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This is the final part of a 5-part transcript of my paper, “Spirituality and Practice in Theological Education,” given 9 November 2009 at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Montreal, Québec, Canada. Part one is here; two here; three here; four here.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
Given this analysis, if I am asked to talk about how spirituality fits into theological education, I declare myself both passionate and cautious.
I try to do a lot with students indirectly, asking them with various degrees of specificity how various practices in the culture of theological education (readings, discussions, reflections, writing) clarify or complicate their constitutive life practices, how they’re relating, how they might live with themselves and others. I also want to be cautious in traducing dangerous territories of confession. Foucault and his interpreters have taught me that much, and so I try out practices for myself in which I attempt to remain nondominative in how I work with students, keeping a broad lens, keeping my own integrity, trying to show that I respect theirs as well. This is also because I think that in how we work this out, this interaction itself is theological material, it is a kind of theological experience.
I also often focus not only on how the spirituality of students relates to the class, but on the proposed nexus of enticements to spiritual identification in the texts we are reading, as a way of noticing how texts assist in working up a religious identity and practice. I also sometimes teach a “spiritual review” as part of practical theology, asking how one’s theological research sits in one’s spiritual life, and sometimes we use Augustine’s review of his own life works in the Retractations as an inspiration for the task. If we take spiritual practices to be those through which what is most important in our lives passes, we cannot fail to ask how it is that our teaching plays out these practices, what disciplines we are recommending or concealing.
According to some theories of everyday life, diversions are most fully and effectively more than diversions — and become powers for changing one’s life — when they are “only” diversions. In that spirit, I offer a diversion for those here in the States celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday this weekend, and our global compatriots who find their own reasons for respite.
Here are five versions of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”: the original; the version from the movie “Wayne’s World”; a remake by Suzie McNeil; a take by the Muppets; and a lip-synch video by some teenage girls in the late ’80s that I found on YouTube. The Wayne’s World, McNeil and Muppet versions show how corporate brokers of cinematic/televisual culture fashion rock for specific audiences (North American adolescent teens and young adults in spirit or letter, and children). The fifth shows the creativity and playful spirit with which pop rhapsodies often get reworked by fans, setting a song with ostensibly disturbing lyrics in the family living room and making domestic items the tinsel of transcendence.
Is this “progression” of rhapsodies a process of dilution, of different interpretation, of genuinely new invention, or more? The question of how one creatively represents rhapsody, bohemian or otherwise, is one that implicates theology, and in which theology once thought it specialized.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
With many interpreters of our current cultural situation, I see an appreciation for spirituality as a strikingly widespread interest, including and especially among my students and those with and to whom they theologize and minister. One need not reduce the many faces of spiritual self-identification to one definition to appreciate that for many reasons, many of our students want to taste the meaning of their relationship to what might claim them, a wanting that tends to have students looking for ways of overcoming religious divisions, of articulating shared ethical commitments, and of putting things together in a practical way that makes sense for their immediate felt relationships. (It is important to note that not all research bears this out, such as the recently-published book by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford, 2009)). There are critics and endorsers of this turn to spirituality, but I think that an attention to practices helps us hold this research, and relate in theological education to our students, in a promising way. Unfortunately, some of the literature on the popular practice of spirituality lacks interest in practice models in theology, focusing much more on what young adults do and do not “know about their faith” or “their religion,” the frequently-condemned scourge of religious illiteracy.
That spirituality is now typically formed and informed, even transformed, outside religious institutions; and secular music plays a substantial role in the formation of identity and spiritual navigation for many if not most young adults in the West and in the Western-influenced globe. Robert Wuthnow’s recent research on generational differences in American religious and spiritual practice found that with regard to the arts, “the most notable generation gap is in preference for contemporary pop/rock music. Nearly four-fifths of young adults in their twenties say they especially like it; fewer than one-fifth of adults age 65 and older do.” Other kinds of music, such as classical and country, are generally favored more by older adults than by younger adults. This includes those who especially like Christian music and gospel music” (Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 130). Moreover, according to Wuthnow, music is the second-most popular source for finding spiritual answers today (after the Christian tradition). It fell to one respected Catholic commentator recently to render public what many scholars themselves in the AAR have already shown, that today’s students of theology are “usually far more catechized by pop culture than by the church,” (John Allen, “Navigating the Future of Theology,” National Catholic Reporter, 14 November 2008, p. 2a ) and the form of pop culture that seems to be most widespread and influential in everyday Western life is secular music (see Tim Blanning, The Triumph of Music: The Rise of Composers, Musicians, and Their Art (Belknap/Harvard, 2008)).
I recently watched the engaging documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, originally released in 2007. It follows the metal band Acrassicauda from its origins in Baghdad, through the destruction (by airstrike) of their rehearsal space (and instruments) to their escape to Damascus. The latest DVD of the documentary includes a lengthy second documentary update from 2008 about the band’s subsequent flight to, and tribulations in, Turkey. (As of 2009, Acrassicauda now live here in the New York City area. Here is an article by Ben Sisario on the band’s arrival in the USA, from earlier this year.)
This story takes the familiar “rock band struggling to make it” narrative and tells it from the context of mind-blowing fear, intimidation, violence, and relentless suffering and displacement that made of these bandmates (and one spouse and child) a dangerous – and paradoxically creatively freeing – political marginality, and a coterie of refugees who apparently try to hold their lives, families and friendships together through their dedication to their music. And to rock culture, which, as the documentary shows, gives many examples of how rock culture offers, even in a politically repressive atmosphere, a constellation of practices that teach about identity, relationships, goods worth living and suffering for. The ritualizing that goes along with rock, across cultures, including discipline and training in musicianship, self-presentation, gesture, interpretation of emotion, and (male, in this case) friendship, and much more, is evident in almost every frame. The dominance of United States rock for stabilizing and nurturing these rituals, one indisputable effect of the colonial power of the US recording industry, is also clear throughout. Yet it is also clear that for these musicians, music is a way of life, and of surviving/managing their political lives as well – precisely because they select music for, and effect stances of, apoliticality. This is something to notice and appreciate about how rock culture’s frequent (and frequently criticized) political “naivete” can be put to use politically in such a scenario as occupied Baghdad.
Acrassicauda seems to be also working creatively, if not overtly (at least not in the documentary), with Islam. There are only a few references to the mates’ identities as Muslims, and most of those have to do with the chafing and abusive dimensions of the Islamic governance and culture that they find in Baghdad. I would like to know much more about how their musical experience has inflected their Muslim sensibilities, and vice versa. It seems a very important point to be so muted in the film, but given the complicated political situation of the band, perhaps the omission was deliberate – and certainly understandable. Still, I would like to know what they take Islam to be now, what they take rock to be, and how those takes relate to each other. Perhaps they would willing to be interviewed on this topic for Rock and Theology?
One need not agree with every manifestation of rock culture to be amazed, while watching “Heavy Metal in Baghdad,” at how rock succeeds, in a far different culture from the one in which it was born, in helping people find a way through their pain and the smallness of their circumstances. Is this because it grafts and graphs desire so well?
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
At least in the United States, social class and its ramifications for spirituality and practice in theology remains a great unspoken category in the academic study of religion and theology. This fear of social class identification, of being pegged to the wrong class, can be manifest as fear of what our students may say about their spiritual lives, what our own social classes have contributed to our own spiritual lives, and what the social class aspirations of our institutions give to or withdraw spiritually from our students. Does the social class into which we are inaugurated as academics provides a built-in tendency to resent those “below” us, including our students, distancing ourselves from them, and disqualifying their subjectivity? I have become aware that my attempts to hold on to practices of secular music culture as substantial practices of the self is a way that I resist shedding the working class habitat and those relationships in which I grew up.
Practice-awareness, then, is a key part of what I do. I have taught undergraduates and graduate students in three Jesuit college and universities over the last eight years. I see no greater service that I can provide as a theological educator than having theological materials work with, through, and on my students and myself in the theaters of higher education. For a class to make a substantial difference in how one relates to oneself and others, in more searching and curious decision-making, in a deeper apprehension of what is at stake in their day to day lives, in their respect for the gorgeous mystery that they are, and bear, and encounter—all these are my goals as a theological educator. Helping a graduate student in ministry in framing a pastoral research project, talking with an undergraduate about theologies of tradition, or trying to calibrate the state of an academic theological question with a doctoral student in theology—for me these ought to be stations on the students’ way to more life, richer desire, “legitimate strangeness”… because they are also relational doors to the minister’s fuller grasp of the contours of a complex pastoral situation, of the undergraduate’s ability to talk to their parents or peers about their religious decisions, and of the doctoral student’s ability to make their way into a conversation, a community, a conference, a career.
But if I am led forward by a sense for trying to work with theology for my students’ freedom to make of their desires a free enough life with and for others, to have the experience of theological education make of their passions a spiritual exercise, I am also shadowed by my sense for the ambiguities, dangers, and destructiveness of Christianity and Christian theology, and in particular Catholicism, Catholic theology, and Catholic education. This is a theological tradition and way of life that, to put it simply, is suffused with courage and cowardice, a beautiful kind of power liturgically, socially, intellectually, and a frightening kind of power liturgically, socially, intellectually. Figuring out that and how this is the case, and allowing this to condition my teaching, have become important tasks for me as a theological educator. So I feel both led and shadowed by what can happen to the life of the spirit in the ecclesial, social and academic cultures of which theology is a part. As a result, I see the question of spirituality as an ethical question for the theological educator, a matter of asking what hand we have in shaping and forming, and toward what, in whose interest. Theological education has a role to play, however modest, in the sometimes irreversible good or damage we have the power to do to each other, individually and communally. As a result of these orientations, I think that being conducted into a particular mode of theological experience is as important for my teaching, even more so, than the clinching of an argument. I take it that formation by the theological cultures represented in education are what make clinching arguments significant for people.
A Note on Some Exegetical Fantasies: “Play Skillfully with a Loud Noise,” “Be Energetic, in a Non-Sexual Way”
When trying to construe the relation between ‘secular music’ and ‘sacred theology’ in a rigorous and relevant way, it is helpful to remember the routes that Christian imagination has already taken. One gets a sense for an influential kind of Christian tunnel-vision when viewing this special from the Christian show “The 700 Club” from the mid-1980s, in a special report on the Christian rock band Stryper.
A thick mane of rock talmudism could be occasioned by this brief video: The Christian preoccupation with an imagined culture of disaster, such as casting rock culture as celebrating “death and the leadership of Satan;” the influential ecclesial suburban legends about rock culture, such as that shows are “popular” places for (presumably male) musicians to “urinate on the crowd” (!); the place-finding for rock in a “biblical worldview,” such as a fulfillment of Psalm 33 and the attraction-repulsion toward sexual suggestion in religious gesture.
But also notice how capacious is this Christian vision regarding ingenuous camp and a sunny homoeroticism. It cranks to a surprising pitch the Pauline stage-direction, “become all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22). We can see Marcella Althaus-Reid’s queer Christian theology coming out already in 1986, in visions of bumble bee spandex and airborne Bibles.
Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on November 23, 2009
A few months ago, I celebrated music critic Ben Ratliff of the New York Times’ cooking up vivid characterizations of the frontman David Yow, of the band Jesus Lizard. In today’s Times, he and Yow have done it again, and provide another occasion for an entry into our rock bestiary. (For more on the notion of such a bestiary, see this earlier post.)
In today’s review of a Jesus Lizard show on Tuesday at Irving Plaza, Ratliff again free-associates to Yow’s palette of rockish gestures, showing smartly how distinctive rock is at inventing rituals (of playing live and of enjoying live music through writing about it) that open onto spiritual-political possession and dispossession.
Ratliff writes, “Mr. Yow, no kind of natural singer, had to invent his voice. It’s all muted middle-range: nervous honks, pathetic moans, sudden belligerent shouts, always accompanied by a nearly blank facial expression. His physical language is contained, improvisational, swinging between extremes: he writes and screams like Sean Penn’s famous scene in ‘Mystic River’ — with Mr. Yow you always fill in the invisible cops holding him down — then flaps his wings serenely, or gives the crowd a fey, palms-out, fuggedaboutit wrist-wave. He seems fascinated by menacing acts, but tends to turn them into something else.”
A bible of ritualized idiosyncrasies, as rock so often is. Do those of us who relate to biblical religions have the patience to let this worldly bible of ritualized idiosyncrasies show us the extent to which our performances of faith are dependent on the ritualized idiosyncrasies of our own bibles?
New York City, New York, United States
In this post, I continue the text of the paper I gave at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Part One is right here.
For me, it makes sense to talk about spirituality as implicated in theology, or, as I would rather say, spiritual or theological practices as some of the most basic material of theological cultures.
In dialogue with Michel Foucault’s works, I understand theologically significant practices as the way we are governed and govern ourselves with reference to God, insofar as power circulates through how and what we can know about ourselves and our world, through practices (as distinct, for example, from simply “ideas”), producing the world of identity, relationship, responsibility and obedience—with reference to God—which we then most often take to be simply given. In a deep sense, the very “organization of our practical knowledge” (Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Éditions Gallimard, 1972), English translation: Madness and Civilization, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage, 1988), p. 117), our forms of perception, the experience we have of ourselves and others, and the categories we employ for that experience, are historically constituted through power-saturated practices, making us subject to the institutions that support and are supported by regnant forms of knowledge in particular times and places.
(I take practical theology to be that theology focusing on the constitution of practice in a critical account of theological knowledge, for the sake of testing how theology can make critical and reflexive sense of practice in faith and culture.)
With Ilsetraut Hadot and Pierre Hadot, I look for the ways in which Christian theology works as a philosophy, a way of thinking allied to a way of life, an intellectual orientation grounded in and leading onto formations of self and community. With Foucault, I cultivate a critical curiosity about how practices get a spiritual registration and how those practices are dynamic forces of power stitching knowledge and subjectivity in particular situations.
But if I am to be reflexive regarding how my own theological life came to consider these things as meaningful, I should also ask myself about the configurations of practice that gave rise to my susceptibility to being convinced of the placement of spiritual practice in theological education. It is not just my theological training (at Harvard Divinity School and Boston College) or particular religious upbringing (as a Midwestern white Catholic with a middle class ecclesial life and working class neighborhood life), although these have been of course crucial. There is indeed another field of spiritualish practices that have overlapped with my upbringing and theological training to bring me to this field of vision: my immersion in secular music culture, in particular the last twenty-five years of my life as a fan of rock music and as a musician. In secular music cultures of fandom and performance, there are learned ways of disciplining oneself and others, and of being disciplined, of being trained in desires and manifesting desires, of refiguring relationships through shedding what was too small in my and others’ experience. It is no less ambiguous than the theological cultures of higher education or the church, but formative nonetheless. Maintaining the practices of rock culture is also a way of staying in touch with the working class spaces of the world in which I grew up, checking the incitement to class aspiration and concomitant avoidance of our practice-based contingency that is all but demanded by the normative practices of the academy.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
This month our local food bank reopened its doors in a new facility. It took over a year to build the 54,000 square foot warehouse which is over twice the size of the old building. However, because of the severe economic downturn in the U.S., not only are more people relying on the food bank to feed themselves and their families, but there has also been a marked decrease in food donations. The executive director estimates they will need 20 to 25 percent more food this year to meet the needs of the hungry.
I have a friend who plays keyboards in a local rock band. Next week, right before Thanksgiving, his band is playing for free at a local club. There will be no cover charge. Instead, in order to get in the door everyone must bring 2 cans of food to help fill that new food bank. The band is calling their gig “Will Play for Food.”
Rock music, and the people who love it, can and do serve the Common Good.
Mary McDonoughNext Page »