I am looking forward to this year’s annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion for a number of reasons. First, it will be my first time attending the conference and thus marks an important “first” in my theological life. Second, the schedule looks fantastic, and I am looking forward to hearing/seeing some scholars that have been important influences in my studies. Third, this will be my first trip to Montreal despite having lived in Canada for over three years now, and it will be nice to visit there a mere two weeks before we move back to the u.s. of a.
Finally, I am looking forward to a meeting there with some of the other participants in the Rock and Theology project that I’ve hooked up with in recent months. (My most recent post, on the inclusive Christian spirituality of the indie rock band Sunny Day Real Estate, is here.) The project’s blog has generated some interesting reactions, largely positive (“This is a very, very, very interesting project similar to a thousand and one conversations I’ve had over the years”) but also some negative, the latter usually along the lines of “This isn’t real theology” or “Rock music does not belong in the Mass.” The former complaint is usually the result of a very narrow definition of “theology” or a very narrow view of what sorts of culture-making are worthy of theological reflection. The latter, a quite common response to the blog, is simply the result of careless misreading or of superimposing one’s own pet liturgy-war interests onto the project. None of us, from what I can tell, have much interest in arguing for the use of rock music in the liturgy.
R&T project founders Tom Beaudoin (Fordham University) and Brian Robinette (St. Louis University) had a piece published in a recent issue of America Magazine which nicely lays out some of the theological moves being made in their, and our, reflections so far, especially the claim that theology should “foster a Catholic curiosity about rock,” in Beaudoin’s words. From the America piece:
Catholic pastoral and theological circles need to overcome a tendency to engage only “higher” forms of artistic expression, which are ill suited for making sense of the actual musical cultures of people today. Evaluative distinctions like “high” and “low” art seem increasingly anachronistic in a secular age and suggest a suspicion of life’s more visceral dimensions, which rock music explores.
Rock music might therefore be thought of as a teacher of theology, not merely a topic for theological investigation. Such possibilities are evident in its prophetic utterances and invitation to celebration, both of which are sometimes mischaracterized as mere self-gratification. Like much in the Christian tradition, rock music can issue strong denunciations of power through protest, while simultaneously affirming the joy of life as though it were one great open-air festival.
That rock music is capable of excesses in both kinds of impulses should not keep theology and ministry from a patient curiosity about the spiritual lives of the many who make secular music an important part of their lives.
So, some questions to throw out to Vox Nova readers: First, despite the obvious role that music plays in our spiritual-religious lives, what is it about intentional reflection on the theological significance rock music and experience that generates such resistance — or even hostility — in particularly Catholic circles? Second, while admitting that there are no doubt many superficial “theologies of pop culture” in circulation these days (The Gospel According to Oprah/Disney, I’m looking at you), let us assume that the “high”/”low” culture distinction has been exposed for the nonsense that it is and ask a) what is it that makes for quality theological reflection on popular culture and b) what are some good examples of this kind of theological reflection?