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March 2011
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When the Liturgical Comes Through Rock and Roll

Posted in: General,Secular Liturgies by Tom Beaudoin on March 30, 2011

Hard rock festival or arena shows give provocative examples of thinking about popular music as a liturgical experience. Here are two videos of the Italian band Lacuna Coil performing “Fragments of Faith” in 2006 and 2007 in front of festival crowds. (This is meant to be cranked.)

Here you have an orchestrated communal experience that simultaneously lifts and plants (and, over time, changes) the assembled, presided over by figures of ritual power able to draw down the sacred through sound and gesture.

Many well-rehearsed elements work together: the lights, the physical stances, the exhortations, the evident strain, the crowd’s peaceable, focused, physically expressive rapture. And there are the heightened liturgistic pleasures that the camera provides: close-ups of the vibrating guitar strings, the quick cuts between the two lead singers, timed to melodic or lyrical synchronicities, that heighten their co-presiding.

Ever since I attended my first concert, Billy Squier and Def Leppard in the early 80s in Kansas City, and especially after my experience of Woodstock ’94, I have imaged liturgy and rock shows as close relatives. That does not mean that liturgies denominated as “religious” under the normative Christian forms that are influential today, like a formal liturgy or mass, should be seen as interchangeable with an arena rock show. As I tried to argue in an essay called “Liturgy in Media Culture” some ten years ago, and as I still hold, these sites of experience often seem to play different if overlapping functions in people’s lives.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Songs for Japan

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

As many have argued, the overlap of theology and popular music is often a space of new or renewed ethical action. R&T readers, please consider helping donate toward relief efforts in Japan by purchasing the recently-released album “Songs for Japan,” consisting of 38 tunes donated by an array of contemporary artists. You can find it on iTunes, and there is a Billboard story about it here, and via CD through amazon (as of 5 April) here.


A Brief Note on Jeremy Begbie on Music and Theology

Posted in: Christianity,General by Tom Beaudoin on March 28, 2011

This is a followup to Dave Nantais’ recent post here at R&T. In Nantais’ article in America magazine on rock and spirituality, and in his recent book Rock-A My Soul, he cites the work of theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie. I, too, have found Begbie’s work original, exhilarating, brilliant. Through many books and articles, and tireless lectures and performances around the world, Begbie creatively connects musicality and musicianly practice to Christian theology. He typically shows how entering thoughtfully into musical experience affords ways of deepening Christian theological claims. In a word, what music wants to do, as music, is testify to God. What first must happen, though, he shows, is an examination of the practical character of music’s happening. For example, Begbie examines the practice of musical improvisation to observe that that type of musical experience is a “thinking in notes and rhythms; not thinking ‘before’ them, or on to them, or through them[,] but thinking in physical sound—notes, melodies, harmonies, meters.”  Begbie argues that jazz improvisation affords its own style of knowing through a relationship that one takes up to other musicians, to the music itself, and to one’s instrument. Improvisation schools one in the skills of collective artistic creation by linking musicality to dialogue with one’s fellow musicians, to give-and-take, to attentive listening to others, to a sense for the importance of graceful timing in relation to others and to the shared artistic work. He likens this to the experience of the church under the influence of the Spirit.

Begbie has basically started a whole kind of theological field out of his own deeply inventive sense for music’s congruity with Christian doctrine. I have not read all of his works, and with that caveat I still raise my one reservation along the way: that what Begbie’s theology selects and interprets as (high) musical knowledge serves to endorse—not depart from or radically correct—prevailing notions of Christian doctrinal orthodoxy. One might object that this is not “his project,” but then there would still be a need for a kind of correlational-style theology like Begbie’s that had a more strongly historical and practice-based sensibility about both Christianity and musical experience. At any rate, here is Professor Begbie in typically (that is, exceptionally) gracious and learned style:

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

“Festival of Faith and Music” Coming Up

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on March 27, 2011

Just a reminder that in about ten days, the 2011 Festival of Faith and Music gets underway at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Part music festival, part academic conference, there will be presentations on religion and popular music, as well as performances by My Brightest Diamond, Matisyahu, The Civil Wars, and Jon Foreman and Vienna Teng. I’m looking forward to three days of immersion in theology and music, and perhaps I’ll see some R&T folks there…

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Addressing Rock’s Spiritual Significance in America Magazine

Posted in: General by David Nantais on March 27, 2011

I am very grateful for the opportunity to be a R&T contributor.  I have been a fan of this blog since it started and it is exciting for me to be able to participate in the on-going conversation in this unique way.

As a way of easing into my new role, I thought I would share with readers an article I wrote that can be found here in the current issue of America magazine. One can do only so much within in the confines of a 1,500 word essay, so I hope to explore the themes I address in more depth here at R&T.  I welcome any and all comments, disagreements or questions.


Dave Nantais

Detroit, MI


Over at The Middletown Blog, musicologist Chris McDonald has followed up on a post I wrote here at R&T titled “Your Comfort Food Was My Salvation,” about my experience of being freed, through unfashionable nerdy progressive, metal, and “corporate rock,” from much that was small about where I grew up.

McDonald’s entry is titled Corporate Rock and Cultural Capital, and in my judgment is spot-on in his brief rumination on the function of cultured disdain for “lower” pop music forms. Crucial years of my upbringing were poised, in terms of social class, between working-class and middle-class cultures. In the late 1970s through the mid 1980s, I learned AC/DC, Styx, and Rush from the kids who drank or got high (or were at least at home in that milieu) and whose families did not have a history of social advantage, academic aspiration or financial success, on the one hand, and also from the middle-class kids who wore designer clothes, had formally-educated parents, and were college-bound (and who also drank and got high). Socially, at that time, my family was somewhere in between in that mix, sharing in some characteristics of middle-class family life while also sharing in characteristics of a working-class family. It did not take long for me to leave that environment behind (physically, anyway) to realize that the music I thought was important was often thought to be soul-less or uncouth. (One college roommate, who would leaf through the SubPop fanzine and play early Soundgarden and REM records, was tolerant but clearly shocked whenever I popped in a Styx cassette or played a Rush record. And I’m sure he said these words: “Dude, Journey?”) Still, I have never been able to educate those tastes out of me.

My original “Comfort Food” post is here. McDonald’s discussion also reminds me of a fine paper I heard on theology and social class at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting last fall, about which I wrote here.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

“Everlasting Everything”

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on March 24, 2011

Here is the song referenced by Andrew McAlister in a recent comment. This is a version performed by Wilco lead singer and guitarist Jeff Tweedy. See if this song does not create a world and draw you in, even a little.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

I make lists of things to share here at R&T, but sometimes I get way behind. This is an example. I had bookmarked the RockOm site in mid-2009, and just recently returned to it, only to find that it was suspended in late 2009. But the site editors have generously left their material up for all to browse. There are a lot of overlaps with Rock and Theology, and it looks like they contributed a substantial amount of original reportage. There are interviews with Carly Simon, James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Matt Malley (Counting Crows), and much more, allowing the musicians to talk about faith, belief, spirituality, religion, and the like more openly than is typically found in music journalism. And at the bottom of RockOm’s standing homepage, you can access the full original site. They have an impressive storehouse of podcast interviews with musicians here. Though some might find their approach a little too “new age” (read: not rooted enough in specific historical religious traditions and, as a result, too free-floating in their sense for what spirituality might mean) I appreciate their undramatic openness to many religious traditions and the sense on the site that something genuinely new and different is emerging in popular music cultures that is of spiritual significance for both artists and fans… even if that spiritual significance cannot be sufficiently named. Their tack is to try to capture some of its moments and leave us the record. Thanks to the RockOm folks for leaving us this fascinating trove!

And while we’re in this mood: back by popular demand, the most clicked-on video on our site, the mashup of Beck and Sheila Chandra. It was originally featured here in this post from October 2009.

Here is to your own journey…

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

To paraphrase the band Tears for Fears and the sixth century theologian Pseudo-Dionysius, we are “head over heels” lately with new contributors, and I am very happy to announce our newest contributor to Rock and Theology, Dr. Rachel Bundang.

She comes to R&T with a wealth of theological and musical interests and experience. Dr. Bundang earned her Ph.D. in Constructive Theologies, Praxis, and Ethics at Union Theological Seminary (2006).  She is on the Religious Studies faculty at the Marymount School in New York, where she also serves as the director of social justice education.  She teaches and writes in ethics, feminist theologies, and race, religion, and popular culture.  A lifelong musician who still performs when possible, she started as a violinist, then picked up piano, voice, and percussion along the way.  Her tastes are eclectic, but she feels most at home at the intersection of jazz, funk, and hip-hop.

I knew and admired Rachel back in graduate school in the mid-1990s, and our paths have crossed many times since then, from when we both were doing ministry at the Paulist Center in Boston (she in music ministry and me with young adults), to when we both taught for a few years in the Religious Studies Department at Santa Clara University. She recently related to me two snapshots related to her musical past: “My musical formation,” she writes, “includes having played both bluegrass and Beethoven on violin at agricultural fairs as a child, mere inches away from the pigs et al. Now imagine doing this as a Filipino immigrant kid, growing up down South. It only makes it funnier + more surreal.” And she recalls that her “favorite performance moment was rocking out as part of the house band for an event at the Anaheim arena. It was pretty cool to look up, see 10,000 screaming people having a good time, and simultaneously realize that my head was looming large on the jumbotron.”

I look forward to more stories like this, and to what we will learn from her about popular music and theology. Rachel Bundang, welcome!


New EP and Interview with Michael Iafrate

Posted in: General,Interviews by Tom Beaudoin on March 23, 2011

Michael Iafrate, an accomplished musician, a doctoral student in theology at the University of Toronto, and much more — including a contributor here at Rock and Theology — has just released a new EP, “No Matter How Deep the Darkness…”. I just downloaded it, and you can, too (the price is whatever you want to pay).

Iafrate has also just given this interview to West Virginia Rock Scene, discussing his new music and some theological considerations in relationship to it.

Here he is last year with his band, M Iafrate and the Priesthood:

I look forward to writing some reflections on this new EP here at R&T. Congratulations, Michael!

Tom Beaudoin

Ardsley, New York

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