questions about abortion coverage.

I could offer loads of case studies here. I once had the end cut off a story — I turned it in short, so a trim would not be needed — because the final quote was from a priest active in AIDS ministry. That was fine, but he linked his stand on that issue with his high-profile work as pro-life activist. This was a consistent, culture-of-life priest who was taking a controversial stand on two issues that he believed were connected by an ethic of life.

I warned the city editor at the Rocky Mountain News that someone in the editing process would be offended and try to cut that final quote. He said I was being paranoid. Then someone cut it off, without putting their initials on the page as required. Nothing was said, except that the city editor knew I had predicted it. That made him more sensitive to the issue.

2. During my religion-beat reporting days, I had copy editors add all kinds of things to my stories — often thinking they were correcting something. More than once, they edited in errors.

Here is an example. In a very sensitive story on Mormon theology, I quoted a leaked audiotape of the secret rites in Mormon temples. In an older version of the rite, a worshipper would vow to “suffer his life to be taken” for revealing temple secrets. A copy editor thought that sounded stuffy and changed it to say that Mormons “vowed to commit suicide.” Needless to say, we received more than a few calls from Mormons who disagreed with “my” interpretation of their theology. No punishment for the copy editor, however.

3. This is one case in which it really helps to remember that the New York Post is not a culturally conservative newspaper. It is a Libertarian newspaper. Once again, I think we are seeing evidence of the massive war still to come in the GOP in the next four years, as the moral and cultural conservatives — many of whom are old-fashioned Democrats — square off with the hard-core moral Libertarians. Jeremy can shed some light on this, I am sure, because he is a Catholic who works in one of the various Libertarian sanctuaries.

So Dawn Eden was the wrong brand of conservative. I always wondered: Why did the Post hate Bill Clinton so much? He seemed like their kind of guy, once you veered into the moral issues.

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Darkness at Dawn

dawneden.jpgThe New York Observer this week ran a major cover story on l’affaire Eden, the firing of headline gal and copyeditor Dawn Eden by the New York Post for her pro-life edits of a piece on in-vitro fertilization.

The Post brass do not come out terribly well in this story. I mean when this — “Some people already think the Post is conservative, and we don’t need New York readers also thinking it’s a Christian paper and that there are Christians working there” — is a quote from a sympathetic voice at the Post, well, you just know we’re in for the management-as-weasels treatment.

Eden explains why she made the edits to the story about women diagnosed with terminal cancer who turn to IVF to have babies:

“I got choked up,” Ms. Eden said. “How are people going to ever understand the complex issues involved here, if the story they’re reading reduces it to ‘Oh, isn’t this nice? We can just make lots of embryos and not worry about whether they live or die.’”

So she changed things. To the sentence “Experts have ethical qualms about this ‘Russian roulette’ path to parenthood,” Eden added, “which, when in-vitro fertilization is involved, routinely results in the destruction of embryos.” Where the author had written about the implantation of three embryos in which “two took,” Eden amended to, “One died. Two took.”

At the time, the Observer reports, Eden thought “she was performing a service for the reader, since she believed that the Post had been ‘notoriously oblivious’ to the nuances involving embryonic life.” Since the incident, she has decided that “my first loyalty should have been to my employer.”

The author of the Post article in question, Susan Edelman, reportedly responded to Eden’s apology thus: “Dawn You are the most unprofessional journalist I have ever encountered in all my years in this business. A disgrace. Sue Edelman.”

On her own website, Eden maintains that she did not work her own pro-life views into the article she edited: “To say that I was working my own views into the piece implies that the information I added was untrue.” I know what she’s getting at, but, given the thrust of the whole profile, I don’t think that’s the conclusion readers would be inclined to draw.

I would get into my own fun-with-copyeditors experiences here, but Mattingly has promised to do so later in the day. So I’ll hold a few stories for the comments threads.

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