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The “Rock and Theology” project got its start in the spring of 2007, when a theologian friend sent me a link from “Whispers in the Loggia,” to a story about Notker Wolf, then the head of the Benedictines, a Catholic religious order. There was Wolf, strumming an electric guitar with right hand, left hand a-swashing the neck forth and back, face full of focus and a drum kit off his right shoulder. Oh, yes, that’s definitely an atypically liturgical shade of concert orange sidelight shining onto him and the kit, as well. And that cowl—so exceedingly metal! As a cohabitor of Catholicism, rock music, and theology, as a devotee of loud sounds shaken out of guitars under auburn lights, I could hardly breathe. What face of rock was this? I felt in this picture a strange, uncontrollable, entrancing, and consoling beckoning.

I soon learned that Notker Wolf lives not only in the spiritual atmosphere of Sant’Anselmo in Rome, but of his own rock band, Feedback. This was all too much for me and seemed to spell out an opportunity for integrating much that I cared about. I had been playing bass guitar in rock bands since 1985 (starting in Christian bands, and then off to secular bands by the late 1980s), had been raised Catholic, and had finished a PhD in religion and education at Boston College in 2001. Since then, I’d taught theology at BC, and then at Santa Clara University (and am now at Fordham University). I knew that I was called to an academic theological vocation, but had stayed connected to the rock scene wherever I lived, and played in bands where I could, all the while living the life of a rock fan: going to shows, listening to music, keeping up with music news and online fan discussions.

Immediately after the defense of my doctoral dissertation, I went to get my ear re-pierced and found a rock show that night, as a way of reminding myself what I thought my life should be about. And as I have gotten deeper into academic life, staying in the rock world and playing in rock bands has only become more important for me. I’ve been in more bands since I started teaching college than I was in all my years before. It became impossible to tell whether I was, at my core, more rabid for theology or for rock, and this mutual imbrication began to show up more and more in my theological publications—and in my rock playing and songwriting. More and more of my academic and musical production was beginning to center on the cultural register of theological experience: appreciating what it means to think theology as a cultural (and secular, and musical) practice, and how cultural (secular, musical) practices come to be experienced as theological.

Hello, Livermore! With Speedwalker, 2007

Hello, Livermore! With Speedwalker, 2007

So that Notker Wolf picture activated something in me. I knew other theologians who were also practicing rock musicians, and I wondered how they held it all together. How did they live in both “secular music” and “sacred theology”? I thought it would be worth trying to see what a deeper integration of rock and theology might feel like.

Following the Benedictine thread, I contacted Liturgical Press, a venerable Catholic publisher, operated under the aegis of the Benedictines. Might they be interested in a project like this, where theologians who rock talk about what it means for them to live simultaneously in these worlds, how we use theology and music to work out how these identities hold together, and what that holding together has to say to other people who are trying to hold together, or to work through, or to deal with, to transcend, or to rescend, spiritual/sacred and secular/worldly identities?

Happily, Liturgical Press wanted to sponsor the conversation. We did an initial scan for theologian-rock musicians, and from that group, invited a few for a weekend of rock-making and theologizing in Collegeville, Minnesota, at St. John’s University, where “Lit Press” is located. That whole process surfaced several terrific people, about whom hopefully you will be hearing more in the future.

But it surfaced one remarkable theologian and rock drummer named Brian Robinette, headquartered at Saint Louis University, who immediately “got” the project and started to take it in more percussively aware and systematic-theologically grounded ways. (How’s that for a rhythm section complement to a bassist who is a practical theologian?) We asked this Doctor Fundamentalis to come aboard on what we were by then calling the “Rock and Theology Project.” And from this has sprung camaraderie, theological and musical, around our shared passions. We knew we were in sync the first time we spent two hours exploring the theological significance of Yes lyrics. Theological biographies confirm what the life-cycles of bar bands demonstrate: both the theological life and the rock life thrive on friendship.

This “Rock and Theology” blog is the first fruit of this project. And there’s more to come. We hope the blog will be a place to ask how faith and culture constellate, how contemporary social embodiment comes to be spiritual-religious, by cycling through the cultures of rock and theology. To discover new pleasures in theology and secular music, however difficult the lessons of those pleasures for what we thought theology and rock had to be. And to test, as a blog, the virtues of the ephemeral for all of us who live engulfed by the worldly and the spiritual.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

4 Comments »

  1. Your project is interesting. What I find compelling about rock music in general, is the access to tremendous sound generated by just a few people, the sensory overload experience of the stadium concert, and the long history of protest in rock music, in lyrics and in soundscape, against an established and comfortable status quo.

    In our lives, we experience sound, and “music”, continually – to the effect that muzak and music in advertising and watered-down melodies to ordinary words inoculate us against the phenomenon of vibration and the electric magic when words and sound meet in insightful collision as well as harmony. In rock music, with the definitive meter anchoring all musical and lyrical elements together and the amplified instruments capable of extreme, non-daily sounds, we are given a chance to jolt ourselves out of passivity and into a world of awakened senses.

    By the same token, true silence – and the transcendent melody of the solo sax player who practices in the open air along Poet’s Walk in Central Park – also serve to use sound (and its pregnant shadow of silence) to move us into the extraordinary.

    Music – sound – is an organizing principle. Vibrations find correspondence in most mediums, including the human body (80 percent water? something like that?). So being “in the pocket” (one of you mentioned this in one of the postings) is a pretty special, spiritual place. Completely in the world, the moment, the music, the self and others – what Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi would call a “flow” experience – and also out of this world entirely.

    P.S. I’m a singer, who once fronted a rock band a lifetime ago…

    Comment by Lisa — January 30, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

  2. Tom,

    I have an idea for an argument I am gearing up to write, vis-à-vis the heady topics of moral resistance, moral struggle–and their grounding in obedience—quote-unquote—a four-letter word to the post-modernist ear if ever there was one.

    That is, after having read several Day bios, uploaded the Day interviews, reflected—again—upon her world-view (Husserl’s Weltanschauung), and, possibly most crucially, having reconsidered Berrigan’s comments upon the Church hierarchy somewhat disingenuously co-opting Day (something to the effect, “they’ve got her there all gussied up…”), the thought occurred to me that the issue of obedience would gain from some much-needed analysis.

    “Obedience to what?” you may ask. For example, with the issue of conscience and authority, did not Aquinas argue NOT that the reflective Self would do well to follow his conscience in matters of moral deliberation—for example, prior to a decision in a weighty matter—but, rather, that he is OBLIGATED to follow his conscience, i.e., an INFORMED, conscience, engaged in struggle to ascertain the right choice, yet even abjuring authority when necessary—and, CHURCH authority at that.

    So, having established that ground, does the all-important role of obedience have more fluid boundaries than one might first suspect? More to the point, what I’m getting at is this:

    Perhaps owing to her identity as a convert to Catholicism, Day enjoyed—and assiduously maintained—a healthy, objective distance to the Church, i.e., specifically, to Church AUTHORITIES. And, she might be the first to argue—along with Aquinas—that this distance is de rigueur in order for the authentic moral Self to emerge. For example, individual “morality” implies, inter alia, a series of choices made during the course of one’s life. And, what is choice if not an act undertaken in FREEDOM. And, to the degree that freedom is “meddled” with, morality-via-choice becomes corrupted, adulterated, and even non-existent. Again, we’re talking about the INFORMED conscience of the reflective (i.e., thoughtful) Self, and most definitely NOT, e.g., a casual, reckless, decision made without due deliberation.

    What I’d like to undertake is a look at obedience—specifically, Day’s obedience—to the Church in light of comments made—and, more crucially, acts undertaken—by the Berrigans. Dan has not been shy about his disdain for the lack of involvement—”official,” Church involvement—in matters of grave concern to the peoples of the world. Dan and Dorothy must have had dialogues about the matter of the Church in State affairs—so-called. I’m speaking here of moral, non-violent disobedience. But, Day’s “criticisms” of her Church did not stop there. For example, she was adamant about the dire need—both moral and practical—of divestment of Church property in the service of equity to the poor, not only in NYC, but throughout the world. How is that being an “obedient” Catholic—i.e., obedient in the way that many—most?—of the bishops would like to have observed?

    So, where does that involve TB? I’d like to get in touch with Dan Berrigan and invite him to address anew—e.g., in light of a new generation considering their role in Empire—the Catholic’s role vis a vis Empire (e.g., our funding of Operation Cast Lead). And, specifically, his thoughts on Day as an “obedient” Catholic—or, more likely, someone who was often a thorn in the side of the Church—including the archdiocese of NY, her own town—by, e.g., her remarks about the absolute necessity of divestment of Church property. And this, for the sake of the poor, yes, but not only in a practical sense, but for the possibly more compelling effect it would have upon the “conscience” of the Church as a whole, i.e., its members—and, the encouragement—the moral EMPOWERMENT—it would provide to ACT.

    A Church—and, particularly the Catholic Church—implies leadership. No leadership—or vague leadership, or seemingly contradictory leadership—and the Church suffers, i.e., ALL of us.
    For example, what would it have taken, e.g., for the Holy See to announce to all U.S. Churches on Sunday, January 15th, 1967 (a random date), that, enough is enough, all Church members—within each parish—are forthwith asked to engage its parishioners and go to DC to protest EN MASSE this crime against humanity known as the Viet Nam war? Where was the Church, man? Dan was there. Phil was there. So was Day. But where was the Church—en masse?

    We, the members of the Catholic Church, if only via sheer numbers, are a force to reckon with. That is, we could shut DC down—SHUT IT RIGHT DOWN (non-violently, of course), without even breaking a sweat, until we get one (or more—or all) of the following:

    1) the cessation of the slaughter of the innocents in Gaza

    2) overturn of Roe v. Wade

    3) the cessation of the slaughter of Pashtuns via drones—i.e., pull out of Afghanistan as quickly as we pulled out of Saigon in those last few days

    3) disinvolvement with Israel

    4) the calling to heel of the investor class in this country, and the concomitant investment in the labor class—via, e.g., a doubling of the minimum wage ( Nader argues that it it absolutely doable)

    etc.

    If only the Church would lead. Or, at the very least, not lead astray.

    Tom—I need to get in touch with Dan about these matters. If I promise not to abuse the privilege would you feel comfortable making inquiries as to his e-mail address and provide it to me?

    Dean Taylor

    Comment by Dean Taylor — January 30, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

  3. A little bit psycho…a little bit Western…a little bit theological. The raucous side of God as reflected in music of The Frontier Circus.

    Comment by Jay McDaniel — December 8, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

  4. Revisiting Elvis Presley in light of a Whiteheadian understanding of God.

    Comment by Jay McDaniel — December 8, 2011 @ 7:59 pm

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