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Decelerating for August

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on July 31, 2010

Rock and Theology will keep on rocking and theologizing as other contributors will continue posting over the next month, but I will be away, and will look forward to re-joining the blog come September. Thank you to all our readers for sticking with us, reading, and commenting on the blog and over email.

For the moment, here is one of my favorite videos and songs from the R&T year so far, Sevendust’s “Licking Cream.” (I posted about it in February.)

Back in a month–

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

Following on from part one of this topic…

In terms of my induction to practical theology, then, as time went by in graduate school, I understood the pastoral theological works I had been reading (whether liturgy, pastoral care and counseling, religious education, spiritual direction, and other theologies of church practice) as attempts at managing faith identity through the production and maintenance of Catholic knowledge and the governance of subjectivity—however “traditional” or “progressive.”

The more I “got” this perspective, the more I intensified my immersion in Foucault studies, due among other things to their rich complexities of debate about cultural practices there. That turn let onto an ongoing overhearing of contemporary continental philosophy in my work. I see philosophies of practice and cultural studies of practice as essential traveling companions for the practical theologian. Since then, my pursuit of the theory and practice of everyday life, my continued activity in “secular” rock music, and my sense for theology as a psychagogic-political activity for the theologian, her students, and further audiences well beyond original imagining, position me to both engage the history and present of practical theology, and to attempt to show its interventionist and illuminative significance with respect to the small stable of questions with which I deal at the “intersection” of theology and culture.

Joining these foci to the diverse concerns internationally for practice in practical theology, and especially the emerging interest in cultural in addition to ecclesial practices for theology, and the slow but (I hope) sure turning to cultural theories and practices in practical theology, has helped me see the power that a practical-theological orientation might have.

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There are many disciplinary perspectives from which one can study theology and culture, an intersection that has never, for me, been less than a reckless passion. My own way theologically into this nexus, and thus to the study of rock and theology, has been with the assistance of a domain called “practical theology.” This field is often distinguished from systematic theology, moral theology, historical theology, and fundamental theology (not to mention many other ways of marking up the map of theological studies). Practical theology takes practice as its key conceptual focus, and practices of interest to theology (whether in “religious” or “secular” contexts) as its key reference point — whether as a starting point or as a conclusion to theological argument. Practical theology is not well known in Catholic contexts in the United States, though it is better known in Catholic theological circles elsewhere, for example Canada and Europe. The term “practical theology” was made most effective and critically robust for modern theology by the 18th-19th century Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, and ever since has been more common in Protestant seminaries and Protestant theological encyclopedias.  Given its rarity in Catholic circles in the United States, I am sometimes asked how I came to learn of it and find it useful. Here is part 1 of my brief account of how.

I was introduced to practical theology through Professor Thomas Groome during my doctoral studies at Boston College in the late 1990s. I had never heard of practical theology during two years of master’s work at Harvard Divinity School, and sometime within my first year of doctoral studies, Professor Groome mentioned the International Academy of Practical Theology and the contours of the discipline while we were talking about my interests in faith and culture, and how to situate those within disciplinary nomenclatures and intellectual alliances/interlocutors. From time to time, he would give me articles by practical theologians, many of them from the International Journal of Practical Theology, particularly because they crossed my own interests in philosophies of practice, continental philosophy, or popular culture studies, as ways of thinking with and for theology in practice. This took place while the content of discussions at the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (now part of the School of Theology and Ministry), where I was located, was still heavily tilted toward religious education.

As these introductions to the discipline were happening, several zones of exploration and personal history were coming together in the late 1990s and early 00s that further helped me feel a productive and promising caughtness in that ambiguous, open-ended, and unruly set of overlapping domains called practical theology:

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I finally am going to bring my stretched-out (16-month!) “series” on Winger and theology to a conclusion with this post. For those keeping score at home, part one is here, which hiccuped into part one and a half, and here is part two, followed by three, then comes four, only to give way to five, and here we are presently at six.

In case you lost track, this series has come to the point of thinking out loud about how bodies in the rock culture of Winger open up matters of theological interest, and how theology finds things interesting in these hard rock embodiments. To quote myself (with permission) from my last post on this topic: “One of the theologically significant ways of rock culture is training in bodily habitation. As religion scholar Talal Asad among many others have argued, the training of sense was intrinsic to the working of classic Catholic sacramental theology and is part of what Christianity and Islam share. With regard to how rock does it, I have called this the performance of a bodily wherewithal, wherein instruments like electric guitars or basses become something like natural appendages for the musician, in a way that speaks to fans (including other musicians) of bodily integration and excellence or deep congruence in inhabiting the world.”

In part five, I was discussing lead singer/bassist Kip Winger as “trainer of sense” and object of imitative desire on the part of fans. His ballet training and classical music interests were mentioned, and I took those to signal an uncommon interest on Kip Winger’s part in refined bodily presentation in musical performance.

Steve Almond’s recent book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (Random House, 2010), has some fun with this aspect of Winger’s persona. In fact, Almond’s book is the only work in print that I know of that dedicates a special section to a Winger roast of sorts. That (very brief) part is promisingly titled “Interlude: The Kip Winger Canon” (pp. 144-147).

Almond, in a section definitely not suitable for kids, talks with his wife Erin about Kip Winger’s unique power of bodily symbolizing the rock aesthetic, in the context of a real or imagined (and leading to further-imagined) encounter(s) that Erin may or may not have had with Kip Winger. While the actual narrative here may not be more than a forgettable snicker for the Winger in-crowd…

(NOTE: for what it’s worth (and I aim to write a review of the book eventually at R&T), I found the whole discussion too clever by half, and similar to Howard Hampton’s recent review, wanted more from Almond. A discussion of Winger that tried harder wouldn’t have to be boring, un-arch, or lacking cultural insight, if that is what Almond was worried about. (Of course, smart writing about pop music always risks uncoolness, and cleverness will never fully patch that constitutive leak.))

…it does help me transition to the point I want to make in this post: that whatever one might laud about what Kip Winger’s rock persona, it sometimes manifests within the old masculine/heterosexual codes that dance with patriarchalism — one of rock’s oldest and tiredest songs.

Where are female bodies in this real-symbolic metal world?

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Two Reviews on “Rock Redemption”

Posted in: General,Reviews by Tom Beaudoin on July 26, 2010

It is almost too easy to find theological figures of speech, not to mention experiences that are of theological interest, in rock writing, performing, and rock culture more generally. What these figures mean and how they function, however, are typically more complicated. Let me stick with the easier former part for the moment, and just highlight two reviews this weekend by Howard Hampton of recent works on being “redeemed” by rock, including Steve Almond’s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (Random House, 2010), and Mark Edmundson’s The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll (Harper, 2010). Both seem to travel in the atmosphere of what theology might call salvific phenomena, and take rock as a medium.

Hampton references Velvet Underground’s famous take on a life “saved by rock and roll.” Here’s the tune:

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

Twenty-five years ago, in the middle of my teenage years, I went to a poundingly loud concert in Kansas City, Missouri, featuring lasers, smoke, explosions, and some of the best musicianship that contemporary rock had to offer. Last night, at Jones Beach on Long Island just outside New York City, I had that Kansas City concert in mind as, a quarter-century later, I was attending another concert by the same band, Rush, now as someone entering what is often called “mid-life.”

I have seen this band at least a dozen times, and having discovered their music around age 11, have been listening intently for 30 years now. They are an acquired taste, and often hated by critics, but last night I was feeling more than a little vindicated in sticking with them. Having won major industry awards for bass, guitar, and drums; having received multiple top awards in Canada (their home country) for performance and songwriting; having been the musical inspiration for a recent Hollywood movie and new video games; having been embraced by the Colbert Report, Rolling Stone magazine, and given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; having been the subject of an award-winning documentary; and having more consecutive gold and platinum albums than any band but the Rolling Stones and the Beatles…. This band has never stopped pushing forward. Few bands last this long, and do so with such vibrancy and continually deepened skill into the later stages of their career. Even though two band members are 56, and one is 57, they are currently preparing a new album for release next summer. They remind us that we are still inventing what the rock life can be.

Herein lies one interesting part of the show last night. Jones Beach, like many dates on their current tour, was sold out, and the fact that these rock legends are pushing 60 does not seem to matter to these fans. When seen against the backdrop of the expense of modern concerts and overall decline in the concertgoing business, the fact that Rush is still able to sell out 5,000-10,000 (and in Brazil, 50,000-60,000) seat venues consistently, after nearly forty years as a band, as well as make albums that continue to go gold and platinum, suggests to me that more than fan nostalgia is going on.

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Good Video of U2 at Fordham

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on July 23, 2010

My friend P let me know that there is a good video on YouTube of U2 playing at Fordham University last year.

I confess to you fannishly that I was there; they played right outside my Keating Hall office. I blogged about it at R&T (see here), among many posts here on U2.

Check out the video below. Watching it again makes me think rock bands fit in quite well at Catholic universities: there’s all the sensual grandiosity as well as its inbuilt undoing. What else is rock?

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

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Yesterday, I was walking with M through Bryant Park in Manhattan, and noticed that a show was about to begin, an hourlong revue of new Broadway shows and some longer-running successes. Basically a little live midday advertising for high-end theater. So we grabbed some lunch and a few chairs and joined the hundreds filling the lawn, not sure who we’d see.

It turns out we heard selections from many different shows, including “Falling for Eve,” “Chicago,” and — I couldn’t believe it — “Rock of Ages”. I have written before at R&T of my delight in this musical. Six or seven cast members from the show took the stage as the final part of the revue, bringing raucous cheers from many in the park, and the fist-pumping began almost immediately as they started belting out the rock tunes.

Here is a poor picture I took. It was the best I could do with my cellphone camera.

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That Guy On Stage With The White Shirt You Can Hardly See, That's Our Subject

What interested me most about this event was the “Rock of Ages” star — a bona fide rock musician (and “American Idol” finalist) Constantine Maroulis — was wearing a t-shirt with large letters proclaiming “Rock Is My Religion.” There was a peace sign on the back of the shirt. (Here’s Maroulis and co-star Amy Spanger at the Tony Awards, and then Maroulis and gang in the kickoff to the Bryant Park summer series.)

I have seen what seems like an increasing number of people wearing such “Rock Is My Religion” shirts in the last several years. They are easily available on the Internet. I wondered what to make of the message.

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Many readers of Rock and Theology will have visited, or at least heard about, the Pantheon in Rome. I knew little about it on my first visit there several years ago, but was overtaken by it the moment it came into view from the street. And once I stepped inside the rotunda, and saw the Catholic altar amidst a circular series of niches originally for display of various gods, the world of ancient religions seemed to linger in the space and to continually rise up from the floor and walls through the “oculus,” the large circle in the dome, and be taken up into the heavens. Or were the heavens coming down into this most famous container?

Here is the wikipedia page on Pantheon (all typical cautions about Wikipedia assumed).

Here is a tidbit on the Pantheon that I penned for a recent book:

“Inside Pantheon, attention goes up and down, on a vertical axis, rather than back and forth, on a horizontal axis. Pantheon’s cylinder and dome, rising up majestically on all sides upon passing from the porch through the doors, take perception up, again and again, to the oculus, and its illumination of all interior space, shifting its shadows as the hours of the day pass. As MacDonald observes, this spatial orientation is different from what would become that of Christian basilicas and their horizontality of attention, their back-and-forth, fore and aft self-presentation through cruciform structures. (William L. Macdonald, The Pantheon, p. 34)”

“While Christians may feel some familiarity upon stepping onto the front porch because they are expecting an axis of longitude to continue forward inside Pantheon, once they step through the doors at the back of the porch and into the giant cylindrical space of the rotunda behind, that promise of what a Christian would expect to be a basilica-like axis is immediately revoked, dispossessed, ‘dissipated and lost in an incommensurable void,’ in MacDonald’s elegant architectural language. (Macdonald, p. 67, putting MacDonald’s architectural language to theological work.)”

“Indeed, the ancient Vitruvian conviction, made famous for modernity by da Vinci’s drawing, regarding a deep consanguinity between circle and square architecture, such as the vaulted form of the Pantheon, and the naturally extended upright human body, suggest that it is no accident that humans feel both dwarfed and taken up inside Pantheon, because they feel a fundamental fit between the body’s erect frame and the shape of the container that is the rotunda. The body is invited to recognize its dimensions because of the proportionality of this tremendous container to the body. It may be part of what gives Pantheon the sense of communicating being at home in the cosmos.”

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