Pop Prophets and Religious Pluralism

Pop Prophets and Religious Pluralism

A review by Jim Burklo of NATURAL MYSTICS: The Prophetic Lives of Bob Marley and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan by Varun Soni (Figueroa Press: 2014)

Waves of wailing falsetto lifted Rama’s holy name above the reedy voice of the harmonium and the steady beat of hands clapping and palms sliding on the tabla.  “Sanson Ki Mala Pe” sounded like the very stereotype of Indian spiritual music, to ears untrained like mine.   But the song was a powerful expression of religious pluralism in a part of the world where it remains in short supply.  The Urdu lyrics praise Rama, an Indian manifestation of God, and were performed by the world-renowned “qawwali” musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a Pakistani Sufi Muslim who died in 1997. “Someone’s beloved lives in a temple while another’s lover is in a mosque… I am incapable of anything else but to love the name of love…”  It’s a haunting love song to the Name known by many names.

Khan’s popularization of the song was prophetic, an expression of divine truth to human power. India and Pakistan are locked in an ongoing blood feud.  “Hindutva” radical religious nationalism animates millions on one side and an increasingly hyper-orthodox Islam feeds xenophobia on the other.  In this context, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a brave man for singing praise to Sri Ram.

Bob Marley sang truth to power, and took a bullet for it in 1976.  He sang one love while two rival political parties, which were more like gangs, struggled for control of Jamaica.  He survived to keep singing a Biblical vision of Exodus from oppression. His countercultural lyrics and lifestyle turned heads around the world, invigorating the souls of American blacks seeking equality, of Africans throwing off the chains of colonialism, and of freedom-yearning young people everywhere – then and now.

My boss, Varun Soni, Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, wrote about these two icons of world music in his doctoral thesis in religion a few years ago.  Since then, he was awarded his PhD by the University of Capetown, and now his work has taken the form of an engaging new book: Natural Mystics.

Varun Soni argues that Khan and Marley, among other artists at present and in the recent past, situate themselves in long lineages of religious prophecy while expressing prophetic traditions in distinct ways that reflect cultural globalization and technological advances.  Music is a more powerful medium for prophecy than ever before, now that it has the potential for instantaneous global reach.  Varun names this phenomenon “pop-propheticism”, characterized by canonical recitation (referencing ancient lines of prophetic utterance), mystical intoxication with the Divine (whether through spiritual practices or by ingesting mind-altering substances), musical fusion (stretching traditional musical boundaries to reach new audiences), media proliferation (taking advantage of new and emerging communication channels), economic commodification (making the most of the global musical marketplace), and political appropriation (putting music consciously in the service of social change).

Pop-propheticism, by its very nature, presses ahead for religious pluralism.  Musical fusion is both cause and consequence of an inner theo-dynamic fusion that makes light of the boundaries between traditional faiths – even as its spiritual validity is drawn from old faith traditions. 

In 1977, when I was in seminary, I worked in a church in San Rafael, CA.  There I befriended a new member.  His name was Ben Burtt, and he’d just moved from the Midwest to take the job as the sound designer for a filmmaker named George Lucas who was making a movie called Star Wars.  I asked Ben to tell me the plot of the film, and when he did, I felt sorry for him.  “Poor fellow,” I thought, “he’s been recruited all the way to California to make a grade-C sci fi flick!”  He asked me to help him record some sounds for the film, and also for his collection of noises, by getting him in to the seminary’s big stone chapel and bell tower.  (In the echoing chapel, he recorded me saying “Main launch tubes open, sir!” – and I can’t be sure if it’s my voice, but those words are spoken in the movie toward the end when the fighters take off to blow up the Death Star.)  Ben collected noises of all kinds on his fancy Swiss reel-to-reel tape recorder.  He filed the reels in boxes lined up neatly in his apartment.  “All the sounds in the movie have to be from the real-world environment,” he told me.  “I speed them up, run them in reverse, alter them in all sorts of ways.  But the basic sound has to be real in order for your ear to believe it.”

So it may also be with the mash-ups of religious traditions that pop-prophets compose.  They don’t start from scratch.  Their mysticism makes them heretics, but not of the sort that create religions out of thin air.  Bob Marley was outrageous in his sound, his lyrics, and his presentation – but he was believable because it was all rooted deeply in the familiar language of the Bible.  (See more about this in my “musing” from several years ago, The Bible and Bob Marley.)  Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sang the classical qawwali music handed down through generations in the land now known as Pakistan.  That made his musical contributions to Indian Bollywood scores believable, even as he bent all the expectations of his religious culture.  Pop prophets make the amazing credible, because they compose it from elements heard before. 

Pop-prophetic musicians take religious pluralism beyond tolerance and even beyond mutual exploration and admiration.  They take it to the place that the Sufi poet, Rumi, described in one of his verses: 

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

JIM BURKLO
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM    Weblog: MUSINGS    Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See a video interview about my new novel, SOULJOURN
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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About Jim Burklo

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. An ordained United Church of Christ pastor, he is the author of three books in print, OPEN CHRISTIANITY (2000), BIRDLIKE AND BARNLESS (2008), and HITCH-HIKING TO ALASKA: THE WAY OF SOULFUL SERVICE (2013). See more about him at jimburklo.com .


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