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A Peruvian Jesuit Weighs in on Virtual Faith

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on October 31, 2009

I began writing about popular culture and theology a dozen years ago, in a book called Virtual Faith. It surprises me that people still read and discuss that book, for two reasons: I am surprised because to me the cultural references seem so peculiar to a crucial adolescent and young-adult phase of a certain middle class North American cohort (otherwise known as “my generation”) that these references must seem odd to anyone outside that cohort, or even perhaps to my many peers in that cohort some dozen years later; but I am also surprised because a goodly amount of the method or mechanics of that book, including the theological framework and the cultural-studies assumptions, would need to be substantially revised now.

(One song that I referenced many times in that book has gone on to become a generational anthem of sorts: REM’s “Losing My Religion.” Here is the video where you can see the fans having made the song their own.)

One thing that connects my 2009 perspective on these matters, which has been displayed throughout this blog over the last ten months, with my 1996-97 (when I wrote Virtual Faith) perspective, can be found in the Appendix to Virtual Faith. There, I tried to describe what the book was trying to do, or at least how I would have it be read, methodologically. And it is there that I first wrote, briefly, about the rhetoric of theological writing on culture, as a theological force in its own right. I see this move on my part as analogous to my later focus on theology’s engagement with culture as consisting in practices of attention that serve as engines of deep change. In both cases, I see the theological engagement with culture as making it imperative for theology to think through what sorts of acts of the theologian have made that theologian who s/he is and will make their theology a personal and cultural power for spiritual and political change.

There’s much more to say about this, but I wanted to note in this regard that I recently heard from a Peruvian Jesuit, Victor-Hugo Miranda, who last year wrote this entry on his blog regarding Virtual Faith. (I’m already working on translation assistance.) In it, he also links to some of the videos I discussed in that book. Such an entry reminds me that it would be good to get more Peruvian and, more generally, South American theological and rockish material here at Rock and Theology.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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This Sunday and for the next few Sundays, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon, United States, will be hosting a theological series on Neil Young.

If you are a R&T reader and in the Portland area, you might want to check it out. More details are here. Hopefully they will not only appreciate Neil Young in the cathedral, but the cathedral in Neil Young.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

The new English rock band Florence and the Machine recently played the Bowery Ballroom here in New York City, and critic Jon Pareles has a review of the show in the New York Times here. The show, as reported by Pareles, exemplified a point often made in rock research and which we have occasionally emphasized on this blog: rock’s ongoing relationship to its religious origins. Pareles writes that “After a set full of intimate strife, Florence and the Machine returned with a devout, gospel-tinged remake of ‘You’ve Got the Love,’ which insists, ‘My savior’s love is real.’ ”

Here is the band performing “You’ve Got the Love.”

And speaking of the continued working-through of rock’s religious origins, here are Florence and the Machine performing “The Drumming Song”:

Can the church bells clear out the drums? Which sounds, from the church or the kit, will be more responsive to the transvaluation of an extra-religious desire “sweeter than heaven, hotter than hell”?

Tom Beaudoin

New York City

When people ask me what “kind” of music I like, I tend to say something like “I like shit that’s good.” I’m not (usually) saying this in order to sound elitist, but just the opposite. When I was younger, I would probably reply that I liked this or that genre, at various points folk rock, grunge, hardcore, punk, emo, indie rock, alt-country, etc. Of course, I have always enjoyed music outside of these preferred genres, but I always felt that I could identify more with certain genres for whatever reason. As one gets older, I think, one’s musical tastes often broaden, become more “catholic” so to speak. I’m no longer comfortable identifying with particular genres — although I’ll always have particular affections for certain styles and sounds.

Negatively, this broader musicatholicity is due to a realization of the artificial nature of the boundary-drawing that genres represent, often driven by constructed racial and cultural categories in an attempt to make music easier to commodify. Perhaps the less we think of music as a commodity, the less we buy into these easily consumable divisions. More positively, this broadening of musical perspective is the result of what I’d like to call a deeper realization of the diversity of rock charisms that exist. While at one point I would have dismissed entire genres as “not for me,” I have come to see the world’s diversity of music/s, both within “Rock” and outside of it, as exhibiting unique “charisms,” i.e. secular-spiritual “gifts” or, more simply, certain sensitivities, types of perceptiveness, or “things they’re good at.” The wide range of musical families within that larger genre of “Rock” could be likened to the variety of spiritual families within Christianity, each bearing its own charism or gift for the church and for the world. What might these rock “charisms” be? Certainly the charisms are multiple within genres and overlapping among them. (more…)

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The Kids of the 70s and 80s Are Taking Over

Posted in: General,Practices by Tom Beaudoin on October 28, 2009

Every once in a while, I see a news item that reminds me that cohort identities and generational shifts still matter, despite how much the notion of “generation” has been reworked in my own mind since I first wrote a book about my own, over a decade ago. I noticed in the New York Times yesterday a review, by Seth Schiesel, of a tour that marries musical performance to video games. This is a phenomenon we’ve quite briefly registered here earlier when discussing the importance for everyday musical (and thus, never far behind, theological) life of video game platforms as creating spaces for musically imaginative, as well as capitalistically managed, practices. In the article, Tommy Tallarico, the co-creator (with Jack Wall) of “Video Games Live,”unrolls an observation already evident in the kinds of music and films being made today, and likely to be relevant for the next several decades: “I’m 41 years old, and we’re the first generation to grow up with video games and computers and MTV and the Internet. And just because we turned 40, we didn’t stop playing video games, and now we’re having children and in the next 20 years we’ll be becoming grandparents, and then we’ll be all through the culture.”

My (yes, so-called) generation, those of us born in the mid-to-late 60s through 1980 or so, and finding our bearings as kids and adolescents during the 70s and 80s, has known for some time that we are a relatively smaller group sandwiched between two mammoth generations. It is interesting to consider the way in which it falls to us to hold together — insofar as we want to speak to a broad segment of our culture — the spiritualities and secular music practices of the Baby Boomers, on the one hand, who are now up to 20 years our senior, and the Millennials on the other, who are now up to 20 years our junior. There is now an interesting three-generation circuit of faith and culture in which the immersion in popular culture practices, and the crisis of religious institutions, and the quest for a liveable spirituality, are all more or less taken for granted. Will we be able to speak of a distinctive contribution to the history of theology, at least in the West, from my generation?

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

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Beck Meets Sheila Chandra

Posted in: General,Teaching by Tom Beaudoin on October 27, 2009

Part of the pleasure of dilating rock and theology together is not only thinking through the words these cultures produce, but taking in new symbolic overlaps between them: musical, visual, and more. Here is a video in which Beck, the pop music tinkerer who stitches together sounds from multiple genres into a patchwork rock that most always ends up celebrating groove and country flavors together, is overlaid with Sheila Chandra, who for me is akin to Sinead O’Connor in her celestial ascents through the hierarchies of vocality and bold spiritual experimentation. Just yesterday in a course I teach at Fordham, my students and I listened to Chandra’s “Sacred Stones,” from her Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices album, in which she chant-sings both “Vishnu, Vishnu,” and “Dominus Illuminatio Mea, Alleluia,” bringing together Hindu and Christian meditations in one song.

Here is Chandra singing “Ever So Lonely / Eyes / Ocean” (also from the Weaving album) over Beck’s “Loser” (from the album Mellow Gold).

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

I am here concluding a small three-part exploration that began here and continued here, on the topic of spiritual exercises in theological and rock cultures. I will presume what was said there, and pick up here with the rockish example of air instrumentation as a practice from rock culture that exemplifies and symbolizes the rehearsal for a new availability, that I am using as a figuration of the “spiritual exercises” that overlap rock and theology.

I was stunned recently to see the video below, featuring “Power,” the star of the movie Adventures of Power. The video features “Power” as an “air drummer”, in which he is playing in tandem with one of the most well-regarded and famous rock drummers ever, Neil Peart of the Canadian rock trio Rush. To watch this video is to get an exaggerated snapshot of the phenomenon of air instrumentation in general and air drumming in particular — but just so, it serves in its extravagance, like comedy, as a staging of some crucial and common qualities of this practice.

What was the claim to attention that this video made on me? Simply its vivid rendering of the power of imitative practice for the confecting of relationship in general, and for a new availability in particular. (And with such delightful precariousness of self-awareness/self-unawareness that the famously stone-faced Peart is seen smirking at several points during the exercise.) Notice how “Power” submits to a riot of physical pedagogy: being spatially stationed near the master, so he can see and be seen; showing off the well-rehearsed moves that mimic those the sage Peart makes but also find their own whimsy through unrepellable desire (“Power” keeps moving closer to Peart’s kit and wanting to show him how he is doing, maybe make him laugh, maybe even teach him a thing or two about his own “Power”?) and irreducible weirdness (symbolized in the white geek-boy presentation); submitting to the trial of mental-physical exhaustion that becomes a way of calibrating his proximity and distance from the philosopher Peart; learning how to find in sound and silence the punctuations that can orient the body even outside this specific exercise; studying ways to listen to the sound and body of another as a passage into one’s own corporeal sizing up; and finally, just when you think he can live with the discipline, and with thirty seconds to go, the collapse and acknowledgement that he is not the sage. (And as in ancient exercises, a deep spiritual exercise can also be rehearsal for death: You hear a voice off-camera say, “Somebody call an ambulance.”)

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In a previous post, I introduced this topic of rehearsing for a new availability: this is one way I have of talking about spiritual exercises in a way that emerges from the theory and practice of Christian spiritual exercises but that also has those exercises “in hand” in the contemporary context: of postmodern philosophy, of post-Christian society, of post-secular culture, of multiple religious/nonreligious identifications. Moreover, it does not emerge only from the theory and practice of Christian spiritual exercises, but rather of a lived experience that must be translated from having been undergone to being actively thought: being emplaced in both theological and secular music cultures. Amid the ways we are innovating in theology to speak of multiple simultaneous formative locations (hybridity, multiple religious belonging, mestizaje), we must find our own way of speaking with respect to this complex emplacement. It is out of this cluster that I attempt to think through what the cluster is and what it offers. I try to make a theological commendation out of it that I call here the potential rehearsal for a new availability. Again I say this is my “translation” (but much more) of “spiritual exercise.” For the moment.

And I am interested in the concrete forms these take in rock and theological cultures. I teach a graduate course at Fordham University called “Theology of Ministry,” in which we look at the rhetorics of theological concepts as they are joined to ministerial practices and relate (or not) to contemporary secular culture. Recently, students in the class wrote their first paper of the semester, on the relation of their theology of ministry to theories of the secular in Charles Taylor and Talal Asad. In reading their papers, I felt the need to encourage them to think of their academic theological writing as a spiritual exercise. Or in the present terms, rehearsal for a new availability. This is what I drafted and handed out to them in class.

. . .

Remarks on Papers: Or, A Brief Theology of the Ministry that Paper Writing Can Be

Prof. Tom Beaudoin, Graduate School of Religion

7 October 2009

*Writing can be a spiritual exercise: an act of theological care for yourself and others

*In practical and pastoral theology, including theology of ministry, this exercise can happen as you rehearse thinking about practice. This is part of what makes of practice a praxis.

*Careful thinking about practice requires patient engagement with sources of knowledge about practice (life, ministry, texts)

*Theological writing requires time to live discerningly with these sources

*Such time given to writing is not focus-less: it can be oriented toward particular qualities of theological rhetoric that are recognized for their power to shape thought and practice: developing clear theses or judgments; serving your argument organizationally, grammatically, and stylistically; making appropriate, sufficient, and critical use of evidence

*The process of stretching toward these qualities become essential instruments of the spiritual exercise of writing, practical scholarly ways of enacting theological care for yourself and others

. . .

And now in my next post on this topic I want to set this concrete example next to one from rock culture to illustrate an overlapping way of shaping sense, rehearsing for a new availability.

Tom Beaudoin
New York City, New York, United States

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I am getting ready for the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, the major annual North American conference for scholars of religion, which draws many thousands each year, representing the study of an extraordinarily wide range of religions. This year we will be meeting in Montreal from 7-10 November. Amidst reunions with friends, browsing book exhibits, meetings about professional projects, attending conference sessions, and searching out the Montreal rock culture, I am preparing for a session in which I’m a panelist. The session is titled “The Turn to Spirituality: Enlightenment After the Enlightenment?“, and I will be on the panel with Professors Sarah Coakley (University of Cambridge), Paul Lim (Vanderbilt University), and John Makransky (Boston College), with Anant Rambachan (Saint Olaf College) presiding.

Here is a description of our session from the AAR website: “That there is a widespread cultural turn to discourses about “spirituality” over the last several decades is incontestable. Interest in spiritual disciplines is high and the descriptor “spiritual but not religious” has become commonplace. This interest in spirituality is also deeply-rooted among seminary and divinity school students; students in a variety of institutions are calling for curricular attention to spirituality. Nonetheless, much remains unclear. What do we mean by “spirituality?” Can spirituality be taught? What accounts for the cultural turn toward spirituality? Is this interest in “enlightenment” a sign of the end of the Enlightenment? Are we in a postmodern moment wherein it becomes credible once more to think again about the relationship between knowing and the formation of the knower? If philosophers can speak without blushing of “philosophy as a way of life” (Hadot), what then about theologians? What might this turn to spirituality mean for theological education?”

I am naturally thinking of where I have been with rock and theology in my life and work. With practical theology, I have come to see theology as run through with practices, and with Foucault, those practices as dynamic forces of knowledge, power, and subjectivity. This came to me recently in two moments, one rockish and one theological. Theologically, I recently wrote up some reflections on theological writing for students in my “Theology of Ministry” class at Fordham. This was an attempt to suggest how the writing of academic theology might be construed as a spiritual exercise. Rockishly, I have been thinking about how crucial “air instrumentation” is to the enjoyment of rock music and the training of sense among rock fans: air guitar, air drums, and for the bold, air keyboard — all these are ways of giving the body new avenues of creativity precisely through imitation, redolent again of the language of spiritual exercise. Whereas critical thinking in theological education and the discourses of true scholarship in academic theological-institutional advancement often prize the original and the different, we get from many of the performing arts, including rock, a different sense of freedom through imitation, with imitation leading to its own sculpting of sense. I think of both of these kinds of exercise — theological writing and air-instrumentation — as different kinds of rehearsals for a new availability. This is another way of talking about spiritual exercises. I’ll follow up this post tomorrow with some examples of what I am talking about. And I look forward to meeting some R&T readers in a few weeks in Montreal…

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

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Somatica Divina 31: Styx, “Crystal Ball”

Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on October 22, 2009

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