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Posted in: Agnosticism,Atheism,Fandom,General,News Items by Tom Beaudoin on February 12, 2013
I was recently interviewed by journalist Martin Buzacott for this ABC radio special from Australia, “Woodford and the Quest for Meaning,” about the Woodford Folk Festival. If you have a chance to listen, I hope you find it interesting.
Here is a report from the 2011-2012 festival:
Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
Posted in: Agnosticism,Atheism,Christianity,General,Musical Performance by Tom Beaudoin on February 9, 2013
A few weeks ago, I was sitting at Joe the Art of Coffee on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, and this relatively new song — “Every Man Needs a Companion” — came on over the speakers (presumably through one of the barista’s playlists). I had never heard it, but I was taken up by the singer’s vocal aura. It turns out it was Father John Misty, also known as Joshua Tillman (formerly of Fleet Foxes). Check out his recent performance of the song here:
When the line about “Joseph Campbell and the Rolling Stones couldn’t give me a myth” filled the cafe, a few heads turned, and at least one woman smiled in acknowledgment. It reached me, too.
This is a song registering a deep struggle with what we have come to think of as religion, and I think it does speak and will speak to many precisely for that reason — or what I should say is: for that reason only because of Father John Misty’s affecting rendering, redolent of an ache that dances through each lyric phrase.
He mentions some major candidates for the religious attention of people in our culture: the Bible, Joseph Campbell, and the Rolling Stones. Because we make a fair number of references to the Bible and to classic bands here at Rock and Theology, let me say a brief word about Joseph Campbell. Professor Campbell (1904-1987) was a celebrated scholar of mythology and comparative religion who taught for several decades at Sarah Lawrence College. His work is now somewhat out of vogue, but in the 1980s and ’90s he achieved a (more…)
Posted in: Agnosticism,Atheism,General by Tom Beaudoin on February 4, 2013
Here is James’ new song “A New Life” from his new solo album “Regions of Light and Sound of God.”
In the interview, James says that “I don’t really believe in a God, like a white man with a beard in the sky.” I would hasten to add that lots of people who profess belief in God don’t believe in that kind of God, either.
Indeed, according to theologian James Fowler’s famous study, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (Harper and Row, 1981), the more mature stages of faith in human life progressively de-anthropomorphize God. Many who avow theism from different religious traditions show that one can dispense with a “grandfather God” and still retain belief in divinity.
However, this should not lull thinking people into intellectual/spiritual complacence or an unearned sense of superiority. As psychoanalyst Ana-Maria Rizzuto found in her research on God-images, published as Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study (University of Chicago, 1979), images of God are typically constructed out of early relationships to primary caregivers. Even a “nonanthropomorphic” image of God might still have a relationship to, and emotional embeddedness in, an early significant other as part of its genealogy. This is not to reduce “God” to parent(s), but to acknowledge that James’ tired invocation of (and denial of) the “white man with a beard in the sky” is not so easily dispensed-with.
There is also, importantly, the racial dimension, the “white man.” As a substantial raft of literature has shown in recent decades, images of God are saturated with racial over/undertones in the U.S. context. God is as racialized as American society is. To disbelieve in a “white man” as God does not mean necessarily to have graduated from a racialized God. That may be one of the most difficult things of all to do.
With reference to Jim James’ taste for gospel music from the 1970s-early 80s, he says that “most of the music I do enjoy, they do it (more…)
Posted in: Agnosticism,Atheism,Christianity,General,News Items by Tom Beaudoin on February 2, 2013
I was listening to “Ocean” by King’s X recently, and thinking about how metaphors of, and deep experiences in, nature are central to the experience of the narrator in the song. We hear of the “ocean,” “sea,” “mountain,” “valley,” “sun,” “snow,” and “desert.”
These ways of imagining what is most important in life, these “theological materials,” are common in rock culture, which often takes its distance from official religious language and concerns. But nature as a depth orientation for life is also found across a variety of religions, spiritualities, and philosophies.
It is also an important part of the identity of being “spiritual but not religious” today in Western cultures. So I was interested to hear about a new book by Rev. Lillian Daniel, titled When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough. The book was published a few weeks ago; I have not yet read it. I watched this report about her on Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, specifying her criticism of people who call themselves spiritual but not religious.
I was surprised to see a pastor, especially of a progressive congregation, carelessly attacking people who so identify, in a mocking and condescending tone. She sneers at “spiritual” people who say that they find sunsets meaningful. I can imagine that she and others who agree with her would find King’s X’s recourse to “ocean,” “desert,” and “mountain” to be greeting-card pathos because God is not invoked and the demands of a religious tradition are not avowed.
Sometimes I hear some of my fellow and sister theologians in the academy say similar things, and I hear it from ministers with (more…)
Posted in: Agnosticism,Atheism,Buddhism,Christianity,Fandom,General,Hinduism,Islam,Judaism,Post-Catholicism by Tom Beaudoin on January 1, 2013
There was a fairly long moment (as pop culture moments go) in the mid-1990s that — across a good number of musical-cultural differences — Alanis Morissette was “cool.” I learned about her music through hearing her song “You Oughta Know” everywhere, seeing the video on MTV multiple times,
and purchasing her Jagged Little Pill CD at a CD store near The Tasty in Harvard Square (Cambridge, MA) and playing it constantly. I thought that every song on that record was a beautifully crafted work of pop revelation. As I listened to her interviews, I sometimes disagreed with the way that I thought she melted “new age” psychology into religion, but I also respected and was intrigued by the earnest and searching quality of her attempts to put the pieces of her life, faith, belief together… and to risk that searching in public.
By the late 1990s, the zeitgeist had moved on to other artists, but like hundreds of thousands of other fans, I continued to follow her music and, when I could, her life and interviews. I frequently found songs that invited me into reflective states occasioned by a reflective, regretful, celebratory, or uncertain lyric. Not all her music of the 2000s caught my attention; I wished she had kept the rock aesthetic and bombast that drove “You Oughta Know” and what I considered some of her other strong songs, like “21 Things I Want in a Lover,” “Uninvited,” or “Baba.”
I have noticed that Morissette describes herself Holy mother of God!! Have you seen her perform “Baba” live? Check out this performance from a decade ago that opens with scenes of her backstage with her band:
Morissette has described herself as “post-Catholic.” She has talked about her transformative travels to India. She speaks openly about the Dalai Lama, and acknowledges her interest in Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions, as well as the debt she owes to her Catholic upbringing for how she is moved by the excellences of ritual. She speaks frequently about therapy and healing (more…)
Posted in: Agnosticism,Atheism,Christianity,General,Protest,Theological Production by Tom Beaudoin on May 31, 2012
Students of popular music and theology learn two things quickly: first, that religion, faith and spirituality have had a lot to do with the origins and ongoing vitality of rock and roll; second, that rock and roll has sometimes had critical, negative, dismissive and otherwise derogatory things to say about religion, faith and spirituality. I think that both aspects of this relationship are important for grasping popular music and theology in some depth.
This thought came to me today after I did an interview for a news organization writing a story on the latest round of conflicts between U.S. Catholic bishops and those who disagree with them about Catholicism’s public stances on contraception, religious freedom, and Catholicism itself. The interview focused on my interpretation of an ad by the Freedom From Religion Foundation strongly criticizing the Catholic Church and inviting Catholics to leave.
During and after the interview, I thought about how understandably difficult it can be for religions and religious people to hear criticism, especially blunt criticism, of what is held dear. I know what it is like to react defensively and dismissively when it feels like someone is trying to pull the rug I know and love out from under me. This is especially true if the very way that criticism is communicated contradicts “appropriate” forms of address.
All of this put me in mind of the song “Judith,” by A Perfect Circle.
It is probably very hard not to hear this song as a blunt attack on Christianity. Here are the lyrics as taken from the Perfect Circle website, and I’ve added a few in brackets that are sung but not listed here:
Posted in: Agnosticism,Atheism,Christianity,General,Grace by Tom Beaudoin on May 24, 2012
Robert Plant’s cover of Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness, Darkness” has lived close to my conscious awareness ever since I first heard it about eight years ago.
Here is the official video:
Here is Plant performing it live:
And here is Jesse Colin Young performing it recently:
“Darkness, Darkness,” sounds to me like a prayer for darkness, the kind of darkness that is promising in its uncanny, half-welcome air, a reach of the hand into the unhanding, with no guarantee of what is to come. This is one way that the Christian theological tradition,
Posted in: Atheism,Christianity,Fandom,General by Tom Beaudoin on October 19, 2011
Last Saturday night, folk singer and guitarist Dar Williams played a show in Hastings-on-Hudson at the Purple Crayon performance space. The Purple Crayon is a former Catholic church turned concert venue that I wrote about last March at R&T while exploring “When a ‘Sacred’ Church Becomes a ‘Secular’ Live Music Venue.”
Williams played to a sold out crowd (a few hundred) and commented on the space’s transition from a church to a community center and concert venue. She suggested that the overarching purposes of the space may have changed, but something of the mission is shared between its old and new uses: “A lot of person to person ministry happens” in live music venues, she said.
One of the oldest definitions of ministry is also one of the oldest definitions of theology: the “care of souls.” That is certainly the defining action of any church, and I think Williams was right to characterize live music venues as places where such “ministry” happens, as well. By the deep attention given to her music, especially from women between 30 and 50 years old, it was readily evident that “soul care” was on offer. But not only between musician and fan, but between fans themselves. Fan culture in popular music is replete with tales of friendship built around a concert event.
I have been to enough shows by the Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, Michelle Malone, and Ani Difranco (or for that matter, Alanis Morrisette or Erykah Badu or Tori Amos) to begin to sense the ways that women musicians create conditions for women to better care for each other’s souls, by creating narrative soundscapes that can house women’s stories — and for most of these artists much of the time, also being generous and deeply human enough to also house many men’s stories. I well realize that not all women are into “women-identified” musicians (going to a Lacuna Coil show, for example, with its lead singer Cristina Scabbia, or an Evanescence show with Amy Lee, seems to work somewhat differently in terms of that intra-women ministry — but that’s just my gut sense, and I would be happy to be wrong about any of this). But I know this topic is interesting to other of our contributors and no doubt also to our readers, so I will be curious about what others have to say.
I also want to comment briefly on Dar Williams’ song “Teen for God.” It’s a tune about her intense dalliance with Christianity as a teenager.
(Here is Williams telling a theological story and playing “Teen for God” at the venerable Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts…)
It includes a verse about the ways that her teenage God could not have met her college self with any sufficiency, could not have survived the deep doubts she had as she grew up. I heard this song on Saturday night for the first time, and thought, yes, it was good and necessary and more or less inevitable that she would and should shed that God of her “teen for God” time, and it is true that more people are working from their teenage God than they can admit and would do well to graduate from that religious atmosphere. But the knowing laughs in the audience about the intense teen-God experience and the
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
In my 2008 book Witness to Dispossession, I argued that an honest confrontation with the kinds of domesticating and dangerous power that circulate through Christianity (including the kinds of power that lead to abuse or to the over-stable construction of religious subjects who find themselves unable to change or grow when they need to), the kinds of power that keep people silent about their own internal dissent or simply their felt multiplicity and complexity, that this kind of awareness and confrontation makes possible, and theologically defensible, a state of “dispossession.” By this, I meant that those who picture themselves as Christian can continue their Christianity by and through the risk of continuing out of it; that one tests and defines the kind of Christianity one has had, and the relation to “God” that one has been allowed, by what and how one is willing to hand over that identity, parcel by parcel, and eventually, all of it.
This has been read by some reviewers as too radical (or perhaps too undialectical) for anything that might count as theology. Other reviewers, like Jeremy Carrette (Theology Today, Jan 2010) and Gerard Mannion (Theological Studies, Dec 2009), while critical of some aspects, have positively reviewed the overall approach. I understand that it can be hard to see how such a position comports with a traditional theological perspective, because so much Christian theology is oriented rhetorically toward affiliation and emplacement in religious communities and institutions.
But recently a graduate student called to my attention a nice quotation from a commentary on John’s gospel that illustrates something of the theological-spiritual conviction underlying my approach. Glossing John chapter 11, the raising of Lazarus, the authors make a point that others might find useful: “Real love for God includes the willingness to sacrifice everything to God, without knowing whether or how one will get it back.” (Ernst Haenchen, Robert Walter Funk, Ulrich Busse, John: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Hermeneia, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984, p. 57)
So it is with dispossession. Indeed, a more radical conceptualization than this is opened by this very conceptualization: one can keep this “God” space open, so that one is finally not sure what one loves, or rather, with Augustine’s great question, one allows oneself the wonder of asking “What do I love when I love my God?”
This approach of dispossession is different from a theological approach that advocates that one “hold on to” essentials of the faith in order to get into conversation with others or to be a religious self per se. I believe this is also consistent with mystical trajectories inside and outside of Christianity. Dispossession is not a mandate, but an opportunity for those who find themselves beyond their tradition’s resources in coming to terms with the shadow sides of what we call religion.
Tommy Beaudoin, New York CityNext Page »