MC Interview: Scholar/Bassist Tom Beaudoin on Rock and TheologyPosted: February 16, 2011
I first saw and heard Fordham theology professor Tom Beaudoin at the LOST? Conference we covered here a couple weeks back. He connected with us via e-mail and linked to our LOST? vid on the America Magazine blog “In All Things.” (He really hits the nail on the head with that conference recap, if you’re interested.) In some follow-up discussion, I learned that he heads up the Rock and Theology Project, which is as awesome as it sounds. I share his passion for this intersection, and thought I’d shoot him a few questions. He graciously agreed and sent some killer responses. I sent back some follow-ups, and what had originally been pitched as a “5 questions with…” feature turned in to lengthy exchange that is more like 9 or 10 questions. We had a lot of fun going back and forth. Oh, and Tom’s also an electric bassist, so if you’re in NYC looking for someone to fill out your band, track him down.
Mike: Wilco is one of my favorite bands, and I’ve always experienced a deep connection with something bigger than myself at their live shows. Then I checked out frontman Jeff Tweedy’s solo concert DVD, and during an offstage interview, he said this: “There’s a collective experience happening at a rock concert that I’ve always assumed would probably be what church should be like.” It’s not fair to the uniqueness of the liturgy (or to that of rock concerts, perhaps) to simply equate them, but the collectivity going on in both seems to embody a common human yearning that stands up to the West’s cult of individualism. Have you had similar experiences at, say, a good show and a good liturgy? A vivid sacramental imagination – being able to see God coming to us in everyday stuff like bread, wine, and three-chord rock songs – seems to come in handy at both.
Tom: I like how your first question goes right to theological experience, and we could take hours parsing the potentially relevant ways into this question from various theological and rockish perspectives, but I’ll be brief in each of these replies. Yes, I do acknowledge a deep consanguinity between secular concerts and Catholic liturgies. The language you use hints at a sort of shared transcendence, a communal sense of the gift quality of existence and the surprising recognition of “what is,” and many who find masses and concerts meaningful use similar language to describe their deep appeal. I might also add that many also describe this overlapping space not only in terms of a shared experience at the event, but a deep ethical formation through such events, over time, that makes them a better human being. That’s very important from the best theological and rockish perspectives. This, however, is not the end but the beginning of a theological analysis of the relationship between liturgy and concert.
Mike: I like your point about the development of virtue through experiences of faith and rock. How would you describe, generally, the ethical code of rock? Where would it jive with that of Christianity, and where might they diverge?
Tom: Rock certainly has many ethical codes, in its recordings, its performances, its fans, its musicians, its business practices. If I might speak simplistically about about an ethics that has tended to characterize rock culture, I would say it has been the experience of a restless and searching releasement to the feeling of being alive. This ethic has been paradoxically domesticated and unhoused by the many diminishments of that very being alive that are familiar in rock history, such as the way women have often been treated, or the way racialized practices structure concepts and experience in this music. Though it goes far beyond the capacity of a brief ‘interview’ to make this case, my theological perspective is that this very same form of attention, and its vicissitudes, is to be found in Christianity: an experiential and practice-based reach for real life, boxed in by many deep obstacles in our traditions (again, including but not limited to controversies about women and also racialized practices).
Mike: I’m also thinking about the common centrality of aesthetics. I believe that there’s such a thing as “good liturgy” and “good music,” but that I probably won’t ever know objectively what makes them “good” (in this lifetime, at least. Perhaps in the eternal liturgy/rock concert that is supposedly waiting for us, a bit of light will be shed on this). Do you believe in an objective “good” or “beautiful”? If so, do you think humans have the capability to determine what is good? If not, shouldn’t we get rid of the Grammys and the Oscars and Pitchfork Media with its 10-point scale?
Tom: Again, we would need the time and resources to relax into the complexity and significance of these questions. At any rate, I am not wise enough to meet them with brief and sonorous replies. But let me just say, bracketing all the nuances I would want to add about this question, what is “good music” or “good liturgy,” that I could defend, would be music or liturgy that becomes the site for curation of desires toward the next moment in one’s spiritual life, by which I mean one’s life with respect to that more within life.
Mike: Are there any artists recording today who you’d include in a theology course? Artists from the past?
Tom: I tend to use musical examples mostly in introductory courses in theology or in courses on popular culture and theology, although I make musical references a fair amount in my classes, especially with undergraduates. They usually appreciate when I refer to contemporary artists and they also respect older artists, because many of their parents take pride in popular music and have shared that with them, and because there is a whole new kind of intergenerational interaction in pop music today that is seen as broadly legitimate. (Students are also sometimes laughing at my examples, too, but that’s part of the whole experience.) So when I want to use examples of artists in class to make a point, I try to find examples that they will find interesting and that I can talk about with some confidence. My musical world has been almost completely a rock world; I confess to near ignorance about hip-hop, but I know that needs to change, and I’m working on research in which I will need to become a much better student of hip-hop. So I draw examples from the rock and pop world, and from newer bands, I’ll use (for example) My Brightest Diamond, The Dead Weather, or Earl Greyhound, and from older artists, I’ll use (for example) Alanis Morissette, U2, Rage Against the Machine, or my all, all, all, all-time favorites, Rush. (But they are such an acquired taste, I keep them on the back burner.) But best of all is when students themselves recommend music. My undergraduates often keep me well up to date on their listening habits and will send me ideas all the time. I really like to hear what sounds important and interesting to them. I love listening to many different kinds of music, even if in the end I am finally a man of the 1980s and cannot do without hard rock. But the real answer to your question is: every artist, every band, every kind of music is potentially revelatory, and therefore of theological significance. I want my students to become attracted to a style of theological analysis, not to particular artists, per se. (But not bad if they check out Rush.)
Mike: Now you have me curious about specific examples. Willing to share a particular song and how you use it?
In some of my classes, I try to help students take what they might already find interesting, compelling, or noteworthy about music and deepen that, and I try to do that by starting with their experiences of a tune or performance and complexifying from there with reference to theological tradition and cultural studies. Not that their (or my) interpretations or feelings are pure or natural, but one has to start somewhere and only over time gain critical theological purchase over what one has already become spiritually and musically in our culture. So I might start with Earl Greyhound’s “SOS,” and get their responses to the video, the feel of the tune, or the lyrics. The lyrics to this tune, by the way, are astronomically cool, a minor religious classic. And we’ll go from there: Why are those riffs energizing and memorable? What’s it like to see an interracial band, and to hear them playing this music? Have you ever had the feeling of sending “an SOS across the universe,” and does that make any sense at all in your life? And we go from there into the deep questions of what theology can contribute to making sense of music, and what musical/cultural studies can contribute to making sense of theology. I take as my mantra and my ethic the extraordinary lyric from Katell Keineg’s “O Seasons O Castles”: “Preach preacher preach / do you wanna be / in the warm fields of fall where the everyday awaits / I have laid out the table / washed the fruit in the sink / with the fox and the fool I am cartwheeling on the brink”.
Mike: You hit on a point there that I dig: finding material for theological reflection in a “secular” music context. I’m a youth minister, and there’s widespread excitement in the field about up-and-coming Catholic rock artists. But they almost always leave me wanting more, both lyrically and musically. What could I say to the parents of my youth group kids to let me take them to an Arcade Fire concert? How could I frame it as a perfectly appropriate and relevant field trip?
Tom: Okay, I have been teaching Catholic theology for ten years, been working in pastoral ministries for much longer, and been playing in rock bands for almost twenty-five years, and I don’t even know “Catholic rock artists.” I will need to get up to speed on this domain. But I am inclined to follow precisely your instincts: Better in most ways to take students to Arcade Fire than some kind of Catholic rock show. Now there are good reasons that some people need a “Christian/Catholic rock” atmosphere, and that is an important pastoral/theological question. But what’s going to pull most people through contemporary life in a more satisfying way is appreciating Arcade Fire. Because Arcade Fire rocks more authentically than Catholic rock? No. Because having the courage and consenting to the pleasure of meeting divinity through multiple musics is a richer way of living the Christian life. Plus, many secular artists capture a more complicated religious reality in their lyrics than many Christian artists, who are under pressure to show their fidelity. Pressures, too, exist for secular artists, but if I can speak this way, sometimes the most truly religious language is not religious at all.
Mike: What’s your experience of the overlap between folks who are really invested in rock music and folks who are deeply invested in faith? Are there a lot of us out there? And are these folks often interested in talking about church music? Which opens up a whole other can of worms…
Tom: There are a whole lot of people interested in faith/religion/spirituality/divinity/sacrality who are also invested in rock/pop (and many more kinds of “secular”) music. We don’t have a very sophisticated vocabulary for thinking through these overlapping and intertwined interests, although the resonances are, at least on the surface, easy to spot (popular music is “religious” for many; faith is a musically saturated phenomenon for many). I used to think that the issue for me was learning to live in both worlds. Now I see it as learning to live in a third world, that is, every person must make their way with integrity in this relationship. Other than that, there cannot be one prescribed “model” for relating them.
Mike: I’m thinking of two rough categories of encounters with the divine I’ve experienced in rock music. The first type occurs in songs that explicitly bring up God or faith or religion. I’m thinking of particular Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Sufjan Stevens tunes off the top of my head. In these types of songs, my “religious” experience is filtered through that of the singer, or the song conjures up a specific thought, feeling or experience I’ve had at some point in the past. The second type comes in songs that have nothing to do with God in their content, but seem to have everything to do with God anyway. I can’t listen to an album like “OK Computer” without thinking, “These guys are plugged in to the divine in a way I can’t even imagine.” Have you had similar experiences? Do various songs from both categories “work” for you? And what makes them work?
Tom: Your question is outstanding – and probably too complicated for a short reply. It gets to the deep issue, which I would phrase as: what is the theological material of rock music? We have many approaches to this question in contemporary cultural/religious studies and theologies that deal with popular culture. In the interest of directness, let me leap across the many important theories and say that for me, it is crucial to bring to consciousness as much as possible and to work through the various goods we think we are undergoing when we engage in musical cultures (listening, playing, discussing, etc.) — this goes for the church as much as for the “secular” world of music. We all learn different cultural/theological cues about what counts as spiritually meaningful, and it’s better to think through what effects those are having on us than to argue whether “lyrics” or “feeling” are more true theological experiences in music.
Mike: It sounds to me like you’re saying that you’re more interested in the lived experience of faith or rock than in some remote theory. Like, it’s impossible to know anything about either rock or faith if you’re not out there in the pews/mosh pit (or balcony, I guess) with regularity. This gets me thinking about the early church, when catechumens wouldn’t know much about the Sacraments before they experienced them. Only after the encounter would they unpack what had happened. Dive in first; ask questions and derive language/theories later. Do I read you right?
Tom: Since I started graduate school in theology, I have spent the last seventeen years more or less obsessed with the ground, meaning, and effects of theologically significant experience. And I am more convinced than ever that we cannot speak compellingly or, finally, defensibly about theology unless we are thinking in a practice-intensive way. That means making practice, action, and performance key terms in our theological analyses. We are not so much “starting from experience” as if from a pure origin as we are starting from a commitment to a reckless truthfulness about how theology and culture “really work.” And how they might contribute to saving us.