Maybe punk music doesn’t mean much to you — not your generation, not your taste, not your concern. Maybe you hate punk, its aggression, its contempt for everything non-punk, its vulgarity.
But theologian and musician Michael Iafrate believes the spirit of punk is the Holy Spirit. That’s not just an off-the-cuff theory. The 40-year-old doctoral candidate at University of St. Michael’s College began playing in punk bands in high school.
“I have brought what I learned from punk beyond music into the large arena of a 40-year-old life, including my faith,” Iafrate said in an email.
Iafrate leads and records with M Iafrate & The Priesthood. Their music is a bit louder than a folk band, but not really punk either. His musical journey from high school primal screams to the singer-songwriter tradition of his band’s most recent album, “Christian Burial,” led him to contribute an essay called “Punk Rock and/as Liberation Theology” to a new collection just published by Lexington Books.
If punk can be the subject of theology, why not all music?
Edited by University of St. Michael’s College Christianity and Culture professor Michael O’Connor, Music, Theology and Justice is a book of musical-theological thinking, but it’s not about traditional church music. It’s about how music sits in our lives, both in and out of church. What is the theology of the beat?
The book retails for $100 and is marketed primarily to academic research libraries, but the subject matter is not reserved to the ivory tower. Everybody cares about music.
“Music can help us imagine something new, the future. In theological terms, certain experiences of music can be filled with eschatological hope,” O’Connor told The Catholic Register. “It seems to be able to somehow, out of this abstract combination of sounds and rhythms, to shape possibilities, to allow us to imagine things being good, even better.”
O’Connor and his contributors are interested in the spiritual values of our musical culture. If making music shapes both the people who make it and the people who listen to it, then how is our music shaping us now — spiritually, emotionally, socially, economically?
Is our musical culture, whether experienced at festivals or in the playlists on our phones, healthy, healing and hopeful? Or have we narrowed our horizons, held ourselves back?
O’Connor puts the questions in theological terms by looking at music in three traditional categories — priest, prophet and pastor. Pastorally, music should sustain us and our communities. The priestly role of music is to lead us into paths of restoration and reconciliation. Music has always had a prophetic role giving voice to protest and demonstrating the harmony of justice, whether that protest comes in the form of punk or Pete Seeger, who helped transform church songs into the picket-line bravery of “We Shall Overcome.”
Any piece of music can be analyzed in this way — from Beethoven piano sonatas to rap recordings. O’Connor’s book ranges from the eco-theology of Sting to the medieval choral music of Hildegard of Bingen and back to Daft Punk and extreme metal.
On O’Connor’s blog, musictheologyjustice.wordpress.com, a variety of contributors share deeper analyses of songs and artists, including Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” Prince, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and the musical tradition of the ecumenical Taizé community.
Real theology cannot avoid questions of justice but, with the exception of a tiny community of dedicated professionals and stars, most of us are mere consumers of musical product, said punk-theologian Iafrate.
“The radical division between consumers and producers in the music world is but one example of the way capitalism shapes our desires and distorts our lives,” Iafrate told The Catholic Register. “The music industry turned what was once the shared experience of music, often taking place in the home, into just another leisure product. But of course music is more than just a leisure product for consumption.”
Iafrate is more than just a guitar player with attitude. He’s also a co-ordinator with the Catholic Committee of Appalachia in his home state of West Virginia, a father to eight-year-old Hazel and deeply committed to social justice.
“I wouldn’t say all of my songs are implicitly theological, but many of them are,” said Iafrate. “If only in cryptic ways, I’m often dealing with big questions or concerns.”
Like any good punk, Iafrate believes music that serves commerce deserves abundant contempt. He wants nothing to do with “a mere soundtrack for shopping.” We have to choose between music as “something in the background of life, or worse, something that merely helps us ignore or escape from life,” and music that “is a part of life and helps us live more fully and deeply,” Iafrate said.
“We as a society tend to use music in decorative ways,” said O’Connor. “We tend to use it for mood management and for filling awkward silences and things like that, rather than as an activity that has value in itself.”
As a product which we choose and purchase, we think of our music (albums, CDs, digital playlists) as a reflection of ourselves. Our music tells us who we are. But if music is just the result of purchasing power and download speeds — if we never sing, hum, dance or play a song — we become separated from the music which we say is a part of us.
If we primarily experience our music alone with buds in our ears, then we begin to break apart the society and the community which music is meant to create.
“Music is less rational. It’s more spontaneous,” said O’Connor. “Which is why the church is always interested in music. But also why all the churches have been concerned about trying to find ways to keep it on the straight and narrow.”
Pope Pius X, in a 1903 motu proprio, decreed that sacred music “must be holy, and must therefore exclude all profanity, not only from itself but also from the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.”
In fact, O’Connor said, the ageless arguments about which music is right or wrong inside a church is quite often a proxy for arguments about our culture in general — resentments held between generations and fears of anything new and different.
“Everybody cares about music, values music and often is concerned about somebody else’s music,” he said. “Whether I’m concerned about the kinds of things my children listen to, or my grandchildren listen to, or I’m concerned about the music that’s going on in church — it’s often a thing people have an opinion about.”
One thing O’Connor is certain of is that there will be music in heaven. From newspaper cartoons to old master paintings, music is always part of our picture of heaven.
“In heaven we won’t be painting watercolours or doing clay pottery. We’ll be playing harps,” he said.