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Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on April 29, 2009
Posted in: Fandom,General,Musical Performance by Tom Beaudoin on April 28, 2009
On the 12th floor of Lowenstein Hall at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus this weekend, a reader of this blog, Gina V, asked me if I had any affection for Creed. For those who don’t know, Creed was a rock group on the ascendant a decade ago on the strength of chunky, radio-friendly rock; on a kind-of-Christian atmospherics in the lyrics (and in the band) that signaled to Christians that they were heard but did not do so in a way that elbowed too many listeners who don’t want evangelical or Bible references in their rock; and on the handsomeness and handsome Pearl-Jam-ish aching aggression of the lead singer, Scott Stapp. Creed have since disbanded. (After six years apart, they have just announced a reunion tour.)
So, do I have any affection for Creed? I knew there was a reason she asked: Creed was a guilty pleasure. I asked, and she confirmed it. So here is where I come out: I dig cranking them. I know, I have now lost what little credibility I had left with the most hard-core of the rock experts reading this blog, not to mention initiating a round of eye-rolling amongst my more sophisticated theological readers. But here I stand, God help me I can do no other.
Ten years ago, for the magazine Books and Culture, I wrote a rock and theology essay while I was on retreat at St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Illinois. It was a theological discussion of James Miller’s history of rock, Flowers in the Dustbin. I kicked off the essay with a report on my thrownness into Stapp’s arms wide open:
A dull and garbled murmur teases my ears, as if I were floating at the bottom of a pool, half aware of the conversation above. In these moments, outside sounds are summertime icicles, their sharp tips of detail quickly melting into acoustic puddles, and only a diffuse, frothy awareness of a world outside remains.
Down the uterine red stone hallway, in the bomb shelter-sturdy chapel, Mary’s forlornly open arms receive the chanting of two dozen brown-smocked monks. With my head held snugly in the embrace of my headphones, their prayers leak in as rivulets of exotic noise, aquatic transmissions from another planet. While the monks intone Psalms, the light of my laptop shines in the darkness of my room in this monastery, where I am on retreat. The rock group Creed slathers my skull with thick-n-chunky guitar riffs, cranked up, way up. I casually soak up more intense volume in four minutes than will ever be heard in this monastery in hundreds of years.
Creed is a derivative band, salvaging the best of 1980s hard rock and 1990s grunge. At ear-damaging levels they are a guilty pleasure, with lyrics elliptically Christian enough to sustain crossover listeners who like their music loud, their doctrine grated through refrigerator-sized amplifiers, their spiritual sentiments unvarnished, and their piety vaguely evangelical.
The effect of the music coursing through my nervous system is to produce a kind of lift, a somatic levity, that sends me simultaneously deeply within and outside my body, spacing me in three simultaneous modes, as embodied spirit, disembodied spirit, and as a spirit ecstatically holding them bound. Playing electric bass in rock bands for the past fifteen years has induced similar effects. Occasionally the music, without premeditation, achieves a viscous density like the Catholic oil of chrism at baptism. The resulting lift paralyzes both of my hands, and as they hang in suspended animation for a few beats or a fragment of a beat, I am already recovering them and the lift has passed.
I saw them live in 2001 in Atlanta, and nearly a decade later, I’m still savoring Creed’s pleasures.
What is going on? Rockishly, I think it has to do with an emotional-psychological-spiritual reference to the grunge rock of the 1990s, with the proximity to Pearl Jam they invoke — all of which was an important phase in my theological-musical formation; theologically, I think it has to do with letting Stapp take me to a place I can’t consciously go, with a lyrical earnestness about Christianity. I let myself slum spiritually with him in his confidence of his religion’s rightness, his God’s power, his savior’s knowability. And in that same movement, I know that his confidence is an exercise in confidence-building on account of his uncertainty. And that is really where I want to be taken spiritually in rock.
New York City
Despite the recent explosion of reflections and resources on “theology and popular music,” this theo-musical genre is still in the stages of infancy, and areas of neglect are discernible. For example, on my reading, most approaches to theological reflection on popular music seem content to scrutinize lyrics, treating them as texts to be interpreted abstracted from the concrete historic contexts in which they emerged. Even when such contexts are taken seriously in the process of cultural “exegesis,” rarely are the practices of making, performing, recording, sharing and listening to music considered theologically relevant.
But as Jeremy Begbie points out, music is not simply a configuration of sounds and words, but the human practice of exchanging those sounds: “[M]usic is best construed primarily as a set of practices, actions involving the integration of many facets of our make-up. Music is fundamentally about making and receiving sounds . . . . [I]n musicology it has become commonplace to emphasize the social and cultural embeddedness of musical practices. It is not sound-patterns alone which mean but people who mean through producing and receiving sound-patterns in relation to each other . . . . Music always, to some extent embodies social and cultural reality – no matter how individualistically produced, no matter how autonomous with respect to intended function, no matter how intertwined with the circumstances of a particular composer” (Theology, Music and Time [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000], 5, 13).
One of the exciting things about the Rock and Theology project is that its unique approach of involving musician-theologians has the potential to fill out some of these neglected areas related to music-making practices as a theological source.
Schopenhauer wrote that “suitable music played to any scene, action, event or surrounding seems to disclose to us its most secret meaning, and appears as the most accurate and distinct commentary upon it.” (Quoted in Simon Frith, Performing Rites, p. 111)
Practical theology is the striving for “suitable music” through which to comment on one’s own eros, one’s own “scene,” “action,” “event,” or “surrounding.” All theologies are also, though not only, soundtracks to particular lives. 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, but in a plurivocal sense of “score.” A cultural event is “scored” theologically: it is rated in a game, that is, it is situated in a particular game of truth and evaluated for its adequacy within that particular game; it is correlated to a piece of music, that is, is heard through a theological work in its poetic dimension; it is cut or marked, rendered as theological territory by specific theological power-knowledge games—that is, made productive in terms of theological knowledge but also subject to a certain violence of an epistemological regime (“knowledge is made for cutting” says Foucault); and perhaps it is valorized intellectually: “What is difficult is the cutting of the idea, and, above all, its setting into a jewel of truth,” says Sertillanges (The Intellectual Life, p. xxvi).
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on April 21, 2009
For several years I worked as a consultant to the US Army Directorate for Ministry Initiatives, and I learned from the Army religious educators and chaplains that country, rap, hip-hop, and rock musics are part of the spiritual atmosphere for a great many soldiers.
Yesterday’s New York Times featured a story by C.J. Chivers that described the death of Pfc. Richard A. Dewater, age 21, in Afghanistan. Chivers reports that the next morning, his fellow soldiers “disassembled and cleaned their weapons and recalled their friend as they played his favorite song: ‘Nothing Else Matters,’ by Metallica.”
Posted in: General,News Items,Politics by Tom Beaudoin on April 19, 2009
This recent CNN story is the tip of the iceberg on a conversation about rock and politics in Muslim contexts. The story brackets out almost all gestures toward the theological, but others are bringing them forward, however unevenly, like Mark LeVine’s Heavy Metal Islam and the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad.
We should have much more to say about this on this blog, given the at least occasional (some would say frequent and subterranean, others would say infrequent and happenstance) importance in the US of rock as a mystical-political influence. For myself, there is no point to a rock and theology coinhabitation if this mystical-political atmosphere of rock washes away in what is sometimes too quickly referred to as a mere “aestheticism.” A globalized rock and a globalized theology, seen in particular from the vantage of this blog’s “place” (as underwritten by a Catholic press, and populated thus far only by Christian theologians in the United States) cannot fail to find the agonism of rock, politics, and Islam an opportunity for learning and occasion for solidarity: musical, spiritual, political. I, for one, have yet to find out what that fully means, and anticipate learning much more.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
For years, I have gotten crap from friends and colleagues about my love of Rush. While often known as a “musicans’ band,” this Canadian trio has never quite reached the level of cool in popular culture (with the possible exception of a cultural moment around 1980 or 1981) and never been accepted by music critics. There are many articles on the outrage of their continued exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The more time I spend in educated, self-aware, and cultured circles in academic life, the more conscious I become that a good deal of my rock tastes are declasse. I will go on about Billy Squier, Winger, Journey, Styx, Rush, or the like, and can anticipate a more-or-less masked eye-rolling. Let me add, for the record, that I try to keep up with lots of other bands across the rock spectrum, from much-maligned “corporate rock” to local bands in the cities where I’ve lived in the last twenty years (Kansas City, Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, and New York City). And as you can see from the “Somatica Divina” series on this blog, I drink from many rockish wells.
But the longer I sit with rock and theology coursing through my veins, the more aware I am of the influence of social class on my particular inhabitation of these worlds. Most formative for me was living in lower-middle/working-class public housing during much of my teenage years. Like many others in the early 1980s, my family could not afford to keep the house we had in Independence, Missouri, and my father started working two and three jobs to keep a family of six afloat as we moved into a small HUD townhouse, also in Independence. This was the era of my awakening to rock and that familiar adolescent experience, lived my own way, of owning and disowning my Catholicism. For a while I was on the government’s free/reduced lunch program. Some of my neighborhood friends came from families where someone had been in jail. People were barely hanging on to what we imagined was the middle class, but my friends from the nice neighborhoods who went on ski trips and real vacations, and wore name brand jeans, shoes, and t-shirts were the ones I knew were comfortably middle class. I am not betraying my neighborhood when I say that lots of people would count a certain amount of what went on as “white trash” lifestyle. (My graduating high school class (1987) of about 350 people, which drew from many different parts of Independence, reflected the mix of working-class, lower-middle, and middle-class zones from which we came: we’ve ended up with one medical doctor (as far as I know), a handful of professionals like attorneys and engineers, and a lot of lower- and middle-management folks and a fair amount of blue-collar laborers. I think I’m the only one who got a Ph.D.) I ended up hanging out a lot with the kids of middle-class-aspirant families, but lived unavoidably in the larger social matrix of that public housing world, which had its fill of low-aspiring and narrow-minded scenes. That’s where I got my first semi-adult lessons in racism, homophobia, and misogyny.
But that’s also where I got the keys to the way out: rock music. All the bands I mentioned above, plus AC/DC, Zeppelin, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Sabbath/Ozzy, and many more were crucial for our imaginative landscape. They gave sounds and words for naming what was frustrating about the smallness of our world, and energy for the wanting of another land. These rock musics gave me friends, inspiration to learn an instrument, and sages who lived an orbit that relativized all that threatened to keep my universe so tiny, even if these rock personages themselves were not savory in every way. To be sure, there were other important ways out: traces of a Catholicism with which I might be able to live, loving parents, a father with a real theological education, lots of books in the house, peers who were clearly going to transcend that place. Still, it took many years to learn what excellence might have to do with my life. I still remember the shock of arriving at Harvard Divinity School for graduate studies to meet people who had gone to Ivy League undergraduate schools and for whom HDS was a natural next step. Some of my grade school and high school friends, maybe some reading this blog, have not broken out of those public housing complexes. A lot of that is beyond our control, and there is no shame in that; still, I know we want more for our kids.
So today when I write about rock and theology, it is hard for me not to hear echoes of social class in my own musical tastes and theological proclivities. Those pasts still live in me, making me favor certain musics over others, and therefore also no doubt certain theological experiences over others. Those pasts help me find good reasons for my work today, and help me find the goodness of my reasons for working. My “cultured” and ironic side knows that I should strive only to represent rock music that gives the most edge, social distinction, or cultural capital, but I cannot keep from letting that other side through, as well, which will look to some readers like spiritual-rock comfort food.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
Posted in: Dialectic,General,Rock and Theology Project by Tom Beaudoin on April 17, 2009
Often, traditionalist or “conservative” Catholics cannot comprehend why rock music might be important for the theological life, and often, too, “liberal” Catholics affirm secular music’s importance. Radically progressive Catholics frequently join conservatives in dismay, but for different reasons.
However, all these positions tend to share a particular positioning of the Catholic believer: the stress is placed on mediation. Whether the exuberant humility of the traditionalist who looks to the Catechism or the conservative blogosphere for the matrix of permissions that constitute that complex of juridicisms known to Catholic modernity as “orthodoxy,” or the modest liberality of the liberal who looks to modern theology and its defense of both lowbrow mediations (“the people,” “Our Lady,” “sacramentals,” “relationships”) and of a theoretical “mediated immediacy” itself as the very essence of Catholicism, we are said to be Catholic beings who are nestled in the inevitability of a wombish concentricity of that through which divinity gives itself or meaning is procured. There is a striking convergence on the fomentation of a Catholic soul with mediation as its essence, which is another way of saying, with a sense for mediation, a respect for it, a connatural respondency to the exhortation to the mediation, being who a Catholic is.
In this construction of Catholic sensibility, one sees how it is possible that so many “believers” can stay in the Church and recognize each other as Catholics—even and often particularly through the mutual resentments of left and right that characterize the struggles over Catholic identity. To be Catholic within these — pardon the expressions — influential rhetorics or discourses, is to live with the exhortation to mediation, to desire the mediation. The predicament and the ambiguity of Catholic identity, then, is the desire for mediation. Remember that it is mostly Catholic progressives who defend the importance of locating mediation in that hardly assailable modern and romantic site of self-identity, the (Catholic and analogical) “imagination.” (This is what helps structure the scene, so confusing to outsiders, of liberal Catholics who can occupy a church with a patriarchal authority structure, who are typically deferential to Catholic authority, and who develop elaborate hermeneutics of authority and call those hermeneutics central to Catholicism itself. Mediation is a Catholic theodicy of practice.)
My point is not to critique these functions of mediation for the purpose of “exposing” their fraudulence or contingency but to try to appreciate their ascetic functioning for a Catholic postmodern subjectification, discipline, habitus: that is, the way in which the traps for identity are also houses, the way that one is ruled so as to be able to live, the tragedy of governance in religious identity, the small creativities that are predicated on docilities, all of which render the practice of fomenting Catholic identity thoroughly ambiguous, and that this ambiguity goes all the way down.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
Posted in: Drumming,General,News Items,Practices by Tom Beaudoin on April 13, 2009
Out of musical experience can come rules for practicing and guides for experiencing – both for the theological and musical life. As Jeremy Begbie and many other scholars are now showing us, what is at stake in allowing musical practices a theological placement is the specification of new modes of theo-musical life. These were my thoughts this morning as I read two (very New York) stories in the New York Times: one, an obituary for the percussionist and Latin band leader Manny Oquendo, and the other a story about the rebirth of a reggae tradition in the Bronx under the direction of producer and studio owner Lloyd Barnes.
Both speak from within music as guides for experiencing. Of his education in percussion, Oquendo said, “It’s important to develop the ear and get a deeper knowledge of the music, and once you become good at the instrument, you must always remember to try to be original, be yourself. You can borrow, you can take, you can even steal, but you do not imitate.” Of the reggae he learned in Jamaica, Barnes said, “I found a certain peace in the music. It’s not always good times, but the music gives you that.”
Here’s to the musico-spiritual innovation that gives peace.
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