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Alanis Morissette + the Dalai Lama

Posted in: General,Is This The New Face of Religion? by Tom Beaudoin on November 25, 2013

Over two thousand Twitter followers have responded already to this picture. Stay curious about where religion goes in “secular” culture.

I’ve written about Ms. Morissette several times at R&T, including here.

This is the Alanis who gave us the religious/anti-religious “Baba,” in one of my favorite performances:


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Here is a more recent acoustic version:

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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…)

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…)

New York Times critic Ben Ratliff has a savory review of a recent Depeche Mode concert in Brooklyn, chock full of potential theological material. Ratliff–whose rock reviewing I cannot seem to stop praising at R&T, most recently in July–describes how the band drew a diverse audience (“multiracial and multiethnic”), prioritized integrity (“No poseurs.”), reworked sexual categories with reference to nature (“Mr. Gahan […] danced in Cuban heels without necessarily looking for approval, as if you’d come upon him in nature.”), and attracted a crowd willing to inhabit this music in a subjectivity-shaping way (“it was always ready to dance but would do so when it wanted […] it met the band’s intensity with its own.”).

These suggestive brief descriptions are all indicators, in different kinds of theological literature, of something more at stake, something we used to call “religious” and now call “spiritual,” or in the more chastened words of my classroom, I call “potential theological material.”

They all signal that something of deeper significance may be afoot. Especially when the key feeling is that of transformation. In Ratliff’s words, “Its principal members grew up in England during the glam-rock ’70s, and must remember the idea that a strong concert can change a life more deeply than a record.” For many people, this is the new face of religion. For many, it will be enough to help life add up to something noble. Theologians can help chart the course of this movement in contemporary culture.

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Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

I read this typically craftily-rendered review recently, by critic Ben Ratliff, in the New York Times, “Serenading Isis with the Hypnotic Vibration of the Universe“, and thought it connected somehow with Rock and Theology. Mr. Ratliff was reviewing a recent show by the band Om at, of all places, the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The ancient Egyptian temple was crafted 2000 years ago in honor of the goddess Isis. Ratliff — I’ve already quoted him many times at R&T — has this terrific paragraph a little bit into the review:

“In its lyrics, song titles and musical atmosphere, Om seems to be inhaling the mixed fumes of the early mystics. It has no singular scriptural source. It implies religious music without a religion, except riffs and resonance — the religion of sound — which is a lot, and enough.”

I like this idea, and this review, but I cannot quite say why. There is the evident connection Holy Mother of God, have you entered into the droney din of cave rock that is Om?! Check out “State of Non-Return”:

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(Yes, that is a “Fly By Night” t-shirt that the bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros is wearing.)

Anyway, as I was saying, with regard to R&T, this event featured the evident attempt to relate music (Om) and theology (Isis). Ratliff, however, (more…)

Patti Smith was recently in Rome for a music festival and took the opportunity to greet the new pope.

This is my choice for “kick-ass pic of the week”!  The big question about this photo is: who is more honored?!


Dave Nantais, Detroit, MI

This is part 2 of my reflection on a review of a recent “drone” music concert in New York City. Part 1 is here.

Now for further reflection:

In the process of his review, Ratliff explores meanings of sounds that take one into humming ruminations on essentials: musically we call these “drones,” but in theology they are, in a sense, the whole game, because theology is no more and no less than a humming rumination on essentials. We can explore such “droning” by theologically overhearing music reviews, and musically overhearing theological works, which are two ways of relating theology to music.

Consider Ratliff’s opening reflection: “There’s an irreducible element of music that connects metal, industrial music, power electronics and classical minimalism, and no word exists for it.”

Stay with that for a while. And then onto the next sentence:

“It involves deep pulsations; excited provocation through sound and concept more than traditional technique; low-end frequencies rarely encountered in life; long sustained tones enlarged through overdrive; or distortion or just force of hands on instruments.”

The kind of theology I write and teach often falls within the domain of “practical theology,” in which it is emphasized that whatever is worthy of being called “theological” must be “experienceable” by people. I stand by that, so long as what it means is carefully interpreted, but Ratliff’s meditation on (more…)

That was my first thought, or at least my fourth or fifth, when I read the headline over music critic Ben Ratliff’s review of a drone concert in last weekend’s New York Times. The print headline read: “A House of Drone, Ecstatic and Raw, With a Potent Aura of Largess.” I wondered: with this evocative headline, what are we really talking about here?

(I have frequently quoted and celebrated Ratliff’s reviews, such as here and here.)

The theological significance of drone may have to do with Holy Mother of God! Before anything else happens, take a look at this picture that accompanied the story, of Kim Gordon (formerly of Sonic Youth and now of Body/Head), taken by photographer Brian Harkin:

I hate to ask so pedantically whether you consider this as remarkable as I do, but ask I must. This is an ornate, even extreme position in which to posture an electric guitar. I can only surmise that by driving the headstock into the top of the amp, hunching over the upturned instrument from shoulder strength supported by delicately bent knee inside the carefully calibrated leg-stance, working the tremolo with her right hand, and steering the balance from her left hand, she is summoning feedback. For some reason the picture reminds me of the disturbing provocation of an upside-down crucifix, an (more…)

From the musical “Passing Strange” (about which I have written at R&T here, here, and in a three-part meditation, here, here, and here) comes the beautiful tune “Come Down Now.” The song includes the lyrics: “Come down now / remove your mask, you see / all you have to do is ask me / I’ll give you all the love life allows”…

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This scene and this song often put me in mind of basic spiritual tasks in which “religions” can engage: ceasing to mistake yourself for divinity (“come down now”); shedding personae that inhibit a deeper yes to the depth of existence (“remove your mask”); consenting more openly to ultimate reality (“ask me”); taking as gift the fullness therein for more life (“I’ll give you all the love”). It is too much to say that these elements are “essential” to “religion,” but they are often enough found by those who end up being categorized as “religious” or “spiritual.” This song offers a space to hold important spiritual experience. Spiritual traditions offer ways of making further sense of this song.

Tommy Beaudoin, Yonkers, New York

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

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