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October 2017
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There is an enjoyable review of Van Halen’s new album, written by the rock critic Chuck Klosterman, making the appreciative rounds among friends of mine, guys who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s under the tutelage of — speaking of rock and theology — “Running with the Devil.” For many of us, Van Halen is like an old friend we are very happy to hear from now and then, because we savor some good memories, although maybe we don’t want them back in our lives on a regular basis.

Van Halen is back with a new album, A Different Kind of Truth, and a new single, “Tattoo.” This is your cue to crank it. (Does David Lee Roth forget the lyrics at 1:20?)


I first encountered Klosterman’s writing in the 1990s when he wrote rococo reviews for Spin magazine, turning rock writing into a David-Foster-Wallace-like smorgasbord of elite intellectual references interleaved with low-culture minutiae, with his own transferences to the music somehow always the half-secret topic at stake. I remember laughing out loud on the Boston subway while reading his first book, Fargo Rock City, and sensing that a new kind of writing, unapologetically fan-centric and insouciant toward genre, was emerging. In Klosterman’s passion for hard rock and metal, I could identify with what I have called (in this R&T post) the conviction that rock’s musical “comfort food” can be a salvation.

As Klosterman’s review of the new VH album circulated among my friends, I thought about how the high and even nerdy degree of rockish literacy he exemplifies in this review, and in all his works, speaks to a new kind of literacy that has emerged in the last few decades, focused on pop culture materials.

Here is one VH song that helped inspire a million little Klostermans:


There is a story line emerging in some influential sociology of religion research today, that has been picked up by many religious institutions, that the post-1960s generations are essentially religiously illiterate. A chief pastoral task, it is argued, lies in cultivating religious literacy among highly secularized youth, young adults, and now


Recently I read Steve Almond’s new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (Random House, 2010). I first became aware of Almond as an inviting writer on popular culture with the publication of his My Life in Heavy Metal (Grove, 2002) (which wasn’t really about heavy metal, but did have some rock content). (Disclosure: My extended family is friends with Almond’s extended family.)

This book reminded me of Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City in that it tells a man’s story of his addiction to rock, of the ways in which rock music and rock culture can create an entire habitat for experience, can show ways of making sense of the world, can give clues about a surprisingly sizeable array of what might matter about not only adolescence but adulthood — all while, as Klosterman and Almond show — rock culture allows for irrational, retrograde, and regressive behaviors, providing a space for allowing them to be explored and indulged.

Almond’s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is of particular interest to theologians because of its potentially theological metaphor of having one’s life “saved.” Almond indeed gives way to many religious and theological analogies and metaphors throughout his report on what it has felt like to be what he calls a “Drooling Fanatic” toward popular music for the better part of his life.

Especially for those who have a taste for the indie, alternative, and mainstream rock, pop, and metal scenes of the 1970s through the 1990s, Almond’s tastes and stories will likely bring a smile to your face, and perhaps — as it did for me — make you laugh out loud more than a few times. (“Styx,” he argues, “has become the mullet of bands.”) His many “exegeses” of pop songs are almost worth the price of admission. (“What is [Yes’] Tales from Topographic Oceans about? It is perhaps more efficient to discuss what it is not about.”)

So too are the places in the book where he works carefully through some of his feelings about rock and produces paragraphs worth pondering — for theologians as well as rock fans. For example, he writes of the spiritual dimension of being a fan of pop singers: “the powerful fantasy that a divine voice lurks within all of us, ready to liberate all our liabilities and doubts and transform us into the stars we know ourselves to be” (p. 9). Another example: fans tend to choose songs “that induce [a] kind of weirdly gratifying identity crisis” in the hearer, foregrounding roles we can inhabit that are parts of our own past or present.

It is gratifying to read a good writer discussing the emotional importance of popular songs, such as when Almond writes