Religious Listening

By: Joshua Kalin Busman (University of North Carolina, Pembroke) //

A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 40 percent of religiously unaffiliated people identify as “spiritual, but not religious.” In 2010, USA Today reported that nearly 72 percent of millennials would describe themselves as “more spiritual than religious.” By all accounts, the “spiritual, but not religious” trend (“SBNR” in Internet shorthand) is an important aspect of contemporary religious life. Writer Matthew Becklo has argued that SBNR has a uniquely strong hold in the musical sphere, becoming “the boring new normal” among contemporary pop musicians. Citing quotes from a laundry list of the biggest names in popular music, Becklo argues that SBNR creates a “middle way” that allows artists to avoid the shallow hedonism of materialism while simultaneously side-stepping the specificity of any particular religious tradition. Take, for instance, the title track of British folk-pop titans Mumford and Sons’s 2009 album Sigh No MoreThe first verse and chorus lyrics explicitly mention religious concepts like God, love, salvation, charity, and the possibility of an afterlife, but maintain a level of ambiguity that allow them to function effectively in a host of different religious value systems.

 “Sigh No More” by Mumford and Sons

Given that Becklo is a Catholic writing in the Catholic publication Aleteia, it should come as no surprise that he had a pretty specific axe to grind against the SBNR crowd. But I think it’s worth noting, as he does, the ways that the SBNR affiliation demands a very stark division of labor among the words “spiritual” and “religious.” For many in contemporary Western society, the largely personal realm of the “spiritual” is a productive sphere of self-exploration, self-definition, and self-improvement, which provides a meaningful connection to the wider world. On the other hand, “religion” is often stereotyped as an outdated, wooden set of prescriptions that discourage self-reflection and inevitably perpetuate the most undesirable aspects of the status quo.

When asked about my research on evangelical Christian music-making in the United States or about my personal relationship to the Christian tradition in which I was raised, I often like to identify myself as “religious, but not spiritual.” That is to say, I think it’s important to get together and sing or break Eucharistic bread with one another once a week even if there isn’t a spiritual being that guarantees the cosmic efficacy of such an event (which I believe there probably isn’t). The religious rituals themselves are powerful systems of meaning-making that ought not be ignored.

To further illustrate this, I offer a story I heard while visiting Belfast, Northern Ireland a few summers ago. Over the last century, Belfast has been almost continually embroiled in a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics known colloquially as “The Troubles.” Particularly during the last several decades of the twentieth century, groups like the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defence Association carried out a campaign of violent attacks that killed more than 3,500 people in Northern Ireland. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 has quelled violence in the region substantially, but the city of Belfast is still deeply marked by these conflicts. As a caveat to those who have never had the good fortune of encountering an Irish storyteller, the details of the story that follows are almost certainly not factual, and that is precisely what allows the story to contain so much truth.

There was a French intellectual who came to Belfast for a one-semester philosophy lectureship at Queens University. As he was settling into his office, a janitor came through the building and offered her welcome to the new professor. “Welcome to Queens, sir! I hope you’re settling in nicely. Just let me know if you need anything.” The janitor started to walk away, but she sheepishly turned back and continued “I don’t mean to pry, but are you a Protestant or a Catholic?”

The French philosopher was incensed at the question and quickly shouted back, “I am a philosopher! I believe in the power of human reason to describe the cosmos, so I have no need for your petty squabbling between one god or another. I am an atheist, of course!” The janitor nodded her head knowingly and paused for a moment before responding, “Well, I figured you might be an atheist, but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?”

For the janitor in the story, religion was not simply a matter of belief or abstraction. Rather, it consisted in the everyday material choices that one made about how to navigate the space of the city: what neighborhood you lived in, what stores you shopped at, and who you invited to dinner. Even though the professor was uninterested in the spiritual content of Christian belief, he was still entwined with the religious structures of the people and institutions with which he found himself interacting. Withdrawing from the “religious” in favor of the purely “spiritual” was simply not an option.

It is in light of this robust, embodied definition of the “religious,” I would like to suggest that we undertake a form of “religious listening” to complement Andrew Dell’Antonio’s notion of “spiritual listening.” Religious listening is attentive to the broader structures of meaning in which our individual spiritual experiences are located, but it is not simply a way of returning to the “orthodoxies” that spiritual listening helps us to confound. Rather, religious listening is a way of looking at the systems of power that inflect and influence our personal experiences and connect us to a broader network of spiritual listeners.

To return briefly to the Mumford and Sons example I mentioned above, a “spiritual listening” of “Sigh No More” (as I understand it) might consider the ways that the music and text of the song function as raw material in the identity formation of SBNR adherents. A “religious listening,” however, would focus on the value systems which precede and shape the ability of those SBNR-affiliated listeners to use the song in the first place. How does the band’s own Christian background impact the ways that these lyrics are read by fans? And despite the fact that the lyrics are ambiguous enough to accommodate multiple faith perspectives, are people of different affiliations actually engaging with this music differently? Is there something irreducibly Christian/Western/White/Cis-gendered/Male about the song, even in the ambiguity of the ideas expressed?

As another example, let’s consider the first movement of “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” BWV 140, a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. While this piece may have originally been intended for performance as part of a Lutheran liturgy, it can now be encountered in concert halls as well as media outlets like YouTube, and with much greater frequency than one would find it in Lutheran worship services. Even in instances where a performance is staged in a church building (like the performance below filmed at the Pieterskerk in Utrecht, Netherlands), the building provides an accurate backdrop to the work’s historically-informed performance rather than a spiritual frame for understanding its deeper meaning.

 The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir conducted by Ton Koopman

Removing Bach’s cantata from its original Lutheran liturgical context, however, doesn’t free it from religious moorings. On the contrary, this decoupling simply places Bach’s cantata in yet another religious framework. Individual listeners may have some latitude to determine their own forms of engagement with the piece, but only within the framework of what ethnomusicologist Judith Becker calls the “laboratory listener” model.1 In private music lessons, music theory classes, and concert halls, listeners in the Western classical tradition are taught that truly or avidly listening involves close attention and deep contemplation of composed musical objects. However, this form of silent, internally focused, and abstract musical engagement is certainly foreign to any number of other listening traditions. One can imagine that engaging with this cantata performance through dancing, shouting, or improvising one’s own musical response would fall outside of the religious framework within which Bach’s music is still embedded. Engaging as a Western “laboratory listener” provides a religious frame for the cantata that is just as stringent, if not more so, than in its original Lutheran setting.

As Dell’Antonio suggested with regard to “spiritual listening,” focusing on the experiences of individual listeners challenges the common, though misguided assumption that music is a “universal language.” However, religious listening reminds us that even the experience of listening is not universal. Avid listening is never an entirely neutral or entirely personal practice. Rather, listening itself is something entrained and patterned through our broader shared systems of cultural meaning. By thinking carefully about the religious systems that condition our forms of listening and engagement with music in the first place, we can not only begin to listen more avidly, but more critically as well.

For Discussion

  1. How does religious listening differ from your normal modes of listening to music? Are there particular religious frames that you find yourself consistently applying to music while listening?
  2. Can you think of other popular music that draws on SBNR themes? What kinds of questions might religious listening raise about that music?

1 Judith Becker, Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 69.

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