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Somatica Divina 28: Janis Joplin, “Summertime”

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

U2 More Popular Than the Pope

Posted in: Fandom,General,Musical Performance,News Items by Tom Beaudoin on September 28, 2009

My note below on U2 as public theologians was attempting to tie three pieces together in short shrift: their concert personae to public theology to their gargantuan attraction to everyday rock listeners. Now comes the news that U2 set a record for their recent performance at Giants stadium, more than 84,000 people, drawing even better than John Paul II. I can already hear all the cultural and theological critics chanting odes to the low tastes of the masses, who don’t understand U2′s early prophecy, long since abandoned, or who mistake the band for Jesus. But Holy Mother of God,

that is a ton of people. And they’re doing this after more than thirty years of making music.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

A Gospel Choir Gives the Rock Forecast

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on September 28, 2009

Such a combination may induce vertigo, but to be honest I’d like to see a few full songs.

Given their meteorological interests, could they do “I’m Only Happy When it Rains“?

Tom Beaudoin
New York City

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U2 as Public Theologians

Posted in: Dialectic,General,Politics,Recommended,Secular Liturgies by Tom Beaudoin on September 28, 2009

During the 1980s in North America there developed a kind of theology called “public theology,” in which public concerns (as in: civil society, often through sociological or political-science type lenses) were made central foci for theological analysis. Sometimes this meant having a social “problem” or “issue” occasion a theological reflection that was to arc back toward deeper reflection or reflective action in public… and sometimes this meant seeing the theological process itself as a public process, in which whatever the terms of the theological argument (God, church, justice), those terms needed to be publicly explainable if not justifiable. There were several rationales for this approach: Christianity is a social phenomenon, its spirit lends it to public interventions, and its claims to truth are in principle public claims in the sense that they involve assertions about phenomena (God, church, justice) that are by definition not private. There was also a third way of defining public theology: that theology which was written for a general educated audience. For myself and many others, publicness in theology was quite strongly and persuasively associated with the work of the Catholic theologian David Tracy (although less so in the third “generally accessible” sense, although Tracy has effectively used the genre of the interview for these purposes, a genre oddly underused in theology as compared with contemporary philosophy).

These ideas about a public theology are still to be found with a certain influence on the contemporary theological scene, especially among those who were trained in the mid-1970s through the early 1990s. The postmodernisms that questioned the privileging of the rational dynamics of theological discourse, and the postcolonialisms that foregrounded the cultural specificity and political history of theological discourse, have hit public theology pretty hard. The term seems much less in use now than it was, say, fifteen years ago. If anything, the new political theologies have arisen to take up the spaces public theologies wanted to occupy.

But just when you wondered if public theology was running out of gas, here’s U2, who have developed perhaps the most influential, long-running, and global public theology — ever. This occurred to me when reading of an upcoming academic conference on U2, and when reading a review of U2′s recent concert at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. The conference, coming up this weekend, is called “U2: The Hype and the Feedback,” and is happening in Durham, North Carolina, at North Carolina Central University. A look through the program reveals an impressive diversity of religious engagements with the band, its music, its fans, its culture. It is impossible to find another rock band whose culture inspires such a panoply of religious interrogation. It is worth appreciating how much theological research rock culture can inspire. (And, if it needs to be said, this research does not only leave itself in the deep but narrow well of fandom, but often rises back up to carry its results into other more mainstream theological conversations.) The review, by Jon Pareles in the New York Times, should give any theologian pause. In just a few hundred words, with no jargon, and with reference to a public event in public terms, Pareles well describes how this concert held together rollicking festivity and spiritual seriousness in a way not only unsurpassed but almost eerily, even liturgically, consistent for this band.

I write this knowing that U2 has become an almost too-convenient reference for those who want to show their worldly spirituality, and that many of the early fans are no longer on board with the new directions, and that some theologians cannot stomach what they learn of the band’s lyrics, politics, or concerts. Still, I find U2′s power as public theologians to be utterly undeniable, and lately sense the real privilege of having been able to have their music as a traveling companion for the last quarter century. Public theology in the academy may be on the wane, but in concert, it is stronger than ever.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

One of the themes we keep coming back to at Rock and Theology is the way the categories “sacred” and “secular” become blurred when musical experience is taken seriously as a source for theology. An instance of this blurriness struck me when I met one of my rock heroes about a week and half ago and reflected a bit on the “spiritual” encounter that took place. Peter Buck of R.E.M. was in town playing in one of his side projects — actually three of his side projects rolled into one — at a small rock club called the Horseshoe Tavern.

R.E.M. was the first band I got into obsessively. I learned probably 97% of their catalog on the guitar, scrutinized their obscure lyrics like fragments of papyri, and devoured any bios, news articles and bootlegs I could get my hands on. Even among one of my R.E.M. obsessed circles of friends, I was probably the biggest “di-Stipe-le” in the group. Needless to say, seeing Peter Buck play in a small venue was “a must.”

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The 28 September issue of America magazine has a very interesting article by Alfred McBride, titled “A Sturdy Framework: A Defense of the Bishops’ New High School Catechesis.” Recently, on this blog, I tried to buck up William O’Malley’s splendid article raising questions about the new US Bishops’ document on high school catechetical curriculum — while gently raising a few questions about O’Malley’s case. (See my post “Rock Concerts vs. Retreats?“). McBride’s article is a response to O’Malley.

In the spirit of helping keep these issues in the open (insofar as the blogosphere represents open dialogue), I would like to post a few thoughts on McBride’s article. He takes an easygoing approach to O’Malley’s rather pointed analysis, finally agreeing with O’Malley that the Framework needs (at least) a prologue to help contextualize how it might be most profitably used in catechetical contexts.

But McBride’s most fundamental point is that the Framework is, after a fashion, the rational, doctrinal guts of the Christian story, which is “the grandest narrative in all of history.” (Whether “grandest narrative in all of history” is the most credible way to, in McBride’s words, “communicate and defend the faith,” especially in, as he notes, a religiously pluralistic culture, is a question.)

But let’s grant that what is given in the Framework is a love story written through “doctrinal study,” as McBride suggests. This approach is necessary, because “Faith will give [students'] lives purpose and focus. It must be taught in a way,” he argues, “that is rationally secure…” But McBride also discusses, before his more detailed apologia for the Framework, how a good story “temporarily subverts logic-chopping and communicates the peaceful meaning of divine truth.” Indeed, before, during, and after making his case for the Framework being an example of the doctrinal fine points of a divine love story, McBride tells no fewer than three faith-related stories, more or less “logic-chopping,” about Abraham Heschel, Cardinal Newman, and John Paul II. He rightly cannot keep himself from trying to clinch the case for the cultural importance of the proposition-intensive Framework without recourse to the kinds of stories that he wagers will truly persuade his readers.

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Dealing with Christianity’s Self-Destructive Tendencies

Posted in: Fandom,General,Practices by Tom Beaudoin on September 22, 2009

A good number of commentators will tell you that the popular-cultural practices of “secular life” must be opposed because they represent, tout court, the “culture of death.” One has to deal in particular with this kind of judgmentalism in my own Catholic circles. A good way to deal with it is: calmly, asking for explanations, distinctions, definitions, and contexts. Thankfully, I find that most thinking Christians cultivate more careful registers for learning from their experience and sifting out how they fit into (or not) their larger cultural contexts. And not just thinking Christians, of course. If one spends any time on the rock circuit, one meets any number of seekers, wayfarers, journeywomen and journeymen, half-Christians, half-Buddhists, half-agnostics, half-atheists, as well as full-on Jews, Christians, Wiccans, and more.

Spending time in secular music cultures, especially performance and fan cultures, like club scenes and online communities, can be a “sampler” of religious-spiritual identities on offer in the USA and globally today; but it can also become more: a gentle and ongoing “pressure” on faith identity that keeps people open, curious, and wondering. Popular music cultures, and more specifically the rock cultures with which I am most familiar, have ways of letting people be that are not reducible to “relativism” (that new religious slur of choice among many Christians, and Catholics in particular, today).

Christians are not used to thinking that they need tonics for their own tradition, but as Charles Taylor (among many who know the history of Christianity) argues in A Secular Age (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2007), there is a “long-standing obsession in Latin Christendom to nail down with ultimate, unattainable and finally self-destructive precision the bases of final, unchallengeable, inerrant authority, be it in a certain form of Papal decision, or a literal reading of the Bible” (p. 512).

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Recommended: Monitor Mix

Posted in: Recommended by Michael Iafrate on September 18, 2009

For R&T readers who have not discovered it yet, I’d like to recommend a new music blog at the NPR website called Monitor Mix. It’s written by Carrie Brownstein of the late, great Seattle band Sleater-Kinney. Carrie’s posts are often insightful, and even more often they simply pass along some pretty great music. I’ve added it to my blog reader; you should consider it too.

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The September 14-21 issue of America features one of the most frankly (and therefore, for a Catholic magazine, refreshingly) written pieces I’ve read in the magazine over the last fifteen years. It is by William J. O’Malley, “Faulty Guidance: A New Framework for High School Catechesis Fails to Persuade.” O’Malley’s basic point is that the new guidelines from the U.S. Catholic Bishops, called Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age, are “pedagogically counterproductive” because they take the teaching task to be one of authoritatively presenting official truths to be believed rather than cultivating a more modest, because more personal, but eventually far grander, encounter with mystery in the life of the high school student. The document, he suggests, overcontrols what must count as a Catholic faith life, because it fails to take any substantial bearings in the very lives of the high school students who are to be made to stand and face this wind tunnel of Catholic facts. O’Malley perceptively sees that the way faith is presented in this (and similar) documents mitigates against “pastoral application” or “inculturation,” whatever the prefaces or conclusions of such documents might recommend. The “content” is divorced from any real seat in adolescent life.

His frank speech is remarkable only for its rarity in Catholic discourse about such important matters, writing with love but without sentimentality regarding high school students. When he mentions that sophomores, in this Curriculum Framework, are to study how “Jesus Christ’s Mission Continues in the Church,” he imagines students asking, “You mean the same church that forbids artificial birth control to committed parents? The one with child-molester priests? That church?” The theological and ecclesial sources cited in the document are “utterly without persuasive force with young people.” And there is much more.

I noticed that rock culture is invoked a few times during O’Malley’s discussion. For example, he adroitly sees “rock concerts” (and “American Idol”) as the “actual competition” for parish sacramental life. However, he seems to contradict his own patient and searching theological-pedagogical impulse when he suggests that the difference between a “retreat” and a “rock concert” is akin to that between the “self-giving of the kingdom” and the “self-serving of the world.” The differences between choosing retreat and rock, of course, are important, but thankfully neither so stark nor so exclusive.

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