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Does the Devil Have Music?

Posted in: Guest Entries by Tom Beaudoin on September 18, 2013

We are happy to feature this guest post by Don H. Compier, author of the new book Listening to Popular Music.

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Shortly after its appearance in the 1950s, a number of Christian ministers began to denounce rock and roll as “the devil’s music.” American musical icon Mavis Staples, on the other hand, reportedly declared in an interview that “The devil ain’t got no music! All music is God’s music!”

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Those suspicious of rock and roll may claim that Christian tradition is on their side. Leading figures such as Augustine, John Calvin, and even John and Charles Wesley did express their profound concern about the seductive, immoral influence of music. And yet sister Mavis could cite no less an authority than Martin Luther in her defense. The Reformer insisted that “Music drives away the devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like.”

I know many people like myself for whom listening to rock and roll has been nothing less than a joyful conversion experience. We testify that we have often encountered divine grace. We marvel at the creativity of human beings made in God’s image. We celebrate music’s power to draw diverse persons together. Rock and roll helps us to read the signs of our times. Even the Rolling Stones’ infamous “Sympathy for the Devil” is an astute perspective on the terrible events of 1968. Rock and roll’s struggle with sexism and racism informs our own battle to exorcise these demons that have haunted our culture. In spite of rampant commercialism, rock has raised up prophets like Bruce Springsteen. On “Wrecking Ball” the Boss draws from his own spiritual wells to powerfully denounce today’s massive economic inequality and envision a better world.

Mavis’ approach helps us appreciate that God’s Spirit is always active, everywhere. God has not left popular music to the devil!

Don H. Compier, Graceland University, Independence, Missouri

 

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God and the Glastonbury Festival

Posted in: General,Guest Entries by Tom Beaudoin on July 8, 2013

We are pleased to feature this guest post from Rev. Dr. Vaughan S. Roberts:

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In Personal Jesus, Clive Marsh and I discuss the religious significance of festivals such as Burning Man (USA) and Glastonbury (UK). So it was no surprise to find journalist John Harris in search of religion for The Guardian newspaper at the recent 2013 Glastonbury Festival. In his report he finds the lively, extrovert and zany alongside words of wisdom from Johnny Marr and a relaxed guy from one of the mainstream churches at an open marquee providing food and shelter for whoever wants it.

All kinds of religion were present on the performance stages as well. Mumford and Sons sang about sin and serving the Lord in ‘Whispers in the Dark’, The Rolling Stones sang about Satan and Jesus Christ in ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, Alabama Shakes mentioned ‘God’, The Horrors and Jake Bugg referenced churches, Elvis Costello admitted to being a ‘defrocked altar boy’ (whatever that means) before singing his track ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’, and many references to heaven, hell, angels and numerous other theological allusions flashed by in the parade of musical performances I managed to catch on TV.

But tucked away on a hillside overlooking the festival site is the Christian inspiration underlying this event, as the founder and organiser (more…)

I’m very pleased to share this guest post, below, from Peter Banks. R&T readers will know Mr. Banks as an accomplished musician responsible for lots of good music, and USA readers of a certain age will remember Banks’ band After the Fire from their 1980s hit “Der Kommissar.” (That song (YouTube here) was nothing less than essential for me and my peers in the ’80s, and remains a classic pop tune. The distinctive keyboard and guitar riffs are now near-iconic.) Mr. Banks is a successful composer and musician with mainstream chart successes in many countries in the world with After the Fire. Two notable achievements were reaching No. 5 in the Billboard charts with “Der Kommissar,” and recording with the legendary Freddie Mercury shortly after Queen’s spellbinding performance at Live Aid. In addition to his musicianship, he has worked in other creative industries, and now contributes professionally to various online publications as well as his popular music and theology blog, The BanksyBoy Brief.

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I vividly remember there must be an absolute relationship between music and time as I watched the needle move across the vinyl on our old Dansette record player! Whilst that ages me somewhat, that realisation has stayed with me ever since.

In a recent post entitled Music and People by Jen Logan on the UK’s Greenbelt Festival website, she proposes that music exists in time and not space, with particular reference to enjoying music at, for example, outdoor festivals. In fact, her excellent discussion also proposes that both the performance and the shared listening experience of music are a Sabbath experience.

I immediately felt a resonance with her text and promoted a link via Twitter and Wastebook. Intriguingly, this provoked a challenging response from a musician friend (Tim Nevell), someone who has been a loyal supporter and absorber of my musical output. His objections partly revolve around a theoretical point that he would not be comfortable in a ‘surging crowd, moving in unison, and my neighbours possibly wanting to hold my hand’ even when attending a concert of one of his favourite artistes.

I, along with many, will agree with that notion. However, there are times (which Tim concedes later in his comment) that such a moment transcends (more…)

Evanescence and the Tourniquet Psalm

Posted in: Bible,Christianity,General,Guest Entries by Tom Beaudoin on March 21, 2013

I am pleased to share this guest post from John Gonzalez, a Doctor of Ministry student in Fordham University’s Latino Studies program. He is an associate to a religious community, the Passionists, whose spirituality is based on redemptive suffering and the mission to be with those who are in the midst of suffering in our world. He works for Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Rockville Centre (Long Island) as the Parish Social Ministry (PSM) developer on public policy and social justice issues.

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Contemporary spirituality or prayer life does not seem to offer much space for the idea of complaining to God or demanding some form of divine accountability for injustices that we witness or suffer ourselves. We may reverently ask God for our petitions and of course offer prayers of thanksgiving. I certainly encounter the phrase “God is good” sometimes followed by the response “all of the time.” But the human condition is not all about experiencing the good. Everyone experiences suffering; we all know that injustice is part of our social and personal experience, yet somehow it is considered taboo to or spiritually audacious to bring this to the attention of God. I will admit that there has been times when I have been tempted to respond to the “God is good” phrase with my own scandalous response, “not today.”

And yet our scripture offers a number of prayers to God that offer complaints and at times demanding divine accountability. We find many of these in the psalms and lamentations. The book of Job is a complaint to God by one who has experienced a horrible injustice. Jesus himself takes part of this tradition when in the midst of being crucified he cries out the beginning of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 22 is a  cry of deep anguish and desolation, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;” (psalm 22: 14). While towards the end of this psalm there is a recognition that God will vindicate the suffering servant, others like Psalm 88 are not so optimistic. The psalmist here cries out his anguish to God and wonders if God is indeed present. Daniel Harrington, SJ writes:

Psalm 88 is often called a dialogue with an absent God. The psalmist calls out to a God who appears to have abandoned him and to be hiding from him. Yet the absent God is still somehow present – present enough to be addressed in prayer, to be criticized, and to be angry at.

Whereas our contemporary spirituality may not offer us a place to offer today’s lamentations nevertheless this continues to be part of the human condition and we can see this being expressed in areas of popular culture. The Gothic genre of punk music seems to be a place where one can find (more…)

This is the third and final part of Eddie Sloane’s guest post. Read part one and part two.

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III. ‘I Am An Anti-Christ’:  The Make-Up and Liberation Theology

Dressed in designer costumes every bit as co-ordinated as those of The Montfort Mission and offering an irreverent theology with characteristic punk rock irony, The Make-Up proclaims a “‘liberation theology’ with a decidedly unchristian emphasis on earthly transformation.”

Michael Iafrate has well documented a punk-rock ecclesiology — which this record explicitly antedates and boldly proclaims –noting a tension between Hauerwasian ecclesiocentrism and liberationist theologies in his own theology, a tension he believes DIY/punk culture actively explores and embraces. The tension between sectarianism and liberation, discipline and freedom is evident in the theology expounded by The Make-Up. Emphasizing a participatory ethos, The Make-Up explore the relationship between church and world, drawing attention to the theological possibilities of everyday practices such as music making. It is significant that this is touted as a live release, though it was, with further irony, recorded in a studio. This says something about the tension between the simulacra and the real which exists even in live experiences of music. It is prescient particularly in light of the increasingly common practice of artists relying on prerecorded music during performances.

(more…)

This is part two of a three-part guest entry by Eddie Sloane. For part one, click here

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II. There’s A Frog in my Faith: M. Frog and Monasticism

Regardez. Jean-Yves Labat, educated at a seminary school and, having spent time in a Benedictine monastery as a novice only to leave and pursue a career on the edges of rock and roll, takes on the stage (monastic?) name M. Frog and releases his first solo record in 1973. The first thing that catches the eye is the psychedelic cover art.

The rays of color represent a form of musical notation which Labat devised for the synthesizer. Labat describes this process in the liner notes: “I have been trying to develop a notation for synthesizer music that works through color… It looks strange because most people are brought up on academic music notation, but electronic music requires a whole new system of notation just like the old Gregorian.” At the center of these blocks of color is what appears to be a Eucharistic host from which the lines of colored blocks radiate outward. The Eucharist, it seems to suggest, is the center of the music. In Benedictine fashion Labat presents music as a potentially sacramental experience, the grace of which has transformative power.

On an elemental level Gregorian chant had a marked inspiration on the music and process. One blogger notes the chant-like quality of the lyrics of the opening track “We Are Crazy.” The lyrics come off as a Dada-esque Psalm. The whole album follows suit combining absurdism and sacrality. As Foucault commented on Magritte’s use of representation to transcend the very limits of representation in This is Not a Pipe, Labat stretches and reorders our conceptions of the holy with Dadaist interruptions; he likewise restructures our expectations of rock and roll with avant-garde interjections noting, “I didn’t want to be thought of as part of that world [of experimental music], catering to that special little audience. And I was really surprised that those people doing rock and roll were reaching so many people and making a living at it.” Just as monasticism is directed toward the discipline of reordering one’s life, Labat, preaching a discipline of the strange, reaches out only to reorder our sense of the limits of rock and roll. He urges us to create alternative spaces to live faithfully as monks in a monastery or as musicians in a studio.

The third and final part is to come…

(Image taken from: http://psychedelicbaby.blogspot.com/2011/02/m-frog-m-frog-1973.html)

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The following is part one of a three-part guest entry from Eddie Sloane. Eddie received his Master’s Degree in Theology from Xavier University, Cincinnati, in 2010. After a year as a Jesuit novice he returned to studying theology and is currently studying for a ThM at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN while preparing applications for entry into a doctoral program in the fall of 2012. His research interests include contextual and political ecclesiology, Appalachian studies, and theology and cultural practice.

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A recent visit to a used record store led to a chance encounter with three unique records: Yesterday’s Gone by The Montfort Mission (Reprise, 1967?), M. Frog’s self-titled album (Bearsville, 1973), and Destination: Love (Live! At Cold Rice) by The Make-Up (Dischord, 1996). What prompted me to buy these records was not the music, and the music, as enjoyable as it is, is not the subject of discussion here. Rather, it is the explicitly theological presentation of the music in the album art. The liner notes and art work of these records demonstrates the religious self-understanding, identity, and presentation of the artists. In each case the desire to make music is, for these musician, connected to their experience of God. Though not expressly ‘religious,’ the music is informed by a theologically structured worldview. Ultimately, three very distinct records with three very divergent sounds—folk, electronic/synth-jazz/psychedelic, and punk/post-punk (and presenting three distinct theologies)—find a unity in their willingness to situate themselves within a theological space.

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Rock and Theology is pleased to feature this guest entry from Andrew McAlister:

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My name is Andrew. I am a Christian who meditates. In recent weeks some of my fellow Christian meditators and I have been having an interesting discussion around Christian meditation, rock and popular music. The catalyst for our discussion was the question: would it be possible to create some kind of public forum in which we could explore rock and popular music from a Christian meditation perspective? The meditators working on this project are a group of Gen X and Gen Yers from the Australian branch (http://www.christianmeditationaustralia.org/) of the World Community for Christian Meditation (http://www.wccm.org/).

As Christian meditators living in what some consider to be one of the most secular nations on the planet, we would like to find ways in which to introduce the art and relevance of Christian meditation to people of our generations who may have walked away from their experiences of formal religion (often with good reason). Many of these people still consider themselves spiritual and believing in a Divine reality, often from within a broad Christian context. Perhaps they may be living a kind of spiritual restlessness, asking wonderful and normal questions largely apart from the richness of the shared restlessness that has been an important part of the history of Christian spirituality. Because of this, many may be finding expression for their spiritual life from within what has been named as secular. Secular, contemporary music is one such place. As a group we have experienced this ourselves. Some of us have walked a journey of spiritual restlessness and discovery through the discographies of our favourite musicians, both before and after our discovery of meditation. It may be possible to present to our fellow restless questioners – people who perhaps see themselves as separate from the Christian experience of God – a relevant understanding of Christian spirituality through an exploration of rock/popular music and Christian meditation. Also, in this exploration, it may be possible for our own understanding of meditation and Christian spirituality to be broadened and made more relevant.

Our discussions and wonderings have led us to settle on what we think is a good ‘hook’ or basic statement from which to launch an exploration. This is our hook:

‘We wish to consider some contemporary music that has in its lyrics and sounds themes that resonate with our experience of God and spirituality in meditation. We would then use these themes as a common point of reference from which to explore the contemporary nature of Christian meditation’.

One of our number, Adam, has set up a YouTube playlist onto which we have begun posting songs which appeal to us as possible catalysts for exploration. Have a look at: http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=F180AC6CD3F5AA2F. Currently there are 12 songs posted.

How could our hook be applied to the songs already listed on our YouTube ‘Rock and Christian Meditation’ playlist? One song recently added is called ‘Murmurs’ performed by the Australian band Birds

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In the midst of all the important things going on in religion and the larger world right now, is there room for another word on Lady Gaga? If influential theories of popular culture are correct, there is more reason than ever, because popular media culture — for better and for worse — contributes to creating an aural, visual and tactile “home base” for many people (including many religious people).

In a recent post, I asked who has been thinking theologically about Lady Gaga. I am happy to share with you, with the writers’ permission, three thoughtful responses. For those readers who are from younger generations, or who work with or are related to younger generations, perhaps these reflections will spark conversation.  Thank you to Jessica Coblentz, Maggi Van Dorn, and Rachel Bundang.

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Jessica Coblentz is currently completing a Master of Theological Studies degree at Harvard. She plans to begin a PhD in Theology at Boston College in the fall.

“A different lover is not a sin”—the affirming message about sexuality in Gaga’s “Born This Way” is quite amenable to the views of most young adult Catholics I know.  As such, the real theological impact of her work resides not in the content of her position on sexuality, but in her willingness to proclaim it.  As evidenced by the lyrics of “Born This Way” and this recent video clip, it is her ethos of “authenticity” that commands Gaga to say it.  And she’s not hesitant to articulate this “authenticity” in theological language, too.  As my generation engages Gaga’s unabashed performance of “authenticity,” hearing her imperative to revere this in others and responding to her command to go and do like likewise, I wonder how our theological conversations—about sexuality and any number of topics—will change.

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Maggi Van Dorn is currently pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School, with interests in art, spirituality and social justice:

You can’t deny that in all of her jaw-dropping regalia, Lady Gaga makes you look and think twice.  Fans respond to her performance art because it bears a message people are starving to hear – You are beautiful in all of your strangeness – in the way they need to hear it: acted out, performed, and ritualized.

While the church claims a tradition of unconditional love and integrated ritual practice, the explosive fandom of Lady Gaga reveals a big pastoral deficit in the way we practice love and acceptance, especially for those continually marginalized by church and society.  One would hope our efforts to understand, celebrate and love would be so provocative.

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Rachel Bundang, PhD is the ethicist on the Religious Studies faculty at the Marymount School in New York City, and a contributor to Rock and Theology.

Mother Monster, Our Lady (Gaga) of Freaks

I like Gaga and have a critical appreciation for her. True, her aesthetic roots lie in Madonna, disco, and Warhol, but she has real skills in music performance; one need only see her NYU student revues on YouTube as proof. By contrast, Madonna came from the dance world (early in her career, much was made of her studying with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey), so her notions of performance are rooted in the idea of body as expressive, visible, physical spectacle.

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I am happy to post this guest entry from the Rev. Mark Conforti. A Rock and Theology reader, he is a United Methodist pastor and a percussionist, having studied at the University of Florida, Duke Divinity School, and Wesley Theological Seminary.

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For several months, I have been eagerly awaiting the news about Dream Theater’s new drummer.  Like so many fans, I was shocked and confused when Mike Portnoy (who is widely regarded as one of the world’s premier rock drummers and also one of the main creative forces behind Dream Theater) decided to step away from the band.  So I was thrilled to learn about the band’s new documentary telling the story of the drummer auditions.

The documentary is being released episodically via YouTube – an intriguing approach to revealing a new bandmate!

All of the speculation around Mike Portnoy departing and a new drummer entering makes me curious about people entering and departing the Church.  Might there be an ecclesiological connection to the dynamics of a rock band?

The Dream Theater documentary gives clues to such reflection. The actual title, “The Spirit Carries On,” plays off of Dream Theater’s hit album, “Scenes From A Memory.”  The pneumatological insight is undeniable: to carry on, the Church is dependent upon the Spirit.

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