[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”0801039096″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51ShRQ4rHFL.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”Personal Jesus” ]Listening More Carefully.
A Feature Review of
Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes our Souls.
Clive Marsh and Vaughan Roberts
Paperback: Baker, 2013.
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Reviewed by Todd Edmondson
If my own adolescence is at all typical, for a certain subset of kids growing up in Christian households in the latter decades of the twentieth century the conversation between religious faith and popular music could be neatly divided into four pivotal moments:
- Hell’s Bells, the documentary that attempted to expose a demon lurking within every Bananarama lyric, but really only succeeded, via its disapproving use of clips, in introducing young, impressionable viewers to the awesomeness of Led Zeppelin.
- Those cassette/CD burning parties that all the really spiritual kids seemed to be having with their youth groups.
- The signs at the Christian bookstore that recommended various Christian bands for fans of various secular bands: (e.g. “If you like Green Day, you should listen to MxPx.”) Those signs were very helpful.
- Amy Grant’s Heart in Motion: Abomination or Abomination that Causes Desolation?
Through the years, as both my musical tastes and my desire for theological engagement developed, these relics and debates from my past lost their appeal. I was hungry for discussion that might help me connect the dots between the gospel message that was shaping my life and the strains of rock, punk, folk and hip-hop that filled so much of my time. Along the way, I discovered the work of Steve Turner, a contributor to SPIN and professor at Regent College, whose Hungry for Heaven began to show me that there were thoughtful people out there who valued discipleship and also enjoyed Dylan and the Stones. Magazines like Relevant and Paste had much to offer to the conversation, and books like Broken Hallelujahs by Christian Scharen advanced the discourse, confirming my suspicions that there was a deeper level at which a believer in Jesus Christ could listen to this music that has undeniably become a lingua franca of our culture.
The latest work to enter this fertile field is Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls by Clive Marsh and Vaughan S. Roberts. The book, which borrows its title from a chart-topping Depeche Mode song (later covered by Johnny Cash), is a recent entry in Baker Academic’s Engaging Culture series. Like the other titles in the series, such as Reel Spirituality, Visual Faith, and Performing the Sacred, this contribution by Marsh and Roberts endeavors to encourage discernment in the ways that Christians respond to contemporary culture. Personal Jesus continues the series trend of being both academic and accessible, focusing on a readership that includes “those in the academy who are also contributors to this [the theology/religion and popular culture] discussion, and those in ecclesial communities who make use of the fruits of related research and writing.” If anyone is going to be left out of the conversation, then, it will be due to a choice to listen to music uncritically, or, alternatively, to view all of popular culture through a lens of “church vs. world” that renders true conversation impossible.
For everyone else, Marsh and Roberts’ greatest achievement in this work is to construct a theological framework for listening to and responding to popular music that operates at a deeper level than any I have previously encountered. The obvious, default position for most who enter into this conversation is to focus on lyrical content, to examine only what a musical artist is saying with his/her words and how that might reflect positively or negatively on the Christian faith. Marsh and Roberts admirably avoid this approach. While not ignoring lyrics completely, they pay far more attention to the question of what popular music does from a theological perspective, rather than what it says, as well as the related questions of what we are doing theologically when we listen to such music, and how such music functions theologically in our lives. While the distinction is usually a blurry one with various opportunities for overlap, Marsh and Roberts choose to attend to the aspect of listening to popular music as a practice, rather than simply viewing pieces of popular music as texts. Specifically, they ask how and why listening to popular music might function in our lives as a religion-like practice.