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January 2011
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I spent Friday night and much of Saturday at the “Lost?” conference at Fordham University, a conference aimed at understanding better the relationship between the Catholic Church and 20-somethings. I served as moderator of a session on the church and popular culture. Here are a few thoughts in the wake of the conference, moving from appreciation to criticism to hope.

*The Curran Center for American Catholic Studies and the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture seemed to do an extraordinary job of organizing and managing a conference that had a surprisingly large attendance and a very full slate of presenters for a day-and-a-half conference. Facilitating a smooth-running conference is a refined art of high coordination, and often a thankless one, but these two Centers did it with aplomb.

*The fact that this conference was ‘sold out’ not only in the main auditorium but also in the overflow space probably says something important about the interest in this generation among pastoral workers, relatives, teachers, and even a clutch of 20-somethings themselves. Does it indicate an awareness of the degree of the “crisis” in the relationship between institutional Catholicism and this cohort?

*Robert Putnam of Harvard was the first at the conference to make a rather direct comment about the ethnic-racial character of the questions driving the conference: the deepest concern, he said, about Catholic affiliation and participation has to do with Anglo (“white”) Catholics, not so much Latino/a Catholics. That question, of the ethnic-racial contours of who is “lost” and who is not lost among young adults (or among church leaders, for that matter), seemed to hang unresolved and underaddressed. I hope the generational questions, that have now driven the Catholic conversation for the last decade or two, will now be supplemented and in many cases replaced by questions of multiple diversities in Catholicism, as well as of white privilege in the management of the church and the structuring of the ecclesial conversations.

*The most frequent recommendation for the Catholic Church was to pay greater attention to young adults. At this conference, one could hear that the institutional church “needs to listen,” that church leaders and pastoral workers “need to meet people where they are,” and that what is essential is that 20-somethings “be really heard.” I myself have used these phrases since I started writing about the so-called “Generation X” nearly fifteen years ago.

But after so many years of rather intensively following the conversation about Catholicism and young adults, these exhortations are, I am convinced, of quite limited value. These same recommendations were proffered ten to fifteen years ago during the “Generation X” conversations, and were said before that in the 1970s with respect to young Baby Boomers when Catholicism was flush with Vatican II.

Why do I register this note of deep skepticism? Because deep listening is predicated on a willingness to be changed by

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Robert Plant: “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down”

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on January 31, 2011

Last night at the Beacon Theater in NYC, I saw Robert Plant and his new Band of Joy, featuring Patty Griffin on backup vocals. I will write up some reflections in the next few days on this extraordinary show, but I could not hesitate to share with you Plant’s rendition of “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” Here are two recent performances of it:

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Rohter on Africa’s New Influence in Rock

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on January 29, 2011

In this Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, Larry Rohter reports this fascinating story about the new influence of African bands, musics, and musicians on rock. Those, like me, who remember the Paul Simon/”Graceland” moment in the 1980s, may well find their postcolonial antennae concernedly vibrating at this potential appropriation/expropriation/exoticism through “Western” rock toward African musics. Rohter takes that concern on, as well, emphasizing the new attitude of Western music labels toward contracts with African artists. We’ll see how that goes.

I consider this an extraordinary development of rock music and rock culture more broadly. The global habitations of rock certify that this genre is as alive as ever. And they make its religious environments, imbrications, and futures more complex than ever. The deepened influence of African artists will take rock well beyond Western Christian atmospherics.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

Ruminatio: Practicing the Art of Listening Virtuously

Posted in: Practices,Ruminatio by Andy Edwards on January 28, 2011

Thanks to Beaudoin’s post last weekend, I’ve been reflecting upon the importance of rock-and-theology. I find particularly helpful his pointing to “practices that support our investment in this particular relationship…and how they go into making urgent an interest in theology and rock.”

I see my own practices in relation to three interrelated and complex areas: listening, worshipping, and performing. I’ll just highlight the first for now.

First, I love to listen to good music…but since being blessed (and cursed?) with an addiction to critical reflexivity, I can’t listen as easily as I once did. In some ways, this is a loss…but also a significant gain. Perhaps a personal anecdote (in two movements) will help explain this development….

ALLEGRO
Somewhere in the late 90′s, I was listening to public radio while driving back to my apartment from a seminary class. (Some readers may remember how commercial radio really began to suck around that time…thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and Clear Channel’s subsequent invasion and occupation of the FM world.) There was a fund drive going on, so the local NPR affiliate was pulling out all the catchy classical tunes they could find and (more…)

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A Review of “Shaping a Global Theological Mind”

Posted in: General,Reviews by Tom Beaudoin on January 28, 2011

My review of Darren C. Marks’ (ed.) Shaping a Global Theological Mind (Ashgate, 2008), was recently published in the Journal of Contemporary Religion (v. 26, no. 1, 2011). Here is my review:

Shaping a Global Theological Mind is a followup volume to Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology, also edited by Darren C. Marks. The format of the two books is the same: a collection of diverse theologians describe in essay form what their theological projects are about and how they came to define them in terms of their biographical-intellectual itinerary. But whereas Shaping a Theological Mind focuses on renowned Western theologians, Shaping a Global Theological Mind broadens the lens considerably to include theologians from around the world, many of whom will not necessarily be well-known to most Western academic theologians. Indeed, the book intentionally focuses on the “two-thirds world” as both corrective to the first volume and symbol of theology’s most dynamic present and future: largely outside of the West. To that end, most of the voices in this text hail from the nonwhite, non-North Atlantic context.

Twenty theologians contributed, from India, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and beyond. For North Atlantic readers such as myself, this book bears a critical theological mission in common with the first volume: problematizing Western assumptions about how theology is generated. By Western assumptions, I mean

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Tonight (Friday) and all day Saturday, Fordham University will be hosting the conference “Lost?: Twenty-Somethings and the Church.” The conference packs together many sessions that open up dimensions of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the current cohort of young adults, from basic sociological data to sexual decision-making to faith practice to popular culture influences. I will be moderating the session on Saturday at 1:00 on popular culture and the church (titled “Frenemies: Popular Culture and Catholic Culture”) and I will hope to see some R&T readers there. I noticed tonight that not only is the main conference sold out (Pope Auditorium at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan), but the overflow seating (conference simulcast in Fordham’s McNally Auditorium at the Law School at Lincoln Center) is sold out, too. Who would have thought you would have to scalp tickets at an event about young adults and Catholicism?

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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Making Theological Sense of Culture: A Brief Exchange

Posted in: Dialectic,General by Tom Beaudoin on January 27, 2011

As fellow R&T contributors, Andy Edwards and I have decided to turn a recent email exchange into a blog post. We hope readers will find it worthwhile.

Andy Edwards: I’ve gone through your Witness to Dispossession book, focusing particularly on the chapter where you address theology-and-popular-culture as spiritual exercise addressing both scholarly self-involvement and economies of analysis. I can see my own work being consistent with your proposal here, as I admit my own involvement in Wesleyan/Methodist identities and tracing genealogically the identity of Methodism as a popular culture itself.

Where I might hear some dissonance, however, is in the question of normativity. While the Barthian in me would certainly agree with you that religious/theological/ecclesial frameworks are neither ahistorical nor unique (WtD, p. 62), that same Barthian would also qualify this claim (and fundamentally undergird it) in the light of Christ’s uniqueness. That’s the approach I took from Ratzinger in  my M.Phil. thesis, that it is fundamentally Christ-as-Logos that provides norms by which all else  (music, popular culture, liturgy) may be judged.

Again, the operative word above is that I MIGHT hear dissonance here. But I’m not sure. WtD is clear on the POSTMODERN rationale behind dispossession, and I’m left wondering whether this is consistent with or in contrast to a CHRISTOLOGICAL rationale for such dispossession.

*

Tom Beaudoin: Andy, thank you for your direct and clear formulation of such an important question. Let me see if I can respond crisply, although I bet that one response will not be enough.

I see the basic question as whether christology can be separated from the framework for analysis (‘postmodern’) defended in Witness. The claim, assertion, argument, or even experience of Christ’s uniqueness is an action, performance or practice that needs an historical and cultural registration, without making the forms of analysis we presently have through culture and history ‘ideological’ skeleton keys to reality. What uniqueness means, the function of such an appeal, and what one is doing to present relational dynamics when one associates Christ with uniqueness – these are for me questions that don’t make any sense apart from (as place theory calls it) ‘situation’ – of us and of the times and places in which those terms first came to exercise influence in the tradition.

As you know, terms like “Christ,” “Logos,” and “uniqueness” all come to us as if from “within” history, having allowed and disallowed certain ways of construing and being in the world. The issue is taking responsibility for this in our theologizing. This for me is a work of theology.

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“My Wife Understood the Meaning of Her Own Life”

Posted in: General,News Items by Tom Beaudoin on January 25, 2011

Brooks Barnes wrote this story in today’s New York Times about a documentary at the Sundance Film Festival called “How to Die in Oregon.” The documentary apparently explores physician-assisted suicide in the state of Oregon, where it is legal.

Barnes reports that one woman’s story is a through-line of the documentary. She is Cody Curtis, and decides to end her life with the help of her doctor and in the presence of her husband. Who can read this account and not feel some small degree of the immense pain that this family must have endured together? Barnes’ reportage centers around whether we, the viewers, are able to face death. Many reporters and a good share of the HBO production staff themselves could not bear to watch it. But I wonder, also, whether part of the almost unbearable face-to-faceness of this cinematic experience has to do with a question of whether we ought to be showing a family’s path through assisted suicide in a commercial film. I don’t know, but I think the reluctance of so many to sit through the whole film is more complicated than just not wanting to confront death. After all, how many of those who cannot watch the film would turn away from a dying loved one in person?

And in the midst of this lies almost buried a breakthrough quotation from Ms. Curtis’ husband, Stan Curtis, in response to why his wife let her saga, including her decline and death, be filmed: “My wife understood the meaning of her own life.”

He continues, “It seems like a story about dying, but actually it is very much a story about living.”

In this wise confession, I heard an echo of what theology can and should be about: stewarding stories of living, so that people can have for themselves the consolation of the meaning of their own life. And if not that consolation, at least the consolation of the hope for that having. Once theology takes this wide angle of vision, the side of more life, and as I would like to put it, life in its singular and strange beauty, its task includes accounting all those facets of that beauty, however apparently “non-theological.” Music is part of that, of course, and in Ms. Curtis’ story it is her family, and within the family, the symbolic handing-over of precious material from her life to her children: jewelry and recipes. Theology worthy of our lives and work, and of the theological tradition, is indeed finally “very much a story about living.”

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Rock and Theology readers and contributors come from a variety of confessional commitments or noncommitments, read in a range of theological literature, and plug into a many different kinds of music as fans and musicians. All of which has often made me wonder about the various practices that support one’s interest in the relationship between rock and theology, or however else one construes the relevant terms, such as between music/secularity/popular culture and religion/spirituality/faith. However we each see the relevant loci, and however we each construe their relationship — as dialogical, as overlapping, as coimplicated, as tensive, or more — we probably have practices that support our investment in this particular relationship. I wonder what those practices are, and how they go into making urgent an interest in theology and rock. Thinking about this could help us see how a particular interest shared by many of us is not separate from wider circles of our lives, but tied pretty firmly to them. I will just raise this question for now, and in a future post come back some examples from my own life of practices that support (and are probably supported by) investment in the rock-theology intersection. But please feel free to consider this question for yourself if it seems important, and post about it, sit with it, ponder it. How is rock and theology placed in the larger lives of which we are a part?

Tom Beaudoin
Ardsley, New York

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Selling Your Soul for Rock and Roll?

Posted in: General,Reviews by Tom Beaudoin on January 21, 2011

I was a teenager in the 1980s and remember well the popular Christian perceptions of rock music and culture as a hotbed of decadence and sin. This was the era of the discovery of “backward masking” on records, of the hermeneutics of hidden satanic symbols in album art, and of Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center. Those who did not live through that time, such as my undergraduate students, can have difficulty imagining what the public discourse was like. (And that there were congressional hearings on the matter!)

A while back, someone sent me a clip of a more “recent” (as in last decade) commercial that purports to give information about how rock music threatens the salvation of generations of fans:

Is it a hoax? The interpretations of the songs are so wooden, the song quotations so fundamentalistic, and the use of language and graphics so potentially arch (they actually use the word “rockumentary” a few seconds in), that it is difficult to tell how green are the valleys of irony at work here.

But as a child of the 80s, and as someone who has a reckless passion for theology, and also as someone who has seen many sides of rock and roll, I find such anti-rock Christian interventions engaging to watch.

Not because I think the theologies (of salvation, sin, grace, culture, music) that they are advocating are defensible, but because they so richly symbolize many aspects of rock and theology at once, for example: reminding us how hard it is to find serious theological engagements with popular culture in general and popular music in particular; showing us how complex is the location of theological material in popular music (lyrics? interviews? fan behavior?); and, if we have the patience for it, helping us remember that there are some rock personae and some parts of rock culture that are way out there in a bad or dangerous way. (Not that this video has necessarily identified any of them.)

But no Christian critic has the right to a realistic hope that their criticisms will be taken seriously over the long haul unless and until they also acknowledge and integrate the criticisms and insights that there are parts of Christian theological culture that are way out there in a bad or dangerous way. No inquiry comes with clean hands to make theological sense of culture. (Including, if it needs to be said, the very inquiry of this blog posting.) This provides a much different space for inquiry than that usually presumed in Satan-sensitive commercials — or in academic theological engagement with pop culture. And this is why all the basic terms must be revisited — not only Christian colonialism but christology itself, for example — each time one begins a new inquiry in theology of culture, especially from the advantaged theological position that I and others take in this research.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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