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September 2017
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Randy Kennedy wrote a story for Thursday’s print edition of the New York Times on the intense and widespread appreciation of seventeenth century Dutch painting. In it, he quotes Tracy Chevalier, author of the bestselling novel Girl With a Pearl Earring, to this effect: “I think one of the reasons people are drawn to Dutch painting now is because it’s not religious, by and large. It’s people sitting around playing cards or a woman mopping the floor, or it’s a fish market or an interior of a home. I think we like to see that window onto a middle-class world that is not all that different from our own. There’s something like us in there.”

Her comment situates art appreciation in the complexities of class identity in which it almost always resides, and in so doing it also says something suggestive for R&T readers about why art continues to attract, fascinate and compel. Her emphasis (I imagine) on the “now” (“people are drawn to Dutch painting now“) suggests to me that she is speaking specifically about the present post/secular moments in global culture, in which one acceptable place for religion is as a secondary pursuit, an option, or a pragmatic handle on navigating life.

Perhaps religion has “always” been this way (so long as we have had “religion” as we understand it in the West, which according to recent research we have not always had), but it should make us curious, we who care about people’s continued devotion to music, as we try to make theological sense of it.

Are theologians to shepherd “secular” people back to “religion”? By no means! Instead, theologians can model a way of being with reality that lets through the insistence of its “more”. In that way, we honor the contemporary instinct for release and liberation through art and music while being the agents of life’s deepening.

Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

What is your spiritual inquiring, searching, questioning for? In the branch of theological studies in which I often write and teach, practical theology, it is sometimes said that we theologize so as to better understand what is and what ought to be — that is, a theologically sensitive account of what is actually happening now and what is possible and desirable to happen next, for this community, these people, these individuals. Theology is a kind of prophetic compasswork (although “prophetic” must be understood in a way that does not make a privileged vantage point).

This is close to the heart of Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner’s definition of practical theology, and indeed is the title of a book by theologian Michael Lawler, What Is and What Ought to Be: The Dialectic of Experience, Theology and Church (New York: Continuum, 2005), a work of interest to theologians who work on practice due to its thoughtful discussion of the relationship between theology and social science.

In Welsh musician Katell Keineg’s song “Gulf of Araby,” she sings of “What is and what can never be.” Imagine, she sings, “if you could unlearn all the words that you never wanted heard…”

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Whatever this song was originally about when Ms. Keineg wrote it, it speaks to me now of mourning.

“Well, we would plough and part the earth to bring you home
And harvest every miracle ever known
And if they laid out all the things

Last night at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan, I saw My Bloody Valentine (website, wiki), the short-lived 1980s-90s “shoegaze” rock band that helped define the genre.

Here is their video for “Only Shallow”:

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Much-lauded and lately seldom-seen, they played two shows at the Hammerstein this week, and announced last night that this would be their “last show for a long time.” (I have written at R&T about a newer shoegaze band, The Sunshine Factory.)

Last night was the first concert in my thirty years of concertgoing where I could not understand one single lyric. The music was so overbearingly loud (I came prepared with my earplugs, but by the end I had to cover my ears with my hands over the earplugs); the huge projection screen behind them so dazzling with engrossing visuals of hyper close-up/fast nature-culture details bordering on the grotesque/beautiful; the stage so devoid of any (more…)

Recently I was riding in the “Ram Van,” Fordham’s intercampus transportation (between the Bronx and Manhattan campuses), a ride typically filled with undergraduates going back and forth taking classes at both sites. The drivers (also college students) are in control of the radio, and I sometimes take care to notice what music they choose, or what they dial past.

Recently, I noticed a driver finding this song on the radio and staying on it, and the tune filled the van in a way that seemed welcome by the mostly 18-22 year-old riders. I later learned it’s at the top of the pop charts: “Royals” by Lorde.

The song speaks of being surrounded by images of privilege and conspicuous consumption and choosing (or consenting to the lack of a choice about) something less culturally grandiose (“we’ll never be royals”). The video shows scenes of young men seemingly trying to create their own moments of intense, dramatic, or memorable experiences in everyday situations.

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One question the song raises is what sort of seductions need to be accounted as one charts the desired life? One question the video raises is (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…)


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…)

Alex Lifeson, famed guitarist for Rush, was recently featured in an interview in Classic Rock Magazine. The all-things-Rush website RushIsABand has a scan of the interview here. In the interview, by Paul Elliott, Mr. Lifeson is asked “Do you believe in God?” His answer to this question is already leading to Internet debate and now positions the band interestingly theologically.

I have been following, I mean ravenously following, this band for more than thirty years, and I don’t recall Mr. Lifeson ever being asked that question directly before.

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His bandmate Geddy Lee is on record as being an atheist, and his bandmate Neil Peart has been continually critical of religion over several decades of lyric-writing. My impression is that Mr. Peart prefers to remain agnostic, but others will know more about Peart arcana than I do. Mr. Lee has characterized himself as a Jewish atheist. (Two posts I’ve written (“Geddy Lee, Jewish Atheist” and “Geddy Lee Responds to My Question“) about Mr. Lee’s views about religion are among the most read and commented posts here at R&T.)

This means that Rush, one of the best selling rock bands of all time (behind only The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for consecutive platinum or gold records), is more or less now publicly a nonreligious-to-antireligious, agnostic-to-atheist, group.

In Mr. Lifeson’s interview, his response to “Do you believe in God?” is: “No. When I was younger I did. My mother is not super-religious but she has a belief. My father was the total opposite. He thought religion was a crock. In my early teens I started to question it all. I had friends who were Jesus (more…)

This was the original conclusion to my introductory chapter in the recently-published book Secular Music and Sacred Theology. This conclusion was not published in print, but I publish it here:


I conclude this introduction with a callback to where this chapter started, wondering about what theology is doing when it is doing cultural analysis. Building on the notion of pragmatic rehearsal, I develop a more encompassing metaphor for evaluating theological work on popular music, which means essentially the evaluation of “all” theological work: scorekeeping.

Theological work on music provides an opening into a larger truth about theological work: that it is the striving for “suitable music” through which to comment on individual and social life, on life’s eros as known in texts, practices, and ideas, that are always plugged into the electrical sockets of cultural scenes, actions, events, and surroundings. All theologies are also, though not only, soundtracks to theologians’ circumstances.

To interpret cultural practices theologically, which properly understood is to make any theological claim, is to “score” a cultural event as one would “score” a film—to attribute to it a certain meaning by the way in which you set music to images. But theologians scoring culture as a composer scores a (more…)

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