This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2014 vol. 171 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our SoulsBaker Academic, Grand Rapids January 15, 2013
Marsh is senior lecturer and director of learning and teaching at the Institute of Lifelong Learning, University of Leicester and Roberts is vicar of Collegiate Church of St. Mary in Warwick, England. They explain, “This book is a theological exploration of the contemporary cultural significance of popular music. It examines what popular music does to people and what people do with popular music through the kinds of music they listen to and the way they listen” (p. xiii). Neither of the authors is a musician, although they confess that both are music lovers. Some musicians likely will wish a third author, or a musician as consulting editor, had been included to represent the perspective of a practitioner.
The thesis of the work is clearly stated: “Ensuring the critical study of religion in relation to how people listen to contemporary popular music will foster appropriate understanding of the music itself. It will help us understand how religions do (and must) work in society today. More fully exploring the function of music as a form of popular culture will be good for society as a whole” (p. xv; emphasis in original).
The book is divided into three parts. The first, “Music and Religion,” sets this work within the growing body of literature on theology and culture and includes an excellent overview of the development of Christian thought and diversity of approaches to the subject. Marsh and Roberts argue for an incarnational and sacramental view of culture when they insist that “in Christian understanding, a sacramental theology provides a basis for any aspect of popular culture’s becoming a channel of the self-revelation of God, or of the grace of God” (p. 37). Since humans are created as divine imagers, what humans create also reveals God. Since humans are embodied, their bodies are an essential aspect of humanity, and thus “engagement with popular culture is an important part of reversing this process of excarnation and reengaging with the incarnation and sacramentality that is vital to Christianity” (p. 38).
Part 2, “Living by Pop Music,” begins with a discussion of the music and the marketplace. It argues that “not only do pop music [including contemporary Christian music] and religion change in response to changing circumstances; they also affect and shape one another in the process” (p. 55). A chapter on pop music, ritual, and worship follows a discussion of music and the body and music and transcendence. The authors demonstrate through numerous examples how rituals “(1) help to shape self-identity, (2) assist in the organization of communal life, and (3) allow humans to experience alternate states of being. These features exist in creative tension with one another and with other elements of human experience” (p. 106). A final chapter evaluates changes wrought by digital music. No longer is the listener limited by radio or the artist’s organization on an album or cd; rather, the consumer can purchase individual songs and create her own playlist, as “a soundtrack to life” (p. 111). Further, even in the midst of a crowd of people, through headphones or earbuds, the soundtrack can be private, personal, individual, and hidden. Musicians will likely wish there had been some discussion of the deleterious impact of such technology on the integrity of the artist’s creation of an “album” of work.
The final section, “Pop Music and Theology,” begins with a discussion of the practices of listening and of how to process the content that is heard. Particularly helpful is the summary of seven functions of music (pp. 130–33). It is followed by an extended treatment, through many examples, of how music and theology intersect. The authors correctly observe that “theory/theology is always embedded in practice and inextricably linked with practice. Music works in practice and use and is not to be tied down to notes, lyrics, or sounds, but involves all of these and the contexts and practices of use; in the same way, theological themes are not to be understood divorced from the practice of living” (p. 181).
A postscript provides practical and concrete applications, or consequences, for the church, academy, and daily life. The authors conclude: “Our hope is that this book successfully invites all students of human culture to recognize that—whether or not we call it education, spiritual development, personal growth, religious experience (or a combination)—the ‘something else’ that can often be discerned or happens as people devote themselves to listening to popular music means that it is frequently more than mere entertainment” (p. 189). Their hope might be a bit modest; perhaps it would be better to acknowledge that there is no such thing as “mere” entertainment.
This is an excellent book and highly recommended. At times, it will be difficult for some readers as the authors engage technical literature. Yet it repays diligence and persistence. It provides an overview, summary, and critical engagement with the growing body of literature on popular music and theology. It is full of examples from pop music that both illustrate the authors’ argument and provide context for application. It is a model of cultural engagement worth following.
—Glenn R. Kreider