Christian Scharen, “Secular Music And Sacramental Theology”

The word and sacrament of pop music gospel, sung and played for the sake of the gathered assembly of believers, . . .a place where time shifts to no time and one can join in a communal experience of music with body and soul.  This is not, of course, to say that these artists offer traditional Christian theological perspectives in general, let alone on preaching and sacraments.  Yet the combination of the fact they they all describe their work in religious terms and that their performance offers variations of “transcendent” experience sets up my discussion of Charles Taylor’s notion of “the festive” and its religious role in culture, mostly now lost, but perhaps returning through such live pop music performance. – Christian Scharen, “Secular Music and Saramental Theology”, in Beaudoin, ed. Secular Music and Sacred Theology, p.99

Back at the beginning of December, standing in the cold and wind waiting to get in to a concert, a woman walks by with her two malamutes.  Suddenly, these two dogs become the center of attention as she passes down the line.  People step forward to chat with her, to pet the dogs, who vie for attention.  When she reached where I was standing, I was no different, yet I couldn’t help but think about the surrealism of that moment.  I said, “Look at us!  A bunch of metal heads waiting to see a death metal band and we’re all, ‘Oh, look at the doggies!  Come here doggies!'”  It works better if you imagine that I went falsetto for that last bit.   Several people laughed, and the folks standing in front of me started talking about their dog and I started to talking about Dreyfus.  Yet, it still seems so incongruous to me.  People in leather, people smoking dope, people in t-shirts for Opeth, for Slayer, for other bands like Morbid Angel, people talking about their experiences in mosh pits, yet for this brief moment, we stepped out of our preparation for the show to come and became just who we are: People.  Fathers and sons and brothers and mothers and daughters and sisters.

Concerts are more than just a chance to hear music.  They are events.  As noted above, part of preparing for the event is the clothes you wear.  Another part might be altering one’s consciousness a bit through alcohol or marijuana. Another part is sharing with others your experiences at other concerts.  It’s all part of the process of getting ready to walk in the door, and head as fast as you can to be as close as you can so that when the music starts you are present, body and brain.  A three hour show takes its toll physically and mentally, but at the end you don’t feel tired.  You feel exhilarated, as if you have just shared, with 1500 strangers, a special moment together.

This “special moment together” is at the heart of Scharen’s article.  Taking off from philosopher Charles Taylor’s notion of “the festive”, Scharen locates “the festive” for modern and post-modern westerners in the shared musical experience of the live concert event.  He further notes that, we in the secularized west having largely lost the religious reasons for distrusting “the festive”, have carried our suspicions of such moments over to our attitude toward pop, hip-hop, and rock concerts.

He uses three specific live events, all from the 2011 Grammy Awards, to demonstrate various aspects both of “the festive” as well as the liturgical and even sacramental nature of such moments.  The first, above, is the Canadian band Arcade Fire, performing with joy and enthusiasm, having just won the Award for Album of the Year.  The second is Lady Gaga’s performance of the life-positive “Born This Way”.

Finally, there was the pre-broadcast jam session featuring Esperanza Spalding and Bobbie McFarren.

As Scharen writes:

What I have tried to open here is a way of showing how the repression of “the festive” marks a constriction of how we understand God, how and where we imagine God to be at work, and our place in that.  This constriction of the life of faith is a Puritan impulse,, dividing clean from dirty, Godly from God-forsaken.  While this is indeed an ancient impulse in culture, it has had a particularly powerful hold on western modernity and its moral imagination.  Under this influence we might forget God’s abundant and surprising ways.  We might then be formed with constricted imagination, worrying that the wrong people in the wrong place could never be “fit  Ministers of God’s Word.”  We might then struggle to see pop singers at the Grammy Awards as an inspiring example of God’s people singing.  Yet exactly because of the power of “the festive” and the spiritual longing that emerges there, the soundtrack for the “Age of Authenticity” seems to be bursting with religious questions and experiences, often sung by the most surprising people in the most unlikely places.  Given this, those who inhabit contemporary communities of faith, who are the conservators of the practices of traditional faith, out to take seriously  that they may be the means through which the concertgoer could find means to sustain and deepen the “wow” they experience in the live music performance.(p.104)

He continues on the next page:

The proclamation of the Gospel is, of course, first of all a living word, Jesus Christ, who comes despite our well-defined expectations about how a proper God should act.  That this Word might find ways to “speak” in our day through music should not surprise us.  Ministers of music know thiss in their bones: their gift and task is to proclaim the word in song and music.  The whole musical tradition of the Christian church globally shows this power of music to proclaim the Gospel.  It should not surprise us then to find in “secular” music a word of the Lord speaking in prophetic or any other scriptural mode.  When we do hear such a pop music word, we find ourselves opened to what theologian David Ford calls “the logic of superabundance.”  It is an “overwhelming” that either threatens us or opens us to transformation and, Ford would say, salvation.  The experience of overwhelming, of transformation and salvation, is a key feature of “the festive.”

On the specifically sacramental possibilities, Scharen writes on page 106:

Given the surprising abundance of spirituality in pop culture, ought Christians claim a baptismal practice like Lady Gaga, shaped by a baptismal “no” to the death-dealing world’s order of things and a “yes” to new identity as beloved, as opened to the fullness of all God intends? . . .

This eschatological meal both remembers all God has done and most especially in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but it also makes present now a foretaste of that great festival banquet promised on that day when all shall be well, all whole, the lamb sleeping with the lion.  Such an eschatological presence filling our cup to overflowing suggests ways we might enact a Eucharistic practice that is more like wisdom’s feast, reviving the deep logic of “the festive” in which our bodies brought together in to one gift, offered in the interplay of the body taken, blessed, broken, and given.  The effervescent jazz-pop improvisation between Esperanza Spalding and Bobbie McFerrin captures this joining, this communion, exhibiting an interplay as one musical experience that , like the liturgy of communion, might allow us to be caught up into the action of being given for the sake of the world.

I believe that Taylor’s notion of “the festive”, and the way we in the west have lost the ability for social license, moments and festivals that remind us of the contingency of social, political, economic, and cultural structures as well as the moral order, is important.  I think theologizing from live musical experiences in the way Scharen has done is an important step, perhaps not in reclaiming “the festive” so much as opening ourselves to the possibilities of secular music to speak that Living Word, even perhaps when no such thing was in the mind of the performer.

This can be overplayed and overthought; I believe the strands between secular music and particularly live music performances and liturgy has been done a bit much; anyone who has experienced both understands the connection in a visceral way, and giving verbal shape to it, particularly in the way Scharen does here, is important.  Opening ourselves to the possibilities of God’s Word coming in unexpected ways and places is certainly a necessity, particularly in our over-moralistic, far too hemmed-in and corralled understandings of God.  As long as we remember that these can be as limited as they are expansive; a Word may be all we receive, rather than, say, a whole paragraph.  Which is why critical reflection, such as Scharen provides here, is so important.