Mashup Religion: A Review

Richard Lindsay reviews John McClure’s new book, Mashup Religion. Check it out after the jump.

It was a bit of kismet that Ryan handed me John S. McClure’s Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention to be reviewed just before I headed off to the Academy of Homiletics meeting in Austin, Texas last weekend. McClure is a professor of homiletics at Vanderbilt Divinity School and a deft theorist on the intersection of popular culture, theology, and preaching. Between bouts of reading the book while seated among the eclectic citizens of Austin on the city’s public transportation system, I was able to talk with John during breaks in the conference. On the closing Saturday, we even had a moment to sit down for a brief one-on-one to get the inside scoop on this fascinating new technique for doing theology.

As a musician and recording studio owner in Nashville (in addition to his “day gig” as a professor) McClure is attuned to the way revolutionary changes in technology have changed the production of music. With computer-based audio editing software, the digital availability of vast libraries of songs, loops, and samples, and the rising popularity of practices like musical mashups (combining songs from different genres using a common beat) songwriting has become a collaborative process of mixture and collage.

In our conversation, McClure contrasts this radical shift in the manipulation of sound-based media to his early days working in music studios: “We were cutting tape with razor blades. Using samples, stretching a sound, or adding beats per minute would have taken days of work. What the average musician has on their home computer is hundreds of times more powerful than the tools a professional producer would have had in the 1960’s.”

In our conversation, McClure pointed out that music recording and theological education have much in common these days, as both are experiencing a “radical decentering of the industry.” Doing music no longer requires the cultural gatekeepers of recording studios and record labels, just as doing theology no longer requires the gatekeepers of seminaries and churches. With this in mind, “There has to be quantum cultural shift that accompanies these changes”— changes in technology and availability of information.

In Mashup Religion, McClure begins with the still-necessary, but familiar to our readers, defense of using popular culture as a text for theological reflection: “For many people in developed nations, the religious life takes place at the intersection between religious traditions, religious or quasi-religious ideologies, and popular culture.” Using Tillich’s language of religion as “ultimate concern,” McClure suggests that music, as an aural and kinesthetic medium, often reaches listeners at a deeper level of ultimate concern than speech. Songwriters in particular have become adept at crystallizing the essential elements of human living— states of love, loneliness, loss, joy, anger, and cycles of death and rebirth. As McClure writes, “For many, the song-maker is a kind of mediator or priest who uses new technologies of recording and mass media to produce meanings, worldviews, and moral soundscapes for our lives.”

McClure’s thesis is that like songwriters, theologians must take cues from changes in technology and learn to “mashup” their writing, teaching, and preaching. McClure spells out a methodology of “tracking” theological writing or preaching along the lines of a four-track recording, including the “tracks” of theology, scripture, culture, and message (which has to do with the arrangement or structure of the theology being presented). Furthermore, he suggests “sampling” or “looping”—a kind of theological bricolage that takes ideas from multiple theological sources and brings them into the mix. Finally, in “mashing up” a theological argument, one may begin to combine contrasting styles of theology—a fundamentalist piece with a liberationist piece, or a neo-orthodox piece with a classic liberal Christian argument. This would also allow for collaboration—more than one contributor working on a single theological piece of writing or teaching. McClure offers case studies of how this process might work in the composition of a sermon, as well as helpful charts and organizational ideas for those of us who have trouble keeping our tracks synced and our loops in line.

Most interesting from our Pop Theology standpoint are some of the ways McClure experiments with this style of doing theology in relation to popular music. He explores the contrasting (progressive/conservative) patriotic theologies of John Mellencamp and Toby Keith. He writes about Johnny Cash’s role as prophetic truth-teller about human troubles of poverty, addiction and crime. He explains Madonna and Sinead O’Connor’s roles as practitioners of an erotic theology of love. He reaches similar conclusions to my review of Eminem about the rapper’s simultaneous talent for capturing a generation’s theology of negation and aggravating tendency to add to that social nihilism through his own homophobic and misogynistic lyrics. In exploring these artists, McClure draws on theologians as wide-ranging as Barth, Tillich, Calvin, Julian of Norwich, Marjorie Suchocki, Tom Beaudoin, and Kelton Cobb.

McClure describes this system of bricolage and appropriation as “post-semiotic,” by which I think he means outside the usual sequential and linguistic structures of theology. I wonder, though, if he has not explored the full implications of what he is proposing in terms of mixture of different forms of media. There is still an assumption in Mashup Religion that theologians will continue with word-based structures of meaning, whether through writing or speaking. This revolution of media and mashup, however, has not just happened in music production. The media are pushing us to compose hybrid constructions of words, sounds, and images. The average YouTube video is more semiotically complex (and more relevant to culture) than most sermons—combining verbal, musical, and visual/filmmaking language into seamless multimedia messages. In this sense, McClure’s book may be a good first step in providing theory behind postmodern development of theological communication. But if the “medium is the message,” the message of theology is going to have to use the media more creatively if it is going to speak to contemporary culture.

Nevertheless, McClure’s book is an exciting and challenging read. I sense in the book and in my conversations with him a mind that is continually exploring the contours of culture, looking to make theology more real and more relevant. McClure is someone who lives and breathes his faith, and is interested in finding theological explanations not just for Jesus Christ, but for Jay-Z and J-Lo. In this regard, those of us who look for spiritual meaning not just in the elevated culture of the church, but in the culture of everyday life, have found a fellow traveler.

For more on Mashup Religion, see John McClure’s Web site: