Recent Posts

Recent Comments



September 2017
« Jan    

Several of the contributors to Rock and Theology wrote chapters for a book that has just been published, Secular Music and Sacred Theology (publisher page here, Amazon page here), a book that looks at different ways that popular (hip hop, punk, early rock, metal, and more) music can be spiritually/religiously/theologically significant — without reducing music to being merely a “tool” for religion. As the editor of the book, it was my responsibility to show the argument that the book as a whole is making about the relationship between theology and music, and I tried to do so by grouping the chapters according to three distinct ways in which the authors find in music something that is theologically meaningful. Here is an excerpt from my “Introduction” to the book, outlining those three ways and giving a sense of what is in the book:


In the first section, “Theology Through Artistry,” the authors situate the theological significance of music in relationship to the creative process of artistic invention. David Dault juxtaposes the music of Lou Reed with the theology of Karl Barth and the art of Yves Klein, so as to show how all three artists create works that try to name what exceeds naming. The ancient theological question of whether God can be comprehended in human terms is turned by Dault, in his chapter “To the Void: Karl Barth, Yves Klein, and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music,” into a triptych of rock and roll, theology, and visual art, all trying to let that which is profoundly other appear through their respective mediums. In the process, we are sensitized to the analogies among these forums of artistry, and while theology is not assimilated to music and art, it is located by Dault on an evocative map of family resemblances across genres for experiencing what cannot be grasped. Maeve Heaney, in “Musical Space: Living ‘In-Between’ the Christian and the Artistic Callings,” also finds juxtapositions to be a productive site for theological exploration. For her, the life and work of the artist houses a key tension in music culture that is theologically significant: the calling to be a Christian and the calling to be a musician. Heaney works with statements from musicians about their art and their faith, weaves in her own experience as a Christian musician, and finds in contemporary theology resources for making sense of these distinct and yet complementary callings. The deeper one goes, juxtapositions become comparisons, and comparisons become exchanges, or occasions for pursuing places of spiritual convergence and divergence. Through it all, the tensions among callings will be the place for theological work. Thus we have two different takes on why and how one can make musical artistry the center of theologically interested exploration.

The second section of the book, “Theology In Community,” investigates ways that music helps create communities of heightened moral consciousness. Michael Iafrate’s chapter “More Than Music: Notes on ‘Staying Punk’ in the Church and in Theology,” finds punk rock, and especially the ethics of punk culture, to be a robust place for theological appreciation and criticism. This is so especially because the personal and social commitments of punk and theology frequently coincide, and a theologically aware punk ethic can even help ground everyday adult life and the practice (more…)

I am very happy to announce that the new book Secular Music and Sacred Theology has just been published by Liturgical Press. We will have a lot to say about this book in the coming months, and we think it is a book that Rock and Theology readers — and all who are interested in creative thinking about the relationship between theology/religion/spirituality and popular/secular music — will enjoy.

Secular Music and Sacred Theology is available in paperback or e-book format, and features many authors that R&T readers will recognize, each of whom write about how to relate theology/religion/spirituality to rock and roll/hip hop/secular/popular music. The authors include: David Dault, Maeve Heaney, Daniel White Hodge, Michael Iafrate, Jeff Keuss, Mary McDonough, Gina Messina-Dysert, Christian Scharen, and Myles Werntz. I edited the book and wrote the opening, introductory chapter.

This book will challenge readers to further clarify our thinking and to examine more deeply our own experience. It continually gets to the question: Why is music spiritually significant?

Please celebrate with us as we send this book out into the world, hoping it will connect!


This week, a book is being published that features an array of authors writing about how their relationship to certain saints helps them navigate the Catholic Church and its crises today. The book is titled Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero (HarperCollins, 2013), and is edited by Catherine Wolff.

In it, you will find chapters by renowned theologians Lisa Sowle Cahill (on Mary Magdelene) and Charles Curran (on Bernard Haering), respected Catholic public intellectuals like Joan Chittister (on Hildegard von Bingen) and Cathleen Kaveny (Mother Mary MacKillop), and some very well-known Catholic writers, like Mary Gordon (on Simone Weil), James Carroll (Isaac Hecker), and Colm Toibin (Gerard Manley Hopkins).

My chapter in the collection is on Ignatius of Loyola, and is titled “Curated Free-Fall.” Here is the opening of my essay:


Some twenty years ago, in Kansas City, Missouri, I was on a religious quest in young adulthood, trying to reconnect with the Catholicism of my youth while tasting other religious fruits. The beginning of my attempt to reconstruct my faith was playing in a Christian rock band sponsored by a Pentecostal church. In that band, the women outnumbered the men, and as I look back, women were crucial traveling companions on my quest, although I never dated Catholics. Protestants, Jews, agnostics, atheists, yes. A Jewish girlfriend challenged me that I knew nothing about Jesus if I had not been to Israel and studied the Torah. So I traveled to Israel, hoping that getting close to the monotheistic “source” would help me figure out what was true about religion as much as which religion was true. Two other girlfriends took me to two different Southern Baptist churches (this was Missouri, remember), and I started to learn about the Bible and a personal Jesus. Just for good measure, my most influential professors in college were robust atheists. For a suburban Catholic, this was a lot of re-sorting in just a few years. A new stage of my religious education was underway, but I was confused about where this left my Catholicism.

The religious part of my life has for a long time been complemented by the rock and roll part. The conclusion of my childhood (more…)

In light of the recent discussions on this blog as to what, exactly, we might call the “definition” of rock (see here and here), I was struck by an interview this morning on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Audie Cornish interviews the band Miracles of Modern Science, and the lead-off to the story deals with the fact that they don’t look like a rock band (nary a guitar in the group), but they play “rock.”  At one point, a member of the group notes that — because of their instrumentation — they often get mistakenly booked with folk acts, and when they take the stage they completely destroy the quiet vibe of the room.

“There’s sort of a thaw in the music community now between people who play classical music, or whatever you want to call it — concert music, art music — and what we do in music clubs,” says Geoff McDonald. “And that’s a really great thing. You see lots of people doing imaginative things from both sides of what was [once] a divide.”

What do you think?  Are they a “rock” band?  A “folk” band that plays with rock-like intensity?  Something else entirely (like performance art)?

Take a look at this video for their single, “Eating Me Alive,” and let us know what you think.



David Dault, Memphis, Tennessee

Several people have asked whether I might say a bit more about biblical scholar Avaren Ipsen’s recent book, Sex Working and the Bible, which I began to discuss in this recent post, so I will go ahead and do so here:

Ipsen’s basic approach is to provide agency for marginalized readers of the Bible not only on account of their marginality but also on account of their paying the price for problematic or even destructive attitudes that other readers of the Bible have encouraged. More specifically, Ipsen is not only a scholar but an activist for sex workers, and she gathered a group of sex workers in Berkeley to read the Bible together, focusing on stories of sex work. Ipsen argues that the perspectives of sex workers help unlock important meanings in those stories because they share in the kind of labor to which scripture is referring, and because sex workers have been subject to the kind of dangerous attitudes about sex work that the Bible has had a hand in fostering.

Why not leave the interpretation of sex work in the Bible to the scholars, even feminist scholars? Ipsen adopts feminist standpoint theory to argue that all readings of the Bible are given from interested and contextualized perspectives, therefore all readings potentially participate in the ideologies of the readers and a fruitful and frank exchange of readings, where standpoints are increasingly foregrounded, is a useful way to get to readings of scripture that are more freeing for more readers. There is a somewhat buried theological point here that is never fully explicated: that on its own best terms and as penance for the wrong it has enabled, the Bible deserves to be read as a document that enables truly “good news” for its readers and all those influenced by its readers. One cannot understand “good news” a-contextually; the adoption of a standpoint, which only comes through awareness of the socially conflicted character of one’s position in the world and as a reader, keeps any single definition of “good news” from prevailing ahistorically and anti-contextually.

So Ipsen reads the stories of Rahab (Joshua 2 and Joshua 6:22-25), Solomon and the prostitutes (1 Kings 3:16-28), the “anointing woman” (John 12:1-8; Luke 7:36-50; Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26:6-13); and the “whore Babylon” (Revelation 17:1-19:10). She reads them together with sex workers in Berkeley and they try to make sense of these stories from the sex worker standpoint, and they ask what is “good news” in


I just finished reading a challenging and creative new book by biblical scholar Avaren Ipsen, called Sex Working and the Bible (Equinox, 2009). I will post a few thoughts about it soon, but for now I want to highlight some references Ipsen makes to hip-hop as it helped her think through some theological questions.

One of the book’s chapters investigates how to interpret the figure of the “whore Babylon” in the book in the Christian Bible called Revelation. One of Ipsen’s tasks in Sex Working is to correlate interpretations of sex work in the Bible from two perspectives: those of scholars and those of actual sex workers. When she gets to the “whore Babylon” in Revelation, she wants to think about how the language of “whore” might be functioning in its historical context and today. Does this image contribute to a freeing life for its hearers and those influenced by this text, or does it repeat hate speech in destructive ways? Why is Babylon, typically taken in ancient and contemporary perspectives to represent Rome, called a “whore,” and what is at stake in retaining or rejecting this language today? Such questions are especially acute because the Bible is potentially dangerous on this matter. As Ipsen carefully details, this “whore” is stripped, eaten, and burned in Revelation 17 — by God’s command: “And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose…”

Ipsen wonders if the “whore” language should be read as an ambiguous kind of parody of imperial power, flinging back at Rome a hate word in circulation in the ancient world, and possibly signaling that prostitutes were part of the community associated with Revelation. She gets this idea from hip-hop.

In Ipsen’s words, “The main reason I attempted a reading that inserted prostitutes among the oppressed community of Revelation is because of my own upbringing in the underclass within the revolutionary left. The men of my ghetto childhood were often in a very unstable solidarity with the women […] But with a lifetime of hearing the reverse slander of calling oppressive leaders and institutions ‘whores,’ Arundhati Roy, Dead Prez and Tupac Shakur gave me the idea of analyzing the whore metaphor in this same way as


On Antisocial Virtues

Posted in: Christianity,Dialectic,General,Recommended Reading by Tom Beaudoin on June 15, 2011

In Harper’s Magazine last year, philosopher Alain de Botton wrote an essay called “Improvable Feasts” in which he characterized a part of Christian tradition that I think gives an important bearing for comprehending secular music cultures, especially in their antinomian, nihilistic or decadent gestures, tendencies, or experimentations.

“At the heart of so many religious rituals,” Botton writes, “are antisocial feelings — aggression, lechery, envy, unbearable sadness. Expressed without restraint, they could break societies apart, yet repressed with equal passion they could end up overwhelming the sanctity of individuals. The ritual is hence a mediating force (usually justified by supernatural sanction) between the demands of the individual and those of society. This controlled purgation demarcates a time and place where the demands of the self may be honored without running amok, and yet through which longer-term harmony and survival of the group can be ensured.”

He adds, “Religions teach us to be polite, to honor one another, to be faithful and sensible, but they also acknowledge that if they require only these things of us, they will sunder our spirit. They therefore accept the debt that goodness, faith, and sweetness owe to their opposites. At least, medieval Christianity understood. For most of the year it preached solemnity, order, restraint, fellowship, earnestness, a love of God, and sexual decorum — and then, at New Year’s, it unleashed the festum fatuorum, the feast of fools, and for several days the world was upside down. Clergy played dice on the altar, brayed like donkeys instead of saying ‘Amen,’ had drinking competitions in the nave, farted to the Ave Maria, and delivered spoof sermons based on parodies of the Gospels… After drinking tankards of ale, they held their holy books upside down, burned excrement instead of incense, and urinated out of bell towers. They tried to marry donkeys, tied giant wooden penises to their vestments, and held boozy orgies on the altar.”

Botton then quotes the Faculty of Theology at Paris in 1444: “Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air. All of us men are barrels poorly put together… This is why we permit folly on certain days: so that we may in the end return with greater zeal to the service of God.”

Botton concludes, “If we want well-functioning communities, we cannot focus only on social virtues. We must also find a place for antisocial ones.”

While Alain de Botton waxes somewhat lyrical, in an “Animal House” kind of way, about the “feasts of misrule” and “festivals of fools” from the Middle Ages (and which philosopher Charles Taylor and theologian Harvey Cox have found so important in making theological sense of secular culture), his somewhat simplistic celebration of these “liminal” festivals holds significance for the theology-music relationship. I say it is simplistic because Botton does not give any indication that there might be any


I Mix What I Like by Jared Ball

Posted in: News Items,Recommended Reading by Michael Iafrate on May 1, 2011

Recent talk on the blog about mixtapes brought a smile to my face as I am one of those music fans who is a bit nostalgic for the days of the mixtape. The decision of two bands that I am friends with to release their new albums on cassette (plus digital download, no CD) gave me the same feeling.

As did the announcement of this new book by Jared Ball, assistant professor of communication studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore. The book is called I Mix What I Like!: A Mixtape Manifesto and it’s out this month from anarchist publisher A.K. Press. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:

In a moment of increasing corporate control in the music industry, Jared A. Ball analyzes the colonization and control of popular music and posits the homemade hip-hop mixtape as an emancipatory tool for community resistance. Equally at home in a post-colonial studies class and on the shelves of an indie record store, I Mix What I Like! is a revolutionary investigation of the cultural dimension of anti-racist organizing in African America.

Michael J. Iafrate
Parkersburg, West Virginia

I am writing to recommend an engaging little book, a kind of rockish spiritual manual really, written by David Nantais and titled Rock-a My Soul. This brisk and stimulating read will provide occasion for readers to think for themselves about how their music sits in their spiritual life.

Let me fully disclose my biases here: I have known and admired David Nantais as a friend for over a decade, and played in two bands with him in Boston, and the publisher of his book, Liturgical Press, also sponsors the Rock and Theology Project. Oh, and I also read the manuscript earlier and happily provided an endorsement for it. In short, I have every reason to want to support his book. Now that that’s clear, let me give some reasons why despite my biases, this book is well worth checking out.

Nantais, who is presently director of campus ministry at the University of Detroit, Mercy, is also an experienced rock drummer, aficionado of rock culture, and concert devotee (and, importantly for this book, a former Jesuit — seven years ago, we used to pick him up at his Jesuit residence for band practice).

This book is like a travelogue of how Nantais has been able to make spiritual sense of his deep pleasure in rock music and culture. The main thread throughout is the question of how to make of rock experience a spiritual exercise. Toward this end, he calls on many practices from Ignatian spirituality and describes the ways in which one can pay attention to experience in secular music as a way of referring our lives to God. The book is quite practical and those who are comfortable with, or even curious about, Catholic spirituality in contemporary terms will find Nantais an engagingly amiable and practical interlocutor.

Despite Nantais’ deep involvement in both rock and Catholic cultures, the book adopts a helpfully critical stance toward some features of rock culture,


A Song to Sing, A Life to Live

Posted in: Recommended Reading by Michael Iafrate on December 16, 2010

One of the first musical acts that got me thinking about the complex relationship of “rock” and “theology” — beyond the world of “Christian rock” anyway — was the Indigo Girls. Recently the online multimedia journal of practical theology Practical Matters featured a video interview/conversation with Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls and her father Don Saliers who teaches liturgical theology at Candler School of Theology.

The interview, titled “A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: A Conversation about Musical and Liturgical Imagination with Don and Emily Saliers,” includes discussion of music and the theological and moral imagination, the relationship between “sacred” and “secular” music, the role of music in movements for social change, music’s place in the “liturgy wars,” the relationship of musical analysis and musical practice, and much more. And they even play a little music together.

The interview also gives a good introduction to themes apparently taken up in their co-authored book A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice (Jossey-Bass, 2006) which has now made its way to my “wish list.”


Michael Iafrate
Parkersburg, West Virginia

Next Page »