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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…)

In part 1 and part 2, I wrote about the changing character of my theology of scripture, specifically scripture as comprehended in reading. It remains to ask what the parallels might be between listening to music and reading scripture.

Reading scripture is usually for the purpose of trying to receive something from or through it. It is impossible to finally adjudicate what counts as a religious or spiritual or theological intention toward the text “going in,” and the same is true with what is taken away “going out.” There are too many possible readings and readers, too many angles on what counts as the theological material of the context, the intention, the experience, or the reception. This is not the same as saying that every possible act of dealing with scripture is the same as any other, or that theology contributes nothing to the figuring and the comprehension of such acts.

What reading scripture and hearing music have in common is that they are situated experiences: ancient, yes, in their pedigree, but also shaped by style — such as musical genre or religious tradition, racial-ethnic identification, sexual self-cosmology. What they further have in common — theologically — is the multivectored forms of sense-making that can be attributed to them: (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…)

I like listening to articulate musicians talk about playing. Steve Vai is one of those musicians. As he discusses what is involved in progressing in musicianship in this clip, I think once again of the entwinements of music and religion.

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Mr. Vai is talking about experiential forms of self-possession and -dispossession with reference to a reality that exceeds the musician. Here is the deep overlap with the techniques, askeses, and spiritual exercises that religions confect: Consent to what you really, perhaps despite yourself, want; be led by the imagination of a consummate, elegant performance; turn off all other noises and concentrate on the practice.

I did hesitate, however, when Vai says that the “only thing that’s holding you back is the way you’re thinking.” That statement might, given a certain (more…)

A few years ago I saw famed jazz clarinetist Anat Cohen play downtown in Manhattan at the Village Vanguard, finding myself utterly unprepared for what “jazz clarinet” might really entail. As the jazz unfurled, it entailed an intensely personal form of musical communication, laden with emotion, interjection, assertion, charisma. I read a story about her recently here — and was intrigued by her description that she can now play “as if it is part of my body.”

Though I am, by many orders of magnitude, by no means as accomplished on bass guitar as Cohen is on clarinet, I do know the experience of feeling like my Fender or Rickenbacker basses are an extension of my body. Only in the last few years have I really begun to feel like I am in a relationship to these basses, neck, body front and body back, strings, headstock, and frets, in a way that approaches something like a feeling of “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” to use the old biblical phrase. I think that I have been playing my way toward this relationship to my basses over the course of 27 years. When I stop to think about it, what happens in this relationship between my arms/hands/fingers and wood/metal/wire is something (more…)

The other night on Colbert, Paul McCartney reiterated the well-known story that the Beatles stopped performing live because they couldn’t hear themselves over the screaming. “We were musicians,” McCartney said, “but in the end we were sort of puppets on stage.” So they left the road and concentrated on the studio.

That got me thinking about a couple weeks ago, when I watched The Breeders on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. They performed “Cannonball,” which is a really chaotic song. What struck me was how static, motionless, and disengaged the performance felt. It was like they were going through the motions – hitting their right marks, but without life or any sort of emotional commitment.  After all this time, I think (that is, I hope) this is not the result of stage fright. Instead, it seems to me to be a studied indifference, an aesthetic of indifference.

(Fallon no longer has the clip available, but there is a recent performance of the song here.)

For a study in contrasts, I was pleased to run across this clip by 90s flash-in-the-pan Spacehog, recorded recently at NYC’s Mercury Lounge: (more…)

For those in the New York City area: Next Sunday 19 May, Trinity Rivertowns Church (mentioned earlier at R&T here) is hosting a forum called “Creativity and Trust: A Performance and Conversation on the Art of Improvisation.” The event, in Hastings-on-Hudson, will be moderated by Rev. Jim Kirk and will feature extraordinary musicians, likely well-known to many R&T readers, including John Patitucci on bass, Jay Azzolina on guitar, John Ellis on saxophone, and Rogerio Boccato on percussion. Here is the flyer:

The intriguing quotation on the flyer from jazz legend Wayne Shorter, “You can’t rehearse the unknown,” put me in mind of some remarks I made in a 2009 paper presented at the Catholic Theological Society of America’s Annual Convention. In that paper, titled “Give It Up / for Jesus,” I was reaching for ways to talk about the confluence of rock and roll and theological work as practices that are spiritually significant. Taking a seemingly different tack from Shorter, I suggested that in fact “You can rehearse the unknown,” and that both theological work and musical experience can help you to do (more…)

My friend J. sent me a link to an interesting website called Sacred Spaces in Profane Buildings. Check out the pictures there and see what thoughts they occasion in you. The website was apparently begun as part of a 2011 exhibit at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York City. During the exhibit, this call for submissions appeared:

Do you know of a secret-sacred building in your neighborhood?
Do you know of a shop that has become a Mosque?
Or an apartment that has become an Iglesia Evangelica?
Is there a prayer space in your block?

And, perhaps like our readers, I immediately thought of connections to Rock and Theology. Here, we ask things like:

How have you been saved/healed/freed/helped by rock and roll/hip hop/trance/pop/secular music/pop music/electronica/your playlist?

Are there rituals/practices/gestures/actions/performances in music/music cultures that seem to have a religious/spiritual/faith significance for you or for others?

Are there elements of faith/religion/spirituality/etc that seem to be musically/secularly significant?

What does the overlap/intersection/paradox/correlation/convergence of musical experience/culture and faith/religion/spirituality/etc mean to you or to your community?

Like the  Sacred Spaces in Profane Buildings project, we are attempting to catalogue the varieties of spiritual experience in contemporary culture — in space/place, like the Sacred Spaces project, but also in feeling, memory, imagination, and action.

What are the “sacred spaces” amidst “profane places” for you?

Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

A new book on “ordinary theology” has just been published, for which I co-authored a chapter with my Fordham colleague Dr. Patrick Hornbeck. The book is titled Exploring Ordinary Theology and is edited by Jeff Astley and Leslie J. Francis (Ashgate, 2013). “Ordinary theology” is a term that Rev. Dr. Astley popularized several years ago in a thoughtful and wide-ranging argument, in his book Ordinary Theology, for the existence of a theology operative in ordinary life that is both different from, and startlingly analogous to, the theology done in the academy. “Ordinary theology” is the faith that becomes evident through how people actually live, how they deal with their lives, what they take as most important, influential or personally significant.

I think this concept is very important, and is part of a family of concepts that look to “ordinary” lived experience to find the place that theological material matters in people’s lives… concepts like “lo cotidiano” and “popular religion” in Hispanic/Latino/a theologies, like “lived religion” in practical and historical theologies and sociology of religion. In theology from the UK, the study of “implicit religion” has been going on for decades, as well, and in the Philippines, Indonesia, Africa and other two-thirds world theological scenes, sometimes the theological literature on “inculturation” affords a deep appreciation of the theological significance of lived experience and everyday life. (In my reading, one ambiguity in the concept is how much of an explicit relationship to a founding theological figure, like Jesus (Astley’s work falls mainly within Christian theology), must be evident in order for one to have an ordinary theology, as distinct from, say, an ordinary spirituality, ethics, religion, etc — whatever those terms might mean.)

In Exploring Ordinary Theology, there are a variety of chapters that deal with different dimensions of theology seen in and through and from ordinary life. There are qualitative-theological case studies, explorations of theological themes from ordinary life, and more theoretical analyses of ordinariness in theology. The chapter that Dr. Hornbeck and I wrote is titled “Deconversion and Ordinary Theology: A Catholic Study,” and states our (more…)

The renowned Cambridge academic theologian and philosopher of religion Rev. Dr. Sarah Coakley has written at length about theology of prayer, spiritual experience, and spiritual knowing. In a recent 2-part interview for The Other Journal with SueJeanne Koh, Coakley discusses the cost and implications of becoming open in silent prayer. She emphasizes the surrender of perplexing and even disturbing material that arises in the disciplined practice of silent prayer, and commends communal prayer as an important support for the courageous, and literally en-couraging, submissions involved in silent prayer.

What occurs to me, on reading the interview (and the followup, part two, here), is how, in addition to the experience of silence, the experience of music shows up in people’s lives as a way that the self is handed over to something more, to an excessive “call” from a generous and generative beyond. Silence is perhaps profitably thought of not as the absence or opposite of sound, but of noise. Musical experience can generate an experience of internal silence and a contemplative mein. I do not know of studies that compare silence and musical sound as comparative practices of meditation or contemplation, but the question is an important one for contemporary persons who probably need more silence in our lives and who also might need a deeper spiritual appreciation of the (musical) sounds we value.

Silence is certainly a way that lives are spiritually transformed, as she argues, but so is music, which sometimes does not cancel silence but deepens it. This notion seems particularly connected to Coakley’s understanding that “prayer has everything to do with the erotic,” to which she adds, (more…)

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