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December 2010
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Shine a Light in 2011

Posted in: General by Mary McDonough on December 31, 2010

Happy New Year and, in 2011, “may the good Lord shine a light on you, make every song you sing a better tune.”


Mary McDonough

As we approach the second anniversary of the Rock and Theology blog, I have been thinking about the approaches we have been taking to the topic so far. Speaking for my own contributions, I am aware that the kinds of things I have been writing might be different from what some might expect for a blog at the intersection of “rock” and “theology.”

There are many potential ways into this intersection, because theology is such a diverse discipline, and rock no less a multifaceted genre. Early on, it was clear to me that at any rate, we would probably have to be writing not only about rock and theology, but about “rock culture” and “theological culture,” because so much of what we might want to say would have to do with what we had learned of theology and music in our particular contexts, and because rock is best understood not only as isolated sounds, artists, or songs, but as a complex culture or set of overlapping cultures. The same, I would argue, goes for theology. It is not reducible to or even most adequately characterized as various “schools of thought” or “traditions of ideas,” but as concepts and practices taught and learned in theological cultures for various culture-dependent purposes and with specific culture dependent effects.

This is why readers will rarely see me, for example, try to clinch the theological sense of a lyric by an invocation of a biblical verse, traditional doctrine, or catechetical teaching. The field for the production of what is meaningful at the intersection of rock and theology is more complicated than that, as both everyday life and academic scholarship confirm. In face of this complexity, I am aware after two years here that I tend more than ever to write in the vein of philosophical or fundamental theology, or philosophy of religion. Or more specifically, philosophical/fundamental theology of practice, or philosophy of religious practice. By these veins, I mean the kind of theological writing that looks at the ground for claims about religious or theological practice (or, correlatively, about musical experience).

In principle, this approach is open to all interlocutors who advance claims about religious, theological and musical practice and experience. This renders me not uninterested in biblical quotations, but rather in why we appeal to scripture and what makes such an appeal compelling in this kind of situation. The bottom line, as it were, is to do a kind of theological analysis of popular music that is theologically literate, reflexive, and open to all conversation partners without a premature closure due to unduly privileged religious language or experience. I probably still reserve the right to unironically drop Jesus into a meditation on Galaxy of Tar or Thomas Dolby, but it is a right I will rarely exercise. Having said this, any number of approaches may be and are taken by other theologians to this rock-theology intersection, including other contributors to Rock and Theology. That is very well and good! I am often mistaken.

Tom Beaudoin
New York City

“College Students as Theologians” – Update

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on December 29, 2010

I’ve posted some responses to comments on my “College Students as Theologians” at the Jesuit magazine America blog here


Although I have been teaching college for ten years, this term marked the first time that I taught an introductory course in practical theology to both undergraduates and graduate students in the same semester. Many Catholics in the United States do not know about the field of practical theology, identified as it has been since Friedrich Schleiermacher with the training of clergy in the Protestant tradition. But over the last several decades, practical theology not only broke away from an exclusively clerical focus in Protestant theology, it has come increasingly to be adopted into the Catholic theological curriculum (no doubt due in part to the increasingly lay and practice-intensive focus and production of Catholic theology).

Catholic theologians Karl Rahner and David Tracy wrote compellingly about the importance of practical theology as the domain of theology that deals with the creative analyses of the church active in the world. Basically, they argued, it is practical theology that has a particular Vatican II-styled “Gaudium et spes” vocation. Globally there are many Catholic theologians who identify as practical theologians, but the U.S. scene has been slower to give itself as fully to practice as a fundamental category of theological inquiry, with the exception of some strands of liberation theology (despite the focus on praxis, a good deal of liberation theology is an exercise in systematics), feminist theology (the same could be said there as well), and the relatively new field of spirituality. Practical theology makes the theological meaning of practice in church and society its basic material, and involves itself in multiple conversations with students of practice across many fields. Along with pastoral theology on the Protestant scene, practical theology in the Catholic and Protestant scenes are part of the professionally organized “clinical” arenas of theology.

My graduate students at Fordham, in the Graduate School of Religion, quite naturally understand that and how practice matters for Christian life, because most of these students are pastoral professionals who have come back for further academic training. You might be surprised, however, to



My rhythm of posts decreased over the past few weeks as the fall semester at Fordham moved into the season of final examinations. But my students and I survived them (and many of my students even thrived through them), and now in the midst of a holiday break, on the cusp of a new calendar year, and at the beginning of a sabbatical from teaching that will allow me to focus intensively on research, writing, and renewal until September 2011, I am in the mood to (and the beneficiary of the privilege to be able to) think about charting my theological course, and especially in relation to my musical course, for the next little while.

If, as we find so many ways of arguing at Rock and Theology, musical and theological life are inseparably interwoven at many levels, then my paying attention to a musical itinerary in the coming months is important alongside thinking about what I want to read, write, live, or ponder theologically. So I am trying to imagine the various parts of what can happen musically and where that might take me in my theological life (by which I mean that dimension of life wherein the habitation of a claiming power is exercised; what others might call the personal and communal through-line of lived relation to God).

I wonder if our readers see things in a similar way. Are you thinking about where to go theologically and musically in the new year?

I see several musical domains for myself that can also be theological arenas: (1) musical projects: I want to return to writing music as a regular practice, to an active band life, and to different potential musical collaborations (including with members of the Rock and Theology Project); (2) live shows: while I have always been an active attender of live music, since moving to the New York City area, my live-music experience has been considerably deepened, expanded, regularized. It is just so easy to hear live rock and there is just so much to hear. Coming up in the first several weeks of the new year, I’ll be seeing the Broadway rock musicals “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark,” and the bands Mother’s Finest and Robert Plant, with more shows to come as the year unfolds, both big rock events and shows by relative unknowns at small venues, all of which I’ll try to write about here;

(Here is Mother’s Finest in a recent show…)


(3) personal listening: I am still in the process of converting my CD collection to MP3s for my iPod, but I might actually be listening to more music than ever (which is saying a lot for me) due to this new technology. When combined with an active exposure


As if to remind us that the conversations on rock and theology have been underway for longer than many of us have dreamt, take a look at this series of interview segments with The Doors, apparently circa 1969. (Thanks to my friend B for forwarding it to me.) You will see and hear discussion of rock as a communal religious experience, and as a “secular religion,” and you will notice the appearance of a Protestant minister who corrals Jim Morrison to test a theological hypothesis on him: that rock shows are like the Pentecost experience related in the book Acts of the Apostles in the Christian scriptures. The minister, in a theological moment of finding public words for the Pentecost experience, offers a nicely phrased tidbit of Christian philosophy: “The event of the happening was intense communication.” Morrison, in rough agreement, replies, “We try to provoke sort of a religious experience.” A bit later, the exchange ends with the minister saying to the camera, “Just don’t report me to my bishop.”


So much is happening here, isn’t it? Think how young rock is! (“Ten years ago”=1959!) And there is the memorable appearance of the minister who is “with it”, a type of Christian pastor I remember from 1970s Catholicism, modeling a kind of explicit religious engagement with secular music that no doubt unconsciously still informs my investment in the Rock and Theology Project. (When I see Morrison and that pastor together in the closing shots, my reaction is that they are more or less in the same business: the cultivation of courageous fidelity to a gracious beyond in and through broken and, at the limit, damaging practices.)

By the way, does anyone know who that minister is, and where he is today? It would be interesting to set him alongside Fr. Pat Berkery, the Catholic priest about whom Michael Iafrate has written here at R&T.

The shag funk of the late 60s and early 70s is all there in so many ways: the pipe,


My friend G sent me this recent article from the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, titled “‘The Pull of Love’ – Or Why Music Can Be a Quasi-Spiritual Experience”. The author is Mark Vernon, a philosopher and popular author, and, truth be told, the litterateur of one of the best succinct Christian theological interpretations of the philosophy of Michel Foucault ever published (titled “I Am Not What I Am: Foucault, Christian Asceticism, and a ‘Way Out’ of Sexuality”, in Jeremy Carrette (ed.), Religion and Culture: Michel Foucault (Routledge, 1999)).

In this brief article in the Guardian on spirituality and music, Vernon emphasizes how the discipline of fidelity to a musical instrument can become the way that a modern, even agnostic person builds a lived indirection — that is, a most fruitful kind of path — to the sacred. This path is built through practice, practice, practice, in the tiring, relentless relation to the keyboard, or by extension the fretboard, the drumsticks and skins, the throat, chest and microphone.

His basic theological point, if you will, is the capacity for transport built into deepening competence in musical skill. Good players are carried beyond their playing through their playing. Expert or master players may be reliably servant to the playing itself, to the being-played.

This is a good starting point, especially from an existential or transcendental point of view. One would probably want or need to know more to make good on the promise of such a line of thinking, but Vernon’s not given much space to make his case. Also having to enter in to the analysis of the spiritual dimension of musicianship would be taste, class, cultural-religious background, personal psychology, communal relationships. And perhaps most important theologically, more on the character of the “that” which is drawing one forward, as it were, in and through the daily routine of rehearsing.

(Here is electric bass legend Billy Sheehan giving some introductory instruction as a ground for practicing bass.)


Here at R&T, for almost two years we’ve been getting to some of that material surfaced by and beyond Mark Vernon’s article. My own fullest statement on that to date, more from the viewpoint of “listeners” than instrumentalists, is my recent paper given at the 2009 Annual Convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America,”Give It Up for Jesus: Askeses of Dispossession in Rock and Theology,” serialized at Rock and Theology starting here.

Thank you, Mark Vernon, for your philosophical scholarship, profound, creative and accessible, and for making these important musical-theological questions more public.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

More Christmas Songs You Won’t Hear at Church

Posted in: General by Michael Iafrate on December 21, 2010

I was impressed with Mary McDonough’s list of Christmas songs you won’t hear at Midnight Mass, and I’d love to add a few more to that great list.

One of the first songs I think of at this time of year is “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Christmas At Ground Zero” from his 1986 album Polka Party. And in mentioning Yankovic first, I should perhaps also admit (seriously) how much of a musical influence “Weird Al” was on me when I was growing up. Indeed, Al is worth a Rock and Theology post sometime in the future.


NPR recently posted 5 Depressing Blues Songs for Christmas which is well worth your time.

A buddy of mine sent “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)” by The Ramones to me this year:


After watching a great documentary on Joni Mitchell last night, Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind, I was reminded of her stunning and perfect track “River” from the album Blue. Here is the original, and below is a live version from 1970.


And finally, on a more explicitly theological note, my favorite Christmas-themed song is probably “The Rebel Jesus” by Jackson Browne. I know of few Christmas songs that cut through to the heart of “what it’s all about” as “The Rebel Jesus” does. I performed a cover of the song this past weekend in Morgantown, West Virginia and my “studio” version of it can be streamed or downloaded for free here. And here is the original version by Jackson Browne:


Michael Iafrate
Parkersburg, West Virginia

I am very late to this video party, but by reading the year-end New York Times account of memorable phrases in the USA from 2010, I came across this one: “double rainbow.” Did I miss something? It turns out I missed, in a theological and also in a mystical sense, everything. For the “double rainbow” in question is a remarkable video made by a man who lives in Yosemite and was overwhelmed by a rainbow that he saw outside his house.

This clip, which attracted many millions of views, has attracted a fair number of makers-of-fun, skeptics, and killjoys. But color me utterly captivated. If we take it as what it presents itself, as a man overwhelmed by a rainbow, nay not even a single rainbow, but something I had never even considered possible to observe, a double rainbow, then this guy seems to be having something close to what many of our religious traditions would call a mystical experience. How could I have missed it — especially teaching undergraduates this semester? Why did they keep this pearl of great price buried? Take a look for yourself, and notice the variety of ways in which he allows himself to be overwhelmed by the suchness of the rainbows having residence not only in his landscape, but in his world, in his existence, his feeling of presence-to these rainbows. It is enough to remind one of the famous phenomenologist of religion, Mircea Eliade, for whom the encounter with “this rock, this tree, this city, this mountain” — in the words of Eliade’s friendly interpreter, theologian David Tracy (in Dialogue with the Other, page 66) — are elected by the sacred to disclose “the sacred time of the origins of the cosmos.” We are in the presence of a “disclosure of power,” argues Tracy (in one of the remaining modes of Catholic experience and argument which I can defend and with which I — and clearly many others — can associate myself and ourselves). Here is the now-famous video:


And when this fellow, “Bear” Vasquez, whose mystical experience became a media event, appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel show, he started off winningly, with humor and a rare public relativization of sexual and drug experience in favor of a nature mysticism:


But while as R&T readers know, I have a wide latitude for the theological calibration of profane experience,


Somatica Divina 71: Linkin Park, “The Catalyst”

Posted in: Somatica Divina by Mary McDonough on December 19, 2010


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