IN THE first few months of this year, news headlines included
the "collapse" of HMV; the first new album in ten years from David
Bowie; and Adele's picking up a Brit award and an Oscar for her
theme song for the latest Bond film, Sky-fall.
Popular music is in the cultural lifeblood of society in the UK,
but is rarely talked about in pulpits, or among theologians. But
there is more common ground than is popularly perceived between
habits of faith and serious listening to popular music.
We have been researching listening habits in popular music in
this country and the United States for some years. In surveys
gathered online, through students, other groups, and one-to-one
encounters, respondents have shared their patterns of listening and
the emotions that music provokes.
We are not the only ones interested in this developing area of
study. A growing body of theologians, such as David Brown, Tom
Beaudoin, James K. A. Smith, Jeff Keuss, and Michael J. Gilmour,
are exploring how Christianity and this type of music relate to
Our research suggests that points of contact and exploration
include: first, embodied practice - how music makes us aware of our
bodies, gets us moving (through dance), and influences whom we
spend time with; second, ritual - habitual and ritualised behaviour
is characteristic in individual and communal listening practices;
third, connectedness - popular music often involves fandom and
friendship, and its links with social media extend these aspects;
and, fourth, transcendence - many fans of popular music speak of
its being "uplifting", or that it "takes you to another place". To
put it in more attention-grabbing terms: popular music is often
about sex, friends, and emotional highs.
These strands of popular-music practice each relate directly to
Christian theological concepts. Embodied practice links with
incarnation. Attention to the sacraments connects with forms of
Sacramentality invites us to look more broadly at how God
communicates through everyday life. Transcendence brings together
theological themes, such as divine revelation and salvation,
encapsulating the sense of genuine encounter with an Other beyond
We are not saying that popular music is a religion, or that it
replaces religion, or even that it functions in any way like a
religion. Nor are we saying that all popular music is equally
valuable, or functions always in similar ways. We are simply saying
that what popular music does to and for people is important - often
very important indeed.
As far as churches are concerned, this means: (a) preachers and
worship leaders should take the listening habits of members of the
congregation seriously; (b) actively creating spaces for listening
to and reflecting on popular music and on people's listening; (c)
resisting the abuse of music: that is, challenging the notion that
we can use music simply to say what we want it to say, and being
attentive to other forms of music - not just what we are used to,
and not just what our "tribe" finds acceptable.
Searching for "Christian-type words" in pop songs is not enough.
Instead, we need to attend to the sounds to which listeners
respond, and to the emotions experienced.
Music creates an "affective space" for hearers, collectively and
individually. "Affective space" is a type of zone that people
inhabit as they listen to music, within which they enjoy an
emotional encounter, and may also move on to make connections with
their life narrative, and their value-system.
Conrad Ostwalt, the Professor of Religious Studies at
Appalachian State University, speaks for many when he writes: "We
find popular culture functioning in some of the same ways as
institutionalised religious ritual; so that popular culture is the
entity that provides the context for understanding values, belief
systems, and myths" (Secular Steeples, TPI, 2003).
Churches need to take this place of emotional engagement, the
affective space, much more seriously.
AT the start of each episode of his BBC2 series Howard
Goodall's Story of Music, the presenter states: "Whatever
music you're into - Monteverdi or Mantovani, Mozart or Motown . . .
music can make us weep or make us dance. It's reflected the times
in which it was written. It has delighted, challenged, comforted,
and excited us."
In his discussion of Wagner, Mr Goodall notes the "disastrous
schism between high and low art". Our research into the ways in
which people continue to engage with popular music affirms this
judgement about the power and emotional range of music, and also
reminds churches not to accede to that "disastrous schism" that
limits the kinds of music that can prove profound for listeners,
and narrows the affective spaces that music helps to create.
Taking people's listening habits seriously does not mean handing
over these spheres to Simon Cowell and the other gods (or idols) of
popular culture. It is always necessary to question what is
happening within the affective spaces that popular music creates.
It is far more than mere entertainment.
Yet it is also important to respect the functions and value of
what such music and wider expressions of contemporary culture
achieve, both for those who are religious, and those who are not.
So-called secular songs have their place in worship. There are
canons of popular music to be listened to, and the contents of an
iPod might be a rich spiritual resource.
Dr Clive Marsh is Director of Lifelong Learning at the
University of Leicester, and the Revd Vaughan S. Roberts is Team
Rector of Warwick. They are co-authors of Personal Jesus: How
popular music shapes our souls (Baker Academic, 2012), and are
running a course on the subject at Gladstone's Library,
later this month (www.st-deiniols.com).