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Nelson Mandela, Stephen Biko, Liberating Practice

Posted in: Christianity,General,Practices by Tom Beaudoin on December 9, 2013

Tonight in my “Foundations of Pastoral and Practical Theology” class at Fordham, I related the legacy of Nelson Mandela to the attempts of Christian theologians to make practices of liberation central to church life and theological tradition. Mandela, while (of course) far from a “perfect” human being, found it within himself to attempt to creatively heal and even outwit color- and culture-based forms of discrimination in South Africa. Here is Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu talking about Mandela:

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In class, I suggested that theologians committed to liberation can be understood to be intervening in restrictions on reality, trying to change situations that are too small for humans, attempting to facilitate new ways of being alive in scenarios in which freedom is circumscribed by material-spiritual want. In that vein, the funeral of Nelson Mandela affords an occasion to ask whether and how people and institutions that identify as religious/spiritual/etc are perpetuating inherited social stratifications.

In the realm of liberating practices must surely come the enjoyment of music that changes one’s life. In that vein, some politically aware anthems rise (more…)

Inside this lighthearted yet thoughtful take on the fact that Paul McCartney (who as far as I know was baptized Catholic, but never particularly active in it) was recently married to Nancy Shevell, who is Jewish, and had been married early in his life to another Jewish woman, Linda Eastman, is an interesting question.

McCartney has taken up the causes of his wives over the years, and David Yaffe of Tablet magazine wonders whether a new engagement with Judaism has influenced McCartney’s well-received new record, New.

Here is the video from McCartney’s single “Queenie Eye”:

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The question floating around the article that grabbed me was how we account for religious/spiritual/etc influences from relationships with significant others in music.

Yaffe half-jokingly hears a mitzvah in McCartney’s new music. What are we listening for when we listen for religious/spiritual/theological/etc influences? I don’t have any simple answers to this, but if McCartney is finding a new maturity in his music and life that is somehow related to Jewish influences, for sake of argument, then what are we to call the fruit of that interaction?

On the one hand, you might say it sounds like mitzvot, but on the other hand it’s something not quite that because it’s been channeled “outside” of (more…)

When I saw a news item a few days ago about the increasing attention being paid to a heavily-tattooed, “liberal, foul-mouthed preacher,” a Lutheran pastor, I was interested. Since then, I have been trying to catch up with the work of the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber.

I am interested in those who come into religious/theological/spiritual work from such rough-and-tumble backgrounds as Rev. Bolz-Weber, in how religions deal with innovations in thought, practice, and personae, or how tradition and innovation even come to be understood as such.

Here is Rev. Bolz-Weber telling some of her story to a convention center full of Lutheran teenagers:

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I was moved by her testimony about living within her own specificity and difference, and referring the power of that inhabitation to a rendering of divinity (here, God and Jesus). With what sounds like a feminist, LGBT-affirming message, I would imagine she gets substantial resistance as well as affirmation, and a dose of bafflement, in her denomination.

How do religions change? One way is at the symbolic level. Her convictions — and I am no expert on them — sound so far to me to be within the bounds of liberal Christianity. Her courage to articulate them and (more…)

Part 1 is here, introducing the idea of relating reading scripture to hearing music, searching for what is spiritually significant in both. My last post pasted in my appendix on reading scripture from my 2003 book, Consuming Faith. My writing of that appendix already signaled my realization that I needed to account theologically for my use of the Bible in that book. But I was not done thinking about what kind of reading produced what kind of theological knowledge, especially in this case of consumerism/branding and spirituality. So when it came time to write an updated preface for the paperback edition of that book (2006), I wrote this:


Preface to the Paperback Edition

The need for a paperback edition of Consuming Faith is a reminder that unbridled global American capitalism remains devastating news for much of the world’s poor, and that Christians and all people of good will have yet to feel this stranglehold for the violence that it is, not to mention voicing sufficient protest against it and imagining different worlds in the face of it. The occasion of this edition is but one tiny index of the absence of economic apocalypse toward which Christians, anyway, should be leading the United States.

This book was my attempt to show that corporate branding, a major feature of the young adult cultural landscape, should be a profound offense to those who hope to be worthy of the name Christian. Branding provides a structure for living similar to that of spiritual disciplines, and branding does so through an attempted and continually renewed psychological violence toward us, the “consumers.” And though the most ironic and media-literate among us may in some measure avoid this corporate address, no one can contest that branding depends to a monstrous degree on physical and other (more…)

What is the relationship between reading and hearing? How about the relationship between reading theologically ‘overcharged’ texts, like scripture, and hearing theologically ‘undercharged’ music, like popular music? In other words, how is theological material extracted from reading and hearing, by readers and hearers?

I was thinking about this recently as I reflected on some shifts in my own thinking about reading scripture. For my book Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are With What We Buy (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), I had written an appendix for the first printing about reading scripture, because by the time I had written the book, I realized how much I was relying on interpretations of scripture to carry the argument, and that was already becoming a place of puzzlement for me. By the time of the paperback, I had written a new preface revising my take not only on the appendix but what was in the book, as well. In one sense, these were my ongoing reconsiderations about reading scripture. I wonder what lessons they give, if any, about hearing music.

It may take me a few posts to being to open this up. Here is the “Appendix: On Reading Scripture” from Consuming Faith:


Appendix: On Reading Scripture

The one precondition for reading the Bible fruitfully is knowing how to read it.

I long ago gave up the idea that the Bible has one answer for anything. I confess to nausea at any mention of “a biblical worldview,” which has for many years now seemed to me like something between intellectual dishonesty and spiritual manipulation.

The Bible is a motley assortment of stories, poems, myths, hymns, letters, histories, and aphorisms that submit to no single controlling principle. Despite all attempts to smooth over the tensions, discrepancies, and contradictions in it, the heterogeneity of the Bible defies all attempts to reduce it to one program, theology, perspective, or worldview. Even calling it “the Bible” (literally, “the book”) can be the beginning of idolatry. (I much prefer (more…)

Last night in my class at Fordham on “Pastoral Planning,” a class about planning and evaluation practices for religious communities, we read and discussed Mark Lau Branson’s book Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change (Alban, 2004).

Branson, borrowing from business world planning theory called “appreciative inquiry,” argues that churches should not orient their planning around solving problems but around reaching for a new future emboldened by grateful remembering about what has given life in this community. The planning energy then gets centered around what people have received from the community, and how they might continue to do so in new ways, rather than what is going wrong. In part this is just a shift of emphasis from fixing the negative to deepening the positive, but in part this is a really different cast of mind about how to take the temperature of a religious community. Branson finds in the Psalms and in the Christian scriptural letters of Paul the warrants for the priority of gratitude and thanksgiving before lament and criticism.

(Branson does something interesting with Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where early on a series of “if” questions is posed or implied: “If there is any encouragement… consolation… sharing…” etc. Branson suggests that with the “if” explicit or implied, Paul means to ask his readers to search their memories for whether and how these experience might be true for them. I appreciated the attention of the rhetorical character of Paul’s letter-writing and Branson’s creative relating of it to communal decision-making, allowing contemporary communities to ask: Have we been this way? Have we (more…)

Tonight in my “Foundations of Pastoral and Practical Theology” class at Fordham, I taught about Gregory the Great’s sixth century classic, the Book of Pastoral Rule. In it, Gregory argues that pastors must become “student[s] of how to live.” In this short firework of a phrase is contained centuries of thought and practice about spiritual exercises in antiquity, attempts to explore and take up a different relationship to one’s “soul” through practices that take one both outside and into oneself: meditation, contemplation, reflection, imagination.

I had the thought today, while preparing class, that my approach to theology and music foregrounds such practice-minded techniques as Gregory’s while backgrounding the explicit God-related ‘content’ of those techniques. This has to do with a much bigger question about the relationship between form and content in general, and specifically in works like Gregory’s as well…. which has to do with an argument also about what spiritual exercises are and how they work.

As that argument is not best made in a short blog post (but maybe I will attempt it later), I will leave well enough alone for now. But suffice it to say that Gregory’s work reminded me of the ways that music has helped me learn how to live with reference to ultimate reality. And in that sense, pop music has been theologically significant for millions of fans and musicians.

A few years ago, Audioslave had a song that spoke to this: “Show Me How to Live.”

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The song was written (as far as I can tell) from the vantage of the crucified Jesus, which I appreciated theologically because it put so dramatically the (more…)

I have been following with interest the remarkable quantity and energy in the news reports about Pope Francis. Many, especially those that feature interviews with academics, take care to emphasize “tone” as distinct from “teachings,” as in: the tone has shifted, yes, and dramatically so, but teachings have not been altered one iota.

This is accurate, but only in the narrowest sense, and does not go very far theologically. Tonight at Fordham I was teaching the work of the theologian Seward Hiltner, who argued that in every discipline, and quite evidently in a trench-like field like pastoral theology, culture and faith exercise a potentially mutual influence on each other. Every theology, he underscored, is effectively a conversation between faith and culture, however explicit or implicit. This is most obvious when the theologian is theologizing “on the fly,” as a hospital chaplain does, but is just as true for any other theological field.

One corollary of such an approach is that one cannot maintain too strict a separation between “tone” (read: culture) and “teachings” (read: tradition/faith). Indeed, theological research into everyday belief and practice most often shows what social science theory would predict: that in “real life,” people who consider themselves to be religious or spiritual do so with respect to the tones of Christian leaders as much as any teachings. In a way, tones can become operative teachings. For example, if a religion teaches against same-sex relationships, but the local religious leader soft-pedals that teaching and instead actively welcomes same-sex couples and their children, then the “tone” has become the de facto “teaching” for many.

All of this reminded me of Phil Collins and Genesis. I don’t know how Collins’ music became so maligned in pop culture in the last couple decades, (more…)

Music as Important to Theological Life Today

Posted in: Christianity,General by Tom Beaudoin on September 6, 2013

While many people think of theology as concerned only for theories about God, or abstract speculations about the nature of higher realities, it is worth remembering that theology has meant many things in many traditions in many times. Among those meanings, I underscore one here: theology has referred to a way of experiencing life, a disposition toward or within life itself. So not only is theology a discipline of study, but a way to live. Indeed it is possible to speak of a “theological life,” as earlier Christian theological tradition has it, for example.

A “theological life” can be worth thinking about, because the notion opens up ways of thinking about what is most important, and can help us think about how we can deepen that. It is particularly potentially significant for the experience of music, because music is an essential part of so many people’s theological lives. Let me try to get a little more specific.

The pastor-theologian Wallace Alston has argued that there are six elements of the “theological existence” of the pastoral/church worker. (See Wallace M. Alston, Jr., “The Genesis of Theological Existence,” in Wallace M. Alston, Jr. and Cynthia A. Jarvis (eds.), The Power to Comprehend With All the Saints: The Formation and Practice of a Pastor-Theologian (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), pp. 3-15.)

I think these qualities are probably true for many musicians and fans of music as well (and also for academic theologians!), and I would like to give an interpretation of them. The categories are from Dr. Alston; the elaboration of them is my own. The application to specific musics will, R&T reader, have to be yours!

[1] an awareness of mystery – a sense that you are related to a power of an encompassing reality that is here now, given, gracious, available; that you can and do participate in the most real reality, of a power of the whole of what is, that is both incomprehensible and thinkable; both infinite and intimate. This awareness of mystery gives us respect for what the Christian theological tradition calls “learned ignorance” – the idea that intellectual humility is a path to divinity, not through avoiding learning, but precisely through the risk of education, which invites us by stages to transcend whatever it is about ourselves that has become too small for us, that has become inadequate to the mystery.

[2] an acknowledgment of claim – from and in that mystery, a recognition that our lives are not our own; that we are responsible to a larger reality (more…)

One of the double edged graces of my life as a missionary is that of diving and delving into different cultures – that disconcerted sense of feeling the ground move beneath your feet: ‘the way things are done around here’ is not quite the same as where I am from, and yet not very different… especially when the language is the same! That the Spanish or the Italians see the world diversely  seems normal – language is a lens – but that Ireland and England be so very, very different, surprisingly (I know!), was a shock for me. The US was fun: we have a history of liking each other across family, friends and fights about English spelling.  And now that I am in Australia, forewarned that it would somehow be a cross between Ireland and the United States, here I am once again finding my feet, or rather learning to swim!

So I am looking out for keys of comprehension, and as I teach a course on “Signs of the Times”, I try to lead students to listen for God (also) in and through music, in the hope of discovering something of Australia’s sensibility as I do so.

My thoughts move in the following direction: sometimes I hit on a song that paints a culture, and in particular how they ‘feel’ , or otherwise, God, faith, Christianity (before and/or underlying how they think it).

One of the clearest expressions of English culture, for example, for me, has been this one: a song about a guy dealing with the death of his father, (more…)

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