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April 2010
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Rock and the End of Theology?

Posted in: General,Practices,Theological Production by Michael Iafrate on April 28, 2010

Alongside my various musical projects over the years, I have continued to write acoustic-based “solo” material on the side, putting out “lo-fi” four-track recordings on CD-Rs and cassettes. About five years ago I recorded a new collection of these songs but with a full band made up of longtime friends from various bands in which I have played. Inevitably, because I am who I am, my solo material picks through and plays with biblical and theological themes, though I would never call what I do “Christian rock.”

Last week I started recording a new solo record with the same group of people. This one, tentatively titled Christian Burial, is probably my most explicitly (but playfully) theological group of songs yet. While jotting down ideas for arrangements today, I came across a recent post by James K.A. Smith called “Poetry and the End of Theology” and it has been on my mind as I think about what I am doing with this new album. I’m going to quote the entire post, as it is fairly short:

Theology is not usually home to imagination and creativity. Indeed, the sober vocation of the theologian looks on creativity as a temptation, the lure of novelty as a dangerous seduction. The fuel of theology is not the imagination but the intellect. It traffics not in metaphors but propositions, those terse building blocks of arguments and outlines and doctrines. The republic of theology, like Plato’s city, is built on the exile of the poets whose “fictions” are a dangerous distraction.


Bassish Self-Examination

Posted in: Basswork,General,Practices by Tom Beaudoin on April 28, 2010

One of the mundane insights of my adulthood thus far has been that there are better and worse ways to conclude an ordinary day. One of the better ways is to end the day with a spiritual review of sorts, what Christian spiritual tradition (and the Ignatian tradition in particular) calls an “examen.” This is, generally speaking, a practice of carefully remembering a period of the day with the intention of noticing spiritually significant material — sins and graces, desolations and consolations, gratitudes and regrets — and paying more meditative attention to that material.

Homebass: Amps, guitar, and home altar cohabiting in my study

Amps, guitar, home altar cohabit in my study

I am a naturally meditative person, and would walk around for hours each day thinking about life, if I could, so the examen appeals to me. But I also find that at the end of the day, there is particular benefit in my playing music as a kind of examen. I will plug in a bass (my Rickenbacker 4001 or Fender Jazz), and here go the headphones, pedalboard up, and then the attention can really begin. Even thirty minutes an evening feels like a descent into an unmistakable and unsolicited good. The day’s substrates can come out in hooks, tones, riffs, explorations, and even (I’ve learned) impasses, missed notes, sludgy playing. Sometimes I sense new dimensions of my day coming through in the playing. It’s almost as if I have to invent the truths of my day through the bass.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States


Somatica Divina 49: The 54, “Dominate”

Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on April 27, 2010

For more on Somatica Divina, see here.


I know that not everyone is Rush fan. But I am, oh how I am. I first heard of the band while playing the video game Wizard of Wor in the supermarket around 1980, when someone leaned over and said something about their new album called Permanent Waves. Then not long after that, around age 12, I spent the night at a friend’s house and was transported when he played their first live album, All the World’s a Stage, on cassette in his “boombox.” So it’s been three decades of Rush for me, my longest relationship outside of my family.

I’ve tried to restrain myself on this blog from indulging too Rushishly too much. But for the moment, I will submit to what Kierkegaard called the “teleological suspension of the ethical” and say yes and amen to a rockish antinomianism. Because there is a new documentary out about Rush, called “Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage,” that just this weekend debuted here in NYC at the Tribeca Film Festival. (I was being a responsible parent and so did not attend; oh, the pains of the tradeoffs of middle class existence!)

Anyhow, one review of the documentary, by Hank Shteamer of Time Out New York, fascinatingly characterizes Rush’s career as a series of productive utterances of the word “no.” Here we approach the obligatory theological content: “saying yes and saying no” is a venerable theological practice in the Christian tradition, typically identified as a way of “discerning” how to live. There are any number of “spiritual exercises” in the theological tradition that provide one with techniques of learning to consent or defer, and the Jesuit/Ignatian spiritual tradition, of special interest to the place where I teach, Fordham University, is one of those. And in the influential practical theological book Practicing Our Faith, edited by Dorothy Bass (new 2010 edition just out), one of the basic Christian practices is “saying yes and saying no” (by theologian M. Shawn Copeland).

I would argue that “saying yes and saying no” is a problem of Christian significance, but also that the problem of saying yes and no predates, supersedes, and transcends Christianity. And at any rate, as the sociologist of religion Nancy Ammerman has shown, Christians put their spiritual lives together out of all sorts of “non-Christian” materials. This has been hard for many — but far from all — Christian theologians to let through and figure. For myself and many others, a “yes” to rock is a yes to life. What makes it weird for many in rock culture is that there is also in there an equal and equally strong “yes” to theology. Yes to Rush, yes to theology, no to Christian rock, no to living in the religious past. From these discernments is my own, and perhaps others’, spiritual life confected.

Tom Beaudoin

New York City, New York, United States



Posted in: General by Mary McDonough on April 25, 2010

I rarely recommend a television show to anyone but I’m making an exception for the new HBO series “Treme.” Set in a neighborhood called “Treme,” the show follows a group of New Orleans residents trying to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I started watching it for a couple of reasons. First, one of the creators of the show is David Simon who also created HBO’s “The Wire,” a series about the drug war in inner city Baltimore. “The Wire” was my all-time favorite television show. I practically went into a clinical depression when the series ended after 5 seasons.

The other reason I began to watch “Treme”—the music. The writers use music to help tell the story. From the moment the show begins we hear trumpets, trombones, drums. The vibrant sounds of New Orleans jazz which has defined the city for generations. Many of the show’s main characters are local musicians with some global musicians, including Elvis Costello and Dr. John, thrown into the mix. The music represents the soul of the city and the power it has to bring people together.

On the surface “Treme” is about saving a city. But on a deeper level it’s about hope, faith and resurrection. Hope that the people of New Orleans, facing a brutal natural disaster and an apathetic government, can rebuild the city and their lives. Faith that they can resurrect a culture deeply rooted in music. The show is pure genius. The music is incredible.

Mary McDonough


Broadway Punk and Rock’s Possibilities

Posted in: General,Reviews by Tom Beaudoin on April 23, 2010

Recently in the New York Times, theater critic Charles Isherwood reviewed (extraordinarily positively) the new Broadway show “American Idiot,” based on the music of punk-rock-pop band Green Day.

(Note: I do not know Green Day that well (although I was present for their set at the infamous mudfest of Woodstock ’94), but have been following the reviews of the musical, and it may be that we need to return to Green Day’s song “Jesus of Suburbia,” and its relation to the musical, at Rock and Theology.)

Something of rock’s spontaneity, resistance, and suspension of (certain) norms is undoubtedly lost in bringing rock to musical theater as rock opera (paging “Hair,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “The Who’s Tommy,” “Rock of Ages”!). But — against the sensibilities of many of my most rock-infested friends, and as the remarkable success of many of these musicals attests — something else about rock comes through when it is put into this format. I think Isherwood’s review smartly captures the way in which the change of format actually brings through rock’s native theatricality, and helps foreground the emotional literacy of rock music, something the theater demands for it to be able to succeed in translation. “Rock music exploits heightened emotion and truisms that can fit neatly into a memorable chorus.” Rock works creatively with the space of young adulthood as a “turbulent time when ecstasy and misery almost seem interchangeable states, flip sides of the coin of exaltation.”

The limit of the review, as I see it, is that Isherwood gently limits rock’s heart to the essence of (Western) young adulthood. That’s progress over reviewers who used to cast it as teen spectacle, but regress in face of the many ways rock ranges now across many different forms of adult experience (when in doubt, think of Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Dug Pinnick, or Robert Plant). The varieties and vicissitudes of “ecstasy,” “misery,” and “exaltation” are — as churches and theologians in secularizing contexts slowly come to accept — no longer the preserve of Christian direction and governance, if ever they were. Here is where “American Idiot” and the “Divinamente” festival here in New York City this weekend share something in common: a popular call to life’s wild “more” apart from received religion.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

Somatica Divina 48: Earl Greyhound, “S.O.S.”

Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on April 20, 2010

Catholic Deconversions: More Topical Than Ever

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on April 19, 2010

Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarked in his famous prison letters his gratitude for life among prisoners who were not pious, his surprise at what life was like with them. In a very different context, I too have found compelling the “desacralized” spaces of secular culture. In rock culture, especially in the ecologies of bars or rock halls, musicians professional and amateur, recording studios, roadies, and fans, there is a range of spiritual identifications, but a substantial amount of independence from received religious traditions. This culture has been a school for “deconversion,” a process that is now the focus of emerging scholarship in practical theology. Deconversion is the poor cousin to conversion. Whereas most of our theological attention and evangelical effort aims at conversion, scholars are beginning to suggest that the ways in which people leave faith/religious/spiritual practices behind is as worthy of study as the ways in which a new faith/religion/spirituality is taken up. Exit can be its own theological phenomenon.

In my most recent book, Witness to Dispossession, my final chapter argues that a critical awareness of how power functions in Catholicism in particular and in Christianity in general is more than enough warrant for the commencement of deconversion, and for theological study of this process through which so many people pass. All of this is on my mind as I talk with students and colleagues about how they are dealing with the Catholic implosion with which we are faced. Two recent blog posts have been particularly striking to me. Speaking to Catholic deconversions are: Kate Henley Averett at the “From the Pews in the Back” blog; and Jessica Coblentz at her personal blog. This kind of material is going to make many Catholics uncomfortable. But as John Barbour argued in an early work in this genre (Versions of Deconversion, University Press of Virginia, 1994), Christian theology stands in need of deconversion narratives, not only as mournful signposts, but as material for helping Christianity take the full measure of itself.

Tom Beaudoin

New York City, United States


Let Natalie Merchant Write a Mass

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on April 17, 2010

Recently, I came home to hear my four year old daughter listening to a CD which has entranced her, making her memorize words, melodies, song order. It turns out she is also memorizing poetry. A relative bought for her the new Natalie Merchant record, “Leave Your Sleep.” Music critic Jon Pareles has an interview with Merchant in today’s New York Times, and Merchant characterizes the songs as poetry that she set to music, poetry to do with her experience of becoming a mother.

Many readers of this blog will recognize Merchant as the unearthly voice behind the former pop band 10,000 Maniacs, and who left that band for what turned out to be a very successful solo career. Over several decades, she has built up a sparkling singular universe of songs rooted in her plaintive, haunted, demanding, yearning, contained, introspective voice. She is something of an artistic icon for a sizeable portion of my generation, especially perhaps among women. For many years she was helping to define that generation’s sound, not through stylistic force but through a meditative experimentation that has almost always borrowed sounds and styles to land both inside and outside pop music in the same album.

In the new interview, Pareles reports that “she has found a cloistered convent in the south of Spain where she could stay and write music for liturgical texts.” From some video of her early years on her website, and from what I’ve read in other interviews, Merchant was raised Catholic and “drifted from the church” by her teens. Whether or not this potential liturgical work is a revisiting of her Catholicism, I hope she will go to that convent. Let her write a mass!

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

The Rock and Theology project gives many occasions to wonder about how theology gets started and for what it exists. Dealing with rock here invariably underscores the practice-intensive character of a theological sense-making of secular music. And as the masters of philosophy of practice remind us, even theory is a kind of practice. But theologizing from and for practice occupies an uneasy site in the Catholic contexts in which I do some of my work.

For example, when students in my practical theology classes read Friedrich Schleiermacher, a key figure in the modern founding of the discipline of practical theology, they are invariably drawn to a provocative question he raises: Can there be the same practical theology for Protestant as well as Catholic theologians? (Christian Caring, p. 117) This is often interpreted by my students, with good reason, to mean, can there really be a Catholic practical theology? Schleiermacher writes that “Much of our criticism of the Catholic hierarchy is due to the fact that it considers its methods to be nothing but means to an end.” (p.107) A “critical” practical theology, by contrast, should “serve as a standard by which to evaluate the methods that we employ in the church.” This means “any suspension of inquiry… is a suppression of the scientific spirit, and will prove harmful to the church as a whole.” (p. 108) He wonders what shape practical theology will then take for Catholics. What will guidance of souls in Catholic contexts demand of the practical theologian? I think the polemics of his day do not cancel the force of his critical point. His question remains: what might Protestant and Catholic practical theologians share, and what would distinguish their approaches?

Is there a critical enough mass of Catholics doing practical theology to be able to answer Schleiermacher’s question? Prominent Catholic theologians who helped define the course of Catholic theology in the latter half of the twentieth century have indeed defended the place of practical theology in the theological curriculum. Karl Rahner argued that practical theology was an essential discipline for Catholics because the church needs a scholarly partner to help it negotiate what happens in its continually new encounter with the world. The church can only realize itself in ever-new worldly situations. What then is practical theology’s subject matter, Rahner asked? His answer was, “everything.” The church-world frontier is an illimitable one, and there is need for translators to assist the church in being what it must be in each new cultural horizon. It is interesting that even though Rahner has been so monumentally influential, his views on practical theology are rarely associated with his larger theological project. So too Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza and David Tracy, so influential in helping set larger theological agendas in Catholicism, both argued for practical-theological orientations, and many practical theologians in particular are fond of Tracy’s correlational definition of practical theology, but these rarely are acknowledged when their projects are engaged in larger Catholic theology.

But new paths have been charted in recent years in foregrounding practical theology for Catholic publics.


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