Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

Personal Jesus – Clive Marsh and Vaughan Roberts [Feature Review]

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0801039096″ locale=”us” height=”110″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51ShRQ4rHFL._SL110_.jpg” width=”73″]Page 2: Personal Jesus – Clive Marsh and Vaughan Roberts

This approach opens up various possibilities for deeper exploration. Marsh and Roberts begin by discussing the notion of affective space as “a practice or activity that entails significant emotional engagement through which a person can be shown to be doing more than just enjoying the moment.” They construct a theological framework they dub “The Magisteria-Ibiza Spectrum” on which to situate a whole range of communally conditioned responses to popular music, and proceed from there to reflect on a number of theological categories that come to bear on those responses. Freed from focusing solely on lyrical content, Marsh and Roberts are able to explore what they perceive to be four dominant theological themes that influence our engagement with popular music: transcendence, embodiment, connectedness, and ritual. As they explore these four themes as well as various subsets within these themes (such as canon, consumption, bereavement practices, and community formation), they employ a wide range of examples, from the familiar (U2 and Lady Gaga) to the slightly more obscure (Sigur Ros and Nick Cave). And while some of their examples may involve a bit of a stretch—the discussion of embodiment in the work of Frankie Goes to Hollywood was less compelling to me than other potential examples might have been—others, such as their exploration of the communal aspects of a Springsteen concert, were far more helpful. Whether or not every example immediately resonates with readers, however, it is evident that Marsh and Roberts are committed and careful listeners of popular music across a spectrum of genres and time periods, a fact which only strengthens their arguments throughout the book.

Just as impressive is the authors’ engagement with a diverse collective of scholars and theories from a variety of fields. Their commitment to an interdisciplinary approach is on full display in every chapter, as they seek to bring as many voices as possible into the conversation. In addition to their interaction with the work of theologians like David Brown, James Smith, and Kelton Cobb, they continually explore the writings of thinkers from other fields: anthropologist Daniel Levitin on “the six types of song”; philosopher Michel de Certau on urban experience; Charles Taylor’s secularization thesis; Dell DeChant and George Ritzer on modern forms of consumption; and numerous others. The authors cast their net so wide that dealing with each specific conversation partner with whom they interact is impossible. At times, the greatest challenge for a reader of this work (and undoubtedly for the authors) is connecting these various threads into a cohesive argument for the significance of popular music. Nevertheless, Marsh and Roberts’ efforts are largely successful.

Personal Jesus is a welcome addition to any conversation about religion and culture generally, and an invaluable piece of any conversation between theology and popular music. In a context where even the most passing reference to God in a lyric is seen as evidence of a musical artist’s religious commitment, or the occasional curse word provides justification for tossing out an album or an artist altogether, Marsh and Roberts demand that readers look more deeply at listening to popular music as a theological practice, and in the process make a compelling case that disciples of Jesus Christ should engage this supposedly trivial realm of culture at levels deeper than those previously imagined or attempted.


C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
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