The Culture Beat

November 23, 2009

Home Video: Star Trek (part. 1)

Filed under: Music — Alex @ 2:12 am

Now that J. J. Abrams’ successful relaunch of the venerable sci-fi franchise has come to home video, let’s take a quick look at both its achievement and where it fell short. During last year’s theatrical release I posted two times on my reaction to the film. The first was a long and passionate diatribe how the film’s narrative itself was a seeming disposal of everything we knew about Captain Kirk and his crew–by having the antagonist change history at the moment of Kirk’s birth, it created a new timeline effectively changing the galactic status quo, and, to my mind, nullifying the great stories we loved about the series. The second took into account one of the screenwriter’s statements that they weren’t eliminating the original series’ history, simply using concepts from quantum physics to create an alternate reality where the events of the movie and the original timeline exist in separate universes. I understood that this is simply a means for the revived concept to not be obligated to tiptoe around sacred moments in continuity thus freeing future screenplays to tell new stories on a blank canvas. I can live with that–it’s letting us have our Vulcan and blowing it up too.

That event alone changes the dynamic of the Vulcan civilization, creating new possibilities for storytelling with the remnant displaced population. But the film stayed true enough to the familiar world created by Gene Roddenberry so that we can enjoy the best of both universes. Looking back on the movie’s plot, it’s clear that the film got right what it needed to–the core characters of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the crew. The first theatrical film of the franchise, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, showed us the dismal results when characters are not true to themselves–forced dramatics and unbelievable behavior. Abrams’ young new cast did the more difficult deed of making us believe these are the same characters we knew only from the original actors’ performances, surely a praiseworthy achievement.

The special effects and production design are worthy of the bright shiny future the series always held before us, but which Paramount rarely funded adequately, keeping most of the the films mid-range in budget. The new film’s scope and scale fit the soap operatic nature of Star Trek.

Michael Giacchino’s rousing score reminds me again how much this young composer (Lost, The Incredibles, Up, etc.) is filling the movie score space left by John Williams’ reduced work load. It’s just as merrily bombastic and poignant in places as the original series’ and the Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner’s classic film scores

Now, what still doesn’t work in my estimation: The plot is basically a device to re-launch a next generation of the original crew, with villain Nero, a poor man’s Khan, or any other of the cinematic adversaries who have sat in a captain’s chair plotting against Kirk. His revenge motive seems forced and his time travel conceit allows him to be wherever and whenever he needs to be to force the newly acquainted crew members to work together. I hope future movies find a way to avoid having a single snarling baddie in a ship, which, though it makes for great space battles, already looks hackneyed. Many of the best Trek stories usually were about something other than Kirk ordering “fire!” at his opponent’s vessel.

I still have problems believing that the new Kirk bounced from cadet to captain in about three days of the movie’s story time. I know there was the goal of swiftly getting him in the chair, but realistically, Starfleet has sown the seeds of dismay and discontent amongst their command level officers who see this early twenty-something bouncing in barely paying his dues and getting a genius grant for his potential. At least it wasn’t the Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking of production design, the director bragged about getting the use of a brewery to serve as the engine room set that allowed the filmmakers to finally demonstrate the scale of the ship. The problem is, by announcing this, I’ve never been able to see it as anything other than what it is, a factory full of pipes and big tanks of beer–it really doesn’t seem to fit into a star ship. But I’ll bet Scotty likes it.

I got the Blu-Ray disc of Star Trek on its Tuesday release date but have been saving it for Thanksgiving Day when my family and I will have time to watch it after the feast. I’m looking forward to going through the special features and hopefully I’ll have a part 2 of this report next week.


December 19, 2006

Have a Sufjan Stevens Christmas!

Filed under: Music,Uncategorized — Alex @ 9:36 am

Santa Sufjan

Sufjan Stevens is one of the quiet success stories among Christians who perform for general audiences, i.e., beyond the Contemporary Christian Music scene. In fact, he’s well-ensconced in his own singular style that mixes acoustic (including his banjo), folk, minimalist, some electric and quite a bit of percussive elements into a unique style. His hand-made productions are the result of recording his performances at home for his independent label and thus lack the smooth studio sound most listeners are accustomed to. Whatever the secret of his appeal, critics and and a sizable audience have paid attention and Stevens has quite a following. Stevens’ gentle singing has an intimacy that effectively draws in listeners into his songs, some of them apparently startling autobiographical scenes of raw honesty. This bittersweet tone coupled with witty exclamation-pointed song titles such as “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!” from the Illinoise album, the second of a proposed series of discs on the states of the union provides the diversity within Stevens signature style. Some cuts are instrumental and many feature marvelous vocal harmonizing. Stevens’ poetic and meditative strengths lend his music a gravity and challenge the listener to ponder the lyrics. On the Illinoise album, his ballad on the serial killer “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” delves into the horror of the man’s predations on his boy victims and then Stevens’ turns his gaze on his own heart’s darkness and denies there is much difference. In other words, he looks at life out of a perspective steeped in scripture.

In Songs for Christmas, Stevens presents in one package a series of five extended play discs recorded over the last five years that mix Christmas classics with his own compositions. The result is a refreshing reintroduction to beloved music that allows you to enjoy these songs all over again. Wary of what Stevens calls “that Creepy Christmas Feeling” we get from seeing the celebration of Jesus’ birth exploited for commercial gain, his musical goal is to quiet down the stress and clamor and retake the holiday’s mixture of the divine and human, when Immanuel came to us to dwell in mortal flesh.
The 41 song album has been selling at unanticipated levels and last week Amazon got more in their inventory but then went out of stock again so you may need to look around for it. In the meantime, go to the link above for streaming versions of all five EPs and see what you think of Songs for Christmas.

August 27, 2006

The Continuing Phenomenom of Johnny Cash

Filed under: Music,Uncategorized — Alex @ 9:30 pm

Johnny Cash article

This year has seen the release of two new Johnny Cash albums, one of which, American Recordings V: A Hundred Highways, has been number one on the charts . For a legend who’s been dead for three years, that’s an amazing achievement. In my latest Breakpoint Online piece, I examine how Johnny Cash’s latter days became greater than his former ones.

February 22, 2006

Blues for ‘Berto

Filed under: Music — Culture Beat @ 8:07 pm

There are days when, professionally at least, I ask myself “what’s the $@#% point!” I doubt that my musings, noodlings and efforts to help people understand the intersection of culture and faith aren’t making a bit of difference. Even worse, I live in fear that people think of me as a windbag and, even worse, a poseur. [Ed. if you’re worried about people thinking you’re a poseur, stop putting it in italics. And, while you’re at it, stop using phrases like “the intersection of culture and faith”.]

It could be worse. I could be certain of my irrelevance and pretentiousness — I could be a rock critic. Case in point: today’s broadcast of NPR’s Fresh Air. In it, Entertainment Weekly‘s Ken Tucker reviewed “Whatever People Say That I Am, That’s What I’m Not” by the Arctic Monkeys and “Amber” by Clearlake. Now, I’d never heard of the latter and all I knew about the former was what I read in Time: one, the Brits are ga-ga about them and, two, their music isn’t for old flatulents like me.

Still, I was unprepared for Tucker’s review, which was accompanied by clips from both albums. I thought that it was a clever parody of rock criticsm, a kind of performance art intended to illustrate its utter pointlessness. Tucker didn’t think much of the Arctic Monkeys, who sound like a four-chord garage band singing songs about breaking up with their girlfriends and sneaking into bars.

But Clearlake was a different story: Tucker was taken with with the “bursting clarity,” “crisp imagery and sentiments” and the “spine-tingling precision” of its music. Tucker was left all verklempt by the line “I feel fine in your company even when we sit silently” in one of the band’s songs.

But the depth of Tucker’s performance art can only be appreciated by following the link above and listening to the review. (The site prefers Real Audio.) Then you’ll get the joke: both bands sound alike. Sure there are subtle differences but that’s what they are: subtle. It’s easy to imagine each band doing the other one’s song. Yet, one crappy band gets the take-down it deserves while the other somewhat-less-crappy band is hailed for it’s “bursting clarity.” Not competence, mind you, but “spine-tingling precision.”

At the risk of seeming really old, what’s spine-tinglingly precise is this, this and especially this.

It’s unlikely that rock criticism makes a difference in the marketplace, which is okay since sales aren’t necessarily an indicator of artistic merit. But “reviews” like this one reinforce my belief that rock criticism has sucuumbed to a fatal case of “Rock Snob” syndrome in which esotericism trumps not only aesthetics but even listenability, which can only render it even less relevant than I am.

I feel better, so if you’ll excuse me

Got two reasons why I cry away each lonely night,
The first one’s named sweet anne marie, and she’s my hearts delight.
The second one is prison, babe, the sheriff’s on my trail,
And if he catches up with me, I’ll spend my life in jail.

February 3, 2006

It’s Official: I’m Converting . . .

Filed under: Music,Politics — Culture Beat @ 8:14 pm

. . . I’m not sure to what but I’ll settle to anything that minimizes the chances of my being confused with these . . . people (H/T Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish)

‘Faust’ Opera Video Stirs Angry Parents

Some parents in this prairie town are angry with an elementary school music teacher for showing pupils a video about the opera “Faust,” whose title character sells his soul to the devil in exchange for being young again.

“Any adult with common sense would not think that video was appropriate for a young person to see. I’m not sure it’s appropriate for a high school student,” Robby Warner said after two of her children saw the video.

Another parent, Casey Goodwin, said, “I think it glorifies Satan in some way.”

Tresa Waggoner showed approximately 250 first-, second- and third-graders at Bennett Elementary portions of a 33-year-old series titled “Who’s Afraid of Opera” a few weeks ago.

The video features the soprano Dame Joan Sutherland and three puppet friends discussing Gounod’s “Faust.” Waggoner thought it would be a good introduction to opera.

Her critics questioned the decision to show children a portrayal of the devil, Mephistopheles, along with a scene showing a man being killed by a sword and a reference to suicide.

School Superintendent George Sauter said the teacher should not have shown the video to children below the fourth grade but will not lose her job. She has sent letter of apology to all elementary school parents in Bennett, population 2,400 and about 25 miles east of Denver on Colorado’s eastern plains.

“I was definitely not sensitive to the conservative nature of the community, and I’ve learned that,” Waggoner said in Sunday’s editions of The Denver Post. “However, from what has been said about me, that I’m a Satan worshipper, my character, I can’t believe all of this. My intention was just to expose the kids to opera.”

Waggoner, who is in her first year teaching vocal music in Bennett, said she doesn’t expect to stay in town.

“I know I’m not accepted here, that I’m not welcome here by the parents,” she said. “It’s a very uncomfortable position.”

Words cannot begin to describe how wrongheaded this all is. I’ll settle for this: in an age in which the cultural literacy, not to mention musical taste, of nearly every American child is abysmal, objecting to their being exposed to “Who’s Afraid of Opera” because you think it “glorifes Satan in some way,” is the worst kind of babbitry.

If I were an even worse person than I am, I would have some fun at these folk’s expense. Instead, allow me to point out that Gounod’s opera ends with a repentant Faust watching the Angels carry Marguerite’s soul into heaven. So much for glorifying Satan.

December 13, 2005

Show Biz Bits

An occasional collection of items from mass media news.

movie ticket
That’s the Ticket!

Here’s an idea: rather than pay the same movie ticket price for an small independent film as you do for a blockbuster, why not pay based on the likely demand? Ticket prices would be set based on cost of production and the anticipated demand for the product, like any other commodity. That’s the idea in this article by James N. Markels at the liberal America’s Future Foundation site, Brainwash. I’m sure Edward J. Epstein or some other smart student of Hollywood’s finances might be able to explain the pros and cons of such an idea, but Markels seems to be onto something.

small viewer

My, How You’ve Shrunk!

Amid fears that the movie box office has shrunk this year comes this fascinating analysis demonstrating that audiences for all media are shrinking. Writing in the Lincoln, Nebraska, Journal Star, l. Kent Wolgamott reports that, “the mass audience in the United States is splintering and dividing into ever more specialized and personalized niches.” This doesn’t bode well for the uniting effect of a common culture.

The Church of iPod Choice

Speaking of niches, this article from Focus on the Family’s Plugged-In magazine, discusses the possibility that the technology of downloadable choices feeds the mentality that we can avoid the committment to the whole “album,” i.e., orthodox faith, and just pick and choose the doctrines we like. This text version of the piece is thought-provoking– does technology shape the way we think about the content of our faith?

November 12, 2005

Carter, Cash, movies and faith

Filed under: General Pop Culture,Movies,Music — Culture Beat @ 12:15 pm


Here’s this week’s column for the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press. A little cultural geography lesson might be in order. This part of the country, collectively known as the Southern Highlands (northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, western North Carolina) is a hotbed for folk music — country, bluegrass, the works. Bristol, Tenn.-Va. (the town literally straddles the state line), is the town where the original singing Carter Family (A.P., Sara and “Mother” Maybelle) and Jimmie Rodgers recorded in 1927, the “Bristol sessions,” and the so-called big bang of country music.

Hiltons, Va., the home of the Carter clan, is only a 45-minute drive from downtown Johnson City. About 20 years ago or so, the Carters transformed the property into a museum and down-home concert pavilion and called it the Carter Family Fold, and local musicians perform every Saturday night. (Every now and then, bigger names come in too.) Seating used to be split log benches, old school bus seats nailed to the floor, blankets, folding chairs and the like. After the Fold received a big grant a few years ago, they’ve gone upscale, to theater seating. On a typical Saturday night, about a thousand people come, many of them locals who bring their taps and clogging shoes and dance in the open space in front of the stage. Tickets cost a princely $5. The show has been emceed by Janette Carter and, until his death earlier this year, her brother Joe. She specialized in autoharp; he specialized in guitar and imitating barnyard animals during “intermissions.” It’s definitely worth a visit.

Rita Forrester’s last strong memory of Johnny Cash dates from the summer of 2003, when he performed on the stage of the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Va., the home of his wife, June Carter, who had died that spring.

Rita knew Johnny and June well. She’s family, the daughter of June’s cousin Janette Carter, who has run the Fold for years. Janette is struggling with Parkinson’s disease and Rita, besides her full-time job in Johnson City, is running the Fold for now. Johnny and June performed there three or four times a year.

But this last time, Johnny, gray and grieving, sang alone. It turned out to be his last performance. He died a few weeks later.

“He was so weak and sick,” Rita recalls. He could barely walk, and someone suggested he go on stage in a wheelchair. He refused. Instead, he slowly, painfully walked on stage.

“He was talking about his life without June and how hard that was,” Rita recalls. “They had an amazing love. If we could all be loved as much as they loved each other … ” Her voice trails off.

Their romance and career is portrayed in a new movie opening next week, Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, actors handpicked by Johnny and June to portray them, according to Rita. (That’s Phoenix and Witherspoon cuddling in a publicity still at the bottom of this post.)

1975 CC

Johnny and June met in 1961. (They’re pictured here in 1975.) He was at the peak of his popularity, and she and her famous musical family started performing with him. They were married to other people at the time, but Johnny and June fell in love. Hit songs like “Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire” reflected the tensions they felt. Eventually the first marriages broke up.

“I don’t think they ever set out to ever hurt anyone,” Rita says. “Their love for each other — they had to accept and deal with that. They made the best of their rocky start.”

It was rocky. Success almost killed Johnny. Addicted to amphetamines, he hit bottom in 1967, feeling isolated and cut off from God. One day, the 35-year-old star crawled into a Tennessee cave, intending to get lost in the darkness and die.

Instead, Cash thought about God. As he wrote in a 1997 autobiography, he felt “a sensation of utter peace, clarity, and sobriety. … I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea: I was not in charge of my own destiny. I was not in charge of my own death.”

He crawled out to start a new life and within a few months, he and June were married.

“John got a long way from his faith,” Rita says. “Love and faith is what brought him back. John said June and her faith saved him.”

In the years to follow, Johnny and June were open about their faith as well as their failures, and their recording careers stalled. That only cemented their reputation for risk-taking and honesty. They were known for defying expectations and stretching boundaries.

Fellow musician Kris Kristofferson called Johnny “a walking contradiction,” and by all accounts that wasn’t in spite of his faith but often because of it. Late in his career, Johnny worked with a surprising array of musicians, such as Red Hot Chili Peppers and rap producer Rick Rubin. (His last big hit was the antithesis of lighthearted Christian living — a deep, dark confessional cover of a Nine Inch Nails song: “Hurt.”)

“They met so many different people from different walks,” Rita says. “They learned from everyone.”

That openness and authenticity — a common description — not only brought new fans, it also gained a respectful hearing for their faith.

“They witnessed to people who never would have known anything about Jesus,” Rita says. They didn’t preach or “make judgments about other people. Their Christianity was just obvious. It was about the way they chose to conduct their lives.”

movie CC

Rita is eager to see those lives portrayed on the screen next week, and she expects to cry when she does.

“I’m sure it will be a bittersweet experience,” she says. “I’m hoping it will bring a real sense of what good people they were. I hope their faith comes through strongly.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, Nov. 12, 2005.

October 20, 2005

Bono’s God syndrome

Filed under: Faith Issues,Music — Culture Beat @ 2:33 pm

bono rs“I sometimes think I have a kind of Tourette’s syndrome where if you ‘re not suppose to say something, it becomes very attractive to do so,” Bono once told Rolling Stone. “You’re in a rock band—what can’t you talk about? God? Ok, here we go. You’re supposed to write songs about sex and drugs. Well, no, I won’t.”

For all you Bonophiles, here is the latest. It’s an excerpt from Jann S. Wenner’s interview with his U2ness in the upcoming November 3 issue of Rolling Stone. Click here for interview.

Rolling Stone: What is your religious belief today? What is your concept of God?
Bono: If I could put it simply, I would say that I believe there’s a force of love and logic in the world, a force of love and logic behind the universe. And I believe in the poetic genius of a creator who would choose to express such unfathomable power as a child born in “straw poverty”; i.e., the story of Christ makes sense to me.

Rolling Stone: How does it make sense?
Bono: As an artist, I see the poetry of it. It’s so brilliant. That this scale of creation, and the unfathomable universe, should describe itself in such vulnerability, as a child. That is mind-blowing to me. I guess that would make me a Christian. Although I don’t use the label, because it is so very hard to live up to. I feel like I’m the worst example of it, so I just kinda keep my mouth shut.

Rolling Stone: Do you pray or have any religious practices?
Bono: I try to take time out of every day, in prayer and meditation. I feel as at home in a Catholic cathedral as in a revival tent. I also have enormous respect for my friends who are atheists, most of whom are, and the courage it takes not to believe.

Rolling Stone: How big an influence is the Bible on your songwriting? How much do you draw on its imagery, its ideas?
Bono: It sustains me.

Rolling Stone: As a belief, or as a literary thing?
Bono: As a belief. These are hard subjects to talk about because you can sound like such a dickhead. I’m the sort of character who’s got to have an anchor. I want to be around immovable objects. I want to build my house on a rock, because even if the waters are not high around the house, I’m going to bring back a storm. I have that in me. So it’s sort of underpinning for me. I don’t read it as a historical book. I don’t read it as, “Well, that’s good advice.” I let it speak to me in other ways. They call it the rhema. It’s a hard word to translate from Greek, but it sort of means it changes in the moment you’re in. It seems to do that for me.

Rolling Stone: You’re saying it’s a living thing?
Bono: It’s a plumb line for me. In the Scriptures, it is self-described as a clear pool that you can see yourself in, to see where you’re at, if you’re still enough. I’m writing a poem at the moment called “The Pilgrim and His Lack of Progress.” I’m not sure I’m the best advertisement for this stuff.

Rolling Stone: What do you think of the evangelical movement that we see in the United States now?
Bono: I’m wary of faith outside of actions. I’m wary of religiosity that ignores the wider world. In 2001, only seven percent of evangelicals polled felt it incumbent upon themselves to respond to the AIDS emergency. This appalled me. I asked for meetings with as many church leaders as would have them with me. I used my background in the Scriptures to speak to them about the so-called leprosy of our age and how I felt Christ would respond to it. And they had better get to it quickly, or they would be very much on the other side of what God was doing in the world.

Amazingly, they did respond. I couldn’t believe it. It almost ruined it for me — ’cause I love giving out about the church and Christianity. But they actually came through: Jesse Helms, you know, publicly repents for the way he thinks about AIDS.

I’ve started to see this community as a real resource in America. I have described them as “narrow-minded idealists.” If you can widen the aperture of that idealism, these people want to change the world. They want their lives to have meaning. And it’s one of the things that the Democratic Party has missed out on. You know, so much of the moral high ground in the past was Democratic: FDR, RFK, Cesar Chavez. Now I suppose it’s Hillary’s passion for cheaper medical care. And Teddy Kennedy, of course.
(Excerpted from RS 986, November 3, 2005)

October 3, 2005

Neil, Sufjan, Dylan, and Evangeline

Filed under: Music,Television — Culture Beat @ 6:00 pm

USA Today has an interesting article that explores the inspiration of one of the songs on Neil Young’s new album.

neil young

One of the album’s most poignant songs is its closing number, When God Made Me, sung from the perspective of a man searching for his place in the divine plan. “Did he create just me in his image,” Young wonders in the song, “or every living thing?”

“I’m not a preacher, and I’m certainly not a good example, but I have my own feelings about God. I’m kind of a nature guy. My cathedral is forests, or the prairies, or the beach.”

The song’s specifically spiritual focus is a rarity in Young’s catalog. “I couldn’t figure out how I was writing it,” he says. Then engineer Chad Hailey showed him some of the recording studio’s history.

“Chad showed me, with a flashlight, up through a hole in the ceiling,” he says. “There were these gothic windows and church lights and everything. He said, ‘This has been a church since the 1700s. It was a Confederate morgue. It’s been a hospital.’

“Then it all started adding up, where the music was coming from and where everything was.”

Sufjan’s success
Have you been catching all the buzz surrounding Sufjan Stevens? His eclectic shows are selling out all over the place. One of my colleagues went to a recent show. I found her description of the concert to be quite informative. Well, kind of. “Amazing. I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t enjoy it,” she said. “It was weird. I have never seen anything like it. It was cheesy — but it made it all the more enjoyable.”
Sufjan Stevens

Jon Ward leads his story on Stevens in The Washington Times by stating:

One of indie rock’s fastest-rising stars is following a trail blazed by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. His name is Sufjan Stevens (pronounced Soof-yawn). He writes songs about a God with precise features; God is big, and a little scary, and man is, pardon the blasphemy, evil.

Music about the God worshipped by John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther is not exactly standard fare for indie rock fans. But Mr. Stevens’ latest record, “Come On and Feel the Illinoise,” his fifth album since 2000, is one of the best received indie rock albums of the year.

He’s right. Rolling Stone described the album as “part Schoolhouse Rock history lesson, part hippie Bible study. It has songs about UFO sightings, prairie fires, the Civil War, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the poet Carl Sandburg and the Cubs. It also has a song called ‘Come On! Feel the Illinoise!'”

The snarky rock elites at Spin even gave a nod to Stevens’s album: “At one point, a character asks, ‘What have we become, America?’ Timely question, and one that Illinoise offers more convincing answers to than a presidential town hall meeting.”

Reporting for The Washington Post, J. Freedom du Lac writes:

But don’t be fooled by Stevens’s idiosyncrasies, of which there are plenty. Beneath all the quirkiness, there’s a literary singer whose songs are deeply spiritual, though not always in a blind-faith kind of way.

Stevens is the artist who might have been birthed by Flannery O’Connor and Nick Drake, had they ever hooked up.

Actually, to play that fantasy out, O’Connor and Drake probably would’ve had twins, and the brother of Sufjan (SOOF-yawn) would’ve gotten the much easier to pronounce name of Samuel Beam. Beam makes music under the moniker Iron and Wine. Together, Stevens and Iron and Wine are the favored artists among the bearded elite, aka Critics and Indie Hipsters Who Love the Soft, Sensitive Folk-Rock Stuff and Songs That Ask Interesting Questions About Faith.

“I’m sure if I were to sit down with Jerry Falwell or anyone like that it would be very uncomfortable,” Stevens told the Los Angeles Times. “Yet in theological terms, we worship the same God, and that’s a very awkward kind of thing to reconcile with. The religious environment is a big problem, but I don’t really know how to start talking about it.”

Dylan’s rock of ages
dylanThere seems to be no end to the fascination with America’s arguably most significant and mysterious troubadour. Fans snatched up his autobiographical Chronicles, Vol. 1. And on September 25-26, PBS aired No Direction Home, Martin Scorcese’s four-hour documentary on Dylan’s life between 1961 and 1966. The twin-DVD of the show, as well as the two-CD soundtrack set of unreleased material from the period, had already been made released.

As helpful as these portrayals are in helping unwrap the Dylan mystique, there still remains the intriguing question regarding his theological disposition. Some fans would rather that he remain elusive on the question of religion, while others would love to see him clearly and articulately map out his beliefs. Here is a piece I wrote on Dylan for BreakPoint.

Lost’s little Lilly
Lastly, I suppose if you follow “Lost” you were sure to catch uber-babe Evangeline Lilly on the cover of the new Rolling Stone.
Evangeline Lilly

She grew up in small towns in western Canada; her only previous acting experience was a handful of commercials and a few jobs as an extra in projects shooting in Vancouver, like Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital and White Chicks. Her father was a grocery-store produce manager, and her mom ran a day-care center out of the house. Raised Baptist and Mennonite, Lilly taught Sunday school for eight years, and one of her first jobs out of high school was as a flight attendant for a “really sh**ty airline.” Not exactly typical network-TV-star material.

Among the interesting tidbits is this description of Lilly from cast mate Dominic Monaghan: “She’s a Christian, but she’s a pottymouth.” (Apparently, the two are rumored to be dating but they won’t confirm the news.)

“Over and over again,” Lilly explains, “I’ve been called a walking oxymoron. I do things that you wouldn’t associate with a good little Christian girl. The story begins with Lilly accepting a silly dare for $20 (“I don’t have a lot of inhibition,” she says.)

Rolling Stone’s Gavin Edwards asks: “And the challenge for Evangeline Lilly? After a year that took her from Vancouver to Hawaii, from Sunday school to an international object of obsession, it’s figuring out just who she is while the whole world is watching.”

As wonderful as being cast on such a top-rated TV show can be, she was not prepared for how overwhelming it would be.

She managed to put off the Big Meltdown until near the end of Season One. Worn down by her workload, she called her parents in full hysterics. They told her, “Screw Hollywood — you come home and we’ll feed you some chicken-noodle soup.”

Instead, Lilly went to Rwanda, where a friend was doing missionary work. “I holed up and read and wrote and prayed,” she says. “I just disappeared off the face of the earth.” Ironically, the consequence of playing the character of a forgotten person stranded on one of the most remote corners of the planet is that she has to travel great distances to end up someplace where nobody will recognize her.

September 19, 2005

Rock, religion, and relief

Filed under: General Pop Culture,Music,Politics — Culture Beat @ 4:55 pm

Before they mounted the stage at the United Center in Chicago during the first half of the Vertigo Tour in May, the members of U2 were sent out with the not-so-subtle observation from a friend: The people who want to change the world, don’t seem to know God. And the people who know God don’t seem to want to change the world. For more than 25 years, the Dublin-based quartet has attempted to shake up that off-setting conundrum.


Recalling America’s creative leadership in space exploration, lead singer Bono prodded fans to address the dire poverty and death toll from AIDS in Africa. “When America leads, the world follows,” he told sold-out audiences. “And now a new challenge is here—not to put man on the moon, but to put mankind back on earth and to bring equality to the people of Africa.” He goes on to emphasize, “That’s what we’re saying to President Bush and Tony Blair, ‘Lead and we will follow.’ We’re asking you to end extreme poverty in our lifetime in places like Africa.”

Through guitar riffs, a cell phone call-in campaign, and a gigantic unveiling of the first several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, U2 flexes its musical muscle on behalf of millions of poverty-stricken Africans who can’t afford one of their cds—let alone a concert ticket.

Bono’s motivation? “I’m not sure if it’s Catholic guilt or what, but I genuinely believe that second only to personal redemption, the most important thing in the Scriptures—2,103 passages in all—refers to taking care of the world’s poor,” he told Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn.

The political minefield and spiritual sawdust trail that he attempts to navigate has garnered its fair share of criticism. Although sympathetic, their manager Paul McGuinness warned the band early on to expect a backlash. “Musicians are supposed to describe the problems of the world, not fix them,” he observed.

Although some dour critics have dismissed him as preachy and pretentious, everyone else has granted Bono grace in doing what he can to appeal to the better angels of our nature. While the singer was encouraging the audience to join forces with The One Campaign to end hunger and poverty, the woman next to me at the concert in Chicago said, “I will join because of him. He can preach to me anytime.” She’s probably not alone. The band is expected to have the year’s highest-grossing concert revenue—more than $300 million. That is higher than last year’s top three touring acts combined.

In an 9,000-word article entitled “The Statesman,” The New York Times further elaborates on Bono’s unique position as the world’s richest cheerleader for the needs of the poor. One of the things I most admire about Bono is the fact that he is completely surrounded by people who loathe President Bush, yet Bono cares more about combating AIDS and seeking justice for the poor than he does about impressing his spoiled-rotten rock star buddies by cracking on Bush. If the President does something Bono agrees with, you can count on the U2 frontman to praise the White House. In that spirit, Bono also makes sure that the policy wonks know exactly why he is willing to do photo-ops with unpopular politicians.

“As he was being taken to meet Bush, Bono recalls, he told the driver to circle the block a few times while he sat with a Bible in his lap, hunting frantically for a verse about shepherds and the poor,” James Traub reports. “He was getting later and later. Finally he found a passage to his liking, and he went into the Oval Office. There he recited the passage he had chosen from the Gospel of Matthew: ‘For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in….’ Bono then presented Bush with an edition of the Psalms for which he had written the foreword.”

It’s a great forward, by the way. Bono makes the case that the Psalms were the first blues songs. “Abandonment and displacement are the stuff of my favorite psalms. The Psalter may be a font of gospel music, but for me it’s despair that the psalmist really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger. ‘How long, Lord? Wilt thou hide thyself forever?’ (Psalm 89), or ‘Answer me when I call'(Psalm 5).” Bono also noted his affection for the psalmist David, who he referred to as the “Elvis of the Bible.” The singer writes, “That the Scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me. Now it is a source of great comfort.”

Bono remains the most significant and provocative celebrity on the planet. He was endorsed by The Los Angeles Times to head the World Bank, nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and launched a conscience-raising line of clothing called Edun. His concerts attract everyone from United Nations leader Kofi Annan to conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly. He hangs out with the Kennedy clan and knows his way around the Bush White House. In between shows in Boston, he flew down to Washington D.C. to have lunch with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and lobby her for more foreign aid.

A few months ago, David Brooks observed in his New York Times column that “we can have a culture war in this country, or we can have a war on poverty, but we can’t have both. That is to say, liberals and conservatives can go on bashing each other for being godless hedonists and primitive theocrats, or they can set those differences off to one side and work together to help the needy.

“The natural alliance for anti-poverty measures at home and abroad is between liberals and evangelical Christians. These are the only two groups that are really hyped up about these problems and willing to devote time and money to ameliorating them. If liberals and evangelicals don’t get together on anti-poverty measures, then there will be no majority for them and they won’t get done.”

Having attended a U2 concert with a group of evangelicals who joined forces with Bono’s cause, Brooks observes that the singer “is at the nexus of a vast alliance between socially conservative evangelicals and socially liberal [non-governmental organizations].”

Is it the power of the cause, rock ‘n’ roll, or the Spirit? Perhaps it’s a concoction of all three. Unlike any other celebrity, Bono has the charm or anointing to draw incongruent elements together for a common cause.

“Bruce Springsteen comes close, but his message is that rock ‘n’ roll has the power to change lives,” observes journalist Donnie Moorhead. “Bono’s message is that God saves lives through rock ‘n’ roll. While you may leave a Springsteen show feeling like you want to do something with your life, you leave a U2 show feeling like you aren’t doing enough.”

In the recently published 323-page Q&A called Bono in Conversation with Michka Assayas, the singer describes a humorous story about one of his meetings with President Bush. “He banged the table at me once, when I was ranting at him about the ARV’s [AIDS drugs] not getting out quick enough,” he recalls. “You see, I’m Irish. When we get excited, we don’t pause for breath, no full stops or commas. He banged the table to ask me to let him reply. He smilingly reminded me he was the president. It was a heated debate. I was very impressed that he could get so passionate. And, let’s face it, tolerating an Irish rock star is not a necessity of his office.”

He found Bush to be amusing and quick-witted. “I got quickly to the point and the point was an unarguable one—that 6,500 people dying every day of a preventable and treatable disease would not be acceptable anywhere else other than Africa, and that before God and history this was a kind of racism that was unacceptable.”

According to Bono, the president said: “In fact, it’s a kind of genocide.”

It is a scandalous commentary on our political culture when it takes a rock star to prod politicians to grapple with the vast travesty taking place in Africa. “You know, celebrity is ridiculous,” Bono told Assayas, a French journalist. “It’s silly, but it’s a kind of currency, and you have to spend it wisely. And I’ve learned that much.…

“I see the embarrassment, excruciating at times, of ‘Rich rock star works on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable.’ I mean, it’s a very embarrassing photograph. Yet, you can’t deny who you are. And if I gave all my money away, I’d just be a bigger star. (Laughs). Right?…I can use this ridiculous thing called celebrity to the advantage of these issues. That’s the only qualification I need. I’m there, I have the loud-hailer, and I’m gonna use it.”

Assayas asks Bono if “the money you have might lead you to develop very unrealistic views about the world. Don’t you tend to forget about the problems that an ordinary person has to face in an ordinary life?”

Undaunted in the righteousness of his cause, Bono responds: “But which reality am I not in touch with? You’re working on behalf of a billion people who live on less than a dollar a day. Isn’t it more important that I’m more in touch with their needs than the normal Western life you describe?”

The guy with the blue shades has a point.

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