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January 2010
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In today’s New York Times, David Belcher has this interesting article discussing Patty Griffin’s new album titled “Downtown Church.” Apparently the album focuses on renditions of gospel from the 1950s and ’60s, music that was the very bread of life for so many, and was foundational for rock and roll. Griffin has this to say about singing this old-time gospel music: “I grew up Catholic, so I have these defenses about listening to anything with too much religiosity; some of the lyrics didn’t sit well in my mouth.” (She goes on to add that “One of my beefs is the patriarchal setup. Having the he, he, he, God, God, God, king, king, king stuff was hard for me.”)

It seems like the “Catholic” line was meant to correlate to Griffin’s avowed religious “defenses,” and not the sensitivity to patriarchal theology. But there can be little doubt that growing up Catholic gave her plenty of opportunities to learn in painful detail about what she so helpfully calls “the patriarchal setup.”


Why it is that so many Catholics are so reticent to get too specific about their faith and to feel “too religious” is one of the more interesting unanswered questions from a practical-theological perspective. Two provocative popular explorations of this in the last few years have been provided in the U.S. Jesuit magazine America, one by Martin Pable, called “Why Don’t Catholics Share Their Faith?” is here. The other, by David Nantais, is called “What Would Jesus Listen To?” and can be found here.

While there are no doubt many reasons that many (but by no means all) Catholic Christians tend not to feel as comfortable expressing or publicly indulging explicit religiousness as some Protestant and evangelical Christians (and even this would have to be further specified racially and ethnically in order to really get at whether this defensiveness is correlated to Catholics of a certain social class, ethnicity or some other factor), the generalization does, in my experience, bear some truth.

And this is precisely one of the things I appreciate about Catholic Christianity, the way it can leave room for the faith or unfaith of others without getting its theological feathers ruffled. Think about the notable and frequent intensity of religious indirection in some “secular” musicians with a Catholic background: Madonna, Springsteen, Alanis Morrisette, just to name three to start.

(By the way, Griffin calls herself a “lapsed Catholic” in the video above. Morrissette has called herself “post-Catholic.” The very invention of these kind of terms, which signal a kind of continual negotiation with Catholicism, and the slow invention of a new way of living with Catholicism (including beyond but still in relation to it), reminds me of the secular Catholicism I’ve tried to outline on this blog.)

There is a kind of religious indirection or defensiveness among Catholics born no doubt of lack of awareness or confidence about one’s (ir)religiousness, and those who labor in youth and young adult ministry work often with a titanic creativity and persistence in face of this. But much less acknowledged is a kind of religious indirection or defensiveness born, however unaware, of a deeper sense about modesty in face of mystery. That’s one quite interesting side of Ms. Griffin’s forthright comment.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States


For a Sane Theology

The best rationale I can presently give for this way of proceeding theologically is that, in the welter of possibilities for this engagement between rock and theological cultures, this focus on practice and the fostering of attitudes of dispossession or incomprehension is the most sane path I can find. I use “sane” in the sense of Susan Wolf as referenced by Talal Asad. It is against the modern secular ideology of a “free” self that Asad counterposes philosopher Wolf’s notion of the “sane self:” “a desire that one’s self be controlled by the world”—that is to say, from Asad’s point of view, a disciplining of habits in the rigors of everyday bodily training—“in certain ways and not in others” (Susan Wolf, “Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility,” in Ferdinand Schoeman, Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions: New Essays in Moral Psychology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 55, in Asad, Formations of the Secular, p. 73). For Asad, this means a training for “knowing the world practically and being known practically by it, a world of accumulating probabilities rather than constant certainties,” where agency becomes a matter not of unvarnished freedom but the outcome of a “habitual engagement with the world” (Asad, Formations, p. 73).

Standing in both theology and rock has affected how I construe the very relationship between the two, since the character of that placement has had the form of a critical mystagogy for me. I construe theology as a psychagogical power, as therapy, as related to the ancient Christian theological understanding, and informed by the therapies of philosophy and psychoanalysis. My approach begins with the identification of a pattern that seems to constrict reality unnecessarily; I then bring therapies to bear theologically, and allow that pattern to be therapy reflexively for theology.

How? The theologian must risk immersing herself in the particularities of cultural matrices; it is a matter in a sense of a willingness to undergo spiritual-cultural formation for the sake of one’s theology. One takes up an active engagement in one sector (at a time) of a culture: learning its language, rules, problematics, symbols, histories, discourses, conflicts, and risking oneself as part of its atmosphere (whether an academic theological culture or a lower class multiracial urban culture). It something akin to what David Tracy, in The Analogical Imagination, called the “journey of intensification into particularity.” In doing so, one enters deeply and experientially into the symbol system and matrix of practices of a particular group, cohort, culture. One does not merely serve up that journey of intensification as an unassailable confession. Neither does one attempt to cancel its plurality and ambiguity (Tracy, again) by totalizing descriptions or moralizing judgments about its dynamics.

Rather, one learns its problematic—as if from “the inside”—though of course never purely on the “inside.” This problematic, a force field of cultural practices, will then be correlated with the force field of cultural practices of one’s own religious “tradition.” A correlation of powers under the powers of correlation. This correlation of powers is the style of the postmodern theologian of culture. It may also be the style of any theologian today. It also seems to get at the style of theological work in everyday life. Theologians—in the academy and everyday life—are thus always already cultural workers. Being conducted into this mode of theological experience is as important for me as the clinching of an argument. This is what I take to be one contemporary form of mystagogy.



“Catholics and Pop Culture” Interviews

Posted in: Dialectic,General by Tom Beaudoin on January 21, 2010

In the January 2010 issue of the magazine Catholic Digest, journalist Kerry Weber interviewed six Catholic commentators (Fr. James Martin, Bill McGarvey, John Mulderig, Sr. Rose Pacatte, Valerie Schultz, and me), about basic spiritual-theological discernments in engaging popular culture today. It’s a short piece (pp. 44-52) but I think it gives a good sense for where some common Catholic allegiances stand on these matters. The interviews were done one at a time and then “collated” to shared themes. (A more ethnically/racially diverse group would have represented the diversity of Catholic opinion more adequately and fully.) I hope it can be a prompt for conversation, because I find that the question of popular culture has a way of distilling larger theological questions quite quickly. You find out how someone in ordinary life, church, or academy thinks theologically about popular culture, and you’ve gotten a window into their larger theological life. (While Catholic Digest is on the web, it does not appear that the interviews are web-accessible.)

Tom Beaudoin

New York City


Second, this vantage on method or production and the abandonment to practice is not only “procedural” but already available for a kind of theological “content”. It says that whatever the God who may be (to reference Richard Kearney), will be thought with respect to our cultural practices and ways of life. (This is similar to claims being made today by the global movement called “communicative theology.”) There is a way of learning through cultural practices that we call a divine learning, or better, a readying, a rehearsal for what may come, and thus I would want to hold in view Rahner on the irreducibility of the inconceivable as well as cognate concepts in philosophical theology today, such as the impossible, the phenomenon erotic, the other.

These two sets of practices, rock and theology, and the training of sense they confect, can overlap as askeses of readying. According to testimonies in both rock and theology, they can serve as overlapping conduction into the impossible, as spiritual exercises of releasement, or as allied rituals of the inconceivable, as rehearsals for a new availability, as possibly congenial rituals of incomprehension. Rockishly, this is what I take to be the importance of the remarkable agreement among musicians about the spiritual value of rock music in a way that remains distanced from institutions, and the significant awareness of this too on the part of many fans immersed in rock culture. Theologically, this is what I take to be given in the work of a Caputo or de Certeau, or William Connolly and the Spinozist tradition he defends. It is the “mystical” consolation of thinking tradition not only as that handed on but as a handing over. In short, unhanding, dispossession as learned askesis. After Foucault, I take a basic pedagogical question for this ritual of incomprehension to be: Who wants to tell you the truth about yourself, in what ways, and with what effects? Theology and rock have proven adept and influential at serving up forms of life that give this question vitality; they have also proven adept and influential at serving up forms of life that keep this question from vitality. When theologians ask how to proceed in this problematization, it makes theology an askesis for other askeses. What seems most important, in a word, is finding ways of holding open the inconceivable character of experience, the descent/ascent into mystery in theology and rock. Thus, I see that theology has as part of its mission “ad intra” to be askesis, and “ad extra” to be an askesis for askeses, and in this way a ministry. We do not need to say that rock and theology “do the same thing” or “are the same” in this regard, only that there are teachable alliances to be fomented. This, and perhaps more, can only be had by those abandoning to practice in both rock and theology, to consciously inhabit this multiplicity and notice then how they act. But as much as dispossession is given in practice for both identities, so too is it continually withdrawn. In rock, this can happen through the varieties of injustice and immaturity familiar to critics of rock’s culture industry and colonial imbrications. In theology, this happens through the varieties of injustice and immaturity familiar to critics of theology in general and Catholicism in particular; its colonial imbrications (which is why Rahner on the “world church” still gets quoted constantly and still seems like news). This means that the dispossession in becoming a ritualist of incomprehension is not inevitable but an ongoing negotiation. Part of the work of theologians then, with respect to rock, becomes to teach this negotiation. This will include helping baptized Christians make of their secular musics a spiritual exercise, so that like the monastic discipline of old, secular music can become a “second baptism.” (Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion, p. 63) Rock music is and can further become what theology has been and can further become, in the pedagogical admonitions of Jean-Luc Marion and Peter Rollins, a way of learning to desire to say nothing. (See Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God, pp. 43-44, with reference to Marion, God Without Being, p. 107, on “knowing how to remain silent”.)



Theology: Practices, Reflexivity, Pedagogy

The conversation between rock and theology, because it involves cultural analyses and theological claims, necessarily presupposes and therefore activates and intervenes in debates about where theology comes from, and how theology “works”. These are most commonly called debates on method; I also find it helpful to construe them as problems of theological production. (With the former coming from the wake of a scientific ideal for theology tempered by a cognizance of plural methodological options, and the latter foregrounding the political and cultural work allowing for and allowed by theological discourse.) It is true that much work in rock and theology presumes the essential stability of both, but I would like to suggest a slightly different angle. One way to understand what we are dealing with is the question of practices, specifically the practices that constitute the multiple scenes of rock. This perspective becomes possible through [1] the literature in cultural studies of music; [2] the practice focus in philosophy, anthropology and sociology in recent decades; [3] the practice focus in theology in recent decades; [4] participant observation in rock culture. But theology does not stand aside observing rock practices as if to render a normative judgment unaffected by what is under study, a judgment about which few would really care and which would not report much that is new for theology itself apart from a further valorization of what it knew before finding rock and roll. We should acknowledge how strong is the theological temptation to “knowingness” (to use Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s term) about popular practices.

I take it that an important point of theologians engaging rock is to be able to make themselves part of a cultural phenomenon, that is, to be theological for the rock public, or at least with respect to it, and not only to “translate” secular music for the theological academy. Such a translation, were it to be effective, would at any rate be presumed to rest on some reliable immersion in the cultural practice of rock and roll. Not everyone has to love rock in order to calibrate it theologically, but it is hard to imagine any theological awareness of rock short of something like a participant observation in rock practices, whether the making, listening, or circulation of music—whether direct experience of this or indirect reportage from people in the know. My point here is that the practices of rock are going to continue to call for a reparation of theological awareness, and there will no doubt be a danger of essentialism of rock for the purposes of theological systematization. When one deals with secular music, as most forms of secular culture today, we are well beyond the illusion that theologians have much cachet for intervention. The only hope of service to academy, church, and society that the theologian has in this regard is the abandonment to practice. In other words, what right would theology invoke to not allow itself to be touched and changed by secular rock practice? The right to speak, even with care, about God in public, a prerogative that has been mercifully forfeited by the church due to the international sex abuse crisis — this right will only reappear when theologians have as their own the practices that bear the joys and hopes, griefs and anguishes of their global comrades. This is a different use of theological and ecclesial power. I confess surprise that theologians can seriously entertain a questions about whether rock music gives one a false identity. Such a question can only be asked from outside the actual practices of rock, and bespeaks a culturally privileged speaking point that is of little help and even less legitimation today. This cultural grandstanding, that necessarily posits the ecclesia against secular culture, is shown for what it is when the impossibility of its reflexivity is posed: Can theologians who ask such questions imagine being asked of their own identity: “Does Christianity or Christian theology give one a false identity?” There is no theologizing about something like music without being changed as a theologian and in one’s theologizing. What is the privilege of theology and for what purpose with respect to the most pressing questions today of the character of secularity and its promises and perils for what we might be tempted to call, with apologies to Prince, the-identity-formerly-known-as-Christian? We know too much about our own obsolescence (ad extra), and our colonial emplacements (ad intra and ad extra), to hold anything other than that the theologian must be willing to have herself asked the same kind and intensity of questions as the theologian is asking the culture. (This ethical imperative is becoming increasingly commonplace in cultural studies; see the work of Nick Couldry.)

One development in the theological study of practices in the last several years has been renewed attention to theology itself as especially concerned for practice in church and society and, more rigorously, as constituted itself by a constellation of practices ecclesial and cultural, ranging from prayer, worship, and service of the local church; to reading and writing and teaching; to working with publishers, relating to colleagues, and comporting oneself in the tenure process of oneself or others. This perspective becomes possible through [1] the literature on the practice of academic life today; [2] the practice focus in classic and contemporary texts on the work of theology (for example, in practical theology and in philosophy of religion); [3] new studies on the importance of practical reason across the work of the professions; [4] particular attention in contemporary theological studies on the practices formative of the theologian. Indeed, who can now deny that theology, especially Catholic theology, has also its own colonial imbrications and postcolonial possibilities?



Rock Definitions

The literature in cultural studies and musicology defines rock music in many ways: as any socially disturbing secular music; as a blanket term for all American musical styles deriving from the blues, and a heady mix of gospel, spirituals, and country musics; or with regard to race, as a racialized, white expropriation of black musics that serve mainstream and typically suburban audiences; with regard to a capitalist music industry, as a force for the musical fabrication of docile consumers who delight in base desires and a narrow band of transgressions, through a musically saccharine if obnoxious musicscape that perpetuates the illusion of freedom through rock culture; with regard to sex and gender, as a patriarchal music that builds sounds and postures around narcissistic male bombast and the lyrical fantasies of straight male pleasures; musically, as a middlebrow popular art form tending toward the Dionysian, displaying especially the electric guitar, favoring sonic overload, built on blues scales and 4/4 time, and defined as much by feel, energy, and the evocation of the body as technical skill; or with regard to genre, as a “popular” music distinct from country, rap, or pop. Rock is a slippery term, and scholars warn that “genre essentialism” is a continual challenge for its definition.

For present purposes, I would like to suggest the focus be on rock cultures in their complexity of practices, including production, distribution, and consumption. These rock cultures are historically positioned. Rock cannot adequately be conceptualized – even and especially for theology – without accounting for social class, sex and gender identities, economy, racial dynamics, genre rules, and technology. None of this can be dealt with adequately here, but some shapes cast by the overlapping shadows of theology and rock can be modestly suggested.

Rock Dynamics

Rock research has highlighted some of rock culture’s limits as well as creativities: its colonial imbrications and postcolonial possibilities. Its colonial imbrications, according to theological and cultural studies research, have been profound and persistent. Much analysis has been given to ideologies of sex, gender, violence, and race in particular. Serious criticisms take rock music to be a masculine culture often to the point of misogyny and homophobia, from the very training of musicians and fans, to common if infamous fan behaviors, to marketing images, and lyrical content. Such seemingly constitutive dimensions of rock culture are instilled through the glorification of masculinist antagonism, whether explicitly in male-intensive musical spaces like music stores, studios, backstage, or concert halls, or implicitly in a music industry that has exploited while innovating sex, gender and racial differences. And all of this on the backs of an anonymous cadre of black musicians whose musics, as so many histories of rock now show, were effectively stolen to such an extent that Elvis Presley and the Beatles are commonly thought to have invented rock and roll. These are serious and substantive charges about rock as a culture that has furthered white supremacy, misogyny, sexual sameness. In other words, a colonially imbricated music. I find almost the whole of this nexus of criticism to be devastatingly on the mark in varying degrees and for varying rock scenes in the United States and globally.



Why try to engage theology with rock and roll here and now with the USA at war, with a financial crisis rearranging lives and livelihoods, with so many serious moral questions impossibly demanding the attention of every thinking adult? Are we not at risk of too casual an approach to a discipline with as weighty a set of concerns as theology? Or, as one of my colleagues said to me, “I sure wish I had time to write about fun topics.” Ought theology only deal with topics of the deepest sobriety? Or indeed, are rock musics and their cultures only “fun” matters? What right, then, have we to devote theological resources to rock?

First, as seemingly all research in cultural studies seems to agree, rock and its cognate musics figure significantly in the practice of everyday life. For North America and the Western-influenced globe, secular music comprises an influential environment; certainly one with which a great many of our students live, with which many in theological cultures live. Robert Wuthnow’s research on generational differences in American religion has 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.” (After the Baby Boomers, Princeton, 2007, p. 130) As Journalist John Allen wryly observes, 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 according to historian Tim Blanning, the form of pop culture that seems to be most widespread and influential in everyday Western life is secular music (The Triumph of Music, Belknap/Harvard, 2008).

This environment gets registered quantitatively in the significant amount of time that people spend “consuming” rock in its many media and “products”; and qualitatively in the defining emotional and spiritual significance attached for individuals and groups to certain pop culture experiences. In most teaching situations, if I ask people of almost any age to reflect on a “secular” pop culture event or process that has been important for their sense of who they are or what they are about, or ask what scene, lyric, sound or reference they call upon to get through questions or crises, or to remember or incite joy or vision, almost everyone has an example of a favored movie, television show, and especially a song. Considerable research in various disciplines bears out how importantly these musics register what the Second Vatican Council famously called the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of people today, and, this research shows, thus are for the maintenance of ongoing identity today. We are still learning what it means for us in this culture of secular musics for Karl Rahner to have told us, “We are not like a street, on which the endless stream of moments passes and then is just as empty as it ever was, once the moments have passed. We are much more like a storehouse, in which every moment leaves something behind as it passes, namely that part of it which is eternal.” (Karl Rahner, Prayers for a Lifetime, Crossroad, 1995, p. 62) That Rahner prayed this, as well as that “It is both terrible and comforting to dwell in the inconceivable nearness of God, and so to be loved by God [such] that the first and last gift is infinity and inconceivability itself” (Prayers for a Lifetime, p. 3), these will give me some coordinates for a theological allowance of rock.




For more on the Somatica Divina series, see here.


Aid to the Haitian People

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on January 13, 2010

Many of our graduate students here in the Graduate School of Religion at Fordham University are Haitian, and they face the daunting task of eventually returning to lead a theological life with the people in a devastated country. Let there be global support for Haiti, spiritual and material, in the aftermath of this terrible earthquake. The Red Cross is listing the pressing needs and accepting donations here.

Singer Régine Chassagne of the band Arcade Fire is Haitian. Here is the band performing their song “Haiti.”


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