Making (Religious) Meaning out of (Pop) Music

Few scholars of religion and popular culture are as thorough in their articulation of both methodology and findings (and limitations of said findings) as Clive Marsh and Vaughn S. Roberts are in their book, Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls. It’s a challenging read, but indispensable for music lovers and those who engage religion, the arts, and pop culture.

While Marsh and Roberts focus their research on popular music, with only minor alterations, their discussions could just as easily apply to film, television, literature, etc. In fact, to support their methodology, they draw from other scholars and practitioners of these arts. But unlike those other art forms, popular music shadows almost every moment of our waking lives: we get dressed to it, dance to it, shop to it, drive to it; it fills our films and TV programs and the commercial spaces in between. For its conspicuousness alone, such a study is warranted.

And everybody (well, almost) listens to it. believers, agnostics, and atheists alike. And they all attach meaning to it, whether they know it or not. Songs/artists get us through tough times, mark moments of great joy, make us contemplative, and even depress us. As such, Marsh and Roberts’ book (though highly academic in tone) is suitable for a wide audience of music-loving laity to students of theology and/or culture to ministers looking to engage their congregants on a deeper level regarding the types of entertainment they enjoy

Marsh and Roberts examine “what popular music does to people and what people do with popular music through the kinds of music they listen to and the way they listen, […offer] interpretations of what is going on and [conclude] with some suggestions regarding how music illustrates what popular culture generally is doing in Western society today” (xiii). Thankfully, Marsh and Roberts do not obsess over lyrics. Although they are interested in what musicians have to say, they are far more interested in the ways in which audiences (fans) interpret (make meaning out of) these lyrics, recognizing that these meanings will be as diverse as an artist’s fan base. They are also interested in how fans consume this music as well (alone, in groups, purchasing albums, downloading individual songs, etc.). As a result, Marsh and Roberts give significant attention to the communal aspect of music consumption, which then leads them into reflections on its potential sacramental nature, perhaps a more daring engagement for many (most?) religious readers.

Marsh and Roberts follow a very methodical and detailed path, which might be frustrating to readers who want to get to the conversation between pop culture and Christian theology. They divide their book into three sections: Music and Religion, Living by Pop Music, and Pop Music and Theology. Their first section is a broader survey of the historical relationship between religion and pop culture and how the two have taken on aspects of each other throughout history, not just in the 21st century. Here, they also explore “Affective Space,” which they define as “any practice or activity that entails significant emotional engagement, through which a person can be shown to be doing more than just enjoying the moment” (16). They also create a spectrum, the Magisteria-Ibiza Spectrum (pictured below), on which they map listeners’ music consumption and meaning making practices.

The second section is a deep exploration of the world of pop music and its influences on the marketplace, the body, spirituality, ritual and worship, and personal canons. The third and final section is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Here, they place Christian theology and pop music in conversation, albeit brief, with one another and explore what the latter has to say about God, humanity, sin, salvation, and eternity. They conclude with a brief postscript laying out several next steps for ministers, theology/seminary professors, “secular” academics, and everyday listeners.

Again, while Personal Jesus can occasionally be some arduous reading, it is rewarding. Its frustrations are also its strengths: the authors’ attention to detail and their recognition of the limits to their findings only bolster the conclusions that they draw in the final section of their book, which begs further publications that will bring to life more conversations between pop music artists and Christian (and other) theologians.