Religion and Heavy Metal Music

July 22, 2010

Born Ronaldo Giovanni Padavona, heavy metal music icon Ronnie James Dio (known for his operatic voice of thunder) passed away recently. Dio has performed with Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell, and his own solo project, Dio. With song titles such as “Gates of Babylon,” “Heaven & Hell,” “Holy Diver,” and “The Devil You Know” there is an inescapable religious quality to his persona. Sociologist Deena Weinstein (DePaul University) and Associate Professor of Religious Studies Anthea Butler (University of Pennsylvania) are big fans. Butler writes, “The imagery their album covers drew upon was more interesting than the mundane depictions of evil employed by the Church harkening back to a Hieronymus Bosch sensibility. Staring at the covers and listening to the throbbing music accompanying Dio’s operatic voice was like a metal Wagnerian opera.” Known for dark album imagery, medieval stage set (complete with “sword and sorcery” aesthetics) and his use of the “devil horns” hand gesture (often used at rock concerts) Dio has often been accused of satanic dabbling, though his statements more often come across as agnostic. Ironically, Dio provided vocals for born-again Christian Kerry Livgren (of Kansas fame) on “To Live for the King” and “Mask of the Great Deceiver.” He supported Children of the Night, a non-profit organization that rescues “America’s children from the ravages of street prostitution.” His widow is the Chairperson. Dio died of stomach cancer at the age of 67. Read more here, here, here, and here.

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Jazz as Religion

July 14, 2010

Historian David W. Stowe’s most recent article, “Both American and Global: Jazz and World Religions in the United States,” offers a quick overview of one of America’s most enduring styles of music, then neatly connects this uniquely American music to religious belief and experience. By the end of the piece, one is left viewing jazz as a music which compliments embodied religious practice. Moreover, it becomes clear that for many musicians, jazz became its own religion.

Stowe begins by considering the “Saturday night ⁄ Sunday morning dichotomy” which defined early jazz musicians’ dualistic lives, and goes on to consider how jazz performance (once considered secular) also signified something deeply sacred. After noting the place jazz occupies as counter-hegemonic, Stowe considers the influence of West-African rhythms “that engendered possession states and summoned or communicated to specific deities.” He argues that this tradition influenced American Pentecostalism and a number of canonical jazz composers, who found ways to connect ethnic heritage and jazz to religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, the Ahmadiyya Movement, Baha’i, Egyptology, theosophy, numerology, Kabbalistic mysticism, Buddhism, and Vedanta Hinduism. For Stowe, the Immigration Law of 1965 and Vatican II served to encourage musical and cultural diversity within the context of religious practice. In the end, the combination of jazz and American religion models the complexities and paradoxes of American culture.

That jazz is connected to Pentecostalism warrants other investigations. Are there parallels between jazz “scat singing,” (vocal improvisation) and the pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues? The next progression of Stowe’s analysis concerns how African-American inspired music—such as rock ‘n’ roll—has influenced non-African-American churches. His forthcoming project on Christian rock and the Jesus Movement will undoubtedly connect the dots, bridging a uniquely American style of music and the ever-changing landscape of American evangelical Christianity. Read the full article here.

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The Emerging Christian Monasticism

July 9, 2010

Evangelical Christianity is always changing. This is nothing new. What is new, however, is the growing interest in contemplative spirituality and a “new monasticism” amongst some young evangelicals. Speaking of Faith’s Krista Tippett offers a look into a movement difficult to classify—one beyond the conventional right/left binary. Shane Claiborne, founding member of The Simple Way, is one of the leading voices in this movement. Tippett notes Claiborne’s book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, as a collection of stories which reveal the underreported side of evangelicalism’s evolution. “Shane Claiborne,” notes Tippett, “exhibits a capacity I’ve observed in others his age and younger—an ease of movement, in thought and conversation, between what is ancient and what is modern, what is local and what is global.” Are these young “revolutionaries” the answer to what has polarized American politics and religion? Some may contend that the culture wars continue, observes Tippett, albeit in newer, emerging forms. While she recalls other historical figures and considers Claiborne’s potential cultural impact, the full scope of what young evangelicals actually represent is yet to be determined. While they embrace an ethic of social justice and simple living are they (at the core) still evangelical? Is this “revolution” merely a call to a way of living also embraced by many pietists and holiness Protestants? Is this simply another example of Protestants adopting elements of Catholic models of lived religion? Read Krista’s journal entry here. For more on Speaking of Faith and Claiborne, click here.

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Lady Gaga and Marketing the Esoteric

May 31, 2010

Lady Gaga captivates those interested in the power of celebrity. But her persona goes beyond what is typically associated with simple pop-stardom. Given the imagery used in her public presentation, she has been suspected of being involved with the Illuminati and various expressions of the occult, causing many to consider the possibility of a secret Lady Gaga religious affiliation. However, her “symbol-laden presentations” writes Jeremy Biles, “are evidence not of occult involvements, but of a strategic, effective, and very canny self-display centering obsessively on one concern: fame and the mechanisms that produce and support it.” Biles argues that Lady Gaga may simply be about image: “all persona, all spectacle, all surface.” The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, notes Biles, “might have called her ‘hyperreal.’” This classification taps in to the postmodern argument that symbols and images are merely simulations which conceal the startling existential conclusion that there is nothing of substance beneath what is believed to represent some deeper truth. When considering the various occult images used by Lady Gaga, one must consider that these are “part of the total simulation [emphasis added] called ‘Lady Gaga,’” amounting to “surface style,” according to Biles. In the end, if one attempts to locate the wizard behind the curtain, one finds a vacuum of meaning. While many continue to suspect cryptic allusions to archaic occult practices or secret societies, others view her posturing as just that—Lady Gaga effectively manipulates fandom to create and sustain a cult of personality which encourages and cultivates the innumerable mythologies often attached to celebrity. This is nothing new, of course. Groups such as Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and jazz musician Sun Ra, have all incorporated esoteric themes and symbols into their music and imagery. And while some musicians may very well own the meaning behind the symbols, others often market the illusion of the dark and fantastic to consumers who seek excitement. Recalling Baudrillard’s concept of “simulacra and simulation” Biles dismisses any possibility of esotericism, wizardry, or “shadowy conspiracy at work,” stating that “Lady Gaga is no puppet, mindlessly executing a secret agendum; she is a self-styled, self-aware, and charismatic mannequin—an artificial person—who knows how to exploit, extend, and exacerbate the contemporary zeitgeist in her exploration and cultivation of fame.” According to this article (and various socio-cultural theorists), in the end, power is no longer held in symbols and images, but in “style.” Read the full article here.

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Angels or God?

February 16, 2010

It seems the “feel-good angelmania” of the mid-nineties is wearing off—or at least the optimism surrounding angelic hope as connected to God. The movie Legion depicts a God who “is simply sick of us and he’s going to show his displeasure not by water or the fire next time, but instead by angels—lots and lots of angry angels.” God is angry. But along with a new twist in messianic hope, Archangel Michael comes to help humanity.

Americans have always been fascinated with apocalyptic drama. During the seventies, author Hal Lindsey became a best-selling novelist based on this fascination. Fear sells. Or more precisely, religious fear sells, according to Jason C. Bivins, Associate Professor of Religion at North Carolina State University. But while Americans are either fearful or titillated by various versions of terrestrial cataclysmic disaster scenarios, hope is also found (as well as marketed and consumed) as our worst fears are alleviated by “secret agents” from Heaven. W. Scott Poole, associate professor in history at the College of Charleston, submits that while fascination with the end of time, Angels, and spiritual warfare is ubiquitous, its place in popular culture (for evangelicals) can be traced to fantasy literature during the 1960s and 1970s. He ends by asking: “Do the angry angels of the new film Legion, with their roots in angelmania, mean that for many Americans God is absent? And do these creatures, heavenly and horrific, fill the vacuum?” Read the full story here.

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Religion and Coexistence/Existence in the 21st Century

January 1, 2010

Is the world becoming more religious or more secular? The secularization thesis (religion disappears with the rise of Modernity) has been challenged as the Christian “megachurch” phenomenon continues, radical Islam remains at the fore of public dialogue, and politicians continue to blur the lines between church and state as they invoke various religious aphorisms. Louis A. Ruprecht Jr, the William M. Suttles Chair of Religious Studies at Georgia State University, considers the argument that religion (both particular and comparative) made a comeback after the 9/11 attacks, recalling how many believed the event “put religion on a front burner everywhere: on television and internet discussions.” Ruprecht challenges this, arguing that “religion had already been ‘back’ for a generation,” arguing that the “singular date for any contemporary discussion of the resurgence of politicized neo-traditional religion is 1979,” not 2001. He cites various historical moments as key elements which indicated a shift in public dialogue concerning religion within American society: the Ayatollah Khomeini’s seize of power in Iran, Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority’s push for political power as they supported the candidacy of Ronald Reagan, the death of Pope John Paul I and the “unexpected elevation of John Paul II [a man who proved captivating] to the papacy.”

Recalling the fundamentalist reaction to Darwinism, the rise of liberal Protestantism, and the Second Vatican Council’s attempt to update the Catholic church to better serve the modern world, Ruprecht argues that what is different about the new century is simply this: “certain forms of neo-traditional religion became increasingly violent.” Despite this, or perhaps precisely because of it, society accepts pluralism as a way of life. Thus, while many hope to convert “the other,” whether evangelical Christian or Muslim, religious pluralism has created a society which continues to entertain the idea of faith. He argues that within the context of religious pluralism and transnational political conflict, online magazines such as Religion Dispatches serve us well, as our discourse about meaning continues to broaden.

Ruprecht’s closing statements reflect on the recent conference at Copenhagen, arguing that the “shocking transfer of so much carbon-based material from under the earth into the sky in little more than one century has changed and will continue to change the entire global system in some very catastrophic ways.” The “apocalyptically-minded,” he argues, will deal with any possible environmental crisis with a variety of interpretations, nursing a peculiar appetite for discussions about a disastrous future. Whether the environment, war, terrorism, or global economic collapse, “religions today can and should have much to say about each and every one of these new, and truly global crises.”

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Is the Fight for Gay Rights Over?

November 6, 2009

Bishop_John_Shelby_Spong_portrait_2006Bishop John Shelby Spong is revered by those affiliated with progressive Christianity and scorned by conservatives. For years he has been an outspoken advocate for the cause of women, gays and lesbians, and people of color. Candace Chellew-Hodge considers Bishop Spong’s recent declaration: “The battle is over. The victory has been won.” Recalling the inanity of slavery, Spong argues that equality of citizenship, regardless of sexual orientation, is overturning and overcoming a prejudice which has little, if any, biblical backing. While Chellew-Hodge admires Spong’s rather lengthy history of fighting for the cause of equal rights, she feels his declaration is premature; she considers the marriage laws which still dominate much of American society. Spong takes leaders of the Religious Right to task, arguing that Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Albert Mohler, and the late Jerry Falwell are essentially uninformed in their views. He writes: “Much biblical scholarship has been done to refute literal, fundamentalist readings of the six or seven passages that seem to condemn gays and lesbians. No matter what the religious right says, the Bible is far from clear in its condemnation of homosexuality in all its forms. All sexual acts condemned are those that use or abuse another or break covenant with another – committed gay and lesbian relationships are never condemned by the Bible.” Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has responded to Spong’s manifesto. Despite his argument, Chellew-Hodge reminds us of a sorted history of evils such as slavery, segregation, the ownership of women, and the aversion to interracial relationships. These practices were once thought to be biblically sanctioned. She and Spong argue that the fight for gay rights is simply another chapter in our history of unpacking what scripture truly means. Chellew-Hodge considers how society will at some point realize the similarities of various forms of prejudice. She writes: “Those who continue to cling to that belief [homosexuality as sin] are just as wed to their outdated ideas as Louisiana justice of the peace Keith Bardwell who recently refused to do his job and grant a marriage license to a mixed-race couple. One day, we’ll be just as horrified at all the JPs who have denied gays and lesbians marriage licenses as we are at the story coming from Louisiana.” Read the full article here.

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Pentecostalism Compared to Star Trek

September 15, 2009

The_Pentecost_Latter_half_of_18th_cHistorian Anthea Butler considers the ever-changing nature of American Pentecostalism, comparing it to the tribble, a fictional animal on the original Star Trek series. The creature reproduced rapidly and ate everything with which it came into contact. In like manner, Butler suggests that “Pentecostalism and certain segments of the movement (namely, the “Prosperity Gospel” and the “New Apostolic Movements”) have mutated like tribbles, choking off their Pentecostal origins, multiplying to such a degree that it is difficult to distinguish the broader Pentecostal movement and historic churches from the mutants.” Historically, Pentecostalism has been a bit of a moving target, difficult to classify. Much like the evangelical subculture it has been able to reinvent itself. Butler considers the many post-Pentecostal expressions such as Charismatic, Word of Faith, Third Wave, Full Gospel, Prosperity churches, and non-denominational. Practice is key to the larger Pentecostal phenomenon as the theological focus is often the “Gifts of the Spirit:” speaking and interpretation of tongues, exorcism, healings, words of wisdom, and prophetic utterances. Butler argues that contemporary Charismatic movement leadership often deemphasizes “audience healings and testimonies,” allowing themselves to become “advertisements for the movement; highlighting their expensive cars, airplanes, homes, and perfectly-toned bodies as a way to show their parishioners and followers across the world that prosperity was the way.” Butler considers the influence of the modern movement’s forerunners who popularized the Word of Faith and Latter Rain movements, which “relied on ‘extra’ revelation outside of the Bible, given to a special group of leaders that God had appointed.” She hints at the manner in which these movements might operate within and affect contemporary politics, considering the influence of modern leaders such as John Wimber and C. Peter Wagner. According to Butler, many within the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) “believe that in order to bring about the coming of Christ, Apostles must be recognized, and the government should be run by Christians in order to cleanse the world for Christ’s coming.” She concludes by arguing that the current pentecostal-inspired movement is unlike early Pentecostalism, suggesting that “[f]or a movement that started out with a millennial orientation, it has certainly become enamored with the world, and remaining powerful within it in every way.” Read the full article here.

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A Seeker’s Gift to the World

August 24, 2009

Religion_in_the_worldThere is no shortage of internet sites which deal with religion. However, many tend to be quite specific about what brand of religion is championed. Despite specific truth-claims there are a growing number of sites designed for those who seek ecumenical one-stop-shopping, and those which offer a myriad of resources about the world’s innumerable belief-systems. John Bruno Hare created Sacred-Texts.com during the late 199. This site offers various rare religious books, some apparently dating back to 5,000 B.C. Hare states that there are “infinite paths to God and that everyone is trying to do the right thing,” and that “if everyone could see that, we wouldn’t have as many conflicts.” As Sacred-Texts.com continues to grow in popularity in the world of Google, Hare is seeking to leave a legacy as he battles stage-three melanoma. He hopes to grow his newly developed Evinity Publishing which carries works on topics such as Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and even people who often operate under the mainstream radar: flat Earth and hollow Earth believers. Hare also offers books which deal with Native American belief-systems, symbolism, and UFOs. Hare considers this resource as his gift to the world. Read more here.

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The President’s Theology?

August 22, 2009

400px-Religion_icon.svgIn Speaking of Faith Krista Tippett hosted a discussion where American political and cultural commentator David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne considered American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s influence on American democracy, religion, and President Barack Obama’s interest in the theologian’s perspective on the politics of religion as applied to foreign and domestic policy. Obama has stated that Niebuhr was one of his favorite philosophers and is an “influence on his understanding of the world of religion and of politics.” Niebuhr has often been viewed as a neo-conservative and a liberal; many claim him as their own. He argued that humans are always prone to violence and excess. Brooks and Dionne considered the matter of human nature, outlined by Niebuhr, and applied it to the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package. Brooks considered the “tragic view” of life held by Niebuhr and suggested that institutions must “tame” individuals. Both journalists argued that Obama’s views on humanity and institutional responsibility are fundamentally Niebuhrian. Both see Obama is a kind of Niebuhrian Realist (Christian Realism). The comments created a climate where we must consider Obama’s core theology regarding human nature, the role of government, and the world’s destiny, whether divine or otherwise. Distinguishing between hope and optimism, Dionne clarified that for Obama hope never dismisses the tragic view of life held by Realists. Rather, the President is simply optimistic of what could be. According to Niebuhr, “we take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimatized.” Both commentators considered this passage within the context of the war in Iraq, the torture of prisoners, and what is required of citizens faced with ambiguous situations drenched in irony, subjectivity, and cultural complexity. Both agreed that the beliefs of Niebuhr and Obama are grounded in a particular view of human nature: the potential for uncontrolled vanity, power, and self-centeredness. When considering Christian Realism and religious pluralism, Brooks expressed concern that theology is dying – that “soft-core” evangelism (a therapeutic faith) might not have found favor with Niebuhr. However, Dionne argued for a toleration of difference while remaining serious about one’s own faith, despite protestations which cite the dangers of humanity and unbridled pluralism. Tippett reminded the panel that Niebuhr would have contrasted the Religious Right of the 1980s. He “disdained discussion of personal beliefs in the public square” – it is better to consider politics and justice while motivated by faith and love. Obama has argued that in a democratic society, universal values should not be religion-specific, thus accessible to people of all faiths. Despite the fact that the panel agreed that President Obama has been influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, it is difficult to reconcile Obama’s pluralism with the Realist position that life is “tragic;” any attempt at utopia is futile. Listen to the discussion here.

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