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Catholics are big on pilgrimages. They love to take trips to holy destinations— birthplaces of saints, sites where apparitions of the Virgin Mary have occurred or churches housing religious relics. I have several friends who have gone on pilgrimages to places like Assisi, Italy; Lourdes, France; and even, Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina. All of them cherished their journeys. People seem to go on pilgrimages for a variety of reasons. Many to deepen their faith. Others for spiritual or physical healing. Some to educate themselves about history, religion and culture. Although I’ve never gone on an official pilgrimage I have been on monastic retreats, toured the California Spanish missions and visited numerous churches around the world.
Perhaps it’s my Catholic upbringing but I’ve always associated pilgrimages with religion. Until a few days ago. That’s when I heard about “Elvis Week.” This past August 16th was the 33rd anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. While I appreciate the contribution Elvis made to music, I’ve never understood the fervor surrounding his legacy. Regardless, for the past 29 years thousands of people have gathered in Memphis during the anniversary of his death for what is called “Elvis Week.” This year 40,000 people attended and participated in an array of activities including tours of Graceland, panel discussions on Elvis’s contribution to American music and culture, an Elvis impersonator contest (no, I’m not making this up) and, on the final evening, a vigil just outside the gates of Graceland where 20,000 fans stood in 100 degree heat holding candles.
We who are committed to theology can only theologize in and from our particular and even peculiar situations. Here’s a situation: a dance club or party. Here’s a song and video: “Freedom.” And here’s the artist: George Michael. Over the past several years at clubs or parties, I have noticed the role this song and video plays in giving at least momentary joy to many kinds of people (including me), and not only at the gay clubs one might readily associate with this music (but certainly there as well). Since its appearance two decades ago, this song has been in the background soundtrack for our culture, but I have been noticing how easily this song takes charge in party atmospheres once its synthesized high-hat opening greets you so politely. (Note: the video is not for kids.)
Here is a live version that plays up the gospel atmosphere of the tune:
I will repeat for the umpteenth time that one need not endorse everything possibly associated with this (or any) music to be curious about its power for holding interpersonal moments, whether club floors or basement bars. Some interpreters hear this song as Michael’s declaration of independence from the corporate music industry represented by MTV. Others hear a meditation on relationships. But what seems clear to me is that in the lived party moment, almost all are focused on that rousing gospelly declaration of “freedom” in the chorus. Does it hurt that it can also be heard as a gospel of resistance to codependence? “All we have to see is that I don’t belong to you and you don’t belong to me.” All who hear the message of freedom and live it beyond Michael’s music, with or without the assistance of theologians, are going to already transcend the limits of his particular struggles and the way the video positions the song, however many significant identifications there may be between fans and these fantasized elements of life and art. And would I be so wrong to praise the happy and happening bassline as a key reason this song succeeds musically? It leads the jive and groove all the way through, including laying down the staccato landing lights during the bridge (“I think there’s something you should know…”) most deliciously.
Like a good deal of popular music, “Freedom” is situated between sacred and profane: “It looks like the road to heaven, it feels like the road to hell.”
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
Posted in: Fandom,General,Grace,Secular Liturgies by Michael Iafrate on June 17, 2010
Columbus, Ohio punk band Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments recorded a song years ago called “RnR Hall of Fame.” Actually, it’s not so much a song as a furious rant over equally furious musical noise. The “song” includes the lyrics:
Bombs away on the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame / I don’t want to see Eric Clapton’s stuffed baby / I don’t want to see the shotgun of Kurt Cobain / I don’t want to see the liver of David Crosby / Blow it up / Blow it up before Johnny Rotten gets in / Blow it up before Paul Westerberg gets in / Blow it up before Steve Albini makes a speech / Blow it up!
(Listen to it here if you think you can take it.)
Such would have been my own opinion of the rock museum, say, ten years ago when my listening habits lay for the most part squarely within anti-rock musical circles that reveled in their obscurity and inaccessibility. Ohio art-punk bands in particular, such as Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, Harriet the Spy, and Guided by Voices, took cues from the mainstream rock playbook but ran them through the wash with cases of PBR and spit them back in the face of the rock establishment: Blow it up!
While in Cleveland a few days ago, I went with B to see the new Rush documentary, “Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.” I have at least two biases to report that will influence what I have to say:  I have seen a lot of rockumentaries;  I am an irrationally exuberant fan of Rush. That said, this was perhaps the best rock documentary I’ve ever watched, and it was certainly the most enjoyable.
The film takes you from the humble beginnings of Rush, in the Toronto suburbs, through their cultural coolpoint circa 1981, forward into their continued musical evolution in the 1980s and 90s, their several-year hiatus, and their 21st century resurgence into perhaps greater critical and popular appreciation than ever (judging from South Park, the Colbert Report, Rolling Stone, movies, musical awards, and much pop-culturish more — and, lest we forget, those staggering album sales, too (around 40 million sold, from some 38 total gold and platinum records)). (For a good overview, see their Wikipedia entry here.)
It was a thrill to see this substantial (close to two hours) documentary in the midst of a very appreciative Cleveland crowd, for whom rock and roll has long been a hometown passion. The crowd was as I would have expected: mostly white men, with some women scattered about, and almost all between the ages of 25 and 55. Rush listeners have been drawn from the ranks of creative types, scientific types, romantic loners, and musicians for several decades, and as guitarist Alex Lifeson jokes in the film, the audience’s makeup has stayed remarkably similar over that time. (But I can only make that observation based on U.S. culture; it would be interesting to do a comparative study of their fans across continents.)
I have written on this blog and elsewhere about the importance of Rush music for my own happiness and at-home-ness in the world. Many others derive similar consolation and motivation from other rock bands or genres of music. What I noticed most about watching this documentary was how immediately the eras of the band — whether measured in distinctive sounds, songs, albums, or outfits — brought out an emotional recapitulation of turning points in my own life. (I have written earlier on this blog about their song “Subdivisions.”) The salvific placement and healing meaning of these sounds are inseparable from the swampy pacing of my own life. This ever common, but always particular, experience of popular music fans is one of the most important reasons that theology must better understand secular music.
There were a few lineup changes at the teenage beginning of Rush, and their original drummer John Rutsey left after the first album, making way for Neil Peart. But once that trio of Peart, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson was in place by the mid-70s, they have stayed together for 35 years, and are preparing a new album and tour for this summer. Such permanence of creative and committed adult relationship is unusual in both rock and life, and as I sat drunk with delight in the dark theater, I was aware what a strange gift it was to have had my emotional, psychological, musical and spiritual life so interwoven with their music for over 30 of those 35 years. It’s a peculiar thing to have happened in a life and in a culture, but for hundreds of thousands of us, even millions, in North America and around the world, this is indeed what has happened. And it happens daily for millions in their own way. Thank the-artist(s)-formerly-known-as-God for that!
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
A few days ago, a Rock and Theology reader posted a playful commentary about the song “Red Barchetta” by Rush. This is a rock song celebrating what might otherwise sound like a mundane story: of the joy of being in a fast little sports car zipping around the open countryside, and of a mysterious uncle on a farm whose car it is, whose consoling company parenthesizes the story. Here are two videos of Rush playing “Red Barchetta” in the 1980s and recently. The first has a few words from drummer and lyricist Neil Peart talking about what cars can represent.
The comment from the recent post that caught my attention, however tongue-in-cheek the intention, was this subtle question: “What does the Red Barchetta make happen?” Around this question are framed various Christian interpretations, based on the “exitus-reditus” schema, the going-forth from God and the going-back to God, a going-out and going-back that can be said to “pass through” the world. This theological concept has given rise to centuries of interpretation about the “vehicles” God (and/as God’s Spirit) may take, and the travelers it may “pick up,” as God travels through the world. Hence the brief theological background for the question, “What does the Red Barchetta make happen?” (In other words, does it symbolize the divine passage through the world and signal that the very car-ness of this car says that it was built to travel from somewhere to somewhere, its mobility a symbol of divine dynamism?)
Much hinges on what we (cultural interpreters) ourselves make happen when we give such interpretations. Are we “preliminarily” playing with ideas in the Christian popcorn popper “before” they get served up for others? Are we giving the “real” (as “final”) interpretation of these cultural materials? My own position, in brief, is that in the game of making theological sense of cultural material, we are working with the materials we have from a psychological-cultural history, for this moment, in a process we neither own nor control.
Posted in: Fandom,General,Grace,Recommended by Michael Iafrate on February 18, 2010
Please forgive me for posting an Easter song on the second day of Lent, but this is one of the most gorgeous songs I’ve heard in a very long time. And it might just get me through these last days of what has been a brutal winter. It’s “Bells of Harlem” and it’s the last track from the new album A Friend of a Friend from Dave Rawlings Machine — which is what happens when Gillian Welch and her partner Dave Rawlings swap their customary roles.
Another humorous — and more uncomfortable — version follows the jump. Pay attention to the guy with the camera and what Dave does to him around the 2:05 mark. Let it be a lesson to rock photographers everywhere!
On Saturday night, I went to a rock show at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. On the bill were Orphan, Lights, and The Entrance Band. (I have written earlier about Entrance Band at Rock and Theology here.) With me was my friend C, who does not normally listen to rock. Here are two facts about the show: it was wicked hot. I mean really, really hot. And the Entrance Band was wicked loud. I mean really, really, really loud. As I have written on this blog, I have (finally) taken to wearing ear plugs at live shows in face of creeping hearing loss. But C had not anticipated how loud it might get, and it surprised me a little, too. He ended up tearing up tissue and stuffing it in his ears, and I think some of the marvel of the power of Entrance Band was thereby diminished. Leaving Brooklyn in the early morning hours, I thought about this experience, and was struck by how I had assumed it might get loud, had prepared for it, and had that loudness as part of the schooling in rock that was there for me. And how I was also quite willing to endure the intense heat as part of what constituted the experience.
Brian Robinette and I published an article a while back about the ways in which being overtaken sonically is a way in which rockish personae get shaped. The very force of the music, in many ways, including its dynamics, pressures the rock fan into a certain kind of enjoyment, sets the bar in a certain way for experience, and teaches how to be with difference, otherness, to calibrate intensity, in a way that becomes cemented into one over time through the experience of attending live shows, of losing oneself in a crowd, of submergence into a scene for a few hours. Withstanding intense sound and adverse elements (whether heat, rain, mud, or all of them) are more or less what one commits to in practicing well (or at least fully) the rock persona. I marveled at how connatural this had all become for me when compared to my friend’s musical tastes, but more than tastes, it is a matter of habits, but more than habits, of habitus, of a self able to expect and handle certain experiences due to choice and structure over time. I do not think I appreciated in my 20s how deeply this process worked, and in my 30s, once I began to get aware of it, through theological and musicological literature on reworking self and community through experience, it made the sense of what was happening even richer.
But not untinged by regret or a kind of mourning for the other kinds of musical experience, and the allied spiritualities they allow, that I will never experience. I cannot have the felt sense of bombardment and the desire for a very different kind of presence that my friend C did when at that show. I can learn it, perhaps, but not by unlearning the last 25 years of rock culture populated with dozens or hundreds of such shows. Theology, which cares so much for the trace of the impression that divinity leaves on our lives, learns something about the sculpting of sense from these rockish examples. And theology has its own words about why we trace these rockish waters over the rocks of our lives in the first place.
New York City, United States
Posted in: Grace,Rock and Theology Project by Tom Beaudoin on November 3, 2009
Rock and Theology is very pleased to introduce our newest contributor, Dr. Mary McDonough. She brings a truly unique background that provides her a productive vantage on the intersection of secular music and theology. Dr. McDonough has a law degree and served as a Legal Aid lawyer for five years. In 1998, she returned to school to study theology, earning her master’s degree from Mount Angel Seminary in 2000 and her Ph.D. in Ethics from the Graduate Theological Union in 2005, where she was affiliated with the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She has taught ethics as an adjunct professor in Montana. Her research interests include bioethics and the relationship between ethics and the arts. She is the author of Can a Health Care Market Be Moral? A Catholic Vision (Georgetown University Press, 2007). Currently she resides in Montana where she continues to pursue her research interests and also write fiction. She plays electric and acoustic guitar. We welcome her to R&T and look forward to her reflections on the overlapping cultures, so insufficiently denominated “secular” and “sacred”, that are the special focus of this project.
Posted in: Eschatology,Fandom,General,Grace by Michael Iafrate on October 28, 2009
When people ask me what “kind” of music I like, I tend to say something like “I like shit that’s good.” I’m not (usually) saying this in order to sound elitist, but just the opposite. When I was younger, I would probably reply that I liked this or that genre, at various points folk rock, grunge, hardcore, punk, emo, indie rock, alt-country, etc. Of course, I have always enjoyed music outside of these preferred genres, but I always felt that I could identify more with certain genres for whatever reason. As one gets older, I think, one’s musical tastes often broaden, become more “catholic” so to speak. I’m no longer comfortable identifying with particular genres — although I’ll always have particular affections for certain styles and sounds.
Negatively, this broader musicatholicity is due to a realization of the artificial nature of the boundary-drawing that genres represent, often driven by constructed racial and cultural categories in an attempt to make music easier to commodify. Perhaps the less we think of music as a commodity, the less we buy into these easily consumable divisions. More positively, this broadening of musical perspective is the result of what I’d like to call a deeper realization of the diversity of rock charisms that exist. While at one point I would have dismissed entire genres as “not for me,” I have come to see the world’s diversity of music/s, both within “Rock” and outside of it, as exhibiting unique “charisms,” i.e. secular-spiritual “gifts” or, more simply, certain sensitivities, types of perceptiveness, or “things they’re good at.” The wide range of musical families within that larger genre of “Rock” could be likened to the variety of spiritual families within Christianity, each bearing its own charism or gift for the church and for the world. What might these rock “charisms” be? Certainly the charisms are multiple within genres and overlapping among them. (more…)
Almost exactly ten years ago, I had just moved to Georgia, and I was sitting in Javamonkey cafe in Decatur, writing my PhD dissertation, and noticed that Amy Ray of the famous indie-folk group Indigo Girls had just walked in. She was obviously recognized by many of the locals, but was left alone. A few days earlier, I had been working at home and saw out the window a woman across the street hauling guitars to a small storage trailer hitched to a van. I soon found out that neighbor was none other than Michelle Malone, a rising star in the indie-rock-folk circuit.
Last night those neighborhood memories came back to me, when my wife and I saw Michelle Malone and the Indigo Girls live in a sold-out show at the elegant Music Hall in Tarrytown. Both bands write inordinately singable, memorizable, emotionally involving songs with a depth of heart, feminist punch, political savvy, and importantly, guitarish prowess. Not to mention vocal gifts that are among the most exquisite of their generation of women rock artists, or any rock-folk musicians whatsoever today. The result is beautiful, moving, rousing song after beautiful, moving, rousing song, whether the more earnest and socially conscious folk style of the Indigo Girls or the more gritty lost-and-foundness, and sometimes sexually provocative jammy blues rock of Michelle Malone. And both bands share out some exposed entrails of Christianity regularly in their music. Their songs seem to reflect and speak to those who find that they must deal with Christianity in their lives, for better and worse, and who cannot find institutional church life making sense in their lives. (As is well known, one of the Indigo Girls, Emily Saliers, is the daughter of Emory University theologian Don Saliers. The two wrote a book together a few years ago, A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice (Jossey-Bass, 2006).)
I have seen Michelle Malone in concert at least a dozen times, and am going to see her again this coming Wednesday in New York City. I had never seen the Indigo Girls live before. One of the remarkable things about seeing both of them is just how many verses, choruses, or entire songs the audience will enthusiastically sing along with them — and how distinctively female those gladsome and strong voices are. I had the feeling last night, as many hundreds of women, who were easily the majority in the audience, belted out song after song with the Indigo Girls, especially from their first several albums, that this is music that is genuinely a part of many women’s salvation — in the various ways that salvation might be defined.
While in Atlanta, and in the years since, I have met many women for whom the music of Michelle Malone, Amy Ray, and Emily Saliers has been an essential traveling companion. The advocacy of all three women for lesbian and gay political (and spiritual) equality is also an essential part of their musical and theological importance, and of their meaning for many fans. The Christianity one often finds “in” their music, is of the “secular Christian” sort that I have tried to discuss at various points on this blog. I have embedded one video from each that give some sense of the kinds of Christian themes that circulate through their music. I have also put in one of them performing together the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” It is not too much to posit that between them and their fans, new secular theologies get fostered.
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