The following is an invitation to break the silence about religions. “Break the silence” is not just a metaphor for the clamor raised here with these words and phrases in the inaugural edition of this column. I also mean it somewhat literally. Really, break the silence about religions. Get loud! “Make a joyful noise” (Psalm 100:1). Let’s avoid treating religions like they are mostly about quiet or noiseless things like texts, cognitive beliefs, private feelings, institutional structures, contemplative prayer, silent meditation, and otherworldly aspirations that transcend the multifarious world of sensation and perception. An invitation to break the silence is an invitation to understand, critique, express, and participate in the varied ways that sound and music pervade religion. Breaking the silence is a way of getting involved with the myriad ways of “Sounding Sacred.”
So, let’s attune ourselves to two loud pops. These pops are of inestimable importance for the study of religion, but not everybody has attuned their ears to them. Each of the two pops is apparently too loud for much of mainstream religious studies, where these pops are rarely emphasized or even included in teaching and research. Whether in classes, conferences, or journals, it is relatively rare to talk about these pops, and it is even rarer to actually listen to them. Even when we hear about them, we do not necessarily hear them. What, then, are these two, too loud pops?
1) The first pop. Loud religious events happen, particularly through the use of music; furthermore, just because they involve sound does not mean they are any less important than quiet religious events. The first pop resounds with the sonority of religions. Too often, this sonority is not just ignored but overlooked, so that even if it is brought up, it is brought up primarily in a visual context. In that case, the sounds of the sacred become something you look over: looking at a book, for instance, silently reading words and looking at musical notes arranged on staves with clefs and bar lines. Worse than merely ignoring the sonority of religion, overlooking it means degrading it, subordinating it to the quieter practices of visualization and silent reading.
Religion is not just something to be looked at or thought about. It resonates in your ears, vibrates in your larynx, sends chills throughout your body, and compels you to move. Understanding such resonance calls for more than discussions and readings. It calls for one to participate in its sound, listening and responding, becoming musical. Acoustic phenomena are not necessarily the royal road to the sacred, but they are certainly not merely perceptual roadblocks on the way to the sacred. This is the first pop in our broken silence: reclaiming the overlooked loudness of religion and recovering the sonority of the sacred.
2) The second pop. Whereas the first pop is the sonority of religions, the second pop is a different kind of pop. It is the pop of popularity. Breaking the silence about religions entails an engagement not only with the sounds of religions but also with those who are making the sounds. Who is making all that sacred sound? It is not first and foremost the authorities of religious traditions. More primarily, sacred sounds come from popular culture, which can be defined broadly as the set of cultural phenomena belonging not to a handful of elites or authorities (whether politics, religious, educational, etc.) but belonging to the diverse individuals and communities that make up the populace, “belonging to the people” (popularis). Common people are, like sound, overlooked in religions, degraded and subordinated to the official accounts of religions given by the authorities. However, despite the efforts of the leaders, scholars, and other authorities in religious institutions to dictate the proper truth about their traditions, religions are not their property. Religions are not reducible to any proper account. Not property at all, religions are more like a commons – shared resources held in common by the diverse multitude of people who inhabit them.
Most of the sounds coming from a religion happen outside of official ritual spaces, in other, unofficial or informal, ritual spaces (e.g., bedrooms, bars, clubs, and cars), and those spaces are pervaded by the refrains of popular music. The sounds of Christianity, for example, do not just come from the priest or the choir. Far more sounds come from rap songs referring to cruciform jewelry (Jesus pieces), from rockers with messianic complexes (sometimes as explicit as Soundgarden’s “Jesus Christ Pose”), from country songs with narratives weaving together God, Family, and Country (a Craig Morgan album), and from teen pop stars who, with remarkable irony, use self-avowed Christian values to market their hyper-sexualized images (consider the “purity rings” worn by the Jonas Brothers, who drew extensive public attention to their genitalia by wearing rings signifying a commitment to premarital abstinence). For better or worse, popular culture is a major factor shaping the structures and transformations of religious traditions. This is the second pop in our broken silence: reclaiming the religious clamor of the multitude and recovering unofficial and unauthorized versions of the sacred.
These two pops break the silence: music and the multitude are integral to religions. To put it another way, you cannot understand religions if you ignore their relationships to music and to popular culture. Although there are many people studying religion and popular culture, or religion and music, the study of connections between religion and popular music is far underdeveloped in comparison. With that in mind, this column focuses on religion in popular music. Bear in mind that popular music includes more than just teen pop, bubblegum, and dance. Those genres are most typically associated with the adjectives “popular” and “pop,” but if popular music includes all music belonging to the people, then it includes punk, metal, hip-hop, country, dubstep, psytrance, and so much more. Sometimes even the music of high culture and fine art makes its way into pop culture contexts (e.g., classical music in cartoons, a dance-remix of Gregorian chant played in a club, etc.).
Can I offer a small coda to conclude this exposition of two, too loud pops? Perhaps we should call the coda by its name in popular music: the outro. Exploring the complex connections between religion and popular music, this column will touch on a diverse multitude of themes, ranging from Buddhist punk bands like Ruin, provocative hip-hop albums like Kanye West’s Yeezus, the feminist spirituality of Lady Gaga or the Lilith Fair, teen pop acts like Justin Beiber and his fanatical fans (“beliebers”), and progressive metal bands like Tool who express esoteric commitments to ecstatic ordeals of spiritual evolution. The music of the multitude expands our horizon for interpreting religions, and maybe, if we practice attuning ourselves to its resonance, it can also offer us opportunities to change our lives, to experiment with new ways of being religious, new ways of making music, and new ways of being people.