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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


I’ve found that the advantage of changing musical technologies as an adult is an ability to appreciate what is being lost and gained, and how the patterns of life get rearranged in the process. And because I anticipate that this will happen, I’m reluctant to make the change. Perhaps also because my bent toward life is more meditative and slow-turning rather than readily adaptable. The way I inhabit the rock world in particular and everyday life in general is colored by my taste for the monastic life. During a period in my life when I was more free to go away on retreats on a regular basis, I often chose Benedictine monasteries. The vow of stability speaks to something about finding what poet Mary Gordon describes as the call “announcing your place in the family of things,” the consolation of consolations, a place in this world. (Christian rock association: remember this tune from Michael W. Smith? It deserves a separate entry here, and it shall have one.)


The Dionysian spirituality in which I have been schooled from Foucault and Certeau to Van Halen


to Lacuna Coil


has somehow found a resonance with the Benedictine zest for plantedness.


(And I mean more than the Benedictine often “planted” backstage at rock shows.)

Perhaps this particular way of holding Socratic atoposness in a through-line of releasement, that I call the house of dispossession, this is one reason that Ignatius Loyola and his more radical interpreters have been of interest to me over the last fourteen years in which I’ve been involved in Jesuit higher education.


This afternoon, I went with my family to the Big Apple Circus in Boston, set up near the waterfront at Government Center. It was mostly for my 3-year old daughter, but no circustastical event is something from which I can fail to take pleasure. Circuses are just the bomb, theologically: In the rough (and needlessly romanticized) edges of carny life, in the fantastical rituals of circus gender play, in the illogical parade of scenes of circus oddities, where better to go to quickly inhale the antinomian, ready-made? And where else can a theologically-minded person so effortlessly return to the wilds of a non-anthropocentric world, where animals are as important as humans, taking on human tricks and bearing human roles in the circus story, making it possible to re-enter the strange and continuing relevance of the medieval Christian bestiary? Indeed, the circus can be theologicum gymnasium.

And the clowns — don’t let them make themselves the kinds of fools that don’t matter. Because as some very old Christian theology knew, and as Harvey Cox’s book Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy first taught me, Jesus has been pictured as foolish from the Christian scriptures forward, and Christ the fool or clown continues — to the embarrassment of many — to reappear in the tradition at interesting intervals.

There were of course clowns who provided a through line for the show, popping up between acts to comment, divert attention, and create plots amidst all the juggling, trapezing, horse-acrobaticizing heterogeneity. As theories of carnival and christology both submit to us, though, the clown is rarely just clowning around. Their “foolishness” bears its own significance in putting the larger context “in relief.”

Late in the show, one of the main clowns, a short and sturdy fellow with baggy trousers, slicked brown hair and the kind of oversize eyeglasses that you might have seen on the streets in 1985, bounded into the ring and played a little air guitar for the crowd (with the real guitar being played with meaty shine by the guitarist in the house band). The house lights came all the way down, the blue, red and pink concert lighting surrounded him, and several white spotlights kicked on. As this happened, a substantial drum riser was wheeled into the ring, with what was quickly revealed to be a real rock and roll drummer on the throne with shaved head and goatee, who played several rock drum solos as part of a call-and-response with the air-guitaring clown.