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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Personal Jesus" (Clive Marsh & Vaughan S. Roberts)

TITLE: Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls (Engaging Culture)
AUTHOR: Clive Marsh and Vaughan S. Roberts
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012, (256 pages).

Can music really shape our souls? This fascinating academic inquiry is an attempt to shed light on that. Music shapes us by providing a common interface. This common interface is where ideas, hopes, dreams, emotions, spirituality, and all manner of human expressions can interact. Further understanding of how music shapes us can be appreciated through the use of a host of other academic disciplines like sociology, psychology, cultural studies, anthropology, media, musicology, philosophy, communications, theology, and many more. All of these show the far reaching influence of music. On a personal level, music is able to help express the human being's personal, social identity, and relationship that is not mere religious or non-religious, but helps to express a deeply authentic experience. The authors claim that the place of music as a medium of human expression is becoming more and more crucial as religions and traditions take a back seat in modern Western society. Music expresses us well through "spaces of meaning." Some of the questions being asked in the book are:
  • Why do people choose certain music?
  • Why do they prefer certain ways to listen to them?
  • What is the meaning behind the choices?
  • What messages or societal themes are communicated in the music?
  • How do we understand the messages in music?
  • How do we think Christianly about music?
The authors' key contention is this:
"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." (xv)

A Summary Review

The framework of the book comprises of three parts. The first part deals with music in general and how it is intrinsically linked with religion, no matter how secular one claims their music to be. The second part looks at pop music and the everyday lifestyle it impacts. The third part looks at music from a more philosophical and theological angle.

Part One basically gives a tour of music and religion, and how they interact in the music space. The journey begins with an exploration of what music does. It helps people break life's monotony. It offers opportunities for commercialization. It offers an avenue for escape. Both demanding and undemanding, music can become a tussle between conformity and creativity. Marsh and Roberts traces three conceptual developments with regards to music and culture. Firstly, there is a shift from mass culture to popular culture, of how a monopoly spreads its influence to wider domains. Economic concerns and secularism are some of the push factors for this shift. Secondly, there is a shift from "transmission view to ritual communications" where convictions and faith are infused into the message and the medium. In other words, music is no longer just about the content. It is also about the convictions behind the content. Thirdly, like the shift in reading from author to text and to reader, music and culture is going through a shift from "production to reception," on how music eventually becomes a commodity for consumption.  For all the three shifts, the authors interact with the works of Gordon Lynch, Pete Ward, and Kevin Vanhoozer, arguing that the religious realm and the popular realm are much more integrated. With a focus that lands back on the laps of the recipient, the reader, and the receiver, the authors aim to define "affective space" which is what people in general are people's responses to music's influence. Here is where Marsh and Roberts introduce the fascinating model, the Magisteria-Ibiza Spectrum to map the consumption of music. What this model does well is as follows:
  • They show that every participant are located in multiple social settings
  • There are both voluntary as well as involuntary social contexts
  • People are not as individualistic as they may think
  • There are authority figures at work
  • Making a choice of which authority to be subjected to is a dynamic exercise
  • Enjoyment and the influence of music happen very much at the same time.
It is no easy matter to separate religion from music. Some have tried to do so with embarrassing consequences such as certain pious individuals, who in the name of God seek either to flatly oppose or to try to wrestle back music from the "devil." Such attempts not only show their ignorance of music per se, it numbs their awareness that music is very much a legitimate expression of humanity.

Part Two goes deeper into what music does for people and to people, and how it links to cultural behaviour. Marsh and Roberts also point to several studies that link religion to consumerism and capitalism, as people flock to "consume" stuff like music. On the other hand, there are instances where the flow is reverse, like some songs of U2 that begins with a religious text and appeals to the people's hearts. There are also several reflections over how technology has changed the way music is enjoyed. From MP3 players to file sharing on the network, to modern research of how originality of the music pieces affects popularity among the receivers. Interestingly, moderate originality brings about highest popularity ratings, according to research by Dean Simonton. The discussion between the tensions of stability/innovation and tradition/imagination suggest that all are interrelated to the extent that they shape each other. Music can also be both physical as well as symbolic, social as well as metaphorical. The study of the hit song "Thriller" can only be appreciated more if we study the physical life of the famous singer too. There are embodied meaning in the music. 

There is also a transcendental element in music in at least four ways. The authors call it "Four forms of Transport." The first is to create an experience of wonder that can help them escape from normal life. The second form is a communal dimension where people sing along with one another, through participation. The third form is the "physicality of transcendence" of getting caught up in the music. The last form is about the "power of lyrics" to evoke feelings and yearnings, especially love songs. Transcendence matters because it forms a crucial part of human experience, that combines humanity with spirituality.

With the ecstatic high, music can also be a channel to walk one through the low periods of life, like deaths and funerals. The authors make a case that even in secular circles, religiosity is never totally cut off. On the one hand, singers like Madonna expresses negative opinions about things Church or religion. On the other hand, they gravitate toward a meaning that is beyond themselves.  There are songs in the secular realm that are based on Biblical themes, such as "Jacob's Ladder." What is significant is that music provides an arena for the overlapping of many themes, both human and divine, secular and sacred, present and the future. Rituals are part of human behaviour. They are part of human expression. 

On technology and music, the authors observe that the technology used often express the personality of the user. For instance, the playlist is an expression of the individual choices and nature. Many songs are also written based on real events of the writers, like the Paul McCartney's "Yesterday." Just as there are four forms of transport in transcendence experience, there are four hallmarks of devotion in terms of "intensity," "meditative," "repetitive," and "authority."  All of these are noticeable in songs of worship. 

Part Three of the book is of special interest for Christian audiences as it has more familiar content that is connected with worship and spirituality. It looks at the way we listen, the content of the pop music, and how readers can think theologically about it all. A theology of engagement essentially requires the listener to interact and to engage either by "assimilation, resistance, and overhearing." They even provide seven functions of music. Finally, some basic theology is introduced, on the image of God, sin, human nature, salvation, and eternal life, using the works of Cobb and Levitin to compare songs.

Finally, the author ends with some implications for the Church, for Christian theological education, the academic life, and everyday listening. Both educational and entertainment aspects are carefully considered and explored.

My Thoughts

Written primarily for Christian seminaries, colleges, and those studying Christian theology, this book is also meant for anyone interested in the study of religious themes in the music environment, and how it impacts people.They have broadened the selection of music beyond mere "Christian music."

The title of the book is a clue to the big idea of the book. What is "Personal Jesus?" It gives us an idea of Christ's humanity and divinity manifested in one person of Christ, not separated but unite. Likewise, music is not something we separate easily. Music is not only an integrated device, it integrates both matter and persons. It combines the physical with the spiritual, the emotional with the intellectual, the highs and the lows of life. With such an understanding, it is not wise to separate music into Christian or non-Christian music, secular or sacred music. Taken in itself, it music is to be authentic, it is to be able to be an authentic expression of oneself, of choice, and of honesty. This book is an academic work and is thus written for readers at an intermediate to advanced level of social and cultural engagement studies. It can be quite difficult to follow the book piece-meal, as the way it is written tries to flow and capture the essence of what music and theology represent.  Music and theology cannot straitjacket each other. Instead, they built one another up. Theological expression can be given a musical element. Likewise, music can display a rich theological tradition. Any attempt to dichotomize them will be futile and less than authentic. Perhaps, there can still be one distinction: Good music vs Bad Music. The ones that are good are those that create not only the ecstatic or aesthetic appeal, but able to capture the essence of the human experience, hope, transcendence, and spirituality. This is truth. When the theological truth is embraced by the beauty of music, we have an impressive work of art that is insightful, meaningful, and inspiring.

One more thing. Even though religions are generally pushed to the sidelines or background in many parts of society, that does not mean people are less religious. Music making is not a matter of religiosity or not, but very much a part of being human. Overall, this is quite a comprehensive work and it requires a fair bit of patient reading in order to get a hang of it. For those of us music lovers and are keen to engage music a little more philosophically or theologically, this book is a feast.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Baker Academic and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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