The Secular/Religious Divide in Popular Music

Recently, David W. Stowe wrote an editorial for the New York Times titled "Jesus Christ Rock Star." Stowe is the author of No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). I have not yet read the book, but found Stowe's claims in the editorial thought-provoking, although finally not quite convincing.

His basic argument is that Christianity used to be present overtly in popular music in the United States, but that conservative evangelicalism busted that up when it joined its conservative politics to its transmogrification of rock and roll into "praise music" through the "contemporary Christian music" industry in the 1970s and '80s. Artists who did not identify with conservative religious politics increasingly purged their music of overt religious references so as not to be mistaken (especially by fans) for fellow-traveling with evangelicals. This led to the deep and pervasive "split in popular music between the secular and the godly."


While this is an important story to unravel, I wanted to problematize the theology operative in Stowe's account. His argument presumes a certain theological background about what counts as "godly" and what counts as "secular." He seems to equate references to Jesus as "godly" and the absence of those as "secular." The difference between the two seems to be whether or not, in his words, Jesus is a "highly resonant symbol."

I think that the conversation in theology and popular culture is beyond this kind of distinction.

From the side of pop culture research in the study of religion, we know now how theologically significant are the uses and receptions of popular music, somewhat irrespective of "explicit" religious language. Jesus does not have to be named in a song for people to take music into their prayer, meditation, justice-seeking, discernment, wonder, creativity, and sense of the larger whole of which their lives are a part. And even when Jesus is named, people do not necessarily make of that anything significant for their religio-spiritual practice.

Further, in contemporary philosophical theology and philosophy of religion, no explicit Jesus-referent is necessary to count as theologically significant material. Rather, the diverse and complex discussions today focus on the experience and language of gift, reconciliation, impossibility, accountability, desire, and more. Why not look to music for these?

Moreover, Stowe seems to be talking more about dynamics in American Protestantism rather than Christianity as such. Catholicism in the United States, for example, while occasionally being influenced by the ubiquitous "praise choruses" one finds in evangelical and now mainline Protestant churches, is still largely working from a much different songbook and set of what count as legitimate worship possibilities.

The upshot of all this, as far as I am concerned, is that once "religious" and "secular" are detached from the "explicit/forbidden" dichotomy that often underlies it, things get much more interesting theologically.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Cross-posted, across the secular-religious divide, to Rock and Theology

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