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Last week, I watched the recent rock documentary Anvil. The film follows a metal band, Anvil, that was nearly famous in the mid-1980s, only to plunge into obscurity a few years later. The miracle is the guys kept playing into their 30s, 40s, and 50s, where the documentary catches up with them. I try not to watch rock movies didactically, looking for a “message” or some sort of instruction that seems friendly to theology, or at least of some theological interest, but then again I can’t watch a movie without some intuitive sense for a theological call, tug, or scent. The band’s founders, Robb Reiner (drums) and Steve “Lips” Kudlow (vocals, guitar), are still going strong, even though other players have come and gone. The documentary focuses on their attempt a few years ago to revive their band’s status back to the glory days. Do they do it? I don’t want to spoil the ending.

But as much as this movie shows the band playing live, rehearsing, songwriting, and living the musical life, it focuses at least as revealingly on the “normal” lives of these would-be rock icons. They each have “real jobs” and real families. What stands out to me about this dimension is the friendship between the two leading men, and how their work affects their families.

In Anvil, you get to see how rock music works to make friendships through the toil of everyday band matters, and Reiner-Kudlow’s friendship is the spotlight of many scenes. It is fraught. They are old friends, and there is an easygoing banter, knowing glances, old frustration, familiar anger, and some good yelling to boot. They are like an old married couple, in a good way. It’s worth pointing out that rock can do that for men, and for women, too. (We don’t really have many stories about venerable men-and-women friendships confected in rock bands, do we?) And for what it’s worth, there is no evidence that either of them have any “formal” religious practice. Of course that is fine. From a more theologically nuanced view, do we see a “yes” to life? (Not that we in any way judge these men, as all we have is this movie; we are talking more about characters and even caricatures than persons.)

There are many yeses to life in the documentary, including the relentless dedication to musical creativity and the everyday surrenders to adult friendship. But in this time in the year 2010 of particular sensitivity to the way men’s behavior in the church affects women and children, as we’ve been writing about this week here at R&T, I cannot also fail to wonder about whether there is an unambiguous yes to life that is also a yes for these men’s families, their wives and children.

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All of a sudden here at R&T, we are being hit by a veritable flood of theologians from Baylor University. Make that two. (Hey, in a group of nine, two is a lot.) A little while back we welcomed Paul Martens. Now I am pleased to welcome Myles Werntz.

He is a doctoral candidate in religion at Baylor University, and is currently writing a dissertation entitled Ontology, Ecclesiology, Nonviolence. He describes it as “exploring the interrelationship of ontological grounding of nonviolence through ecclesial bodies in the work of John Howard Yoder, Dorothy Day, and William Stringfellow.” That’s going to make a lot of our R&T readers salivate, and more than a few scratch their heads, but no doubt Myles will be teaching us about these things as time goes by.

Myles is the co-editor of Nonviolence: A Brief History (Baylor University Press, 2010), a set of lectures by the late John Howard Yoder, and writes on issues of ecclesiology, war, and poverty.

His rock path has been a lively one. He reports that his musical pilgrimage began in the throes of the Contemporary Christian Music world of Whitecross and Whiteheart, which was followed by a conversion to Pearl Jam in the early 1990s, a calling he continues to work out in the works of diverse conversation partners such as Bruce Springsteen, Frightened Rabbit, and Talib Kweli. Musically, he plays acoustic guitar badly, and drives fast when Alice in Chains comes on the radio. In his spare time, he blogs on film over at The Three Hands, when not teaching, writing, reading, running, or hanging out with his wife Sarah. Welcome, Myles!


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It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World

Posted in: General by Mary McDonough on March 28, 2010

Orianthi, the young woman who received a lot of press last year after appearing in Michael Jackson’s rehearsal documentary This Is It, dons the cover of the May issue of Guitar Player. In the magazine she describes some of the problems she’s encountered trying to break into the male-dominated world of guitar playing. The story sparked a debate about female guitar players. One man made the following comment on the magazine’s Facebook page: “Girls can’t play guitar.” This was followed by Guitar Player’s internet poll which asked: “Can girls be good guitar players?” Such a question would never be asked about violinists, harpists, cellists or pianists but for some reason, when it comes to the guitar, there is a bias against women.

Let’s face it. The world of rock music is dominated by men. From the performers to the songwriters to the producers to the CEOs, rock music is a man’s world. I remember when I started taking electric guitar lessons when I was around 10. I was the only girl at the music studio. It never deterred me. Frankly I didn’t even notice. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I actually met another girl who played guitar. She was also a bass player. We struck up a strong friendship—playing together, sharing our love for rock music. Then I met my first boyfriend who was an excellent drummer. He thought it was cool that I played electric guitar. But by the time I entered 10th grade my music support system had evaporated. My bass playing girlfriend moved to Seattle and the drummer dumped me. It would be years before I met another woman who played electric guitar. I became so lost without my music friends that I actually quit playing the electric guitar and took up the classical guitar. A rather bizarre move considering I’ve never liked classical music. Yet I felt more acceptance, because of my gender, playing that style. It’s unfortunate because many years passed before I picked up the electric guitar again. When I did I realized how much I’d missed it.

Exclusionary practices are a nasty business. Last week I had a conversation with a friend, a fellow Catholic, about the exclusion of women in the Catholic Church. She told me how her 7 year old daughter had recently asked why there aren’t any women priests. When her mother answered that the Catholic Church doesn’t allow women to be priests, her daughter responded “Why can’t we find another church?” Now her daughter is preparing for her first communion. Each child is supposed to choose a prayer petition for the upcoming communion mass. My friend’s daughter has chosen: “Let us pray that women can become priests.”

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Update on “The Expiration Date of This Catholicism”

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on March 27, 2010

My post with the above title, which I posted here at R&T and on the blog of the Jesuit magazine America, has gotten many responses. I have just posted a reply at the America site here.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

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As the news is again reminding us, Catholics are part of a secretive and abusive church, built on “homosocial” power: men governing men and excluding women; men in a culture of homoerotic images too often and too loudly denying genuine life beyond heterosexuality; and willing to go to almost any length to protect this coven of masculine narcissism.

I am a member of a church that has abused thousands of kids and teenagers over the last several decades. How does my work in religion and culture relate to this trauma, to this Catholic evil? I have argued in a recent book that “the physical-spiritual violence toward thousands and thousands of young souls in the past several decades calls fundamentally into question the content and purpose of thinking for and with this religious institution. As theologian Stephen Pattison has argued, the ‘long-overdue ‘discovery’ of child abuse must be to Western theologians what the challenge of the poor has been to colleagues in South America—an imperative to a fundamental re-visioning of theology.’ Sexual abuse of minors is the awful lodestar for all future American Catholic theology.”

Catholicism is a tradition that has given me an early familial religious identity, that educated me as a child, that provided my PhD training (at Boston College), and that set up a higher education system that has employed me (at three Jesuit universities over the last decade). I still identify as a Catholic theologian, though in my recent work I have tried to open that category up to various other philosophies and perspectives that might include, out of the conviction that one religious habitation may not be enough for the demands of our pluralistic present, nor is it necessarily adequate to the heterogeneous history that gives us our religious identity.

But this turn to multiplicity in religious identification cannot mask the singular Catholic truth that my church has abused, raped, and silenced boys and girls, has accepted that abuse as collateral damage in the outworking of the Roman Catholic project, and worked hard to invent ways to protect abusers and to protect itself from knowing the details. But decades and indeed centuries of skating ahead of the cracks are now, I hope, ending, and not because church officials decided it was time to end the lies, but because victims-survivors have, across the world, called a massive ecclesial timeout on Catholic business as usual.

Since the breakthrough revelations in 2002 in Boston, thanks to the secular media, the end of a kind of Catholicism has begun. This should even be experienced as the end of Catholicism as such, properly interpreted, insofar as Catholicism is so identified with these old structures of governance. But it is also true that Catholicism will not die. Too many are still set free by all the elements of its potential for courageous and holy living: liturgy, prayer, study, justice, mercy.

But there will have to be a new Catholicism, or new Catholicisms. There will have to be, because new Catholicisms are already emerging. It is now old news that the old system of a deferential laity who will continue to show up for “full, conscious, and active participation” in the face of an inability of our church to come to terms with an adult laity and the mendacity of its old structures of authority – this system is gone or going. Different Catholicisms are already detaching themselves from these old structures, from below: Catholics redefining their mass attendance, their loving relationships, their relation to the magisterium, their sense of the roles of women, their relation to people of other faiths and religions, and more.

The Rock and Theology Project, of which this blog is a part, has been a way to continue my theological research at the intersection of faith and culture, especially popular culture. But in the face of what is being revealed about the Catholicism that has been so much my atmosphere, how can I justify my intellectual work? I have had to ask myself whether my research project shares in the failures of ecclesial courage into which I was also trained as a Catholic. This is not an easy question to answer. I realize now that focusing on theology and culture has been an escape from ecclesial problems. And responsibility? But it has also been a way of preparing myself and my readers and students for dealing with the implosion of this Catholicism. Understanding how faith and culture interrelate, with rigor and patience, can be the antechamber of a new way of being religious, after what we will have had to let go about what we thought Catholicism was and could be.

Tom Beaudoin

New York City, New York, United States

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For those who are interested in the teaching of theology in higher education, the American Academy of Religion has just published online an article I wrote titled “Spirituality and Practice in Theological Education.” Dr. John Thatamanil’s introduction to the theme, and a companion article by Dr. John Makransky, can be found here. My article is here.  It was drawn from a paper I gave at the Annual Meeting of the AAR last fall in Montreal, Canada, and pieces of it have appeared earlier here at R&T.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

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Somatica Divina 45: Fiona Apple, “Criminal”

Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on March 23, 2010

Reminder About Music Survey

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

Just a reminder, before the end of March deadline, that Dr. Clive Marsh is running a survey about music habits and is asking for volunteers to answer a few questions about that. Please see original post about it here. Thank you for supporting fresh research in rock and theology–!

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This semester, I have been teaching a course at Fordham on research into theological practices. Each week the students and I discuss matters pertaining to models for theological research into lived religion or the practice of faith, and attendant issues of the stance of the researcher, the goals of research, and the relationships that practical theologians take up to systematic theologians and other theological frameworks, on the one hand, and social scientists on the other.

While teaching this course, I find myself pondering my own next theological research and writing project. I am planning to write a book on rock and theology, and have been keeping notes for such a book over the past year since the R&T blog got going. I find that my writing projects generally need a slow-burning groove in order to most fruitfully go forward.

Much of the work is unconscious, as I get insights from associations to something I read, or while exercising, or while talking to a friend, as much as from intentionally sitting down to write. (I’ve even gotten a usable phrase or two from a dream.) But being intentional works for me, too, and I keep a rough writing schedule to try to stay on track and imaginatively plotting where the work might go from month to month. As I’ve written before at R&T, a good deal of that intentional writing is still aided by unconscious forces, insofar as I often listen to music while writing. (And up to the recent past, listening quite loudly, about which I now have some pretty serious, though not yet total, regret, because it has contributed to my hearing loss.)

I find that my writing projects are like coin-machine games that let you drop in a coin onto a platform with a bar pushing back and forth, back and forth, ever so slightly moving the coins toward the ledge. The coins often don’t seem to move at all, or when they do, it is only a tiny bit – or sideways. But once in a great while, with aim and with luck, you can drop a coin in at the right moment in front of that moving bar and you can start a chain reaction of pushed pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters that will topple over the edge of the platform and out the bottom of the machine into your surprised and satisfied hands.

(Here is a fellow happy to illustrate how it works.)

Having now written three books, I have found that the process of book-writing opens all sorts of orthogonal ideas for me that become material for another book or articles or lectures, which themselves will later become material for a book. So in writing one book, I need to keep several other files open for the tangential but far from disorganized ideas that keep arising. Thus the bar moves back and forth, back and forth on several of my projects at once. Coins get dropped in on each game/project almost daily.

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And now for a few more words on Christian rock. We have addressed it on the blog before, such as in Mike Iafrate’s exploration here and my thoughts here and here.

The top two responses, in no particular order, that I hear regarding the very existence, or even just the title, of the Rock and Theology Project, are: [1] You mean like Christian rock? [2] You mean like playing pop music in church?

I often have a negative reaction to these responses, and want to say something like, “No, no, no, it’s much more exploratory, curious, open and experimental. It’s about finding why theology and rock matter for each other, about why we think of theology as sacred and rock as secular, about how theology influences rock, how rock influences theology, how people live in both sacred and secular worlds; it’s about examples of all this, methods for studying all this, communicating these paradigms to academic theology and to rock culture. And for me personally, it is about studying how rock culture can and does condition spiritual identity and experience, with the latter having been thought to be the traditional specialization of theology.” That’s what I try to say.

But I remain curious about my negative reaction to the top two typical responses. What makes me uncomfortable about Christian rock, or the use of pop music in worship or liturgy? As I have pondered my reaction especially over the last decade, I have come up with one (to me) good reason for that unease, and also one criticism of my own unease.

The good reason for the discomfort is the way in which Christian artists and liturgists end up trying to drain resistant gestures from rock, as if rock culture is finally compatible with the theology one wishes to teach by crafting something called Christian music or housing “secular” music in a “sacred” space. This is not to deny new resonances that can happen when secular music is re-framed in Christian terms, songwriting-wise or liturgically, or to suggest that “secular” rock culture, on its “own terms,” is something unframed or atheological.

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