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The Counter-Narratives of Radical Theology and Popular Music: Songs of Fear and Trembling (Edited by Mike Grimshaw)

In 1965, the radical theologian William Hamilton stated the following:
‘If “Empty Bed Blues”, Tennessee Williams and “Guernica” are the sights and sounds of neo-orthodox theology, perhaps radical theology is closer to “We Shall Overcome”, Saul Bellow and Robert Rauschenberg.’


[Mike Grimshaw introduces his recent edited volume, The Counter-Narratives of Radical Theology and Popular Music:  Songs of Fear and Trembling (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).]

In 1965, the radical theologian William Hamilton stated the following:

 If “Empty Bed Blues”, Tennessee Williams and “Guernica” are the sights and sounds of neo-orthodox theology, perhaps radical theology is closer to “We Shall Overcome”, Saul Bellow and Robert Rauschenberg.

(“The Shape of a Radical Theology”, The Christian Century 6 October 1965 p.1222.)

The following mix-tape of essays, was, in the mind of Mike Grimshaw, both inspired by and pursued in reference to this quote. He sought out those, like himself, who combined a varying obsession of theology and music: those who experienced, heard and saw ‘a sight and sound’ of radical theology. The mix-tape that resulted, by those who, in some way align themselves with radical theology, expresses what radical theologies might sound like in the twenty-first century.

Nietzsche’s death of God is, we must always remember, a proclamation, a reminder of what has already occurred, not the warning of an event yet to occur. The madman proclaims an event most are unaware of, for they live in a society indifferent to the revolutionary challenge of Christianity; the 1960s death of god was the relocation of that challenge into American modernity and against a culture that proclaimed itself Christian but had reduced Christianity into a cultural, bourgeois respectability and transcendence.

Yet the kenosis sitting at the heart of the death of God, the radical identification of God with the secular, with the saeculum, with humanity also involves a turn to the everyday, the mundane as the location of challenge, meaning and a limited, liminal transcendence.

It was never a choice between rock’n’roll and radical theology, for radical theology was and is a theology at home in the sweaty, profane, materialist yet transcendently aching world of rock’n’roll. Both, when done properly, are raising issues of existence and meaning, of taking the canon and rupturing it anew, remaking, re-stretching, remoulding its resources against itself into a radical configuration with the here and now we find ourselves in.

Radical theology and rock’n’roll are all a type of counter-narrative, a soundtrack to live by that speak of value in a world of kitsch and cheap sentiment, that ache for meaning in a world too easily opiated, that both know and realise it is up to us to remake the traditions and its possibilities to challenge ourselves constantly anew.

The death of rock’n’roll has become a challenge for a radical rock just as the death of God called for a radical theology, a theology against theology, just as rock constantly was rock against rock, music against comfort and cheap sentiment. Just as radical theology is done by those outside the mainstream, by those who may not or would not be considered as theologians by those seeking to keep the institutions and the business of theology alive, so the death of rock forces us to rediscover and recover that which existed outside the boundaries of the normative and the respectable.

To write our own bibles is part of being modern: to write out of doubt, angst, existential yearning and hope, to attempt to make present that which we perceive and experience as absent, to deal with those issues of self and time and place and identity, to give voice to the questions and troubles of existence…

We (that post-war pop-music generation) turned to rock’n’roll as the accessible sonic poets of meaning and transcendence in what is a world of melting modernity. I argue rock’n’roll is secular, in that it is of the saeculum, the world of shared experience, yet contains the elements for a passing transitory experience. As a modern expression and experience rock’n’roll attempts to write its own bibles, but the sonic bibles of rock’n’roll are mundane, rebellious, blasphemous, yet also full of that Kierkegaardian fear and trembling.

Greil Marcus’ presentation in The Dustbin of History of the issues lying behind the rock critic’s task speak into the hermeneutics of the sonic bibles:

The worry that our sense of history, as it takes place in everyday culture, is cramped, impoverished, and debilitating; that the commonplace assumption that history exists only in the past is a mystification powerfully resistant to any critical investigations that might reveal this assumption to be a fraud, or a jail. The suspicion is that we are living out history, making and unmaking it-forgetting it, denying it- all of the time, in far more ways than we have really learned.[i]

Yet such an existential dilemma, that sense of modern melting, the hermeneutics of rock, in and out of which are created the secular sonic bibles, exists within the experience that Barney Hoskyns writes of:

…Nothing has ever moved and excited me like great rock’n’roll – like punk, soul, electro-pop, alt-country and all the other sub-strata of the Anglo-American genus  Rock…what rock’n’roll was really about: the irresistible combo of sound and spectacle; of music, performance, image, attitude and ritual. [ii]

In short, we could argue that rock is an ontological attitude, but then Hoskins makes a fascinating qualification:

Music is about spirit, not matter: it’s about our emotional lives, not our material status.[iii]

Therefore a further qualification is required – rock is the expression and hermeneutics of emotional lives in a material word, of how spirit is claimed and experienced in matter; which I would argue is that tension that drives secular and radical theology…One of the drivers of this book was a cooment made by a friend of mine in an article on the new Zealand post-punk garage-pop noiseters the 3Ds:

The 3Ds came to me like Chinese whispers. Sweating and drunk, my friend Mike, who was studying theology, wandered out of an Orientation gig and declared them rock’n’roll gods. I thought if anyone could recognize the divine, he could.[iv]

This book is written by and for those, who in their own ways, sought and seek signs of the divine, in a constructive radical theology of materialist presence. In the mundane these sonic bibles written by and for us challenge with the hopes and fears of life after God; songs of fear and trembling, of idiots running the streets proclaiming the challenge of a new world to the indifferent. When the canon closed the question was how do we interpret it in our here and now. This collection of essays is a type of mix-tape, presenting different attempts to do this, making use of the sonic bibles.

As the great rock critic Lester Bangs wrote:

…I was interested, because it seemed to me then, as it does now, that the only questions worth asking today are whether humans are going to have any emotions tomorrow, and what the quality of life will be if the answer is no.[v]

These essays are what happens when those of a radical theological temperament wrestle with the sonic bibles of those dealing with the questions of the quality of life. In this they provide a different take on what can be read and listened to as political theology- a theology of materialist presence that argues in their own way in each essay/track- even between themselves as is the want of any mix-tape- as to what is of meaning and value, as to what are the questions of the quality of life…

Playlist/table of contents

1. Sonic Bibles and the Closing of the Canon: The Sounds of Secular, Mundane Transcendence?; Mike Grimshaw
2. My Affair with Ian; Jennifer K. Otter
3. In the Colony with Joy Division; Clayton Crockett
4. Sonic Stigmatas: Towards a New Fear and Trembling; Sophie Fuggle
5. Improvisation and Divine Creation: A Riff on John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’; Sam Laurent
6. Protocols of Surrender | Stammering Along the Gothic Line; Joshua Ramey
7. Louis Armstrong: A Rhapsody on Repetition and Time; Jeffrey W. Robbins
8. I Know my Way from Here: Walking the Hutterite Mile with David Eugene Edwards; Eric Repphun
9. Meeting God in the Sound: The Seductive Dimension of U2’s Future Hymns; Deane Galbraith
10. Praying the Confiteor at Westminster Abbey: Four-on-the Floor Apocalypse; Christopher D. Rodkey
11. Nick Cave and Death; Roland Boer
12. Combine Dry Ingredients, Mix Well: Constituting Worlds through Mix-tapes and Maxi-mixes: Chris Nichol
13. Why Kanye West Gets it Wrong: it’s not ‘Jesus walks’ but ‘Christ who is glimpsed’…(or how to think theologically in the modern city); Mike Grimshaw
14. Stop, Think, Stop; Daniel Colucciello Barber


Mike Grimshaw is an associate professor at the School of Language, Social and Political Sciences at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. 


[1] Greil Marcus, The Dustbin of History, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995, p.3.

[2] Barney Hoskyns, “Intro: Hail, Hail Rock’n’Roll Writing” in Barney Hoskyns ed.,The Sound and the Fury: 40Years of Classic Rock Journalism: A Rock’s Backpages Reader, London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2003, p.ix.  See also:http://www.rocksbackpages.com/

[3] Ibid., p.xi.

[4] Hamish McDoull,  “The Venus Trail” in Grant Smithies, Soundtrack. 118 Great New Zealand Albums, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, 2007, p.13.

[5] Lester Bangs, “Richard Hell: Death means never having to say you’re incomplete” in Greil Marcus ed. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, New York: Vintage, 1987, p.262.





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