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I write the biweekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and also report for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere. I have four daughters and two dogs.

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Tuesday
Sep282010

More on why Yale should dump Singapore like a bad habit.

I wonder if the tide is turning on the Yale/Singapore arranged marriage.

Tuesday
Sep282010

“Bishop” Eddie Long...update

Some good updating from a prof who was at Long’s service...and who thinks a confession may be coming down the pike...

Some video here:

 

Monday
Sep272010

If you make too much money, do you sexually coerce young men in your church?

Well, probably the link is not quite that clear. But what is clear is that when pastors/rabbis/imams/whoever make too much money, they are more likely to think of themselves as infallible celebrities, less likely to think of themselves as men of the cloth. If I have anything to add to this Eddie L. Long mess — the Atlanta mega-church prosperity-gospel Baptist preacher, married with children, who is now accused of seducing several young men in his spiritual care — it is that we should read this episode alongside other episodes of wealth invading the sanctuary. The guy was making $1 million a year in salary and other perks. His reasoning?

 

“We’re not just a church, we’re an international corporation,” he told the newspaper in justifying his compensation. “We’re not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can’t talk and all we’re doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around this world. I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation.”

 

That is known as walking humbly with the Lord...

Also: beware megachurch preachers who call themselves "Bishop." If they are too good for plain old "Reverend," and feel the need to assume an unnecessary (and misleading) ecclesial title, what else are they insecure about?

Oh, here is "Bishop" Long preaching — note his attack on the news media at about 00:20:

Sunday
Sep262010

Got Kiddie Lit?

Sunday
Sep262010

John Mellencamp is not exploiting black heritage.

John Mellencamp is not exploiting black heritage—but try telling that to religious historian Paul Harvey, whose fine book I read in a graduate school seminar just over ten years ago. I came across this piece on ReligionDispatches.org, an online magazine that very effectively brings together religion scholars to write for a popular audience: it’s as if the New York Review were online only, about religion only, had new stuff daily, and kept the pieces shorter. (Or something like that.) A disclosure: my Yale colleague Kathryn Lofton is one of the editors, but I have never met her and have no reason to pimp her online project. Except that I think this is a good project!

But I must take issue with Paul Harvey’s attempt at music criticism, which is more like an attempt at musician criticism. He does not seem to know much about Mellencamp’s music, but he definitely has a beef with Mellencamp. Before I go any further: this is not Paul Harvey the late right-wing radio guy, and I feel bad for Paul Harvey the historian that he must go through life being confused with the late right-wing guy. I mean, there are other Mark Oppenheimers, but none of them is mocked on Saturday Night Live. Wait, let’s take a moment to see Rich Hall as Paul Harvey, from a non-SNL comedy special:

 

 

OK, now that that is out of the way...

Paul Harvey’s basic argument is that by recording part of his new roots album in a storied black Baptist church in Savannah, Mellencamp is somehow exploiting African American history. He writes:

Mellencamp and a host of other white musicians are trying to keep it real by connecting into these historic institutions. More importantly, they are doing so by connecting into the myths which have spun from these places – from Robert Johnson’s hotel room recording venue, to the racially miscegenated music produced by Sun Studios, to Savannah’s home for black Baptist history.

Black culture and institutions provide a history and a sense of authenticity that white artists cannot find elsewhere. It’s a powerful blending of religion and myth in American history: black people are there to save the souls of tortured white people. It’s one of the most powerful redemption myths of popular culture.

It’s a far cry from, and a lot better than, the failed Woody Guthrie-ism of “this is our country,” but it’s a myth with its own costs, for ultimately it is all still about the white soul.

Like many others over the past two generations, Mellencamp has been "redeemed" by the blood of the black past.

 

Now, Harvey has more ammo than that, and I do not mean to oversimplify; go read his whole piece, surely. But basically he is taking it for granted that by eliding the tortured history of black religious worship in the South, by touting (in an interview with Tavis Smiley) his own adult baptism in this black Baptist church—at the insistence of black worshippers there, as it happens—and by recording in spaces that have meaning for black people, Mellencamp is doing something...wrong.

But Harvey never explains why this is wrong, exactly. And he certainly never anticipates the tough questions one might pose, such as: How is Mellencamp openly honoring black culture somehow worse than dozens of great white rock bands, from Cream to Led Zeppelin to White Stripes, using black blues riffs as the backbone of their music?

Here is what I think: Mellencamp has committed two sins, in Harvey’s eyes. First, he does not think Mellencamp is very good. Now, critical opinion on Mellecamp has always been so-so, although he has had his defenders. I can say this much: Harvey is surely wrong in writing this: “[Bob] Seger’s [brand of Americana] was industrial blue collar, Mellencamp’s small-town, but both had little hope of uniting audiences across class lines in the way that Springsteen does. (People don’t show up for Mellencamp and scream out demands for “Small Town,” the way they congregate en masse at Madison Square Garden for Springsteen and demand “Hiding in the Backstreets.”)” Well, I have been to a Mellencamp show (have you, Paul Harvey?), and I can assure all who care that the audience was much more working-class, less bourgeois bohemian, than at a Springsteen show (I have been to a couple of those)—and what is more, people definitely screamed for “Small Town,” “Pink Houses,” and all his other anthems.

The second Mellencamp sin, in Harvey’s eyes, must be that Mellencamp deigned to talk about black people in that good-ol’-black-folks way. Now, I have always felt that except for writers, whose medium is words, other artists should shut up. Painters should let their painting do the talking; musicians should let their music and (God help us) their lyrics do the talking; sculptors should let their ... well, you get the point. Visual and musical artists are rarely very articulate about what they are going for—they have other means of expressing themselves, and thank God for that. The world has enough wordsmiths. But what this means is that, yes, there could be something a bit cringe-inducing, perhaps patronizing, about Mellencamp’s description of his black-church baptism.

But Harvey’s lack of goodwill—his determination to damn Mellencamp—reveals itself when he even criticizes Mellencamp for using Sun Studios, where lots of white rockers, as Harvey knows, recorded great stuff. How is that a problem? Just because Johnny Cougar is no Jerry Lee Lewis? Because he is no Elvis Presley?

Look, Mellencamp is guilty of many sins: his unrepentant smoking, his bad hair-dye job, “The Authority Song.” But where he chooses to set up his mono equipment and hunt for authenticity is not such a problem. That’s rock and roll, and he’s no more guilty of its crimes than the rest of them.