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August 2014
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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.

There is a body of research out there about academics who come from the working class into scholarly life, and the education into social class that that involves. Theology has yet to resource that work. It would help, because the tastes that govern academic theological culture are so saturated by implicit class judgments, from the kind of musics that are valorized, to ways of reading that are recommended, to moral practices that are advocated, to methods that are defended. We have not even begun to understand what this means for theology.

Falcone’s paper put me in mind of a post I wrote here at R&T a while back, titled “Your Comfort Food Was My Salvation.” In it, I wrote about how the “corporate rock” of the 1980s was so important to the ways I (and many others!) have gotten more free in life, despite educated taste running directly against that music. This of course does not mean surrendering critical approaches to this music and the cultures that have it as part of their everyday lives, but it does reframe those criticisms as invested in class-based conversations. (Warrant and Bon Jovi are good examples of bands whose music and fan cultures run against educated musical and theological taste.)

Which theologies speak from and for those who speak the language of Warrant and Bon Jovi? And yet people make their lives, with some measure of hope and dignity, in relationship to such music. Many theologies can hardly stand to hear this.

Attention to such realities provides a way that theological work on secular music can make a critical intervention in the broader ways that theology thinks it is proceeding.  And it would also help present race and raciality in theology to the awareness of (especially white) theologians, who need not only social class theories but also concomitant race theories for the production of theological knowledge. Any serious look at rock will make the theologian deal with liberation, however incomplete, through the tastes of those who will appear to the cultured Western academic theologian to be “uncultured.”

Tom Beaudoin

Atlanta, Georgia

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