In this post, Barry Taylor takes up the question of whether the church is providing good entry ways for a world informed by technologies of enchantment who practice ritual through the lens of the popular. He suggests that pop-music making can inform and fuel new theological pathways, both in terms of potential methodologies and as an example of how transcendent desire can be inserted into the streams of a commodified consumerist culture, or to put it more simply, pop music makers can show you how to get big ideas into the public realm and steer our attention toward them. Barry offers a methodology, a practice if you will, that might inform a new approach to doing theology.
Theological Cover Bands
by Barry Taylor, PhD
We hear something–a song, a rhythm, a sound, and we are arrested by it and the hearing leads us into a new world. Sometimes it is because it addresses a felt need, sometimes we are touched deeper than we know–our listening, straining for the sound of the transcendent, is captivated. And we become musical disciples of this and that, it shapes us and we begin the process of building a canon of songs and sounds that speak to us.
For me it’s the blues and gospel music that I listened to in my friend’s bedroom and it grew with Donny Hathaway–Extensions of A Man–but it includes, Van Morrison and Bowie, and glam rock and punk rock and Jackson Browne and Sigur Ros and Radiohead and hundreds of other sounds that in some way talk to me and continue to speak to me. We build and build a catalog, a collection of elements that continue to speak to us. And then the idea crystallizes, that we too can create something–that image from Sideburns magazine–3 chords now go form a band.
And where do we usually begin? In imitation–the songs we love to listen to become the first songs we learn–how the hell did James Brown’s rhythm guitarist play that funky thing? How do you put a song together? How do you play a ‘G’? Most enduring bands began in imitation–in the early days, The Beatles, The Stones, all the others, they copied their idols. Then we take all those elements, those sounds, those rhythms, those feels, those beats, and we mix them into our own sound–we find our own musical voice.
I think the theological process can be the same. We hear something, it speaks to us, we affect solidarity and become a disciple and begin the process of building a theological canon. For me it was Wesley, Ignatius from my school headmaster, but later, Lewis, Bonhoeffer (who didn’t go down that path for at least a minute?), the favourites–building and building, being shaped by the various theological voices that hit something in us–Boff, Haight, Caputo, a canon, a library of theological sounds and feels and beats.
But all too often we stop there, relying solely on the echoes of other voices, never moving to the next step. “Strive to be a voice not an echo,” Wesley may have said that. New theological thinking comes from the risk and adventure of taking one’s canon of influences and producing new sounds out of them.
As long as we fail to engage in the creative process and risk of pulling all those sounds from our cannon together into new permutations, our theology is merely echoes of other voices, we risk being in a theological cover band–that’s ok–but somewhere at sometime, we need new theological sounds, made out of the combined experimentation of our own lives with our theological influences. “There is nothing new under the sun,” says Solomon, and he’s right and wrong at the same time–the new contains echoes and remembrances of the old, but it’s new, it’s never been heard, expressed, in this particular permutation before.
We need some theological innovation that’s’ for sure–too much echo and you lose the ability to hear what’s being said, just the right amount and it reverberates for all to hear more clearly.