When Is Secular Music Like Ministry?

I am getting ready to teach in the spring semester at Fordham, and one of my courses is a graduate class called Theology of Ministry. Every year I feel the impossibility of saying something with solidity about a topic that is deeply elusive. So many ministries are worthy of study in their explicit and implicit theologies (that is, their ways of construing God and God-related materials). I do not find it easier to create theological maps as I get older. In my eleventh year of teaching college, I find myself more implicated in the complexity than ever before, and helping students to sit within how complex it is to know what construals of God-related materials are, and where they may be found in ministerial practice, is a cavern toward which I am endlessly digging. I revise my courses, sometimes dramatically, every time I teach them.

One constant is that I try to work from a basic assertion in each course that we revisit multiple times to test its adequacy. For my Theology of Ministry course, I will open the course by suggesting, and eventually arguing, that theologies of ministry have typically been ways of constituting a “public” rationale for ministry, prioritizing pastoral action, and specifying the formation of pastoral workers. As such, theologies of ministry show by what appeals Christian churches seek to articulate their labor.


The danger of working from such assertions-definitions-theses is that we can think that clarifying them will help us identify what "true" ministry is. But ministerial material is as much discovered as invented, as much intuited as deduced. Which puts me in mind of music's ministerial role, so much of which is "found" inductively in people's everyday lives, apart from any theological deduction. So while we will be testing my thesis (and their own theses) and thinking deductively throughout the semester, we will also be noticing our own inductive notions about ministry -- where we have found ourselves grateful for a ministerial action in an unexpected time or place and surprised by the redefinition it brings.

Has music ever helped you work through the loss of someone close to you? This clip from the rock musical "Passing Strange" has spoken to many people, including me. I particularly identify with the way that the main character, "The Pilgrim," has secular music close to the center of his life and has to live with what rock culture can and cannot do for his losses ("I'll live in vans crammed with guitars / I'll sleep on floors and play in bars / I'll dance to my own metronome, 'till chaos feels like home / [...] up and down from town to town, tour van wheels go round and round / every night play rock and roll, get f----d up after the show / in the morning lock and load and then leave").

Here is the clip:

Everyone has a sense of what "good news" is for them, what helps them take the next step in their spiritual life alone and with others, and a lot of people are taking "good news" inductively through their favorite music. That is music performing a ministerial function. Making that more explicit with respect to the question of God or God-related materials "makes" it theological.

Does any music minister to you?

Thomas Beaudoin

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Roseann Saah
7 years ago
Absolutely.  Sufjan Stevens, Wilco, Nick Cave, Lucinda Williams, Leonard Cohen- just to name a few.
Craig McKee
7 years ago
Nice clip. As one who has been dancing to my own metronome, finding/creating chaos and feeling right at home for decades now, the lyrics of this R&B operetta speak volumes (I skyped my mother!); not unlike the tongue twisting chanteuse Joyce Jonathan's ''Je Ne Sais Pas'' (streaming as I write), the rabble-rousing toast to life in Pink's ''Raise Your Glass'' or the polyglot John-Paul II's invocations in his ''Abba Pater'' I use for morning prayer -alternating with the Latin lyrics of the ''Missa Luba'', and its flipside traditional sources of the liturgical adaptation.
But the music which most ''ministers'' now is that which I don't UNDERSTAND a single word, from the Wolof lyrics and balafon of a rural liturgy by the OSB monks of Keur Moussa to the kora's strains of Youssou N'Dour back in the city; from the Mandarin office chant of Trappist monks in Taiwan to Canto-pop crossover (to Japanese!) Kelly Chen's techno beat; that which allows me to cognitively UNPLUG and stop processing the verbiage, to simply wrap myself in the sound itself and give thanx for the source from whence this creation flows. Not very SECULAR, I know, but the binary pitfalls of such a distinction speak for themselves, based on one's theology of ministry, itself predicated on one's model of ecclesiology, grounded ultimately by one's model of revelation, as Cardinal Avery Dulles has most eloquently demonstrated.
Amy Ho-Ohn
7 years ago
@JR, I like your friend's hymn, she sings it extremely well, and I certainly approve of the theme. But I think the Broadway style of performance and composing is rather incompatible with the sacramental purpose of music, don't you? ISTM, that style is devised to entertain and even, a bit, to arouse. If the listener is thinking about the singer, even if not explicitly romantically, he (or she) is being distracted from, not directed toward worship.

I think I missed the point in Professor Beaudoin's question somewhat. I was thinking of music from the point of view of the musician, but he was probably asking more about the point of view of the composer and listener. That is a very hard problem to say anything succinct about: to what extent should the composer accomodate the "audience" and should it ever come at the expense of how he (or she) wants the music to give glory to God? Probably that was a lot easier to answer back when the parameters were all set by the fact that if the bishop didn't like the music, he didn't pay the bill.

@beth, I was in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, and Armed Forces Radio used to play that "Born in the USA" thing just about every hour of every day. The only other station available broadcast homilies from the local mosque all day. I think I've had all the Bruce Springsteen I need for one lifetime. (Soldiers are like priests in that those who are most eager to sing are invariably those who are least competent to do it.)
Amy Ho-Ohn
7 years ago
I don't want to start a fight here, but I personally do not consider "rock" real music.

Real music is one of the most sacramental experiences human life affords. The thousands of hours alone in an otherwise empty practice room, the necessity of unceasing practice, the despair when it seems something essential but apparently quite simple may never be mastered, the feeling of time leaking away while technique tarries, the struggle to be a conduit for the composer's message and not merely a self-aggrandizing performer, the recognition that the brain and muscles find their own way to the goal in their own time and often one's conscious mind can only wait patiently and accept gratefully what happens seemingly without its participation; musicianship is the life of the Christian soul corporealized in flesh, wood and string.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years ago
unbelievably powerful and moving clip.  thank you.

I played piano when I was growing up, and my mother used to say that when I was angry (or experiencing some emotion that I couldn't express), I would head to the piano.

When I hear good music now, I tend to think that it is expressing "God" in ways that can't be expressed any other way.   Amy said it well with "musicianship is the life of the Christian soul corporealized in flesh, wood and string."  But I hear it in Rock Music too.  Try some Bruce Springsteen, Amy.
J Cosgrove
7 years ago

 ''I personally do not consider ''rock'' real music.''

Heresy.  Well maybe modern rock but ''Give me that old time rock and roll''   Today's music hasn't got the same soul.


Here is something to ask you.  What do you think about a new modern Christmas hymn that a woman I know wrote and performed (I know it is Christmas past now but it will be here again in 11 months). She once sang in a minor part on Broadway and writes religious music now.


J Cosgrove
7 years ago
There were two very popular singers in the 90's that are still performing and whose music often contains a lot of lessons about life.  They are Garth Brooks and Billy Joel.  Brooks' music is often inspirational, ''River'', ''Standing outside the fire'', ''The Dance'', ''If Tomorrow never comes'' and several others while Joel's often depicts the traps that music brings to life, ''Piano Man'', ''Christie Lee''.  Brooks has several songs about the traps that ensnare young men in Southwest in what many see as a pointless way of life, namely Rodeo, Much Too Young and others.  

Billy Joel has songs that one might consider anti_Catholic and we have to be careful with how music depicts life because it is so emotional.  There are lots of songs that people find inspirational and which are not religious.  Because music is very emotional we have to be careful it doesn't lead us astray.


The latest from america

Women served as deacons in Europe for about a millennium in a variety of ministerial and sacramental roles.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 15, 2019
In preparation for the gathering in Abu Dhabi, I find myself asking why my conversations with the future Pope Francis so powerfully affected both of us.
Abraham SkorkaJanuary 15, 2019
Photo: iStock
Included on the list is John T. Ryan, S.J., who from 1989 to 1994 was an associate editor for development at America.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 15, 2019
Did you ever wonder why Jesus was baptized? What sins did Jesus have to repent of? Nothing.
James Martin, S.J.January 14, 2019