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Vaughan S. Roberts Publishes "Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Saves Our Souls"

Alumnus Vaughan S. Roberts (M.A.T.S., 1982) shares greetings from Warwick in England (the county town of Warwickshire, best known for Stratford upon Avon - William Shakespeare's birthplace). Vaughan was an International Student at McCormick before finishing training as an Episcopalian/Anglican Minister in Cambridge, UK and currently serves as Rector at the Collegiate Church of St. Mary. He wrote in to share the good news of having co-authored a new book with Clive Marsh, entitled Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Saves Our Souls for the "Engaging Culture" series at Baker Academic Press.

Vaughan writes that, "As part of our project Clive Marsh and I conducted a broad survey of people’s musical listening habits during 2009 and 2010, and aim to have two papers analyzing that data completed by the end of 2012. McCormick Alumni might be interested to know that some data was collected at Ghost Ranch, the Presbyterian Church’s education and retreat center in New Mexico, and during a road trip taken with Tim and Beth Hart-Andersen (two other McCormick alums) across 12 states in the summer of 2009." Vaughan will be in Chicago for the launch of the book at this November's American Academy of Religion conference in Chicago.

A sneak peek of his research can be found in two presentations he's made. The first, entitled, Theology, Aesthetics and Culture: Conversations with the work of David Brown was presented at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts. The second, entitled Soundtracks of Acrobatic Selves: Fan-Site Religion in the Reception and Use of the Music of U2, was presented at the American Academy of Religion in 2009.

The book's foreword was written by Tom Beaudoin, Associate Professor at Fordham University:

One of the most fundamental experiences of human life in almost any culture is music’s power to structure personal and social identity and relationships. There are special reasons for this to be true in contemporary technological societies, where musical invention and enjoyment is notably diffuse and influential in everyday life. This is so on a micro level, when people can personalize their favorite music electronically, listening in privacy throughout their day. It is also true on a macro level, with the profusion of concert and festival culture, from public minstrels on street corners and in subway stations, to larger concerts and multi-day festivals, all of which show every sign of increasing their place in the soundscape that arranges everyday life for a majority of the world’s privileged people.

Music, especially that music disseminated “popularly” through electronic media platforms of Internet, film, and television, is a fundamental palette for contemporary sensing, for negotiating what is real. Popular music is that color wheel in relation to which people identify those claiming powers around which they orient their lives. The experience of those who enjoy music, inadequately called (and sometimes dismissed as) “fans,” is a significant frame for holding whatever people come to call religious or spiritual.

Clive Marsh and Vaughan Roberts are on the leading edge of research that makes theological sense of popular music. With Personal Jesus, they show how important it is for theologically-minded people to take seriously the concerns of fans, as those active listeners experience the music that they love, that they incorporate into their bodily dispositions and their thinking, and that they ritualize. They show how religious studies is not an optional discourse for comprehending popular music’s function in everyday life, but an important partner in an interdisciplinary exploration. They do all this while balancing respect for the impact of music on listeners and the active meanings that fans make of it, on the one hand, and the theological tradition that provides basic concepts for organizing experience, for those related to—but not stuck within—religious communities, on the other.

Much theological research to date in popular culture studies has treated pop culture as a set of “texts” waiting to be read, like minor bibles awaiting postmodern interpreters. I am not the only theologian who has resisted working from the experience and practice of others, having often preferred my own practice instead, but cloaked in and defended by normative-sounding, systematic-theological-aspiring, concepts. Marsh and Roberts rightly criticize my and others’ work, or rather resituate it in its promise and limits, and help change the conversation. If popular music matters, they argue, that mattering has to do with its uses. Even more so, if it matters theologically, that mattering has to do with music’s effect on human beings. In so proceeding, Marsh and Roberts prepare the way for a new style of making theological sense of popular culture. The continued decline of the influence of religious traditions makes this kind of theological study even more imperative. In this situation, Marsh and Roberts show us why studying the lived experience of popular music is an imperative if we want to find out where religion cohabitates with ordinary stuff, more or less openly, today: in the spaces of meaning communicated by music in everyday life.

Tom Beaudoin Fordham University, New York City

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