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July 2010
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For those who think about music and theology, and more particularly secular music cultures and theological cultures, one of the most sensitive questions is how to relate theology to music. Or, as I would rather say it again, theological cultures to musical cultures. I prefer the qualifier “cultures” because it highlights the importance of practice, performance, action and history in contrast to a deracinated notion of “ideas” extracted from a tradition or situation.

In this vein, this weekend I prepared a journal review of the late Don Browning’s recent book, Equality and the Family: A Fundamental, Practical Theology of Children, Mothers and Fathers in Modern Societies (Eerdmans, 2007). Browning, who taught at the University of Chicago, helped revive practical theology as a modern global discipline, and as part of that work crafted a new way of doing theology in general and practical theology in particular.

In short, Browning argued that all theology was practical, or perhaps more helpfully, practice-based. Implicitly at least, all theology starts with a description of a quandary in practice, takes a historical and systematic stance about that quandary, reaches for a norm to guide what to do, and then takes some action with reference to the originary quandary. This approach influenced a generation and more of Chicago students and constitutes a major method for practical theology today.

To be continued…

Tom Beaudoin
New York City

How and Why Do You Unplug?

Posted in: General,Practices by Tom Beaudoin on July 20, 2010

While reading the New York Times this weekend, I could not help but notice that at least five different articles dealt with creating a kind of cultural, philosophical, or religious permission-giving for taking time away from electronic connectivity in everyday life. Is this a noteworthy constellation? Just an editorial accident? My sense is that it speaks to a gathering crest in U.S. culture regarding the felt limits of constant electronic connection: the need to check email, to have a cell phone handy, to get the latest update from one’s various online social groups. Electronic connectivity seems, for most people, to take on a life of its own and crawl into as many available nooks and crannies of daily existence as possible.

The articles in question include this Bob Herbert column about flesh over screen; this Gary Shteyngart column about unlearning connectivity; Laurie Winer’s review of William Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age; Ben Brantley’s essay on the lack of ability and interest in cultivating reticent mystery in an age of Internet publicness and self-branding; and Judith Shulevitz’s report on inventing new Sabbath practices that erect ritual firewalls against the seductions of the electronic habitus and that teach a different way to inhabit the week.

These writings reminded me that, like many others, I search constantly for a way to balance it all, and I find that I learn a lot when others tell me about their practices for situating electronic life in a wider existence.

The Internet is now so important for life as a citizen, as well as for scholarly resources and personal relationships, it would seem now almost irresponsible to refuse being part of the electronic world if one has such a privilege. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that since I checked my first email in September 1988, the twenty-two years since have been an unending negotiation with the habits that electronic connectivity wants to install in my life, and my attempts to refuse or creatively use those habits.

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A Slow-Motion Implosion: There Can Be No Going Back

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

The Vatican and its defenders can argue that so closely associating women’s ordination and sexual abuse does not make them the same. But Catholics in secularizing countries, many of whom understand that the form of the message is part of its content, will be at liberty to be critical — when they are not exhausted already into indifference over the slow-motion implosion of an archaic clericalist structure. Just as the Second Vatican Council said that Christians share responsibility for making modern people atheists, those in Catholic power today share responsibility for making people secular Catholics. It is as if the more the purity and authority of Catholicism is defended from on high, the less Catholicism actually matters as a social and spiritual phenomenon.

This is far, far beyond a public relations issue. To cast things as a problem of public relations separates too cleanly the “content” of Catholicism from its “form” or “communication.” Instead, the very form of communication should be thought of as a kind of theological content. It is not only that official Catholicism does not know how to communicate well in the contemporary media world. It is that too often what it has to communicate, and the way it does so, is not persuasive to an increasingly educated, worldly, and pluralistically-aware public. The victims, and the Catholic structures that created victimization, should have been the irreparable center of official Catholic focus. But the form and content of official communication about abuse and its structures shows that we have yet to witness that conversion of consciousness.

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On the publications front: I recently co-authored an article titled “Religion, Pop Culture, and Virtual Faith” with Sylvia Collins-Mayo, who teaches sociology at Kingston University (UK). That has now been published as a chapter in the new book Religion and Youth, edited by Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion (Ashgate, 2010). The chapter briskly sets my argument about the “spirituality” of Generation X, from my 1998 book Virtual Faith, in the context of sociological research about generations in Western/secularizing cultures. I learned much from Sylvia Collins-Mayo (co-author of The Faith of Generation Y) about contemporary social-science framing of generational research and youth in the process of putting this chapter together. I am also grateful that Religion and Youth includes a chapter (“Generation X Religion: A Critical Evaluation”) from a critic of my work, Gordon Lynch (of the University of London, Birkbeck).

Religion and Youth is weighted toward the United Kingdom but also includes research on some other (Australian, United States, Brazilian) contexts, and takes as its major sections: generations, reports on belief and practice, cases of religious practice, religious identity of youth, handing on religion, and research/method questions in youth and religion. In this book there are many examples of rigorous sociology of religion that can challenge theologians in my own North American context to rework what we think counts as religious practices, or practices of interest to contemporary religions. I consider this intersection between social science and theology to be very important for Rock and Theology and for anyone thinking carefully about secular/popular practices and religion today.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

Story on Russian Rocker Now Online

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on July 18, 2010

The interesting story about Yuri Shevchuk, about which I posted recently, is now available online here.

And speaking of…

While reading New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff’s review of a NYC concert featuring the bands Salome and Landmine Marathon, my thoughts went back to the rock bestiary I’ve slowly adumbrated here at R&T. My initial description of a rock bestiary is here, and there have been many entries since then.

Ratliff served up a splendid meditation fit for a bestiary entry. Describing Salome’s lead singer Kat, Ratliff writes: “Early in the band’s second song — “Master Failure” — Kat brought the microphone to her face with both hands, enveloped two small fists around it and began a deep, dreadful growl, altering the tone with the shape of her mouth, something like yawwheeawhhhheee. She might have been singing words; maybe not. Hard to tell. It was more an earth sound than a body sound; the imagined howl of undersea canyons.”

A rock bestiary, should one ever exist, would be focused on the specific and eventful ways that Holy Mother of God! Take a listen!

A rock bestiary, should one ever exist, would be focused on the specific and eventful ways that rock culturers — musicians, fans, roadies, and more — yield up bodily wherewithals that are the potential fruit of, and power for, more life. Or should I say, with reference to Kat’s “earth sound,” that rock musicians generate ever new ways of conducting into, or at least gesturing toward, a way of being that theology should be able to appreciate, a way of being that I would call (following Gilles Deleuze) “faith in this world.”

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Blogs and Catholicism Today

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on July 15, 2010

J. Peter Nixon has a short article in the new issue of US Catholic magazine about what the net/blogging culture is doing for and to Catholicism. Dolores Leckey, Amy Welborn and I were interviewed for the piece. Welborn connects the rise of online Catholicisms to the need for expressing outrage and finding information about the abuse/governance scandal in the church. That is a provocative thesis, and perhaps could be the topic of a research project.

Nixon has an engaging longer accompanying piece on the irreversibly lay church that Catholicism has become.

This is of relevance for my work on rock and theology, insofar as I am a lay Catholic theologian, or perhaps stated more carefully, I have been trained to situate myself in lay and Catholic cultural-ecclesial practices and across the matrices of Catholic academic theological life. Whether and in what ways that makes one “lay,” “Catholic,” or a “theologian” seem to me distinct questions whose answers matter mystically-politically.

At any rate, the deep engagement with secular culture, through music, attempted in this project is one characteristic of the lay takeover of Catholic theology, and it is happening, as this blog evidences, with an utter dependence on the Internet and electronic media. (At the same time, R&T goes well beyond Catholicism, as our list of contributors shows.)

The turn to a lay theology and the theological investigation of secular music is, I think, part of a much broader academic and social turn to the constitution and complexity of the saeculum in the globalized world.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

Somatica Divina 57: The Mars Volta, Live

Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on July 13, 2010

For more on the notion of Somatica Divina, see here.

Last week, I was at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, for a research colloquium on the study of religion in everyday life. The meeting was one in a multi-part set of colloquia, from last fall through this past summer, that were organized by Dr. Gordon Lynch of the University of London, Birkbeck, a well-respected researcher of religious practice in secular contexts.

Our particular seminar, involving a dozen or so scholars of religious practice and practical theology, was focused on ethical questions in studies of religion, media, and everyday life. The papers presented became the occasion for intensive consideration of many different ethical questions ingredient to and arising from such research, including the everyday ethical questions presented in secularizing, electronically-mediated cultures, as well as the ethics of researching and writing about these matters. My paper was situated somewhere between the two, exploring what the responsibility of the Catholic theologian is within cultures where the sex abuse and governance scandals and crises have taken hold, and in which Catholics have been peeling away from the official definitions of Catholic identity and practice. This description fits not only North America but many European countries. I argued that this situation presents ethical questions about the point of theological research, and its ecclesial and cultural interventions, that cannot be ignored, because they go to the heart of the integrity of the theological vocation in secularizing and scandalized cultures. Theologians must make decisions about what they think Catholicism is becoming in these contexts, because it clearly has changed and is changing.

Most of all is the imperative for Catholic theologians to become more skilled at interpreting culture as well as scripture and tradition. As Matthias Scharer and Bernd Jochen Hilberath argue in their recent book, The Practice of Communicative Theology (Crossroad, 2008), the ability to interpret how contemporary people make spiritual sense of their lives through “secular” objects is a “hermeneutical skill [that] is no less important and no less demanding than the ability to interpret the texts of revelation and tradition” (p. 34).

Our colleagues in cultural and religious studies have developed many important approaches to the study of lived religion in secular contexts, with which Catholic theologians could be in deeper dialogue. This will be more than an option for those who want to work theologically in cultural contexts like our own.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

“Bold as Love” — A Terrific Site for Black Rock

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on July 12, 2010

I have watched the Spike Lee movie “Passing Strange” — three times now in as many weeks — which is a recording of the last few performances of the musical “Passing Strange” in 2008. That rock musical, which had a short run on Broadway in 2008, features an all-black cast (and, aside from Stew, an all-white band) and was the invention of musicians Stew and Heidi Rodewald. I have had to watch it several times because it is such a complex, richly written and performed, and engrossing show, and because it speaks directly to theological and musical intersections treated here at Rock and Theology. The relationship between Christian culture and rock culture is one of its central meditations, laid across an equally engaging exploration of African-American identities in global and postcolonial perspective. There is quite a lot to sit with, think through, and talk out loud about religion, race, and rock in this show. I will try to post some initial thoughts soon.

But while I am still ruminating, “Passing Strange” put me in mind of the important but culturally undervalued tradition of black rock in the United States. I’ve written at R&T before about black rock, and one of my hopes for Rock and Theology is to try to cast our musical and theological nets as widely as we can to relate to different theological orientations as well as rock from different ethnic and cultural contexts.

I was sad to have missed the recent Afropunk festival here in New York due to other commitments that weekend, and hope to be able to go in 2011. That festival, apparently following on the “Afropunk” documentary of a few years ago, is an annual opportunity to see some of the best in black rock/punk and more.

But inspired by “Passing Strange,” I was looking around the web for smart sites about black rock, and found this terrific site: Bold As Love. (Subtitle: “Rock Music and the New Black Imagination.”) The editor, Rob Fields, linked to this cool video about the recent Afropunk festival:

And Fields has a lot of other interesting stuff on his site, including reportage about musicians and the music business. He also recently wrote this helpful article, “Black Rock Rolls On,” for The Root. I will likely be visiting Bold As Love often, as it seems like the best site I’ve yet found for the latest on black rock. The black heritage in religion and rock is essential to any serious take on rock and theology in their own terms, and even more so when they are held together as we try to do here at R&T.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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