Theology and Popular Music

When I was preparing for the SBL, I decided that if ever there was a paper that cried out to be delivered on the Goodacre model, it was this. I therefore did not have a handy, full-formed manuscript of my talk available to post right away when I got back from the meeting — just my prompts. I’ve finally transcribed the prompts in the order in which I think they work best, fleshed them out with some of what I might have said,and now present it as the raw material for what might turn out later to be an article or a chapter. I’ll leave the placeholder text from the earliest version of this posting in the block-quote below, and the presentation itself begins after the jump. Eventually I’ll look into links and embedded video for the music to which I refer; oh, and I use curly-braces to designate something that would be a footnote, if only simple HTML were conveniently agreeable to rendering footnotes.

(This is really just a placeholder post. I have to submit copy for a Call For Papers, and I want to make a pointer to the place where I’ll have posted the paper — so I’m leaving this post here, and will come back to put the paper here when I have tim to hammer it into postable shape. At that time, I’ll delete all this stuff and substitute an introductory explanation in the main post, with the draft of my paper in the “below the fold” part. I’m making headway on these things, honest, although people keep popping up with new meetings and tasks that need to be done right away.)



“C’mon Save Your Soul Tonight”:
Toward An Appreciative Theological Criticism In Popular Musics
A. K. M. Adam
University of Glasgow

When Burke Gerstenschlager and I began planning this session more than a year ago, we had evidence of only sporadic engagement between theologians and popular music — and even that sporadic engagement drops off precipitously if we eliminate articles about U2, that one-band lightning rod of theologians’ approbation. Burke and I wished for a richer, more critical discourse of theological critique and appreciation of popular music.
Since our first consultations, Tom Beaudoin of Fordham University has launched the Rock and Theology website and has convened a panel at the AAR with an agenda parallel to our own. An increasing number of younger scholars has begun venturing to engage their vocations as theologians with their avocations as enthusiastic music fans.
Our interest for this session, and for hypothetical sessions and publications hereafter, involve our hope that we all can begin to move from a generally fannish orientation that focuses on catching and making-explicit allusions to the Bible, the liturgy, and theology in popular music (“oh, he said ‘The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost’!”) toward a more critical approach that doesn’t hesitate to deliberate seriously about the theological shortcomings of popular music (though without, I hope, condescending finger-wagging or censorship). Popular music makes far-reaching claims on our attention, our affection, our sentiments, our loyalty, and our resources; theologians ought not be inhibited from noting and questioning aspects of the music we love that conflict with the deepest wisdom of our tradition.
And we ought to be able to do it without glibly tossing around opprobrious epithets such as “heretic,” “pagan,” or “demonic” (though on this last, I will have more to say later).
That being said, the first concern to which I want to draw attention this afternoon is the pervasively painful mediocrity that usually crops up on the few occasions when popular music touches on a theological topic. If we grant that it’s possible to compose appealing music which also accompanies thoughtful theology — and historical experience in and outside the churches suggests the possibility of attaining both goals — it should concern theologians who love popular music that so very little of it reaches beyond triviality to even middle-weight theological deliberation. I was pleased that Joan Osborne brought the topic of incarnational theology into currency in rock music, but disappointed that her single hardly probed beyond asking “What if God was one of us?” — as though two thousand years of christological deliberation could not add anything of value to Osborne’s provocative premise. But if there’s no a priori reason that soul or rock or pop can’t reflect rich theological insight, those of us who care about theology ought to have something to say when the lyrics to our favorite music involve so thin a contact with sound theology.
A second theological problem for theologians to consider involves the stark sexism and racism of the popular music industries. Popular music in the English-speaking world tends overwhelmingly to address women principally as objects of sexual attraction, frequently as disposable problems, and only unusually as performers in their own right (especially not if they decline to cater to the industry’s expectation that they highlight ““sexiness” as part of their act — cf. Carrie Brownstein’s recent column “Britney Spears, Meet Beth Ditto (Please)” at her NPR blog). All of these particulars should bother theologians. A cultural practice that relegates women to the margin, commodifies their sexuality, and then derogates them as nags, betrayers, burdens, and sluts doesn’t make a strong case for its compatibility with theological responsibility.
As with sex, so also with race. If we have, thankfully, emerged from the era of “race records” and bowdlerized cover versions for the white audience, we have not yet entered any utopia of musical color-blindness. Black musicians can rock, and white performers can rap, but the market-niche demographics and radio-station programming still interpellate popular-music listeners as belonging to racially-segregated constituencies. Feel-good collaborations palliate that chronic divide, but the divide persists (and crops up as a topic in such songs as “The Only Black Kid At The Indie Rock Show” by the Cocker Spaniels).
We should have theological concerns about popular music’s frequent, explicit flirtations with diabolism. Even theologians who don’t believe in an ontological Satan have to admit this falls far short of optimal theological wisdom. Even if the performative function of alleged rock Satanism is strictly commercial, even of performers go this way solely in order to shock and affront, affirmations of diabolical forces indicate a problem for theologians.
On a different trajectory of departure from Christian theology, performers’ explicit affirmation of other religions involves particular sets of problems for a theologically-interested audience. Of course, when the performer’s espouses a particular spiritual path seriously, much of this terrain is ably mapped by scholars of interfaith concerns. Still, the appearance of Vedantist or Buddhist or Rastafarian or Voudoun touchstones as integral elements in a musical performance raise some of the challenges that might attend participation in a non-Christian liturgy. What significance do we ascribe to the theologian’s impulse to sing along, “Hare Rama” or “Let Jah be praised”?
A similar problem arises relative to the perhaps more typical problem, wherein the performer and most of the audience have only a dilettantish interest in the spirituality in question. By participating with relish in the consumer commodification of faith as fashion, theologians may trivialize their own faith, or confirm other participants’ sense that religious expressions operate solely at the level of accessorization (though one of my students has opined that to dress is human, to accessorize, divine).
Finally, on this line of consideration, many popular musicians express no commitment to, or explicit antagonism toward, conventional faith, but at the same time enter into (imagined) conversation with theologians. (The most prominent — and usually the least illuminating — examples of this fall into the category of accusations against God: “Dear God” by XTC, for an obvious example). More interesting are exercises such as John Darnielle’s recent album The Life of the World to Come, wherein he assigned titles drawn from biblical books to all the songs — Genesis 30:3, Matthew 25:21, 1 John 4:16, and so on. These songs sometimes quote and reflect on the content to which the titles point (“Philippians 3:23”), but more often he comments only obliquely on the biblical motif (“Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace”). {Note too that the Mountain Goats web forums record more than one long-term participant (“trufans”) who expressed shocked revulsion at the prospect that they might have to go to a Bible Study in order to understand Darnielle’s album.} Or what about Mike Skinner’s proud boast that he “never went to church,” but that “if God does exist, he’d pay me regard” for pushing through the grief of his father’s death?
On a different note, theological criticism of popular music ought to take account of the extent to which the music we enjoy is interwoven in the cultural processes of consumer capitalism. Both in the production, packaging, advertising, and merchandising of recordings and in the execution and promotion of live performances (not to mention endorsements and tangential activities), the discourses of popular music participate fully, exuberantly, in spectacle voyeurism. (Liberace, anyone?) On the other hand, the music has advanced some of the most pointed criticism of this involvement, from the Who’s “Success Story” to Cake’s “Rock’n’Roll Lifestyle”).
Especially, then, in light of popular music’s complicity with consumer capitalism, rock theologies of correlation need to account for their willingness to draw correspondences between the field permeated by the most crass modes of exploitation and commercialism. While this is the sort of question that neo-orthodox theologians stereotypically address to correlation theologies, I suspect it has particular traction in this situation: are all intensities theologically equal?
As the intramural controversies of twentieth-century theology play themselves out in the field of popular music, we might take up some of the hermeneutical implications of our reception of popular music. Does authorial intention, for instance, define the horizon of legitimate interpretations of “Paint It Black”? Or does our deep intuition that there’s more to “meaning” than scruffy hair and two or three chords point to a structural weakness in the prevalent perspectives of hermeneutics? Take, as a case in point, the problematics of cover versions. While a certain stream of thought tends to assign primary interpretive authority to the composer(s) {and even this occludes the roles of producers and arrangers} in determining the “right” way to perform a song, cover versions frequently display otherwise-unimagined aspects of the work. When Nina Gordon sings “Straight Outta Compton,” accompanying herself on a gently-strummed acoustic guitar, is she violating some authorial prerogative? Harming the song itself? Is it even the same song when Gordon performs it?
Consider also the problem of the projected image of faith: “preachers” in popular music are hypocritical, oppressive, fearful and fear-mongering, greedy threats to musical well-being, freedom, and joy (“Sound of the Sinners”). Ecclesiastical institutions (exemplified as “the Vatican,” “the Pope,” or again “the preacher”) epitomize manipulation and coercive spiritual power (“The Seeker,” “Peter Pumpkinhead”). Theological counsel, in the world of popular music, amounts generally to passivity, masochistic embrace of suffering, the suppression of women, and pedophilia. (One would hardly guess, from the field of popular music, that anyone at a CTRF meeting would willingly attend a popular-music concert).
The problem of musicians’ perception of theological faith reflects (and perpetuates) the prevalence of over-simplified litmus-testing in the convergence of these fields. How Christian does a band have to be, in order to be adequately Christian (and for whom)? Performers have been reviled — or embraced — for the extent to which they utter the name Jesus in song, or for allowing the possibility that not all physical expressions of intimacy require the church’s nuptial blessing. We theological authority figures pressed upon music the binary alternative of praising God or embracing the devil, and in so doing we have lost the respect of several generations who know that there’s more to the devil’s music than only debauchery, fornication, perversion, and neglecting your prayers.
And on the other side of the coin, to what criteria of insight would professed non-Christian performers need to measure up in order for us to begin to take seriously their own theological deliberations? Should theologians measure a Vedantist’s spiritual songs by the canons of confessional orthodoxy, and if we alternatively assess their work relative to the standards of the faith they affirm, where (again) does this lead us as Christian theologians?
Too often, until recently, the complexities of this confluence (one might say “clash”) of interests have rendered us mute. While colleagues have already advanced deeply into consideration of the theological dimensions of literature and film, and even the Simpsons have inspired reflective comment from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Theology Department has not been audibly vocal about the spiritual contours of popular music, nor about the ethics and ramifications of our embrace of that form.
Speaking of ethics: from the perspective of theological character ethics, what sort of habituated disposition — what sort of character — do we inculcate by listening repeatedly to “Under My Thumb” and “99 Problems”? As the liturgists say (often with unbecoming glee, when they’re addressing dogmaticians) “lex orandi, lex credendi”; but if singing praises to God builds up sanctity of character and strengthens faith, can I plausibly suggest that singing along to the chorus of “Sex ’n’ Drugs ’n’ Rock ’n’ Roll” doesn’t affect my habituated disposition, the lex of my propensities, at all?
If, as some would quickly say, the question of musical taste “just doesn’t matter that much,” how do we account for the active participation and enthusiastic advocacy of particular performers and performances among theologians? If so important a part of our lives doesn’t matter, what does? If we willfully remain inarticulate about music that speaks to sentiments so deep that we can’t quit it, what does that imply about the superficiality and pejoratively-academic importance of our work?
Since a large part of the aporia in the theological criticism of popular music derives, I would guess, from a sort of embarrassment over caring about musics that our colleagues scorn, we who love the music should ask ourselves about our own integrity {be it noted here that I’m not going out onto any limbs in this essay, concentrating instead on pointing out how underdeveloped the discourse is rather than exposing myself to possible disdain by going out onto any evaluative limbs}. But this suggests, as popular opinion often confirms, that theology is a non-science of prejudices and ecclesiastical power politics. If theology isn’t worth talking about with relation to the soundtrack of our culture and our own lives, we simply confirm our culture’s dismissal of our work as irrelevant to important, practical matters.
Many of the problems I cite in this exploration point directly at us theologians. We have abused our social and ecclesiastical authority in flatly denouncing youth culture. We have neglected to open lines of communication with thoughtful practitioners, such that performers might have the sense that someone interesting, someone who might even have a thing or two to teach them, cares about similar topics, similar touchstones. Musicians have had no pressing reason to consult theologians about what they write into song. Instead, the most visible theological spokespeople have embraced the archetypal role of the high school principal, mostly condemning out of hand the musics of popular culture, but some — the principal who’s trying to show the kids how cool he is — fawning ardently over whatever theological sound bites a songwriter lets drop, without regard to the depth or wisdom or even the truthfulness of the expression.
Can those who love popular music take their identities as theologians seriously enough to admit the possibility that popular music defies theological reclamation? And can those who love theology consider the possibility that the music knows something about God and truth that our propositions and formulas, however lapidary, however solidly-grounded in Scripture, ecclesiastical tradition, and reasoned deliberation, does not know (“How a Resurrection Really Feels”)? If we aren’t willing to open these possibilities to discussion, we probably don’t have the basis for a productive, illuminating, spiritually nourishing discourse. If we’re willing to talk seriously, though, I trust that both parties to the conversation stand to benefit immeasurably. I would love to see it.

7 thoughts on “Theology and Popular Music

  1. Echoing Michael here! It feels like we’ve just stood through the opening act… waiting for the headliner to take the stage…

  2. Interesting to see the Cocker Spaniels reference. I met that guy via email over 10 years ago and we traded handmade cassettes from our lo-fi tape-only labels (yep, tape-only at the time). I’ll have to look him up.

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