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When I was getting my Ph.D., I became intrigued by the writings of the polemic 16th century German reformer, Martin Luther. That’s a pretty bold statement coming from Catholic like myself. Not only did this Augustinian Eremite challenge the fundamental social, political, legal and religious ideas of his time, he developed a sophisticated theology of his own. While I can’t claim to understand all the nuances of his doctrines of justification and sanctification, there are 2 things about Martin Luther that I admire. The first is the tremendous courage he displayed by taking on the Catholic Church, an institution that completely dominated European life in the Middle Ages and became corrupt. The reason I find this particularly admirable is probably due to my own disdain for authoritative figures which is rooted in my family who encouraged its members to speak up for themselves and maintain a fierce skepticism toward authority. An innate trait of the Irish I’ve been told. Anyway, for whatever reason, I respect Martin Luther’s tenacity.
The other thing I really like about Luther is his doctrine of vocation, or calling. While the idea of a calling had been used before the Reformation in reference to ministry and holy orders, Luther was the first to use the term to refer to secular occupations. He argued that one’s calling serves others thereby fulfilling Christ’s commandment to love one another. Luther wrote of 2 kinds of callings. The inner call relates to one’s conscience. The outward call expresses one’s service to the community through work. Therefore, when people contribute to society according to their God-given talents, they become what Luther calls a “mask of God” where God acts through them.
What does any of this have to do with Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White? On December 22, film director Davis Guggenheim, of An Inconvenient Truth fame, released his new documentary It Might Get Loud which profiles guitarists Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White. I had read about the documentary months ago while Guggenheim was editing it. Because I play guitar and have loved the instrument since I was a little girl, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the DVD. I purchased it on the day it was released and immediately popped it into my DVD player. Guggenheim is brilliant in his direction of the movie. He gathers the three guitar players together, each representing a different generation and nationality, to jam, discuss the guitar and teach each other songs. The film crew travels to locations in their pasts. Interviews and biographical data of each player are cleverly interwoven throughout the film. In essence it’s a story about 3 musicians who found their calling and how they have lived out that calling.
The film is full of interesting details about the lives of these guitarists. For instance, Page first encountered the instrument that would define his life when his family moved to a new home and he actually found a guitar there that had been left behind by the former occupants. Talk about Divine Providence interjecting into someone’s life.
Each man views playing the guitar differently. Page voices his amazement at how all guitarists have their unique styles of playing which reflect their personalities. For Edge it’s all about sound effects and trying to get the sound in his head to come out of the speakers. White seeks simplicity, pureness of sound. He discusses how technology, “a big destroyer of emotion and truth,” nearly ruined music in the 1980’s by creating a sound that was so processed “it wasn’t real anymore.”
One experience shared by all 3 men is an epiphanic moment—a particular instant that sealed their fates to the guitar. For White it was when he saw the Flat Duo Jets perform. With their single guitar, drums and 10 watt amp the duo seemed “backwards yet fascinating” causing White to reassess what “backwards” meant and redefine the way he viewed the guitar. For Edge it was when he saw the 1970’s British punk group, the Jam, play on a local variety show and realized “I can do that.” The moment came for Page when he first heard Link Wray’s “Rumble” with its “profound attitude” unlike anything he’d heard before.
At various times in the film each player discusses creativity. Page, once a highly successful session player, recounts how he showed up to work one day and sat down in front of reams of sheet music. He looked at it and realized that playing the music of others involved no creativity whatsoever—he was just playing what someone else wrote. So he quit, joined the Yardbirds and a flood of creativity ensued coming from some special place evoking his love of “intensity, tensions and crescendo.” White defines creativity as a struggle claiming “if you don’t have a struggle already inside of you or around you, you have to make one up.” Edge, the most articulate of the three, offers my favorite explanation of the creative process:
When you go into a managed forest you see a mass of tree trunks. Then at a certain point you look again. You realize they’re all in perfect rows. Clarity. Clarity of vision. What you’ve been looking at from the wrong angle and not seen at all. You labor, you sweat to see what you couldn’t see from that other perspective.
Passion, labor, angst, longing. It’s all part of these three musicians. But there’s immense joy too. That joy is illuminated when they play their instruments. Toward the end of the movie, Page says of the guitar: “Whether I took it on or it took me on I don’t know. The jury’s out on that. I don’t care. I’ve just really, really enjoyed it.”
I’ve enjoyed his guitar too. And I think I speak for rock fans everywhere when I say we’re really grateful that Page, Edge and White found their calling.
Posted in: General,Lyrics,Practices,Theological Production by Tom Beaudoin on December 30, 2009
Off and on over the past several months, I’ve been listening to (and watching performances of) Wilco’s song “Theologians,” from their 2004 album A Ghost is Born. I come to the song more as someone presumably addressed by the title than as a Wilco devotee.
I cannot help but hear this song as a rebuke to the great mass of academic and churchy theologizing that fails not only to “reach” contemporary Christians and those curious about Christianities, but that fails to risk inhabiting the “lifeworlds” of such people, ostensibly a crucial source for theologians (insofar as faith is practiced by humans) and audience for theologians (insofar as theology is meant to be taken in by humans). “Theologians don’t know nothing about my soul.” And toward the end of the tune, we learn that maybe it’s Jesus who is singing this taunting song: “Where I’m going you cannot come”; “I lay it down”; “A ghost is born.” It’s rare that we get the image of Jesus singing to theologians, whether in “secular” or “sacred” music.
Posted in: Recommended,Rock and Theology Project,Secular Liturgies by Michael Iafrate on December 29, 2009
Tonight while scouring the web for information on the fascinating “transcendental black metal” band Liturgy, I found a brief interview with the band’s front man Hunter Hunt-Hendrix in which he mentions his recent viewing of a 1984 documentary by contemporary artist and critic Dan Graham called Rock My Religion (viewable at the link in its entirety). Hunt-Hendrix sums up the thesis of the documentary as the idea “that punk is part of an American tradition of ecstatic communal activity that began with the Shakers,” in other words that rock itself constitutes religious practice in continuity with American forms of “radical” Christianity.
The notion of rock as religion probably would not strike readers of Rock and Theology as a terribly deep insight. The documentary does make a few interesting connections between countercultural forms of Christianity and rock music, especially punk rock — connections I have been attempting to explore in my own work. But what is most fascinating about the film is its “lo-fi” visuals and production, its heavy use of footage of Patti Smith discussing the religious character of rock music and culture, and what one blogger refers to as its “mash up” juxtapositions of footage of 1950s religious revivals and music from Smith, Sonic Youth, Minor Threat, and Black Flag. If anything, the film is an interesting artifact, reflection and reference point for those inhabiting the worlds of rock and theology.
Posted in: General,Politics,Practices,Recommended by Tom Beaudoin on December 28, 2009
Almost a decade ago, I was inspired by Naomi Klein’s book No Logo to pull the clothes out of my closet and dresser drawers and find out who made them, where, under what conditions, and for how much. All in pursuit of one bigger question: why?
I ended up writing a book in 2003 inspired by this experience, called Consuming Faith. My basic argument was that the contemporary culture of corporate branding had positioned itself to fight for the identity and performance of youth and young adult life in the West (and in Westernizing societies) in ways that traded on the mirroring of spiritual disciplines (in other words, that give in varying degrees what Christianity and other religions had wanted to provide for their adherents), and that depended on dominant and politically recalcitrant Christian theologies for their violent progress; and moreover, that theologically speaking, faith in God can be understood as generosity in and courage for relationship, including the economic relationships that put us in debt for our well-being, and our own “spirituality,” to those global “others” whom we may never meet but who make our “stuff.”
The only thing new about that argument was to try to say it well in a short book, and in a way that would bear praxis-force (in theologically-interested circles) for both academic and educated lay readers in the seeking of truth and furthering of justice, in the small ways a book can, in these matters.
(In the preface to the paperback edition of the book, a few years later, I recanted some of the substructure of the argument, insofar as it relied on essentialized and finally ahistorical understandings of Christ and of scripture; this rethinking led me to write a followup book, Witness to Dispossession, to make more clear what can be said of Christianity and its capacity for prophetic speech and action today.)
This leads me to my most recent reading: an essay by Ken Silverstein in the January 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine, titled “Shopping for Sweat: The Human Cost of a Two-Dollar T-Shirt.” Silverstein faked his way into Cambodian apparel factories under the ruse of working for a high-end T-shirt company. What he found will surprise no one, but still needs to be said, and illustrated: that after more than a decade of high-profile reports and increased public consciousness about sweat labor’s contribution to the products that sustain life in the United States, we are not yet in a new age of ethics. Toward the end of his report, he notes that “[L]abor costs in the developing world are so low that the industry could still provide Americans with very cheap clothing while paying its workers significantly more, raising millions of people out of poverty.”
It made me think: Why not pay $31 or $32 instead of $30 for that concert T-shirt? And I began to wonder all over again where the rock-related shirts I wear are produced. How are these elements of rock culture in my life stringing me up in relation to the young women around the world who make these goods, they who are the true material girls, the real young women whose labor helps make possible the material on which so much of rock culture depends?
So I pulled out the first five T-shirts having to do with rock culture, and here is what I found:
The worlds of theology and rock are mourning the loss of giants of their respective crafts this holiday season. Dutch Dominican theologian Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx passed away from natural causes at the age of 95 on December 23. And Athens, Georgia singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt passed away on Christmas Day following an intentional overdose of prescription drugs. Paralyzed since 1983, Chesnutt was reportedly increasingly concerned about having inadequate health insurance as he faced necessary operations.
Filmmaker, producer, and friend of Chesnutt Jem Cohen commented, “This is not a story of a rock star being on heroin or even drinking themselves down. The real story here is about someone who struggled against amazingly difficult odds for many years and managed to transcend those odds with almost unparalleled productivity and creativity and power in his work.”
“Unparalleled productivity and creativity and power” are appropriate words to describe the lives of both Chesnutt and Schillebeeckx, and it is not difficult to be awestruck and deeply thankful for the gifts they gave to their respective worlds.
Thank you, Edward and Vic. Sweetness follows.
Morgantown, West Virginia
Posted in: Bible,Dialectic,Eschatology,General by Tom Beaudoin on December 26, 2009
Or more precisely, are theologians who work theologically with popular music helping to create and inhabit a “court of the gentiles” for those participants in the cultures of secular music who do not belong actively to churches?
In a recent address (brought to my attention by my Fordham colleague, Fr. Claudio Burgaleta), the bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI, remarked on the importance for “the Church” to establish a new “court of the gentiles,” as a way of inviting in those who search for God but cannot commit to the God proclaimed by Christians. I could not help but wonder whether Rock and Theology and similar theological engagements with contemporary secular(izing) cultures are a contribution toward such a symbolic “court.” Some of our contributors and readers might indeed defend such an interpretation, on the grounds that we are so intent on thinking through the ways that Christian churches can interact with popular cultures.
Indeed, there is much to endorse about the idea of fostering such a “court,” through various practical-symbolic actions that churches could take to welcome a full array of those who cannot fully “believe.” Among the strongest benefits would be that of direct encounter with the “others” of “the Church.” In that encounter might lie mutual deepening, clarification, and courage for committing to reality – among both those in the “court” and those further on “inside.”
Among the problematic elements of such a call are the naïve repetition of a kind of replacement or supersessionist mentality, in which the Catholic use of the Bible simply takes over and cancels any distinctive Jewish meanings pertaining to the ancient “court of the Gentiles.” In this recent address, as so often in the theological tradition, “Temple” (or its “interior”) effectively becomes “Church,” and “Gentiles” become non-Christians or those not fully Christian. Apparently we are not yet fully within an era when such embarrassing and hurtful theological moves can be seen for what they are: clearly out of bounds theologically, and harmful to the public credibility of Catholic ideas. Moreover (but not unrelated), reviving this idea is tantamount to saying to contemporary society that those who cannot believe Catholic teaching ought to move to the back of the bus: show up symbolically to this select and demarcated “space” where you can say what you must say, witness to your own actions and beliefs, but your witness will never echo into the holy of holies. In that way, it is like the confessional box of which I write in my most recent book: that ironic but telling Catholic space in which one can speak frankly, but demurely. One can express one’s convictions and hesitations, be open about God, but that frankness will not be read back onto the church’s own “self-understanding.” The telling of truths cannot become part of the inner contestation of “Truth” itself. In other words, and to put it simply, a “court of the gentiles” seems evidence of that peculiar kind of Catholic thinking that manages to be both creative and patronizing at the same time.
We would open up more practical and theoretical possibilities by opening up the ways in which God, approached as “the Unknown,” remains “Unknown” even to those who get past the velvet rope and bustle in and out of the inner sanctum.
What kind of therapy would this require for the theologically-minded who feel the urge to write Christian theology that usurps Jewish worlds or teaches itself to forget that it too is stuck mercifully with the “Unknown”? We could begin by asking that any time these urges, which have deep roots in theological tradition, arise, we ask why we think we need to repeat this dangerous game, recite again these tired divisions of labor.
In this way might we construct conditions for the new “dialogue with those for whom religion is something foreign,” to which Benedict’s recent address strikingly, and most welcomely, commits itself.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
In the Christmas story, an angel appears to a group of shepherds to tell them the news that Christ the Lord has been born. Note that the angel came to the shepherds in the middle of the night—light shining into darkness, hope in lieu of despair. A symbol of redemption. Throughout the Gospels we are called to redemption. To heal the sick, help the poor and visit those imprisoned.
In 2009 we lost a man of immense talent: Michael Jackson. While he may have led a controversial personal life, no one can question his immense contribution to music and dance, or the powerful message of redemption found in this song.
Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on December 22, 2009
Posted in: General,Musical Performance by Tom Beaudoin on December 22, 2009
While I try to feature something of an array of rock subgenres in my writing at Rock and Theology, it will be obvious to regular readers that I most often represent the “hard rock” section of the spectrum. So it is fun for me to find a band like Winger playing “Silent Night.” (I cannot embed the video in this post, so you have to check it out here.) But more than fun: an occasion for thinking again about what happens when rock and theology overlap.
As I listen and watch, I notice tints of the gendered overpush so common in rock, with the masculine plane of heterosexual desire here resituating the lyrics; how often do you hear “round yon virgin” sung like that? Made safe for public consumption, of course — or is it? — by the addition of “mother and child.” (It is worth noting the acrobatics involved in holding this safety belt fastened by keeping the wild theological imagery of “virgin mother” intact.)
What a delicious rendering of the “sleep in heavenly peace” lyric, as well! An affected growl and urgency, to be sure, but you have to suspend disbelief when you see four long-haired rock musicians with Santa hats sitting on stools in a studio belting out a Christmas classic. “Sleep in heavenly peace” — scooped out vocally and affectively with the grit that comes from (and would lead onto) years of playing shows like this — reminds me that this rockish pedagogy is not about simply lying down quietly, but about finding that place of being deeply alive, catapulting from those desires, however narrow they might look to others, that give us the courage of our strangeness and the generosity of our manner, and “resting” your whole body/being in that heaven. (“Convert people to life,” says Cesare Bonizzi.)
“Sleep in heavenly peace” becomes not a gentle supplication but — an imperative: you had better learn how to rest in your heaven, and feeling your way along rock’s path is part of the road to doing so. This does not cancel the theological lyric but turns it from a sheet into a chute.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
Posted in: Eschatology,General,Rock and Theology Project,Theological Production by Tom Beaudoin on December 17, 2009
I am working on a journal article on the emergence of what I characterize as a strong “secular Catholicism” in the United States, and that work has me thinking a lot about which realities theological authorities in church and academy are willing and able to recognize. I have been aware since the beginning of Rock and Theology that, for myself only, part of the theological significance of this project is its attempt to abandon itself to dealing with what is. To my mind, a lot of the Catholic theology being done today in the United States overestimates or almost willfully misreads what Catholics are willing to care about, consent to, find useful, helpful or interesting. It is not enough to claim that the academic theological vocation is a “prophetic” one — the usual backstop erected just in time — as an excuse for this disconnection from the lived Catholicisms before us. I see that part of what needs to happen, is happening and will happen among Catholic theologians in the United States is a profound rethinking of what it means to be a theologian in relation to an institutional church that is collapsing quickly. More people are walking out than walking in, and without recent immigrants, the decline would be even more evident. At best, the near-inevitable can only temporarily be forestalled. This is a genuinely “new situation” here in the States, one hardly admitted — much less negotiated or integrated — in polite theological circles.
Unless one wants to posit that all these “nonpracticing,” “recovering,” “fallen away” or “bad” Catholics are mired in a false theological consciousness, it will be of the essence of a truly prophetic theology to operate as if from within on what real, actual, living Catholics and others take to be central to their own lives, because such a placement for the generation of theology is the only path, positively, to a credible theology for the Catholic present in Western and secularizing contexts, and negatively, to check the incitement to negate the reality of people’s practices and the sacramental fetishism (read: fantasied overestimation of the stability, coherence and effectiveness of the sacramental system) that are part of the heritage of the Catholic theological tradition. It is for this reason, among many others, that I am grateful to the late theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid for valorizing the notions of obscenity and indecency for theology. By these terms, she means to bring in the riot of weirdness and uncontainable desiring life that are within each of us and within our so-regimented scriptures. Theologians have cast too many safety nets between our lives and those texts.
There are many things to surrender along the way of an academic theological life, but there has to be another role for theologians. We have strong incentives and pressures to a kind of premature theological mortality. Let’s not die young.
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