Music, Theology, and Justice

Michael O’Connor, Hyun-Ah Kim, and Christiana Labriola, eds.
Published by Lexington Books in 2017

Music, Theology, and Justice is a thought-provoking collection of case studies which invite the reader to contemplate how, when, and why music and musical practices are used to address the tension we feel between, in the words of contributor Don Saliers, “the world as it is and the world as it ought to be” (197, emphasis in original). The case studies, which discuss musical styles ranging from medieval chant to Daft Punk, and justice issues broadly conceived to include, for example, labor struggles, poverty, human alienation, and environmentalism, demonstrate that humans in a wide variety of contexts use music to identify and respond to the fallen nature of our world. The case studies also demonstrate that when music is used to bridge sin and redemption, whether by those who identify as people of faith or not, their ideas, language, methods, and practices draw from or mirror those of theology, liturgy, and/or spirituality. The case studies are organized in the book around the three Biblical ministerial archetypes of prophet, shepherd, and priest, with each chapter highlighting ways music’s function can be understood as either prophetic, pastoral, or priestly. While these categories sometimes feel forced on the material, they do provide a useful lens with which to begin to see and consider musical activity in a theological framework.

The “prophet” section that opens the book includes three studies in which music is used to draw attention to injustices of various kinds. It begins with chapter by Chelsea Hodge that examines Zilphia Horton’s use of re-texted hymns within the labor movement of the 1940s and ‘50s. Hodge considers how the cultural associations of old spirituals and gospel hymns lingered even when the songs became repurposed as protest songs, and convincingly argues that the songs’ familiar affects helped ease conservative Christian working-class laborers into singing radical texts about the oppression of workers and the efficacy of unions. Michael Iafrate’s chapter on punk rock and liberation theology highlights a subculture within the punk world that takes up social justice issues (anti-racism, eco-justice, feminism), not only in lyrics to songs but also in their lives, through community-building and activism. Iafrate points out that their DIY approach to making music spills over into their efforts in making the world a better place as well. The final contribution to the “prophet” section of the book is a piece by Maeve Louise Heaney, in which she gives an analysis of one of her own compositions which attempts to express musically several aspects of the liberation theology of Jon Sobrino, especially his emphasis on the poor and what the poor can teach us about ourselves, God, and salvation. Heaney offers her own musical work as an exemplar of ways music might express and even function as theology.

The “shepherd” section that follows includes three chapters describing music functioning in a pastoral role. This section opens with an examination by Michael Taylor Ross of theological themes in the work of singer-songwriter Sting, whose lyrics betray a surprisingly coherent theology in which redemption and spiritual development can happen when one encounters “sacred love.” Ross explains how in Sting’s worldview this sacred love can be found (among other areas) in the natural world and in the collective struggle for social justice, both of which are of deep importance to him as an ardent environmentalist. The following chapter by Awet Iassu Andemicael is a moving account of how, in the aftermath of the Bosnian war, an interfaith choir named Pontanima (meaning “bridge of souls” or “spiritual bridge”) was created with the explicit goal of bringing catharsis, healing, and peace to Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish survivors of the conflict and building a positive, religiously-inclusive Bosnian identity. Andemicael highlights the transformative power of singing in community with others, and the practice of intentionally singing the music of your religious neighbor in particular, as a striking way to perform a theology of peace and harmony. This section concludes with Jeremy Scarbrough’s discussion of theological themes in extreme metal, particularly themes of angst, nihilism, despair, and mortality. Scarbrough is quick to laud rather than condemn (as some have in the past) the way this subgenre addresses darker themes with significant theological import.

The book concludes with four chapters under the “priest” theme which all consider liturgical and redemptive roles for music. The first of these, by Jessie Smith, uses the work of James K. A. Smith and others on liturgy to analyze the music and careers of French electronic music duo Daft Punk. The author contends that the duo, in their music, performances, and robotic personae, seeks to lead its fans through a liturgical process that will heal a technologically alienated humanity. The next two chapters, by Christina Labriola and Ella Johnson, are discussions of medieval female musician-mystics. Labriola’s piece describes how Hildegard of Bingen (twelfth century) understood music as having a profound theological significance; in Hildegard’s understanding, living morally or justly is to live “musically”—that is, in harmony with beauty, order, and truth. Labriola describes how this worldview is in evidence in one of Hildegard’s compositions, Ordo Virtutum, in which, for example, the devil character—who cannot by definition be musical—shouts, growls, and barks rather than sings. Johnson turns our attention to Mechthild of Hackeborn (thirteenth century), a cantress who also believed music played a crucial role in bringing people into right relationship with God. As Johnson explains, Mechthild saw herself in partnership with Christ, using musical activity to lead people toward redemption. Finally, Don Saliers offers reflections on the balance between Lament and Doxology so typical of the psalms, and sug4gests that in our own liturgies, whether in church or outside of it, we allow music of both the “world as it is” and “the world as it ought to be” to shape our hearts and minds. Perhaps most importantly, Saliers notes the ways that music seems uniquely suited to bridge the gap between these worlds, and points out that for Christians, who believe that the “world as it ought to be” will eventually arrive, this gives music a profound eschatological quality.

On the whole, the strength of this volume is its diversity, in the musical styles, eras, and contexts discussed, and in the methodological and disciplinary approaches of the various authors. Although it was occasionally jarring to switch from one chapter to the next, this breadth suggests a rich, multilayered topic ripe for further exploration. I would be particularly keen to see more work which followed this collection’s emphasis on music’s social function. Not only is this approach a refreshing change from Christian scholarly engagement of music in the past that was often limited to analyzing content (lyrics, sounds, styles) and origins of the music alone, it is an approach particularly well-suited for addressing issues of justice and ethics, which lie in the realm of social interactions and structures. The editors’ insightful introduction slants the book in this direction already with its opening sentences: “Music does not make itself; it is made by people” (ix). That perspective is then further emphasized by dividing the book into prophetic, pastoral, and priestly sections, all of which focus on roles or functions for music, inviting the question “what cultural work is being performed by the music?” (rather than limiting the discussion to “what is the music about?” or “where/whom did it come from?”).

Although there were many strong chapters in this collection, if readers are pressed for time I would particularly recommend reading three: Ross’s piece on Sting, Smith’s work on Daft Punk, and Andemicael’s piece on the Pontanima choir in Bosnia. These three stand out for being particularly stimulating, well-written, well-researched, rich in detail, and convincingly argued. More importantly, perhaps, each also stand out as having compelling lessons or models that could be applied more broadly in future research. Ross’s Sting chapter, for example, ends with a call for Christians to follow his example and probe theological themes in popular culture even when the artists in question do not identify as people of faith. He argues that we miss vital material when we neglect such topics, writing, “many Christians have been too focused on finding the supposedly pure expressions of Christian truth in secular culture instead of reading popular culture as an opportunity to see what is not adequately addressed in Christian traditions” (89). Smith’s chapter on Daft Punk provides a similar model by reading musical experiences in popular culture not conventionally understood as religious through a liturgical lens. Smith argues that doing so gives us a more robust understanding of how music and embodied experiences have the potential to fire the imagination in ways that words and concepts alone cannot: “What Daft Punk demonstrates is the effectiveness of music itself especially when located in a larger liturgical process, in drawing people into an ecstatic and transformative moment” (159). The broad takeaway for Andemicael’s chapter on the Pontanima choir is also about the transformative power of music, in this case when it is combined with the embodied practice of singing in community. Although this is a familiar theme, it is made powerful by the compelling evidence provided by the choir’s participants and its audience about how their hearts and minds were changed, and the Pontanima story invites speculation about other ways music ensembles might be used to heal fractured communities.

Although the volume was, on balance, impressive, I do feel compelled to note briefly that several chapters were weak enough to be distracting to the overall project. Both Iafrate’s piece on punk rock and Scarbrough’s on extreme metal suffered from writing that was vague, unsubstantiated, and/or sloppy, and both spent far too much time with unnecessary apologetics for the legitimacy of their chosen genres before getting to the heart of their subject. I also took issue with Heaney’s analysis of her own composition. Had this chapter been framed from a composer’s perspective as an explanation of how she conceived of the work’s theological themes it would have passed muster. Instead, she attempts a detailed reading of the work using a method from Nattiez in which she seems to assume that she can somehow step beyond herself and listen to the work as an objective outsider, with no preconceived notions about its meaning and affect. I find the premise unconvincing and the resulting methodology highly problematic.

These distractions aside, the book is an engaging examination of powerful and relevant themes. Its stronger chapters (the majority) have the potential to be used as models for future work in this area, which I hope we will see soon. I recommend this volume in particular for those interested in the expanding field of music and theology, as well as those interested in intersections of faith and culture.

Cite this article
Benita Wolters-Fredlund, “Music, Theology, and Justice”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:4 , 414–416

Benita Wolters-Fredlund

Calvin University
Benita Wolters-Fredlund is a professor of music at Calvin University.