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On the Duty of Tenured Theologians to Think about Academic Labor

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on February 28, 2010

I just posted this entry at America magazine about what has deeply troubled me about how my profession is and is not responding to the financial crisis as it affects many of our fellow academic laborers, and in principle all workers in higher education.

Tom Beaudoin, New York City

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Here is a problem for most of us who study theology and culture: in what do you “ground” your work theologically? Or is “grounding” now impossible, once theologians take seriously the postmodern turns? The turn to practice does not solve this dilemma, as far as I am concerned, but it helpfully resituates it, and it can learn from cognate conversations about practice in philosophy of religion. One prime example of this is literature as a textual practice, and the ways in which such practice contends with, and receives, religion. Thus it is that I found reading Victor E. Taylor’s new book, Religion After Postmodernism: Retheorizing Myth and Literature (University of Virginia, 2008) an intense journey of moment.

And not just for those of us who specialize in theology and culture. A most unsettling abyss faces the theologically educated class who have undergone the severities of the historical and linguistic turns: whether anything stable is left in which to ground Christianity, its scripture, its faith. The preoccupation, even anxiety, about origins is a hallmark of most serious theology in the last several decades. In reply, the development of postmodern theologies in the 1980s were ways of arguing that one did not need the presumed certainties of origin in order to theologize rigorously—and even faithfully.

Taylor’s Religion After Postmodernism brings the state of this postmodern theological art to a highly refined, tightly argued, continually illuminating place. Taylor’s major concern is to show the intricate and unrelievable intercourse between religious-theological and mythological-literary thinking, or between “religion” and “literature.” With a theoretical frame built intensively and discerningly on the work of Slavoj Žižek and Charles Winquist, this book persuasively instructs readers about the tendency toward hegemonic readings of religious texts, in which the theological language is made theologically meaningful by tying it back, without remainder, to a purported transcendent extra-linguistic reality. The slide between religious language and what it represents is the space continually examined for the incomplete or arbitrary connectors religious thought constantly erects that function to domesticate the mythical-scriptural text, and therefore ironically to limit the religious character of its possibilities.

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Several days ago, Dr. Chris McDonald, in reply to my “Ruminatio” post about Jacob Moon’s interplanetarily good cover of Rush’s “Subdivisions,” wrote: “I was intrigued by your comment that ‘he’s even doing the whole song himself, reducing a rock trio to a solo act with cool electronics, as if that too somehow speaks to the climate the tune gives for adulthood.’ Could you expand on that?”

What I think I meant there was that to understand the song “Subdivisions” has always been, for me and many others, to hear it as set to the famous music video that accompanied it.

While one might get a strong sense for the advocacy of an unrelenting individuality from that song alone, and certainly if one hears that song in the context of Rush’s larger catalogue, one also gets that sense from the video. There, the young-man-against-the-masses struggles to make his way through indifferent or hostile worlds of conformity. In the end is the famous scene of him playing the Tempest video game, alone with technology, greasy hair, and oversize glasses. And Rush not only understands, it celebrates this singularity.

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Bathing in Blood and “Licking Cream”

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on February 22, 2010

A couple of decades ago, scholarly commentary on music video was gaining commonplace status in popular culture studies, and a few theologians even got into the act. But with the waning influence of music video in popular culture, an effect of the changes in music culture (such as MTV showing fewer videos and losing its once strong hold on the musical consciousness of the broad, and especially youthful, public), that scholarly engagement has dropped off considerably in the last several years.

But now music video is making a comeback through YouTube and other video-sharing sites. No doubt it is a different kind of cultural practice this time around, through the Internet and not television, and theologians will benefit from learning how this intense relationship to video positions people to believe, feel, or do certain things in and with their lives. I look forward to learning from such research.

But in the spirit of the old (not-so-distant) days of commentary on video, I wanted to provide a few brief thoughts on this one by Sevendust for their song “Licking Cream.”

What I notice most of all is what looks like blood coursing from the instruments, through the patch cords, which become intravenous-style tubes, and end up being ingested and enjoyed by the people walking around the house. The “blood” ends up flooding the floor, and people are celebrating.

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Somatica Divina 42: Rory Gallagher, “Bullfrog Blues”

Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Mary McDonough on February 21, 2010

Dwelling in the interstices of rock and theology can train us in being alert in new ways to theologically significant material in “secular” culture, and to culturally significant material in “theological” culture. So we can pay attention to everyday forms of musical discourse for what they give to theology and what theology gives to them. This notion occurred to me again as I was reading the New York Times Book Review last weekend and music critic Jon Caramanica’s discussion of two recent collections of rock criticism. Caramanica reviews Robert Hilburn’s Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life (Rodale) and a volume of Robert Palmer’s writings edited by Anthony DeCurtis titled Blues and Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer (Scribner).

Caramanica argues that the books display two different forms of rock criticism, contrasting Palmer’s restless and searching, intellectually-aware registration of the new and exotic, rendered with an unabashed “openheartedness,” with Hilburn’s more worshipful and ingratiating approach to rock culture, concerned with the gods of the stage and their specialness. I have not yet read these books, so I cannot say whether this review gets to essential differences in these books. However, rock writing is typically overloaded (often through being self-consciously underloaded) with religious marks, and Caramanica gives a nice sentence for our consideration as he maps his dual typology: “Palmer saw music as a continuum of borrowings and influences to be unraveled and traced back; Hilburn views it as one godhead supplanting the next.” It’s like his review suddenly becomes a theological hotplate: criticism versus veneration, history against kneeling. Theologians know these problematics well.

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“Bells of Harlem”

Posted in: Fandom,General,Grace,Recommended by Michael Iafrate on February 18, 2010

Please forgive me for posting an Easter song on the second day of Lent, but this is one of the most gorgeous songs I’ve heard in a very long time. And it might just get me through these last days of what has been a brutal winter. It’s “Bells of Harlem” and it’s the last track from the new album A Friend of a Friend from Dave Rawlings Machine — which is what happens when Gillian Welch and her partner Dave Rawlings swap their customary roles.

Another humorous — and more uncomfortable — version follows the jump. Pay attention to the guy with the camera and what Dave does to him around the 2:05 mark. Let it be a lesson to rock photographers everywhere!

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Ashes, ashes

Posted in: General,Practices by Michael Iafrate on February 16, 2010

Despite my involvement over many years in (punk) rock cultures, I’m more of a “Lent” kind of guy rather than a “Mardi Gras” kind of guy. Nevertheless, Lent sneaks up on me every year, and as much as I like this liturgical season, I rarely put in the pre-Lent preparation that I should. So I’m still working out what I’ll be “doing for Lent.”

When we were kids, my mom insisted for many years that we give up listening to music in the car during Lent. I won’t be doing that this time around — it’s a kind of heroic self-denial possibly suitable for Opus Dei folks or maybe John Paul II, but not I! But I will be thinking deliberately over the next day or two about my own music making practices, particularly songwriting, and Lenten observance. More accurately, I’ll be reflecting on the possibility of songwriting as Lenten observance. As a response to the church’s call for greater immersion into a life of “prayer” during this season, this kind of response simply “makes sense” for someone moving within the worlds of rock and theology and whose “life of prayer” does not always wholly fit into the “normal” streams of Christian spirituality.

But more on that later. For now, inspired by Mary McDonough’s reflection on rock and Mardi Gras, but spinning off into my own “Lenty” preferences, here is the first song I thought of this morning when I tried to come up with good “ashy” songs for Ash Wednesday: R.E.M.‘s “Fireplace” from their 1987 album Document. (I couldn’t locate a good YouTube clip of the song, but the link will take you to a Last.fm page that streams the song. Lyrics are after the jump.)

Later, I thought of another: “Love -> Building on Fire” by Talking Heads. What other “ashy” songs are appropriate (or, if you prefer, inappropriate) for the start of Lent?

Michael Iafrate
Morgantown, West Virginia

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Over at the Immanent Frame blog, four scholars (Courtney Bender, Wendy Cadge, Peggy Levitt, and David Smilde) have written a compelling manifesto describing and proposing a potential consensus for new directions in sociology of religion. This new constellation relativizes the United States as religious norm, problematizes Christianity’s dominance over the category “religion,” looks for religious life outside religious institutions as much as inside them, and reserves the right to criticize religion directly. The authors state that these developments “challenge notions of religion as primarily about belief structures and worldviews by emphasizing practice, discourse, the interaction of religious and ‘secular’ structures, networks, [and] historical comparison…”

This formulation resonates with me because I have been inching in these directions in my own work. My last book and my recent work as summarized on this blog have been trying to: contribute to theology’s exploration of practice as distinct (and in many conceptual ways, separate) from belief, as a way of showing the conceptual limits and theological-political investments in the overfocus on belief in Christian theology, especially in (but far from limited to) Catholic academic theology; work out through a critical-historical and discursively-aware form of attention a theological “dispossession” of “normal” Christianity in favor of a “secular,” or maybe I should say, “abnormal” Christianity; show how rock cultures traffic in their own kind of religiousness that borrows from and refashions the religions, including but not limited to Christianity, that rock cultures inherit.

Here is another reason that working theologically at the intersection of theology and secular music provides not only the occasion for revisiting models for construing “faith” and “culture” debates, but forces innovating of new tools for doing so, tools that are fashioned well in robust conversation with our colleagues in sociology of religion (and continental philosophy of religion, as well, but that’s another thread). And this is another reason why I find practical theology such an interesting discourse, because it takes theories of action from interdisciplinary perspectives seriously. Or at least sometimes it does. Granted, practical theology is often not historically sophisticated enough, being so focused on the present faith praxis and often enough on the models from history that are said to “illuminate” or “problematize” that praxis. And for a discipline that specializes in practice, it can be numbingly indifferent to what is new or what is contingent, or perhaps I should say it often fails to mark praxes in both their newness and their contingency. Still, it is a provisional home, or one of several.

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Somatica Divina 41: Train, “Calling All Angels”

Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on February 12, 2010

For more on the “Somatica Divina” series, see here.

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