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Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving, and… Songwriting?

Posted in: Interviews,Lyrics,Practices by Michael Iafrate on February 24, 2013

For the last couple of years, I have wanted to do some reflection on the practice of songwriting and its connection to the traditional Lenten challenge to grow in one’s “prayer life.” In the course of reflecting on songwriting and/as spiritual practice, it struck me that while there is quite a bit of reflection on rock performance and the analysis of finished songs in discussions of popular music and theology, there seems to be a lack of attention on the practice of songwriting, particularly as it takes place in an “individual” or “personal” mode.

One recent exception is the work of John McClure who has reflected on “song-making” as a source of insight for theological practice. Some of this work touches on what is happening in the songwriter when she is writing a song. McClure writes,

[S]ongwriters are keenly aware that their craft is cathartic, educative, and integrative in relation to their own lives. Writing in and out of a tradition carries with it certain ways of externalizing and dealing with one’s experiences and ideas. Songwriting, therefore, involves a constant reeducation and maturation of the whole person within certain traditions of thought and practice. Writing changes the artist, providing healing, perspective, vision, and qualities of good judgment. Most good songwriters are aware that songs are doing this to them, and how songs are doing it. (John S. McClure, Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention [Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2011], 21)

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Rock and the End of Theology?

Posted in: General,Practices,Theological Production by Michael Iafrate on April 28, 2010

Alongside my various musical projects over the years, I have continued to write acoustic-based “solo” material on the side, putting out “lo-fi” four-track recordings on CD-Rs and cassettes. About five years ago I recorded a new collection of these songs but with a full band made up of longtime friends from various bands in which I have played. Inevitably, because I am who I am, my solo material picks through and plays with biblical and theological themes, though I would never call what I do “Christian rock.”

Last week I started recording a new solo record with the same group of people. This one, tentatively titled Christian Burial, is probably my most explicitly (but playfully) theological group of songs yet. While jotting down ideas for arrangements today, I came across a recent post by James K.A. Smith called “Poetry and the End of Theology” and it has been on my mind as I think about what I am doing with this new album. I’m going to quote the entire post, as it is fairly short:

Theology is not usually home to imagination and creativity. Indeed, the sober vocation of the theologian looks on creativity as a temptation, the lure of novelty as a dangerous seduction. The fuel of theology is not the imagination but the intellect. It traffics not in metaphors but propositions, those terse building blocks of arguments and outlines and doctrines. The republic of theology, like Plato’s city, is built on the exile of the poets whose “fictions” are a dangerous distraction.

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Ashes, ashes

Posted in: General,Practices by Michael Iafrate on February 16, 2010

Despite my involvement over many years in (punk) rock cultures, I’m more of a “Lent” kind of guy rather than a “Mardi Gras” kind of guy. Nevertheless, Lent sneaks up on me every year, and as much as I like this liturgical season, I rarely put in the pre-Lent preparation that I should. So I’m still working out what I’ll be “doing for Lent.”

When we were kids, my mom insisted for many years that we give up listening to music in the car during Lent. I won’t be doing that this time around — it’s a kind of heroic self-denial possibly suitable for Opus Dei folks or maybe John Paul II, but not I! But I will be thinking deliberately over the next day or two about my own music making practices, particularly songwriting, and Lenten observance. More accurately, I’ll be reflecting on the possibility of songwriting as Lenten observance. As a response to the church’s call for greater immersion into a life of “prayer” during this season, this kind of response simply “makes sense” for someone moving within the worlds of rock and theology and whose “life of prayer” does not always wholly fit into the “normal” streams of Christian spirituality.

But more on that later. For now, inspired by Mary McDonough’s reflection on rock and Mardi Gras, but spinning off into my own “Lenty” preferences, here is the first song I thought of this morning when I tried to come up with good “ashy” songs for Ash Wednesday: R.E.M.‘s “Fireplace” from their 1987 album Document. (I couldn’t locate a good YouTube clip of the song, but the link will take you to a Last.fm page that streams the song. Lyrics are after the jump.)

Later, I thought of another: “Love -> Building on Fire” by Talking Heads. What other “ashy” songs are appropriate (or, if you prefer, inappropriate) for the start of Lent?

Michael Iafrate
Morgantown, West Virginia

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