What I am really talking about here is the way that music has a powerful way of putting together human identity for individuals and groups. Music is a kind of glue that helps different aspects of identity stick together and endure. Many dimensions of experience are tutored an shaped by popular music cultures: who we are racially and ethnically, what we take ourselves to be in terms of gender and sexuality, where we belong generationally, spiritually, and more. One way of talking about this powerful role of music is to use the notion of “subjectification”, which means “subject-making,” where the “subject” is the human subjectification, we are pointing to the ways in which who- and whose – we take ourselves to be are deeply influenced by, and substantially implanted in, the ways that we are persuaded to count certain things as being “real” and mattering more than other things. This persuasion happens through the hidden curriculum” of our families, schools, religious institutions, and larger social environment, including our media, and especially including the music that influences and/or comes from “the people” – “popular music.” – Tom Beaudoin, “Introduction”, in Beaudoin, ed., Secular Music & Sacred Theology, p.xi.
It is with something like a combination of thankfulness, awe, and trepidation that I begin this precious Christmas gift from my wife, Secular Music & Sacred Theology. The editor notes there is a blog entitled Rock and Theology. In fact, there was such a blog, it’s last post being just over a year ago, January 1, 2014. Which figures, really. After all, I’m the guy who really started getting in to The Grateful Dead six years after Jerry Garcia died.
Which, at the end of the day, is neither here nor there. Perhaps their blog ended. Perhaps part of the fruit of their labor was finding a publisher for the book I’m reading. None of that means, however, that the traces they’ve left behind cannot be mined. After all, this is precisely the journey I’ve set myself upon, perhaps been on before I even knew it. The importance of music in human life cannot be something God does not use to “speak” to us, regardless of whether we label it secular or sacred. In the essays in this book, if nothing else, I might find both wrong and right paths to pursue, even as I continue to push forward to explain, if to no one else then at least myself, how this is.
Beaudoin’s introduction begins largely where I do: Music is something vital that shapes human life. What he does not say is that the separation of music – and culture in general – from our everyday life is the result of historical forces that should also be part of our theologizing about music. Particularly we in the west live in a place and time in history where “music” has become a product rather than something that informs human life in the most literal sense: giving it shape and substance and meaning. I keep thinking about the anecdote Dan Levitin uses near the beginning of his book This Is Your Brain On Music. A colleague of his was studying a society in Lesotho, a small nation in southern Africa. Early in his time there, he was invited to join in a community festival that included singing. Levitin’s friend demurred, insisting that he cannot sing. The people in the village looked at him as if he had just confessed that he could not breathe; for them, singing was as natural and normal as our bodily functions. For us in the west, however, music has become something with a set of criteria that, if not met, does not exist.
For all the limits placed upon music by what cultural critic Theodor Adorno calls “the Culture Industry”, music persists as a way we interpret, understand, and move through our life in this world. Particularly in a secularized society such as our own, it can help – along with art, the novel, architecture, and even the human sciences – shape our lives as a substitute for religion that no longer has broad social or cultural cache. All the same, there continue to be people of deep religious, specifically Christian, faith. Living in two worlds, as it were – the one shaped by our largely secularized society and its values and limitations, the other shaped by our sense that God has acted in this world in a unique way in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – contemporary theologians have been and continue to struggle to make sense of what it means not only to be a Christian in this strange, irreligious, pluralistic context as well as see and hear and feel even in the midst of the insouciance of so much of our cultural products the still, small voice of God; the vision of grace and truth; and the flow of the Spirit moving even where its very existence is denied.
Beaudoin makes clear care must be taken when criss-crossing these boundaries. At the same time, while naming the dangers of capitulation, interpretation, and liberation (pp. xxi ff), he turns these criticisms back around on the critics (pp. xxii-xxiii):
All three characterizations of the theology-culture dynamic (capitulation, interpretation, liberation) tend toward a violent special pleading. By this, I mean that they impose theological restrictions on reality by force of a vindication of a certain selective enforcement of ideas and practices that make one Christian. This is what Daniel Boyaris calls “christianicity” – Christianity as a kind of display of identity in a certain time and place, as an experience of being trained to recognize one’s essential Christian-ness as resident in beliefs and practices in an over-against relationship with Christianity’s “others.”
Beaudoin proposes, rather, a completely different way of understanding what it is the authors of the essays in this collection are attempting (p. xxiii):
I propose that we can understand theological work on culture as a pragmatic rehearsal. A notion of pragmatic rehearsal does not aim to put to rest all these conundrums, but places itself within and across the lines of rhetorical force already at work in the other approaches. By pragmatic rehearsal, I am suggesting a theory of the performance of academic theological knowledge: that theological work is a kind of dynamic, performed knowing, and to enact it is to operate intellectually and materially, with situational tools, on a cultural nexus of significance, and from an awareness contingently denominated “theological,” for the sake – and with the effect – of a conscious and unconscious intervention in practice.
After defining both “pragmatic” and “rehearsal”, Beaudoin turns the charge of “ephemeral” and “transient” around on critics of those who do theology and popular culture. In a way, it is little more than restating Karl Barth’s famous dictum that all theology is prolegommena: “[S]tated differently, such reflections [i.e., on secular music and sacred theology] show that the larger theological community’s analyses are no less theologically ephemeral and culturally transient than what “theology and popular culture” research discovers.” (p. xxiv) Such a counter-offensive apologetic strategy, stated so baldly, putting the onus for claims of capitulation in particular upon those making them, is a good way to begin a study such as this. It puts readers, both appreciative and critical (and, in the end, even the most appreciative should be critical) on notice that, regardless of whatever they might think as they read what follows, it is offered both with theological seriousness and deep faith, entry points for people to begin to think both critically and creatively about our contemporary culture and Christian faith. The only difference I would make is to insist that this is not, or at least should not be, the role solely of academic theological specialists, but rather is the on-going task of the whole church during each moment of its life.
We are always to engage in pragmatic rehearsal, living our dynamic, performed knowing with the full knowledge that, regardless of the impact it might have upon us and other like-minded persons, it is no less passing, no less a product of its time than that of any other theological product. The difference, at least for me, is that this is our task at this time. It is one we should do both in full knowledge of its contingency and with full faith in its seriousness.