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Some Notes on “Angel from Montgomery”

Posted in: Eschatology,General by Tom Beaudoin on December 4, 2013

I am thinking about the song “Angel from Montgomery.” Here is John Prine singing his original version:

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I am drawn to the ordinary imagery that makes up what the narrator of the song, a woman unsettled by her situation, reaches for as she tries to make sense of her world. “Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery,” she pleads. “Make me a poster of an old rodeo.” And then: ”Just give me one thing I can hold on to / Believing in this living is a hard way to go.”

Here is the Tedeschi Trucks band with their cover of “Angel from Montgomery” with a taste of Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia’s “Sugaree” following…

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The “angel” of the song wants much more from her life than she can have. In her reach back to the “cowboy” of her youth, and her chagrin at the years that have passed, you can sense the sadness of her desire running out like water onto the pavement. She is not done with life, but all around her it (more…)

Relationships Between and Beyond Logical Tellings

Posted in: Eschatology,General by Tom Beaudoin on April 29, 2013

Tonight I was listening to the song “Chemistry” by Rush, and thinking about its appeal to many different kinds of fans, and thinking too about its significance in my life across many iterations of my religious/spiritual identities.

I remember being moved as a high school student by this song, in its surrender — through science, not despite it — to the mystery of interpersonal connection, and finding therein a mystical significance for my life that was not opposed to rational thought. I remembered, too, an interaction with a psychology professor in college about the lyric in this song, “emotion transmitted, emotion received,” which he found significant, and which it took me twenty more years to appreciate — just how hard it is for an emotion to be transmitted and for that emotion to be received.

And this evening, after a few hours out with a friend of twenty years’ chemistry, and upon hearing this song in my playlist, I was thrown back on its heady understatement.

Which tunes conduct us into the relationships that are between and beyond logical tellings? I mean those that are most essential for our sense of ourselves, beyond logical telling, beyond storytelling, beyond and outside, amen. This is where “secular music” overlaps the most “spiritual theology” and admits that, in the end, there is nothing firm to be known other than surrender to more life.

Here is Rush with “Chemistry.”

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Tommy Beaudoin, Yonkers, New York

This post is part 2 to the part 1 recently posted on Lacuna Coil’s “My Spirit.”

This song is striking in being written from the vantage of the dead person. It is a bold move. In religious traditions, it is rare to take the vantage of the deceased when rendering an account of beyond-death. Lacuna Coil’s “My Spirit” communicates something significant about death: a sense of encompassing indifference, and of a profound relativization of life (“the fate, the hate, it’s all the same”) and of whatever comes next (“the gates of hell are waiting, let them wait a little more”). There is a certain insouciance, the song seems to say, in death.

What I like about this song theologically is its delicately agnostic/majestic and perhaps even mystical refrain, which can create a space for a wonder about the difference between life and death, but does not alight on any single interpretation about what lies beyond death. This is effected through the remarkable phraseology  that both indicates a direction and outlines a suspension: “Where, where I go….” These seem to me to be the key words in this song’s theology of post-death.

The compelling melody of the verse is, in a way, the whole message: “Where, where I go / My spirit is free, I’m coming home”. The home is not specified, neither is the endpoint of this freedom. “Where, where I go…” This event language is barely even that. But it is also a way of saying, as Cristina Scabbia essentially said in her introductory remarks: it is not as if nothing survives. “My spirit” is the incomprehensible language fitting to this experience of post-death.

And then, after these words, the lyrics shift to address those not yet dead, giving the admonition: “Remember me, but let me go.” In other words, do not think that you comprehend what happens next!

“Let me go” means not only “release me,” but surrender what you think “me” means. Dispossess yourself of “me” — into …. “go.”

And then there Scabbia’s beckoning background vocal, “You will become who you are.” Is it a gloss on the post-death testimony? Is it the blessing of (more…)

I like to stop in and look at churches whenever I can — and at temples, mosques, synagogues, whatever. I don’t know what compels me, but self-designated religious spaces have captivated me for a long time. Part of it is that I was raised to feel at ease in church, and it’s as if I can transfer that comfort to other houses of worship, and when those houses are really foreign to me, that comfort often becomes the gladsome “discomfort” of curiosity and wonder. And part of my preoccupation with all manner of temples is that I want to know what relationship to the infinite might be confected in this particular space. What might be opened up? What might be closed off? What spiritual possibilities are here, afforded by this space?

So it was that when I was in Tarrytown, New York this weekend, I was walking by Christ Episcopal Church, and decided to see if the doors were open and I could go in. They were and I did.

The banner reads "Come in 2 charge-up warm-up pray"--for those suffering from Hurricane Sandy's aftermath

All alone, I wandered around the sanctuary, eventually making my way to a stained glass window that intrigued me. At the top it read “Singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night.” Well! I could hardly think of a more a appropriate title for many of my musician friends, and for a part of myself as well: “pilgrims of the night.” Who is singing to welcome them, I wondered? What does this window tell us? At the bottom of the window, I read the rhyming conclusion of the stanza: “Angels of Jesus, angels of light.” Again, how interesting!

Here is a picture of the window:

I took a little time to think about it, standing in front of this window. It is dedicated “In loving memory of Elizabeth Waldron Remsen, July 7th 1890.” Who are these figures? What are these verses? Why does it call rock culture so readily to my mind?

The lower image is so evocative. Suspend the need for a skeleton key to the scene, and let yourself wonder what’s happening. What comes to mind? Are the figures shepherds who are visiting Mary? If so, and that’s her in the middle, she’s in great shape

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Continuing on my recent post on a scene from the film “O Brother Where Art Thou” with its famous song, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”….

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What I also notice in this resurrection scene, in which the “convicts” — Jesus/Soggy Bottom Boys — are coming out into the light, the footlights, public attention, is the hint of surprise of the resurrected at their new stage. They are a little bewildered, but they also know what to do; the singing they used to do under night’s cover now happens in a way connected more deeply with all beings across status — symbolized here by “crossing” race and bringing the community together (“these boys is integrated!”). It is entry into a new level of connectedness to all life, betokened here in the small ways that movies can afford.

In the Christian tradition, there are no canonical accounts of any detail about Jesus’ own feelings after being raised from the dead. Whatever your spiritual orientation, if you can place yourself in that story, what might that feel like? Wouldn’t it be

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When I started writing about theology and popular culture about fifteen years ago, I quickly discovered one phrase that, above all others, is called on to explain the pastoral rationale for churches or other religious communities engaging with popular culture: so as “to meet people where they are.” This is a pastoral translation of something like a theologically “correlational” approach to ministry. By “correlational” in academic theology, we mean an approach that tries to connect, or “correlate,” something significant from life (here, popular music) with something significant from faith (for example, a religious concept or biblical text).

This is what is understood as a “liberal” theological approach, and one that has been dominant or at least highly influential in pastoral circles in mainline Protestantism and in Roman Catholicism for nearly half a century. I probably used the “meet people where they are” phrase for a while, but pretty quickly I grew uncomfortable with it. Why? Because the men (and occasional women) with whom I was playing in bands did not generally want or need to be “met where they were,” and neither did many of my other friends for whom “secular” or “popular” music was an important part of their lives.

Once you try to explain that phrase to someone who is actually going to be “met where they are,” it becomes clear how paternalistic it can be. It suggests that the pastoral worker needs to come down from their basically settled position, and presumably later return to it, in between which they deign to reach out to those who are not on the normative perch.

Better phrased, it might go something like this: “Be willing to be met where we are,” which suggests the contingent and unfinished work of the pastoral worker’s identity, and the need of the pastoral worker for relationships with others, not

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Around 1:00 this morning, I got a text from Occupy Wall Street announcing that the police were massing to clear the park. Like thousands of others who got the notice, I watched the live feed on the Occupy website and then decided to head to lower Manhattan, but not before I took a little time to plan for the possibility of getting arrested. By the time I got down to Zuccotti Park a little before 3:00 AM, the police had cleared most of the protesters out (news reports say nearly 200 arrests were made), but some holdouts remained. I was part of a group of a few hundred behind a barricade at Broadway and Pine, a block away, as the police had blocked all access to the park except for some press. The crowd alternated between sober, festive, and restless as people struggled to get information about what was happening from minute to minute. For some reason, a few of us were permitted by police around 4:30 AM to go right up to the opposite side of the street from Zuccotti Park, and it looked as though everything from the encampment had been demolished and was being thrown away by city cleanup crews, and the entire space hosed down. I can only imagine that this includes the demolition and discarding of the entire Sacred Space Altar, which now exists only in pictures. The crowd, which grew slowly over the next two hours, was heavy on young people, but by 5:00 AM contained a good number of middle-aged folks (like me, I suppose) and some seniors, too. There were many songs and chants and conversations about what to do next. The word came that the religious leaders of OccupyFaithNYC were going to rally soon and that a new stage of the Occupy movement in NYC would come about as a result. Groups of hundreds of us made our way from Zuccotti north to Foley Square, where we held a General Assembly as the sun rose. The announcement was made that apparently Judson Memorial Church has opened its doors to help those displaced from Zuccotti Park, and I know that requests are being made of other churches in lower Manhattan to become something like a “sanctuary” for the Occupy movement, especially Trinity Wall Street. By early this morning, I had to leave Foley Square so I could teach at Fordham in the later morning. From what I can tell, things are now moving hour to hour, and this morning’s forcible eviction will no doubt only increase participation in the massive day of nonviolent direct action scheduled for this Thursday.

Just yesterday I was teaching the theology of Indonesian theologian Johannes Banawiratma, who has argued that churches not only imagine their action in relation to their local culture as consisting of Christians alone but, moving beyond a Christian “base community” concept — already a stretch for many North American churches — churches share a commitment to a transformed world with other religions and the nonreligious as well, and so should create spaces that generate local “human communities” grounded in a “spirituality of openness” that includes space for prayer, social analysis, immersion in local culture, and good pastoral planning of the sort that defenders of the “pastoral circle” have been defending for three decades. It is something very much like this vision that is going on in the Occupy Faith movement here in New York City: cooperation among not only Christian denominations but among religions, and between the religious and the nonreligious.

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While this is not directly on the topic of theology and music, at R&T we also deal with larger issues of religion and culture, and this one certainly qualifies:

I have been participating in Occupy Wall Street since 30 September (my first post about it is here), and was most recently on site at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan on Friday the 14th. (My post imagining Occupy Wall Street being applied to the Catholic Church is here, picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education blog here.)

Among other fundamentally irreversible influences in my life, it was my Catholic upbringing, Catholic religious education, and Catholic graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School and at Boston College, that laid the spiritual and intellectual groundwork for me to be able to recognize, in Occupy Wall Street, a possible shared work of corporal and spiritual mercy, a potential place for practicing solidarity, and a plausible habitat for more deeply and experientially learning and living love’s public name: justice.

(A word about the video above: while it is intended to make a point about the connection between democratic struggle in the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, I am uncomfortable with its selective presentation of police officers; I think it is crucial for the Occupy movement not to presume that all police are enforcers of repressive state policies or personally hostile to the movement. I hope the Occupy movement can start from an engagement with police officers that appeals to them as fellow working men and women, most of them with middle class and working class families. The Occupy movement therefore shares an interest in changing the political scene to improve their lives as well.)

Because of this Catholic background, I am drawn in particular to the practices and rituals that help those of us at Occupy Wall Street to appreciate and to try to act on reality. These actions and performances bear the movement’s theologies or spiritualities as much as any explicit statement on the part of any single person about what they do or do not believe.

There are lots of practices and rituals to notice on site: serving meals, standing with a placard, drumming, dancing, silk-screening shirts, browsing literature, listening, meandering, and many more. But I have tried to pay special attention to the Sacred Space area in Zuccotti Park that emerged soon after the occupation began. (I am not sure exactly when, or by whom, though I would like to find out.) (For some initial pictures, see here.)

Recently, the Sacred Space area has changed its shape a little bit, but it is still a place for a hodgepodge of symbols left by protesters, a place for people to think, meditate, pray, wonder, and talk, and only the most recent example of how Americans hold their religious pluralism and relate it to their political commitments. Theologically, there are many reasons to take this space seriously and with critical curiosity: the relationship between religious/spiritual imagination and political imagination is of interest not only to Christianity but to conceivably all religious and spiritual movements today. One of the basic theological questions is how a relationship to God, “God,” or some other ultimate name or reality bears on how one lives and the choices one makes. Theological questions are present moment to moment in Occupy Wall Street.

What follows are my pictures from Friday, with brief captions/commentary. Please, if you are sympathetic to this movement, consider helping Occupy Wall Street or any of the apparently now more than 1000 “Occupy” movements around the world. (If you cannot see the pictures, click the “more” tab below to see them.)

Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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On God, Briefly

Posted in: Eschatology,General by Tom Beaudoin on September 4, 2011

Given my reluctance to say much, directly, about God in these posts and in any of my publications, and my reticence to employ traditional scriptural supports, much less proofs, for a theology of God in any of my theology-culture analyses, readers (and friends) have found various ways recently to ask me what I really am thinking about God these days.

Here is the very short version, in the first person. A fuller elaboration or defense will have to wait for another occasion.

I more or less relate, in a way that feels real and that is connected to experience and practices, to a trust in a gracious “more” subtending life from moment to moment, and calling for more life.

That is “God” as I presently understand “God,” and this “God” is that which is worth calling “real,” and known under many symbols in multi- and non-religious perspectives.

But this “God” is more personal than I can wish or even dare to imagine, because every moment is gift; I am recipient of a life I did not invent and in crucial ways cannot control. And this “God” is at the same time more impersonal than I can realize or even tolerate realizing; life is finally so small and our concomitant wish for extra-human influence to save us from this smallness is so strong.

Human experience is the sum of influential relationships both conscious and unconscious, personal and anonymous, and my life seems to be headed toward a confrontation with myself that must also be a final integration of all of my relationships, which means a “reunion” with every love and fear, every worldly force on life that I have known.

I feel this way about loved ones in particular: I can say yes to an infinite soul-career in and beyond the universe with them, when I die, but this is purely hope. But if life is, as far as I can figure out, nothing more, it still adds up to a spectacular desire for life to participate in the power that made life this way.

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And because this is Rock and Theology, I wondered which song might best articulate my sense of God right now. It is probably “Faithless,” by Rush, from their 2007 album Snakes and Arrows.

For our readers, what is your own sense of God, and what music best describes it?

Tommy Beaudoin, in California

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Quote of the Day – John Maus

Posted in: Eschatology,Politics by Michael Iafrate on August 3, 2011

I really believe in the last ten or 20 years there has been radical art. People have done interesting things with pop, people have done interesting things with cinema, but in terms of having a militant political thought, our generation has got to be—so far as I can tell—one of the most reprehensible generations that has hitherto ever existed. We really sat on our hands, we really just sat on our hands. I could be making another caricature out of the ignorance, but the few tightly-controlled marches through the streets and these ridiculous satires that don’t come up against the limit of satires . . . And then some stuff on the internet, but no Molotov cocktails. If someone would make a medium of politics that could articulate an idea met with at this time, I think it would be met with enthusiasm. Met with enthusiasm on all sides. Then what happens, of course, is that all of our theory, and all of our revolutionary guile is put to work standing in line at the primaries to make sure Obama gets in there this next time round. I mean, couldn’t you just feel like you were being duped in that situation? Like, Yeah, he’s better than Bush, and yeah—it just goes on, it just goes on. I’ve completely lost any shred of hope that liberalism is our salvation, or that there is any hope of that way of thinking about human beings like that in the world. But I think that music can anticipate this world to come.

John Maus

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