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There was a story that recently appeared on the “Today Show” about a man named William “Bill” Dillon who spent 27 years in a Florida prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He was finally released from prison in 2008 after the Innocence Project had given attention to his case and uncovered evidence that cleared him.
During his time in prison, Dillon taught himself to play guitar; music offered him a means to survival and carried him through 27 years of grief, misery, and devastation. After leaving prison, Dillon continued to play his guitar in celebration of his freedom and eventually was contacted by a music producer who heard his story and wanted to help Dillon record a CD. On May 20, 2011 the title track of his album, “Black Robes and Lawyers,” was released on iTunes.
Dillon’s music, which has been compared to that of Johnny Cash, is truly inspiring. A link to the piece that ran on the “Today Show” is here (in case the video doesn’t work below) and his song can be downloaded on iTunes…there is no doubt that Dillon’s story and music should be heard.
Just a brief post on this lazy Sunday morning in gratitude that the end of the world did not come yesterday.
For the umpteenth time a president of the United States is attempting to initiate a peace process in Israel. The history in this part of the world is much too rich and complex to think that there are any quick-fix solutions. I take comfort, however, in this song by Steve Earle called “Jeruslaem.” Earle’s voice holds authenticity for me–he has seen a lot of pain in his life and yet he can muster the courage to be hopeful without falling into naivete. It would be nice if his hope were infectious.
I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say
And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find
That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem
Well maybe I’m only dreamin’ and maybe I’m just a fool
But I don’t remember learnin’ how to hate in Sunday school
But somewhere along the way I strayed and I never looked back again
But I still find some comfort now and then
Then the storm comes rumblin’ in
And I can’t lay me down
And the drums are drummin’ again
And I can’t stand the sound
But I believe there’ll come a day when the lion and the lamb
Will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem
And there’ll be no barricades then
There’ll be no wire or walls
And we can wash all this blood from our hands
And all this hatred from our souls
And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem
Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on May 20, 2011
Many years ago I met the scholar of contemporary religion Professor Gordon Lynch (now teaching at the University of Kent in the UK), as we had both authored books about young adults and faith in postmodern culture. As our interests have matured (or at least changed!), we have remained friends over the years and happily crossed paths several times on various projects. Now Gordon has edited, along with Jolyon Mitchell and Anna Strhan, a new book on the study of religion in media culture, and I am happy to have been included in it. It is called Religion, Media and Culture: A Reader, and it will be published by Routledge this August. With Professor Lynch’s permission, here are the Table of Contents and Contributors.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Gordon Lynch, Jolyon Mitchell and Anna Strhan
SECTION 1: Religion, spirituality and consumer culture
Chapter 1: Understanding Glastonbury as a site of consumption
Chapter 2: The economies of Charismatic Evangelical worship
Chapter 3: Mecca cola and Burqinis: Muslim consumption and religious identities
Chapter 4: The spirit of living slowly in the LOHAS market-place
Monica M. Emerich
Chapter 5: Burn-a-lujah! DIY spiritualities, Reverend Billy and Burning Man
Chapter 6: Spirituality and the re-branding of religion
Jeremy Carrette and Richard King
SECTION 2: Media and the transformation of religion
Chapter 7: Religion, the media and 9/11
Chapter 8: Why has religion gone public again? Towards a theory of media and religious re-publicization
Chapter 9: The role of media in religious transnationalism
Chapter 10: Religion and authority in a remix Culture: how a late night TV host became an authority on religion
Lynn Schofield Clark
Chapter 11: The angel of Broadway: the transformative dynamics of religion, media, gender and commodification
SECTION 3: The sacred senses
Chapter 12: Scrambling the sacred and the profane
Chapter 13: Material children: making God’s presence real through Catholic boys and girls
Chapter 14: Religious sensations: media, aesthetics and the study of contemporary religion
Chapter 15: Finding Fabiola: visual piety in religious life
Chapter 16: Popular music, affective space and meaning
Chapter 17: Living relations with visual and material artefacts
SECTION 4: Religion and the ethics of media and culture
In response to my post about “Rooster” by Alice in Chains, Michael Iafrate provided an interesting link to a story and accompanying podcast about research undertaken by Prof. Jonathan Pieslak (City College of New York) that describes how U.S. soldiers use heavy metal and hip-hop to get charged up to prepare for armed conflict. Soldiers, he argues, often use music to heighten their aggression and focus, and sometimes to take them out of normal human constraints and put them into a superhuman or “monstrous” mindset. Prof. Pieslak has recently written a book on the topic, Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War (Indiana University Press, 2009).
This is sobering and important research, and I would like to read Pieslak’s book. Several things relevant for theology are at stake here: not only the practices by which people get charged up for war, deadening their resistance and redirecting their desires, but also the fact of popular music’s meanings being found in its use and not only or even mostly in its self-contained lyrical or musical structure, which confounds a great deal of theological analysis that would like to treat music as a more or less ordered text, on the model of textual knowledge in which most theologians are trained (interpret this theological work, gloss that biblical passage, which is to say, eat these words, or in other words, master them). It sounds like Prof. Pieslak’s research is showing us once again how much the meaning of popular music lies in its contextual function and local use, and so the key theological orientation becomes not textual systematicity but rather lived practice, action, performance.
In the podcast interview, he suggests that it is the sonic intensity of metal and hip-hop that makes it so attractive as a preparation for war. None of the soldiers, in other words, are listening to John Denver tunes.
Theologians can inveigh against war or can calculate the terms of a “just war,” but until theology can interpret and make interventions in the way music informs readiness for killing, it will not have addressed the level of everyday development of personae capable of military violence. This is why theology is best done in relationship to critical studies of lived experience and in an atmosphere of curiosity about how persons really get made. Far from the clarification of doctrine and interpretations of scripture that occupy so much of theological life lie the lived theologies and opportunities for academic theology to both learn and intervene, but not until it gains access to the lives of those for whom it is concerned, just as Prof. Pieslak did.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on May 17, 2011
In the warranty for my new Mesa/Boogie bass head and cabinet, I read that the company guarantees support “to every player who depends on us to deliver their musical soul.”
Pondering this while thinking about Michael Iafrate’s response to my post below on popular music and moral formation. More on that soon…
Sometimes I feel we should be doing more at R&T to directly connect up to important world events. The daily news of war and suffering, in particular, frequently make me want R&T to be more “topical.” But at other times I think that our more indirect relation to global realities is about the best we can do, because it contributes in a small way to building a critical consciousness about how to live in the world with a deep attention to desire and a commitment to justice.
But I had war’s traumas in mind lately as I have watched the Alice in Chains video for their song “Rooster,” and have been thinking about the way music videos used to occasionally take on significant moral concerns. (Does this still happen with any frequency?)
As the wiki page for “Rooster” explains, the song was written by guitarist Jerry Cantrell as a way of making some sense of the experience of his father, Jerry Cantrell, Sr., who fought in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Images from the movie “Platoon” are featured in the video. Filmic images of American soldiers and a young boy at their mercy are interspersed with archival footage of suffering Vietnamese people. Wiki also reports that Cantrell’s father was interviewed when they made the video. I take it that this is Cantrell Sr. (nicknamed “Rooster”) speaking at the front of the video.
Veteran father has also joined guitarist son on stage when “Rooster” is played. Here is a video from a couple of years ago from a show in Dallas where this happens:
I don’t know of any research connecting attitudes toward war and its attendant political questions to the viewing of music videos, but I would be curious about this kind of moral formation, especially because videos are a fundamental form of learning in the age of the Internet.
Those R&T readers who are also primary and secondary school teachers may be interested in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum’s Summer Teacher Institute. Here is an excerpt from the website, followed by a link:
The Summer Teacher Institute brings K-12 and post-secondary teachers together with arts education specialists, historians, community educators, curriculum designers, performers and music therapists to learn how to use popular music effectively to teach across the disciplines. Work alongside the Rock Hall’s award-winning education department and explore how you can integrate rock and roll into your own classroom curriculum.
Find out more here:
Reading about this workshop reminded me of an article by David Brooks in the New York Times from a few years back. In this piece Brooks interviews Steven Van Zandt, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Van Zandt laments how contemporary bands do not know the roots of rock and roll or understand its rich history and, as a result, they create poor music, disconnected from the tradition. (Sometimes these accusations ring true to me, at other times they come across like a screed formualted by Allan Bloom and Lester Bangs…but I digress).
Van Zandt would like to create high school lesson plans to teach students about the history of rock. Brooks writes:
Van Zandt has a way to counter all this, at least where music is concerned. He’s drawn up a high school music curriculum that tells American history through music. It would introduce students to Muddy Waters, the Mississippi Sheiks, Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers. He’s trying to use music to motivate and engage students, but most of all, he is trying to establish a canon, a common tradition that reminds students that they are inheritors of a long conversation.
And Van Zandt is doing something that is going to be increasingly necessary for foundations and civic groups. We live in an age in which the technological and commercial momentum drives fragmentation. It’s going to be necessary to set up countervailing forces — institutions that span social, class and ethnic lines.
Music used to do this. Not so much anymore.
This is an interesting idea–one that the R’nR Hall of Fame Museum seems to have picked up on. The notions of a “common tradition” and a “canon” run through religious discourse, touching upon sacred scripture, praxis, worship, and ethical decision making. These themes often, in my experience, frame certain theological questions about what is or is not acceptable for the faithful. This is a theme I would like to develop more, but I am especially curious about what other R&T readers think–please post!
The rest of the Brooks article can be found here:
Posted in: Christianity,News Items by Tom Beaudoin on May 15, 2011
Recently, David W. Stowe wrote an editorial for the New York Times titled “Jesus Christ Rock Star.” Stowe is the author of No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). I have not yet read the book, but found Stowe’s claims in the editorial thought-provoking, although finally not quite convincing.
His basic argument is that Christianity used to be present overtly in popular music in the United States, but that conservative evangelicalism busted that up when it joined its conservative politics to its transmogrification of rock and roll into “praise music” through the “contemporary Christian music” industry in the 1970s and ’80s. Artists who did not identify with conservative religious politics increasingly purged their music of overt religious references so as not to be mistaken (especially by fans) for fellow-traveling with evangelicals. This led to the deep and pervasive “split in popular music between the secular and the godly.”
While this is an important story to unravel, I wanted to problematize the theology operative in Stowe’s account. His argument presumes a certain theological background about what counts as “godly” and what counts as “secular.” He seems to equate references to Jesus as “godly” and the absence of those as “secular.” The difference between the two seems to be whether or not, in his words, Jesus is a “highly resonant symbol.”
I think that the conversation in theology and popular culture is beyond this kind of distinction.
Posted in: Christianity,General,Reviews by Tom Beaudoin on May 11, 2011
Tonight I saw The Book of Mormon, a new musical on Broadway. My initial response is that this is a more theologically interesting show than one might guess from the same guys who created “South Park” (Trey Parker and Matt Stone, now with Robert Lopez).
Recently nominated for 14 Tony Awards, the excitement about the musical was palpable from the generally giddy and generous demeanor of the audience (and from the presence of celebrities in the audience; I sat a few rows in front of Will Ferrell).
The story of The Book of Mormon is on one level fairly straightforward: two young men are very clean, very parochial Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to win converts for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. While there, they find decidedly mixed success in communicating the stories of their faith to the Ugandans, but ultimately both the missionaries and the locals get what they most need out of the encounter.
But on another level, there is a lot of material that is of theological significance in this production. I will just mention two here, without giving away major plot points.
Posted in: Somatica Divina by Mary McDonough on May 11, 2011
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