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The Wind Blows Where it Wills

Posted in: Grace by Brian Robinette on January 31, 2009

I must admit, I find Bono to be, on the whole, insufferable.

It’s not that I don’t like U2; I do very much. And it’s not that I don’t think Bono is one of the greatest frontmen for one of the greatest bands of all time; I do. It’s just that, well, I find him excessively earnest, too much the prophet, too conscious about being a world ambassador, and far too calculative of the rock god pose he incessantly strikes.

Now, I realize that this characterization fits many bloated personalities in the rock music industry. (It’s one of the macphistofascinating/repellent aspects of this form of music.) But there are degrees. If I had to choose between the smugness of a Bono or, say, the pomposity of a Liam Gallagher (Oasis), I’d choose the earnest Irishman every time. Yet even Bono’s periods of self-parody have a way of only further distending his rock ego. I’m thinking of his MacPhisto character from the 1992-3 Zoo TV Tour, which, while ostensibly an alter-ego character parodying the excessive pretensions of the rock star, including himself, seemed in the end to become an instrumental extension of an irrepressible Bono who so absorbed the alter-ego that it lost its “alter.”

Perhaps I’m being uncharitable, but I couldn’t help the involuntary sighs and eye-rolling when reading Bono’s recent guest op-ed piece in the New York Times, a piece which is an homage to both Frank Sinatra and Bono’s compositional idiosyncrasies. Always the shades.

Yet I was very much struck by a recent Rolling Stone interview with U2 on the production of their new album. When asked about the album’s progress, and the delayed release of the much-anticipated album, Bono reflected on the creative process and the powerlessnu2studioess of the band to summon inspiration on cue. “Moment of Surrender,” a seven-minute piece of music that the band improvised in the studio, and which will apparently grace the forthcoming album, beautifully embodies this paradox. Says Bono: “This kind of spirit blows through every now and then. It’s a very strange feeling. We’re waiting for God to walk into the room – and God, it turns out, is very unreliable.” It’s sentiments like these that keep me coming back to U2 again and again. (There’s the great music, too, of course.) And it shows that no matter how insufferable Bono can be, and well deserving of parodies such as these – parody too is a grace – he regularly infuses rock with a theology of grace that captures the best insights into the paradoxical relationship between “willing” and “being” in the spiritual life. “So you don’t have the right to imagine you can make a great album. But what you can do is create the conditions where it might happen.”

Brian Robinette — Saint Louis, Missouri

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Somatica Divina 1: A Perfect Circle, “Thomas”

Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on January 30, 2009

When Pelagius read Augustine’s account of his youthful thievery, arrogance, and promiscuity in his Confessions, he was mortified, as were many others who read all the lurid details in the Bishop of Hippo’s autobiography. (Who needs ad hominem in public debate when your opponent voluntarily provides so much graphic material for you? It’s a polemicist’s dream!) Pelagius, who by all accounts was exemplary in every way as an ascetic monk, had only to quote the bishop’s own words to add a forceful jab to an otherwise serious theological point.

Perhaps I should take this as warning, then. Why would I bother to confess a sin here for the entire world read (at least, in theory)?

Yet I come from a peculiar school of public confession — undoubtedly influenced by the Augustinian model, though this indirect connection would scarcely be recognized by most of its practitioners. Ever ancient, ever new, it would seem.

Growing up in the Assemblies of God Church as a kid, where altar calls, speaking in tongues, and miracles were a weekly occurrence — actually twice a week, if you include the Wednesday night service — I heard many a new convert confess his or her sins to a background chorus of “amen,” “I hear ya, sister,” “you got that right,” and “hallelujah.” In fact, the miraculousness of the conversion was generally measured by just how sinful the penitent’s past was. If some confessants would only speak of their past obliquely, confident that God was witness to all the gory details, others were positively giddy with the opportunity to state publicly just how sordid their past really was, and thus how improbable their newly reformed ways.

Now, I’m not prepared to open up my diary and share with the world all my adolescent passions, bad judgments, and occasional petty crime. In fact, I was a pretty decent kid on the whole. But I can’t help sharing my own pear tree incident, my own five-finger discount – stealing a cassette of Night Ranger’s 1982 debut, Dawn Patrol.

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Rock of Ages, Queen of Heaven

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on January 27, 2009

I recently saw the musical “Rock of Ages” before it closed off-Broadway (in preparation for its move to Broadway in March). The show was two hours of mostly lighthearted delight for anyone like me who, at an influential stage of life, inhaled 1980s pop, rock and metal. If one wanted to attempt a theological exegesis, along with hefty helpings of eisegesis (to be complexified later by Patti Smythegesis), one could say that the musical showed rock’s pretentious and frivolous sides while allowing a few glimmers of its staying power for identity, even a spiritual-theological identity.

There is no way to describe my next point without you seeing it for yourself, but: one of the most transcendent moments of the show, for me, was when a character breaks into “Sister Christian” stage left, and then center stage under the spot, who is suddenly there but an apparition of Sister Christian, a woman looking exactly like her.

There, for a stunning instant, I perceived how these rock-fictions populate my head with characters aglow with emotional resonance. For the “Sister Christian” woman, it was the whole affective high school vibe around the time of that video, it was the way that she suddenly was shown to have stood for various 80s women in my life–and through them, in the way that adolescent relationships recapitulate crucial early childhood relationships and prefigure domains that will endure in adult relationships–for every woman in my life… and how this apparition reconstructed an atmosphere of what theologian Mary McClintock Fulkerson, in her recent work Places of Redemption, calls the “places” (that is, emotion-laden concrete locations) in which that video was watched. I can only summarize this rockish theology in ways that make me want to see Mariologists taking notes in the front row: The musical was for me a conduction into a concatenation of saving places through a fictional but intensely cathected woman.

In a few spots, the musical gave such revelations. That was enough to savor for many long city blocks as I walked into the chilly night afterward.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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Having Rock Lyrics, Helping Allow a World

Posted in: General,Lyrics by Tom Beaudoin on January 23, 2009

Recently, a good friend who is in recovery told me that an AA meeting he had just attended, someone came up afterward and offered a bit of spiritual advice: “It’s like the Rush song ‘New World Man,’ where they sing ‘He’s old enough to know what’s right / but young enough not to choose it.’”

This single episode may stand for the how-many-tens-of-thousands-a-day invocations of rock lyrics as spiritual wisdom—mapped, certainly, along overlapping continuums of ironic self-consciousness, lyrical “accuracy,” and religious piety.

But that rock may function—among other consolations—as a “therapy of the word,” to borrow from the strong title of a classic work on ancient psychagogy by Pedro Lain Entralgo, can be a touchstone for any theology of worldly experience today in cultures infiltrated by “popular music.” So many everyday incantations of rock lyricism, even of course for those whose identities are crossed by Christianity, these become pinpoints for making the emerging perforation we may call as our postmodern constellation, “secular Christianity.”

I hope that such examples will be indeed be witnessed to, if not in the tens-of-thousands, at least in the great-many, on this blog—and their significance for theology and rock explored.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

So how long does it take to become a skilled musician? 10,000 hours, according to the latest research in cognitive neuroscience.

Daniel J. Levitin, in his book, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, writes that studies in musical expertise – and expertise in general – reveal that approximately three hours a day over a period of ten years is what it takes to achieve basic mastery in a particular domain of activity, whether this be musicianship, a sport, writing, playing chess, etc. (An intriguing question I’d like to pursue later on is expertise in spiritual training.) “Learning requires the assimilation and consolidation of information in neural tissue.” Through repetition and incremental advance – which is another way of saying “practice” – we kneed our neural tissue in ways that create strength of memory so as to permit the coordination of skills-specific activities with the (apparently spontaneous) fluidity that marks higher levels of proficiency. But importantly, rote activity will not suffice. “Memory strength is also a function of how much we care about the experience. Neurochemical tags associated with memories mark them for importance, and we tend to code as important things that carry with them a lot of emotion, whether positive or negative.”

music-brain

The point is not only that positive emotion incentivizes us to practice something that might otherwise be a mechanical exercise, merely a chore. But the care, attention and genuine excitement associated with its practice increases dopamine, which assists in the encoding of memory traces in neural tissues. In other words, the greater the love, the more indelible the memory. And the more indelible the memory, the more proficient the execution of the skill.

Mastery, in Levitin’s use of the term, cannot be equated with mere technical execution, however. “Many of our greatest musical minds weren’t considered experts in a technical sense. Irving Berlin, one of the most successful composers of the twentieth century, was a lousy instrumentalist and could barely play the piano.” This could hardly be more applicable to rock.

While we sometimes celebrate technical virtuosity in rock music, and while there is a substantial list of “musicians’ musicians,” more often we marvel at the depth of a musician’s range and intensity of emotional expression, or a musician’s irrepressible style. It’s the reason we can marvel at the guitar work of The Edge as much as Jeff Beck. Or appreciate the distinctive drumming fingerprint of Ringo Starr or Charlie Watts as much as Neil Peart or Terry Bozzio. Or why Bob Dylan’s voice can elicit as much affection as Freddie Mercury’s.

In fact, large swathes of rock music explicitly repudiate any emphasis on technical skill as part of its characteristic sound.  “Three chords and the truth” is one kind of rock philosophy. One can think of punk music’s imperative to pare music down to essentials, to unearth – in the name of protest against all establishment – rock’s primordiality. But even here there is a very high degree of skill involved. Even if Tommy Ramone could express loathing over another interminable Hendrix solo, and call for “some pure, stripped down, no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll,” make no mistake about it: the power of punk music, and its effective communication in performance, is hardly a matter of accident; it requires significant skill and experimentation to discover and communicate the musical spirit that makes punk music so very “punk.” A garage may not seem an obvious place for high-level musical training, yet countless hours of sweat-soaked practice, with the smell of gasoline, paint thinner, beer, and smoke in the air, are essential for even those most “primitive” of rock creations.

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Rock and theology: compasses for thinking

Posted in: Dialectic,General by Tom Beaudoin on January 6, 2009

Brian Robinette is laying out some substantial rock for thought, and even though we presumably have a lot of time to ease into these conversations over the next weeks, months, or longer, I am so provoked by my friend that I cannot help but stay up late this night to begin, ever so tentatively, to see if he and I can tease out in dialogue the compasses we’re using to navigate theologically. I am going to have to work at this kind of thing indirectly, through recollection of my own previous positions, through circumnavigation of concepts he’s already using, through rough display of ideas I’d like to imagine being subject to. And by and by in this improvisation, we get somewhere.

So, in the hopes of seeing how we might try, in the theological tradition, a little dialectic, and in the rock tradition, a little riffing, and feeling pretty relaxed about letting the dialogue stretch out over time and with many lapses of all kinds, here are a few points on my theological compass, provoked by reading Brian’s posts:

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These Broken Strings

Posted in: General by Brian Robinette on January 6, 2009

I love this quote from rockabilly/country singer, Bob Luman, who happened to catch an early Elvis performance just after the release of The King’s first single (Elvis was still playing high schools then):

This cat came out in red pants and a green coat and a pink shirt and socks, and he had this sneer on his face and he stood behind the mike for five minutes, I’ll bet, before he made a move.  Then he hit his guitar a lick, and he broke two strings. I’d been playing ten years, and I hadn’t broken a total of two strings. So there he was, these two strings dangling, and he hadn’t done anything yet, and these high school girls were screaming and fainting and running up to the stage, and then he started to move his hips real slow like he had a thing for his guitar. That was Elvis Presley when he was about 19, playing Kilgore, Texas (The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1980, pp. 19-20).

So very rock n roll.

But don’t worry, Bob, at least you accomplished something The King didn’t: you made it to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.

Brian Robinette – Saint Louis, MO

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Rockish Pluralism and the Right to Theology

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on January 6, 2009

Any contemporary project on rock and theology will eventually need to show not only why theological orientations are not potential parochializations for rock, but why rock music itself is not the name for a narrow band of cultural experience for the colonization of others aesthetically, culturally, religiously; in other words, a regular attention to, as the popular perception goes, whether rock’s truest audiences are adolescent, American(ized), white, male, middle-class suburbanites.

There will no doubt be considerable evidence for the truism. Substantial—but neither exclusive nor exhaustive. The power of newsy occasionality allows me to call as my witness a recent article in the New York Times that describes the influence of a novel (by a now-30something Catholic convert to Islam) called The Taqwacores on the lives of young American Muslims. The musical key to the novel, apparently, is punk rock. The novel has, according to reporter Christopher Maag “inspired disaffected young Muslims in the United States to form real Muslim punk bands and build their own subculture.” There is a welter of thoughtwork to be done unpacking Maag’s deceptively straightforward (and strongly theological) claim that for “many young American Muslims, the merger of Islam and rebellion resonated.”

I suspect that the future will only show us more fully how no single culture has proprietary rights over what rock is becoming, and for those of us who find our theology run through rock, that means a continued cultural dispossession over the “rights” to theological experience as well. It is just here, in this present, that I hope that we are on the cusp of something genuinely new, theologically.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx offers a striking analogy in his now classic work, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (Sheed & Ward, 1963):

Just when a drummer is playing he is extending himself through all his bodiliness into the instruments grouped about him, so that these instruments dynamically participate in the very expressiveness of his rhythmic movement, making but one total movement which, arising from within the drummer, flows through the rhythm of his body, of his beating hands and stamping feet, and produces a varied harmony of percussion—so too the heavenly saving will of Christ, through his glorified body, makes one dynamic unity with the ritual gesture and the sacramental words of the minister who intends to do what the Church does (p. 77).

As a Catholic theologian, who also happens to play drums in a rock n roll band, and who, incidentally, recently wrote a book on the resurrection, I find this comparison startling and suggestive. Christ’s “glorified body” and the drummer’s body? But of course!

My band, West of Sky, performing at Cicero's (Saint Louis, MO, June 2008)

My band, West of Sky, performing at Cicero's (Saint Louis, MO, June 2008)

Speaking from experience, playing drums is a visceral transcendence. The body becomes all rhythm and all sound, rapt in a unified sonic event with percussive pressures felt by others from deep within. Having become wholly expressive from the inside out, from the limb to limb, the drummer’s body “disappears” into the play; and thus it becomes more completely itself. How very Eucharistic. . . .

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