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October 2010
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I am in Atlanta, Georgia, for the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, an annual gathering of several thousand scholars of religion from North America and around the world. Over four days, we discuss and debate new research related to almost any religion you’ve ever heard of, and many you probably never have. (Seven of us from Rock and Theology are here, as well, and the project was advanced significantly this weekend after a good meeting yesterday in conjunction with our patron, Liturgical Press. More news on that in the future.)

I heard a particularly good paper yesterday in a session sponsored by the Association of Practical Theology (disclosure: I’m on the exec committee and helped plan the session), a session that looked at what research in wise/excellent practice has to say to practical theology. Practical theology often focuses on the cultivation of ways of life and/or pastoral practices that generate, instantiate, or exemplify theological material (concepts, values, narratives), and so learning from research in other fields studying how practices (are presumed to) become stronger, more coherent, or more excellent gives something of potential importance to practical theology.

In this session, John Falcone, a doctoral student at Boston College, gave a paper on the difference that the social class of the theologian makes as theologians (as those with presumably “high cultural capital”) get removed, through practices of cultivation of educated taste, from the poor and working classes (with presumably “low cultural capital”) and are unable to theologize in ways that are drawn from or speak to persons in those social classes. He used the social theory of sociologist-philosopher Pierre Bourdieu to describe how persons are formed to have certain tastes in and through the palette of what is possible and desirable in one’s social class.

I think this is a very important line of thinking to advance.

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Steve Perry of Journey, and Communal Transcendence

Posted in: General,Secular Liturgies by Tom Beaudoin on October 29, 2010

There is an influential stream of scholarship in cultural and religious studies that argues that public and “secular” events can be considered religious when they conduct a group of people into a shared directedness to a good beyond themselves, whether that be a particular worthy goal or the spirit of the community itself. The basic theological notion is that a transcendent reference is contained within it. This position has come in for substantial criticism in the last decade or so as insufficiently contextual and theological; in other words, it does not pay enough specific attention to the conceptions-practices on the ground, and it does not root a theological judgment fully enough in a particular tradition. That said, I still thought of this line of reasoning — which does retain an influence not only in academic theology but in the Western popular consciousness — when I saw these videos today. In them, you will see Steve Perry, the golden-throated former singer of Journey, at a baseball game in San Francisco (as a fan), leading the tens of thousands around him in singing along with the Journey songs (“Don’t Stop Believin’ ” and “Lights”) being played over the stadium sound system.

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On Searching for a Band and a Church. Part 3.

Posted in: Auditions,General,Practices by Tom Beaudoin on October 29, 2010

For a few posts now, I have been setting up an informal comparison between searching for a rock band and searching for a church. In part two, I asked: “Does the search for a church involve anything like the search for a band, an experimental attitude, a search for many possible places to end up, a direct comparison of influences, and a willingness to share the journey with others who can be moderately to substantially ‘different’ theologically?”

I have been in and out of many Catholic churches since college. Between the relativities of place at the three universities (University of Missouri, Harvard Divinity School, and Boston College) I attended, and the three different faculty positions (Boston College, Santa Clara University, Fordham) I have held, and other life-related moves, the sheer number of addresses I have had since I moved out of my parents’ house in 1988 (that would be more than twenty different places of residence in the last 22 years) have prevented me from being able to sit too long in any single church.

But there is more at work in any church search for me. The Catholic sense of self in which I was raised has undergone a significant change in adulthood. This has to do perhaps most basically with friendships and loves beyond normative Catholicism, of which perhaps the most abiding and gracious “result” in my life is that I have an interfaith marriage and family. This has had the effect of keeping me alive to religious life beyond Catholicism and in some ways has slowly redefined how I imagine my relationship to a local Catholic church: it has to be a place that can accommodate my interreligious Catholicism.

My changed self is also the outgrowth of a long process of disillusionment with, deconversion from, and the “secularization” of my Catholic and Christian sense of self. These shifts have left me with a very different understanding of my religiousness than I would have had even a decade ago at age thirty. (At that time, for example, I was still articulating an “evangelical Catholicism” — of a progressive sort, to be sure, but of a particular evangelical sort nonetheless.) There are too many sources of this change in my theological life, and many of them are too personal, to render appropriately and adequately on a blog (at least until I can think of a more fitting way to present them in writing), but on the public level, they are related to the implosion of the U.S. (and global) Catholic church in the wake of the revelations of the abuse scandals. The theological measure of these scandals have truly barely begun to be taken. For myself, the fundamental theological question raised by the depth and breadth of these scandals is: What is Catholicism?

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On Searching for a Band and a Church. Part 2.

Posted in: Auditions,General by Tom Beaudoin on October 28, 2010

Recently I posted part one of this little exploration of band- and church-searching. In the first part, I wrote a little bit about what I have found to be a characteristic (and amusing) combination of predictability and variability in the rock audition. I suppose I could also write about the many ways I have experienced a rock band ending, too. (Would the ecclesial parallel be the different ways of leaving a church?) But for this short post, I’ll just keep focused on the joining rather than leaving.

Joining bands includes a heavily experimental quality, and the sounding-out of each other is an important part of the exploration. You compare tastes in conversation and through playing together. You become curious, interested, or even excited about the mesh of styles, tastes, abilities that come out in the talking and playing, and which also have to be correlated with the level of commitment, the hopes for the band, and the adjudication of the mesh of personalities. The last one often takes the deepest discernment to figure out. When I was younger, I was able to tolerate much more experimentalism and loose fit in the construction of a band. I was willing to take hours to try to invent a few lines of a tune with other players who may have only shared some basic but not strong overlap of tastes or abilities. I had more tolerance for substantial band difference in attitudes toward and practices of (adult) cigarette/drug/alcohol use.

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Anarchy, evolution, faith, and punk rock

Posted in: General,Rock and Theology Project by Michael Iafrate on October 25, 2010

Yet another collision of punk rock and religion of possible interest for Rock and Theology readers is the recent publication of a book by Greg Graffin (and co-author Steve Olson), Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God. Graffin is most well known as the lead singer of the L.A. punk band Bad Religion (who celebrate their 30th anniversary this year), but fewer people are aware that he received a Ph.D. in zoology from Cornell and now teaches evolution at UCLA.

Although he is outspoken in his disbelief in God, Graffin describes himself as a “naturalist” rather than as an atheist and maintains a critical distance from the “New Atheism.” He discusses his semi-autobiographical book — which includes talk of science, punk rock, religion, and more — here and here.

Aside from the surely very interesting reflections on religion, science, and punk rock, Graffin interestingly notes in the interviews that the book is an attempt to synthesize two seemingly unrelated parts of himself — his life as a science-minded academic and his life as a punk rock musician. As Paste put it in its endorsement of the book, “Graffin is one of those rare people who seem to have combined two lives into one.” Such an expression should be of interest to those who feel the creative, “anarchic” tensions of a life lived simultaneously within the two worlds of rock music and academic theology, or of rock culture(s) and the culture(s) of the church.

Michael Iafrate
Parkersburg, West Virginia

I think the capability of dealing with oneself, or of having oneself dealt with, in as transparent a way as possible, is something like a condition for maturing in what we perhaps too easily call “the spiritual life.” And silence is a privileged practice that can allow one to get there, in the variety of now consoling, now desolate ways named in religious traditions.

But it is just at this point that many theologians question whether popular music and other “secular” practices, especially those that are electronically mediated, should be taken seriously for this spiritual life. Doesn’t life in secular music in particular and popular culture in general necessarily call us away from silence and saving attention to self?

I would like to defend popular music practices as times and places through which spiritually meaningful askesis can and does happen. There can be of course no question of a simple theological endorsement of everyday secular musical practice. I would say what is at stake theologically is more complex: It is finding the ways that popular/secular music, as a formative/influential reality in which perhaps the majority of Western younger generations live, is not just a “text” for consumption but an elaborate network of cultural practices in which people are involved at conscious, embodied and unconscious levels. And in and through these practices of pop music cultures, people do find ways of coming to terms with themselves and others (including a relation to a claiming power of a “beyond” that might be named, however incompletely, “God”).

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On Getting an iPod. Part 3: “Champions of Sin”

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on October 21, 2010

Before I can conclude this brief series thinking aloud about what it means to finally be practicing iPodiatry (part one here and part two here), I begin with Katy Scrogin’s small whirlwind of a rumination posted as a comment here recently.

In it, she mixes tempera with water colors quickly across the windshield in an argument that has to be taken seriously because she speaks from a position of resistance and lament in the techno-consumer musicscape. As she scrapes the wipers back across the colors, one hears the quiet declaration, like a radio left on inside after the car ignition is off, that “in much of the easy accessibility of and predictability/programmability we’re able to impose these days upon information, including music, the opportunities for nuanced interaction with the (real) world might just paradoxically be decreasing.”

As I listen to this broadcast, I hear my own background voice doubling these words. Yes, this might indeed be true. Can I make it not true for myself and for others? On the one hand, getting an iPod has shown me how she might be right. With an iPod, I can now seal myself off for an entire hourlong walk, subway ride from the Bronx to Brooklyn, or through the afternoon at a cafe. (But not at bars; not yet, at least not here in New York.) In doing so, I have pre-emptively withdrawn any chance at the random conversation that is otherwise at least a little likely in these environments. I will not have to decide when the homeless man passes through the subway car as we’re passing under Lincoln Center and he is asking for some money because he has not seen a doctor for at least ten years and needs money for his medicine, and he begins his ask (as New Yorkers will recognize) by yelling from the front of the car as soon as the doors close, “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. I DON’T MEAN TO SCARE OR OFFEND YOU. I AM NOT ON DRUGS. I AM HOMELESS AND I NEED TO SEE A DOCTOR. I WILL ACCEPT ANYTHING YOU CAN GIVE, COINS OR BILLS. THANK YOU.”

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There is another world.  There is a better world. Well, there must be. There must be.

- Morrissey, “Asleep”

from The Smiths’ The World Won’t Listen

I was recently catching up on reading back issues of Commonweal (one of the pleasant perks of being a professor of Catholic studies is that this activity counts as work time), and I was stopped short by an offhand remark made in John Connelly’s “The Price of Freedom: What Came Down with the Berlin Wall” .  Connelly, a history professor from UC Berkeley, makes the case that the small East German town of Plauen, site of the largest anti-GDR demonstration prior to the events of November 1989, was instrumental in helping to bring down the Berlin Wall and open the borders.  It’s a pretty remarkable story, and Connelly, as part of a Harvard fact-finding group that went to East Germany in the first days of the dissolution of Soviet control, is uniquely situated to tell it.  He has maintained a relationship to the city ever since, and his Commonweal article is written in the wake of his most recent visit, where he was greeted as something of a celebrity for his recognition of Plauen’s otherwise overlooked role in German politics.

In relaying the chain of events that, in the months prior to that November in 1989, began to build momentum toward the shift in power, Connelly lists a number of locations that played significant roles.  “One such place,” he writes, “was St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, where in the spring of 1989 young people who had previously shown interest in little beyond rock music became politically active.”

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The Spirit of Punk: An Interview With Zine Author Bianca Valentino

Posted in: General by Michael Iafrate on October 19, 2010

bianca-valentino-by-michelle-aziz

Bianca Valentino is a writer engaged in an assortment of projects in the punk rock community. She has written for various music publications, produced several handmade “zines,” and co-founded the Papercuts Zine Collective. Her latest zine project is a spin-off of her popular Conversations With Bianca website which features interviews with underground music and culture makers. The project is called Conversations With Punx: A Spiritual Dialogue, a 12-issue zine series full of interviews with punk rock icons on the topic of spirituality in/of punk. Some of her conversation partners include Ian MacKaye (Fugazi/Minor Threat), Henry Rollins (Black Flag/Rollins Band), Vic DiCaria (108/Shelter), Greg Graffin (Bad Religion), Efrem Schultz (Godspeed You Black Emperor), Ray Cappo (Shelter), and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (The Mars Volta/At the Drive-In). When Rock and Theology found out about her project, we knew we had to hear more about it. In the following email interview I asked Bianca about punk rock zine culture, the details of her project, and of course the “spirit” of punk.

Tell us a bit about yourself, where you are from, how you became interested in punk rock and DIY (Do-It-Yourself) culture, etc.

Hi, I’m Bianca Rosemarie de Valentino. I’m an Australian native with a Mexican-German-Irish-Chinese heritage. I love writing and creating things. I love the rhythms of words and sentences. I love communicating with people and sharing information. I love listening to the stories of others and sharing those with others. I have a keen interest in ancient history, pop culture and anthropology.

I became interested in punk rock after my brother gave me some of his punk records. The lyrics and messages really interested me. Along with hip hop lyrics, punk lyrics helped educate me about the world, politics, social issues, spirituality, and nutrition/diet. Being involved with those communities and contributing to/and documenting the culture for half my life has also empowered me with important life skills and business skills. I am also attracted to its energy.

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