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Rock and Roll and Religion: Theologian to Present at Music Festival


Depending on the faith tradition you belong to, the words “religion” or “spirituality” might lead you to think about music, for instance, hymns.

Tom Beaudoin, Ph.D., associate professor of theology at the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education

But if given the word “music,” would as many people think of the spiritual?

According to Tom Beaudoin, Ph.D., the link between music and spirituality is perfectly reasonable—and he’s headed to the biggest musical festival in the South to explain why.

Beaudoin, an associate professor of theology at the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE), will travel to Austin, Texas next week to take part in the South By Southwest musical festival. The annual gathering features more than 2,000 bands and attracts tens of thousands of fans that gather to hear live music, learn about film and technology, and network with prominent music industry members.

“It’s several days of an alternative universe where the only things that exist are great new music, a few classic older bands, and lots of enjoyment,” Beaudoin said.

Beaudoin will join Monica Miller, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Lewis & Clark College, and David Nantais, director of University Ministry at the University of Detroit Mercy, on one of the many panels that occur over the weeklong festival.

Their presentation, “Into the Mystic: Secular Music as a Quest for More,” will examine how fans and musicians alike use popular music for their personal and communal spiritual quests.

“In everyday life, music often plays an important piece in people’s spiritual lives, however they define spirituality and whatever their music taste is,” Beaudoin said. “The purpose [of the panel]is to think out loud, ask about this relationship between what we value most in our lives and what we listen to.”

A bassist in two rock and roll bands, Beaudoin is also the head of the Rock and Theology Project, a forum for people with both theological interests and musical zeal to discuss how the two worlds inform one another.

“I think the basic connection between the two is that music helps people explore feelings, commitments, and questions that people might have no other way of accessing—and that are related to people’s relationship to ultimate reailty,” he said.

This deep, spiritual experience of music can come in the form of connecting with the lyrics and message of a song, but it also goes deeper, he said. For instance, music can conjure certain feelings or images that help listeners to connect with themselves, others, or even God on a new level.

Which, incidentally, is also an important goal of theology.

“I believe that theology has to speak to the experience of being human as such, which is far bigger than the experience of being in a church. And so I want to try a way of doing theology that can speak to people who find themselves either religious or nonreligious,” Beaudoin said.

“Good theology can do that—can learn to speak in ways that are accessible to religious and nonreligious people. And not only accessible, but informed by church experience and experience from beyond the church—for example, in the larger worlds of the enjoyment of popular or secular music, worlds that cross religions and cultures.”


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