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Drone Metal Mysticism

In this interview, Owen Coggins joins us to talk about the use of religious (and sacrilegious) language and imagery in Drone Metal, a genre which stretches metal to low, slow, repetitive extremes. Drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau, he tells David Robertson that the prevalence of language relating to mysticism and “spiritual experience” may be due to the genre’s focus on the physicality of the musical experience. Expanding out to discuss other forms of popular music which exhibit these modes of engagement, the conversation moves to consider how this case-study might open up new ways to engage with religious ideas in popular culture, and in other practices involving extreme states of bodily consciousness.

This interview was recorded at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective: Publics and Performances conference in Milton Keynes, Feb 19-21 2018.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Drone Metal Mysticism

Podcast with Owen Coggins (16 April 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Coggins – Drone Metal Mysticism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Sunny Milton Keynes for the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective Conference where I’m lucky enough to be joined, today, by Owen Coggins, who is an Honorary Associate of the Religious Studies Department here.

Owen Coggins (OC): Hello

DR: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been talking about this interview for quite some time. But we’ve finally managed to get it organised – luckily, just as your book comes out! Let’s start, then with drone metal. What is it that we’re talking about here?

OC: OK. I guess I often describe it as an extreme form of heavy metal that’s characterised by extremes of repetition; distortion; extension; tracks that go on for thirty minutes or forty-five minutes – I went to a concert that was three hours long – and feedback and other kinds of sonic characteristics. But it’s also characterised in the sort of discourse that surrounds it that’s produced by musicians but also by audiences – lots of talk about mysticism and ritual and religious experience and transcendence and so on. And so that was the starting point for me wanting to investigate it for my PhD research.

DR: Now this isn’t the first kind of study we’ve had of religious imagery . . . . Well let’s start with metal, particularly. There’s a long history of fairly obvious religious imagery . . .

OC: Yes, and so I think from Black Sabbath – who are often understood as the originary starting point of heavy metal – and you’ve obviously got kind-of crucifixes and press photos taken in graveyards, and accusations about Satanism and various kind of imagined occult practices. And I think that a real interest in the power of religion and its symbols – and perhaps new or sometimes oppositional repositioning of that kind of symbolism, images and languages and even sounds – has, I think, been a really important part of metal from its beginnings. I think, perhaps what seems to me to be slightly different about this particular form – certainly in the way that academics have approached it – is that religion in metal has often been kind-of approached through the lens of Christianity and metal, whether that’s Christian heavy metal itself, or a discourse of anti-Christian sentiment in metal – burning down churches in Norwegian black metal, and so on – and more recently, sort-of more focus on various other sections of Satanism and paganism in metal. But it’s often kind-of approached in terms of a religious tradition and metal, whereas what I was really interested in is the sort of bricolage and sometimes kind-of orientalist appropriation and redeployment of a really vast range of different kinds of religious symbols and sounds, in this particular form of music.

DR: Now the use of religious imagery in metal, particularly – it’s a very deliberately transgressive kind of discourse. Although obviously it varies how serious they are. That’s not entirely what we find with drone, is it?

OC: I think the issue of seriousness is quite an interesting one. And I think humour in metal is often misunderstood as perhaps one optional counterpoint to seriousness. And so I think that’s an interesting way to look at these things. Because, in some ways, there are things which are done very, very seriously which are at the same time completely ludicrous and absurd. And one example is the classic 1996 record by Sleep which has two alternate titles: “Jerusalem” – which references these ideas of the Holy land, pilgrimage – and also “Dopesmoker”. So “Dopesmoker” and “Jerusalem” are two alternative titles for this one single, hour-long dirge classic of stoner metal riffs. And it’s often kind-of referenced by listeners in terms of the lyrics being simultaneously ultra-serious and completely ridiculous at the same time. And I think, that is an interesting way to think about how some of these symbols might be mobilised and ideas might be responded to, which in the book I talk a little bit about and the idea of “listening as if “. And I think, in some ways, drone metal allows . . . in the ways that audiences talk about it, are going to concerts or listening to recordings as if they are ritual, as if they are mystical, as if they are somehow related in an ambivalent way to religion. And that kind of language sometimes shifts around. So the record I mentioned is often described – even in the space of a short 500 word review for example – as like a pilgrimage, or as a pilgrimage, as a sonic pilgrimage, as sounding like the music that pilgrims might listen to at the end of the pilgrimage. And so I think this kind of ambivalence that I talk about as “listening as if” it’s ritualist, allows people to explore and investigate a kind of imagined religiosity without having to necessarily commit to certain kind of identity statements or dogmas or beliefs. And I think that’s part of where the power lies. And I think that also is part of the real value of music in this kind of exploration. Because it affords a sort of imaginative space for people to sort-of explore that.

DR: And that’s something that’s not unique to music, of course. That kind of mode is familiar in other forms of art that have got . . . there are visual artists and painters who specifically design their work to be experienced in these kind of contexts. You made a nice distinction in the book about different modes of engaging with . . . Certain kinds of music are engaged with in a different way and I think you’d distinguish like your pop and rock, the mainstream musical forms, that there’s a different register of engagement with it.

OC: Yes, I think that was really . . . I mean, I don’t really want to make big claims about the specialness of drone metal against other forms of music. But this was really responding to the ways that my research participants talked about it. And there was often a very . . . listeners often made a very strong distinction between drone metal and other forms of music. And often even drone metal and other forms of metal. Just in . . . partly because of the sort-of abstract nature of this very droning dirge-like music and the practicalities, such as how long the tracks last. The real interest in vinyl as kind-of recreating a separate space and time in which to listen. Often people preferred to listen on vinyl rather than digital formats because it created a certain kind of special space and time through which to listen. And I think that really spoke to the construction of ideas about ritual and mysticism: that there was a deliberate attempt to separate drone metal in space and time, but also conceptually as something kind-of set apart. And obviously, there’s an implied construction of the sacred in there.

DR: Yes, that notion of specialness is something that I’ve actually come across in a few places. And it’s quite interesting when you . . . even for students talking about the study of religion – they want it to be something a bit set apart. Even the discourse itself is something separate. Yes, I like that you mentioned the material culture, and there’s a number of interesting intersections here. I mean the vinyl aspect of it is one we’ve already talked about, but there’s also, you know, a particular aesthetic that goes along with particularly drone metal. But we also have material culture in terms of sensory experience.

OC: Yes, and I think, firstly, it was great to speak to people about this certainly quite extreme form of music, and read thousands of reviews and things, just because of the creative and unusual ways that people talked about it. And that was one of the ways that came up a lot was people talking about going to concerts and the air becoming solid, or having a real, physical bodily experience of the sound. And so I thought material culture was actually a really helpful way to think about that. Because it was almost like sound becoming physically mobilised for people, or them kind of engaging with sound in a very physical way. And I think that was an interesting way to think also about mysticism in terms of the ways that people kind-of use, or interpret, or operate on a particular kind of tradition – in this case heavy metal, I suppose, as well as the surrounding discourses about transcendental experience and mysticism and so on – that it was almost a kind of a way to experience sound as sound, or what sound itself sounds like, or what sound itself “feels” like, as some participants put it. Which, I think, connects up to other aspects of the aesthetic in other quite interesting ways, such as the interest with black letter or Fraktur typography, like the sort of gothic script that’s familiar in a lot of metal cultures as well as drone metal. And what I loved about that was it’s a real visual manifestation of the distortion and amplification of a sign that’s so important in the sonic characteristics of the music.

DR: I found that really interesting: the idea of the sort-of fetishisation of amplification. That is noticeably different than most other forms, even mainstream rock and metal where there’s much more concern on the drum kit or the guitars, rather than in drone where it’s the amplification particularly. And what I found interesting, having been a rock musician, was that when you started talking about this, I was thinking, “Well the first stage of amplification you need in rock is that you have to be louder than the drums. Because you have to play the drums loud to make them sound good! So there’s a level of amplification you need, to get your guitar to there, for your band to sound like a rock band, right? But in drone, that bit becomes the bit that’s of interest. And you go up a whole other level, so that it’s the amplification itself that becomes the act. It’s no longer something that you’re doing in order to get to point A, it becomes point A itself.

OC: Yes, I think I’ve suggested that this is the first or, at least, the only musical culture that I know of where the most important musical instrument, broadly conceived, is the amplifier rather than the guitar or, as you say, anything else that’s being amplified. Although, interestingly, there is a real focus on amplification and speakers in dub reggae and certain forms of electronic dance music, which I also discuss. Because those forms of music have also attracted really quite sort-of prevalent discourses of religious experience and mysticism. But yes, definitely, the amplification . . . sort-of amplification of amplification is the thing that’s really at issue. And I think that’s an interesting way to think about that is that it’s about an interrogation of transmission itself. And amplifying kind-of symbols themselves in order to kind of investigate what their possibilities are rather than, for example, to kind-of communicate particular kinds of musical semantics or structures.

DG: Yes, you mentioned dance music- I immediately pictured the front of “3am Eternal”, by The KLF, where it’s an altar and the sides of the altar are huge amplifiers. Of course The KLF were enormously influenced by situationist theory and the kind of post-hippy, kind-of early cybernetic idealism – you know, Tim Leary and those people. And they were very sort-of consciously creating a temporary autonomous zone. But they were using a lot of religious imagery in doing it. Even the idea of time, you know – so it’s 3am, but it’s 3am eternal. They have a lot of these similar kind-of languages.

OC: And I think that the idea of drone itself is very much about . . . or it affords ways of talking about time which kind-of do similar things. They’re physically and bodily experienced in a particular moment, but they open out onto those kind-of ideas about archaic experience and forms of social organisation. And so, in one of the chapters of the book I talk about those: the ways that audiences talk about drone metal being kind of about elsewhere, and drone metal being given access to these elsewheres. People discuss being transported to outer space or to kind-of imagined empty deserts and so on. And I think that’s a really powerful and important way that people respond to it. Not to say that there’s anything inherently connected in the music, but just that those are conventional ways of talking about the music which have sprung up around it, which seem to have a certain validity for people who are communicating about their engagement in this music.

DR: Nonetheless, I found that really interesting. And we really are thinking about utopias – in the original sense of the word – of nowhere, of places that are idealisations or imagined spaces, in some sense, that there’s almost an attempt to achieve through these kind of trancian and drone ideas.

OC: Yes, and I think in dub, and psy-trance, and in drone metal which, as I said, there are different kinds of utopias. And I think you can also, working backwards from there, think about the reasons why there’s such a strong impulse to try and construct these utopias in a very kind of temporary way – just over the course of half an hour recording, or an hour or so of a live concert. So, for example, for dub, in terms of a black Atlantic diaspora wanting to kind-of construct certain ideas about an Afro-centric religion, for example. And I think, perhaps, for drone metal it’s interesting to speculate about what the construction of utopias might say about the social situation of audiences . . . as a response to alienation and disenchantment.

DR: And interestingly as well, almost pre-modern – despite the fetishisation of technology. There’s a lot of wildernesses and distant places. It’s almost away from modernity.

OC: Yes, there was an interesting example when one of the best-known drone metal bands, Sunn O))), performed at the Royal Festival Hall a couple of years ago. The support act was a group from Russia called Phurpa who’ve supported Sunn O))) on a number of occasions, who style themselves as supporting authentic Bon Tibetan traditional chanting. And so when you see these two things juxtaposed, the Tibetan Bon ritual – where there’s bowls of incense and figures in black robes doing vocal chanting – and then you go out and have your glass of wine at the break time and then you go back and there’s a very similar performance with the Sunn O))) band members in their black robes . . . . But it’s a very kind-of consciously up-dated version of this, with these extremes of amplification, but sonically quite a similar palette, I suppose, they’re working with. And I think that’s a very deliberate association that they’re trying to make with a certain kind of imagined archaic ritual.

DR: Let me give you a deliberately provocative question. So we’ve got a kind-of sense of sacredness or specialness, or temporary autonomous zone – however we want to put it – and we have quasi-religious musical forms: which comes first? You know, in which direction is the movement? Or is it mutually reinforced?

OC: Yes, I think it’s a good question and it’s one that I’ve tried very hard to skip!

DR: (Laughs) I said it was deliberately provocative.

OC: But in order to skip it, to focus instead on trying to . . . . Put it this way, there was a lot of claims about – in my interviews and in reviews about this sort of music – that drone metal really does hark back to ancient – in quotes – “tribal religious forms”, and so on. And I think this is kind-of deliberately played-on by some musicians. And it’s certainly picked-up-on by parts of the audience. But my interest wasn’t so much kind-of proving or disproving whether this really, genuinely had ancient connections to these kind of religions. And in the same way that the group performing the Tibetan ritual music that I mentioned – I’m not so interested in the historical accuracy of their early music production. What’s more interesting to me is how those ideas are mobilised, and why people find them important, and to draw on that. And I think, in part, it’s to make an authority claim. Or to recognise and, after the fact, legitimate something that they felt was quite a powerful engagement. And then, in order to kind of situate that for themselves and the listening community, to sort of connect it to these older imagined forms.

DR: Tell us, then, about how this relates to mysticism – and this is a large part of the book, obviously. I mean, I presume we’re building from the kind-of idea that this is music which is deliberately experienced rather than passively heard?

OC: Yes. So, following on from what we’ve been discussing, there’s also quite a strong discourse of perennialism that you find in Aldous Huxley and so on, in the way that people talk about it – that it’s accessing this kind-of universal underlying form of religious experience. Now that, to me . . . there are some troubling consequences of that idea, that just erases all specific differences. And there are some issues with a kind of orientalist grabbing of bits and pieces from all religions and kind of presenting them as if they were referring to a similar thing. So, for me, what was really valuable in trying to understand these kind of discourses of mysticism and ritual – given that so many people who are coming from different kind of backgrounds and so on are using words that are notoriously difficult to pin down, such as “it was a spiritual experience”, or “this music is mystical” in some way – for me, it was really valuable to look to the work of Michel de Certeau. He both kind-of provides a really valuable way to look at the uses that audiences make of texts in popular culture, and also his work on mysticism. And so this approach to mysticism: instead of trying to look behind the texts for this unitive experience, which the scholar imagines is the same behind all of these instantiations, Michel de Certeau, by contrast, wants to look at the texts which are designated mystical and then identify certain procedures, or gestures, or operations on an inherited language that take place in these texts. So, for me, that was really valuable – for a start because it kind of resolves, or displaces, a kind of division between text and experience which has been quite influential – and quite problematically so, in my view – in the 20th century study of mysticism, where mystical experiences are “ineffable”, they’re “indescribable” and then you have texts which sort-of fail nobly to describe them. So the problem with that is that the experience that’s suggested as being the same – there’s not really any evidence for that. And then the actual kinds of differences in texts are just attributed to the cultural differences in which these same experiences take place. Michel de Certeau, by contrast, allows us to look at the particular mechanics and moves and gestures that take place in these texts. So, for example, talking about how a language of the body emerges in the mystical texts – or texts designated mystical in the 16th or 17th centuries – how they’re interested in the materiality of signifiers. And how mystics are seen by themselves as ultra-orthodox, but by outsiders as heretical in some way, for their treatment of their inherited tradition. And so I think there was a number of these kind-of gestures that de Certeau identified in mystical texts, that I also observed in not only the ways that audiences spoke about their engagement with drone metal, but also in the sound itself. So we had similar . . . in the ways that people talked about going to concerts, you find these very similar and familiar gestures of talking about mysticism and ritual. But I also thought it was quite a good description of what drone metal does to the tradition of heavy metal. So it, for example, takes on lots of signifiers from Black Sabbath but kind-of over-extends them, and pushes them to their breaking point. So, for example, the Sleep album I mentioned earlier was described memorably by Julian Cope in a review, as if a bunch of California teenagers had found Black Sabbath’s first four albums in the desert and started a religion, based on it.

DR: I love that, yes.

OC: And so you can see that just even in the sound. It’s almost like taking a Black Sabbath song and extending it for an hour – sort-of almost pushing it to its limits. And I think this almost fits with de Certeau’s idea of mysticism as an operation, or a performance, in a text which does something to an inherited tradition.

DR: So using drone metal, then, are you using it . . . . You’re not so much using it as an example of mysticism, but as an example of how the language of mysticism is operated. Am I understanding . . ?

OC: Yes.

DR: And does that have ramifications for other . . . like, more widely for how we talk and think about mysticism?

OC: Yes, I think so. I think that it helps to avoid some of the pitfalls of mysticism which it has – as we’ve described before – about conjuring this sort-of fiction of an essentialist, universalist experience, which actually relies on particular ideas about subjectivity which are rooted in a Western academic episteme, I suppose. And I think that’s particularly important in our contemporary political moment where we hear references to the 20th century study of mysticism growingly in political discourse. So, for example, Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer making mention of Julius Evola. And that’s a very, very problematic imagination or depiction or mobilisation of ideas about mysticism: Evola kind-of wanting to forward – as he described it – “a racism of body souls and spirit”, and his sort-of involvement in the school of Fascist mysticism. So I think these ideas can certainly be taken in some very troubling ways. And I think, at root, they’re often based on a kind of essentialism and universalism which can be found in relatively benign forms in ideas of Huxley and Eliade and others. But I think de Certeau gives a much more both ethically and epistemologically-grounded way of approaching mysticism. In addition to saying, “If we look at the mechanics of what happens in the texts which are called mystical, then that’s actually a much more empirically-based way to look at mysticism than kind-of imagining these kind-of supposedly pure visionary experiences.”

DR: Great. So what’s next for you? Where do you take this next?

OC: Good question. I’m really interested in – as I start to talk about in the final chapter – how this kind-of relates to anthropological ideas about ritual, and how that might be connected to ideas about the connection between music and various forms of social structure and imagining social structure. So Jacques Attali’s ideas about noise, for example, which I think, given that this form of music is very much about distortion and feedback and noise, I think there’s maybe some interesting connections that can be made with ideas; Mary Douglas, for example, about the importance of dirt and the positioning of those things in ritual. I’m also really interested in wading into debates about heavy metal and mental health. And it’s often been associated with delinquency, both in popular media moral panics, as well as a certain kind of academic literature.

DR: Except, in fact, heavy metal fans are statistically happier and healthier than the norm, I believe – according to a recent survey!

OC: Yes, well I think you’ve got to take all of these things with a pinch of salt. I think that’s perhaps why it’s so interesting. Because I think the debate is so polarised. But I’d actually kind-of want to make room for the fact that maybe some kinds of music can be good for you, and other kinds of music can be bad for you, and maybe the debate’s a bit more nuanced and complex than some of these polemic positions have suggested.

DR: We love nuance, here at the Religious Studies Project, so thank you for taking part!

OC: Thanks for inviting me. It’s been very interesting.

DR: And before we go, I just want to remind the listener to rock hard, rock heavy and rock lobster!

.Citation Info: Coggins, Owen and David G. Robertson. 2018. “’Drone Metal Mysticism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/drone-metal-mysticism/

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Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

blog_yogarave_1_bellytitleThe spread of religion and practice from origin points to global phenomena is a prevalent topic within religious studies. Stephen Jacobs, a senior lecturer at Wolverhampton University, and Theodora Wildcroft, a PhD researcher at Open University UK, are both interested in the common presence of yoga and bhakti tradition in the contemporary British rave and festival communities. This podcast explores how Hindu belief and traditions have been incorporated into modern western practices. An overview of the British kirtan community and the Art of Living movement is followed by a discussion of authenticity, reconciliation of tradition and modernity, and the influence of popular culture. As appropriation of culture and questions of authenticity pervade conversations across fields, the study of contemporary British Hindu movements is important in understanding how millennia old religious traditions are being used in new, modern contexts.

This podcast is sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes (Masters and PhD) in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Lascaux cave painting replicas, Pixie Sticks, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

Podcast with Steve Jacobs and Theodora Wildcroft (25 September 2017).

Interviewed by Ella Bock.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Jacobs and Wildcroft- Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities 1.1

Ella Bock (EB): Ok, so. Shall we get started? I guess I can introduce my self to you, first of all, in person. I’m Ella. I go to school at Lewis and Clark College, in Portland Oregon. But I’m currently at home for the summer in Washington DC.

Steve Jacobs (SJ): Ok. Well, I’m Steve Jacobs or Stephen Jacobs if you’re being very formal, but nobody calls me that. I’m senior lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, here in the UK, mostly based in the Media department, but also based in Religious Studies as well.

Theodora Wildcroft (TW): I’m Theo Wildcroft. Nobody calls me Theodora unless they want to make me giggle, basically. I’m at the OU, the Open University, in Milton Keynes, but I’m actually at home in Wiltshire at the moment – in north Wiltshire, in the south of the country. And I am just coming up on my last year of PhD, in full thesis-writing-up-joy at the moment!

SJ: That’s the most exiting bit! (Laughs).

TW: It is, actually. I had a really good supervision on Tuesday, so I’m fine right now. Good supervision, good response. So that’s another two chapters sorted. So fingers crossed!

SJ: Brill.

EB: Congratulations on your PhD!

TW: Thank you.

EB: So, I guess we can jump right into it. My first question is to just get started with introducing what “yoga raves” and “kirtan” are. So if you could, like, explain a little bit what those are, and their presence in Britain, and if they interact at all, and how they would do that.

TW: Well, I think for a while now there’s been a sub-current of kirtan influence in the UK, but it’s not particularly well-known. So we start, I think, with kirtan – because kirtan is an existing practice within South Asia and the Indic and Hindu contexts, basically – which is a practice of devotion or religious practice through sound – specifically through singing and music: sharing singing and music. And that has an interesting history which I think we’ll go into in more detail, in terms of how that has met and interacted with the kinds of sub-culture elements within British culture in the last thirty to forty, maybe even fifty years – at least fifty years, probably. Yoga and the most recent kind of incarnations of that are doing some interesting things that aren’t particularly well-known. But it’s interesting what they’re doing. Yoga raves, I think, is really a much more recent phenomenon and Steve can talk a lot more about that, really being quite specific.

SJ: Yes, I mean yoga raves is a term that’s used by a duo who come from this group called the  Art of Living Foundation, who – well, to cut a very long story short – are a kind of Hindu-derived meditation movement. They’re a very close cousin to Transcendental Meditation. And they wanted to . . . and one of the things with Art of Living is they wanted to draw in a younger audience. So these two musicians who were members of the group, started what they called yoga rave dance parties:  kind-of alcohol, drug-free events that had the same sort of format as a kind-of rave would have, but using traditional kind-of Hindu mantras, to use a loaded term, or bhajans as a sound track – but giving it a Western kind of sound track, particularly an electronic dance music beat. (5:00) So it’ s a kind of interesting syncretic phenomena.

EB: OK

TW: So we’ve got the kind of yoga raves going on – I think, mostly in London?

SJ: Well, yoga rave isn’t a term that’s used by the UK group. They prefer the term yoga jam. So there’s a whole range of different terminology: I’ve seen mantra punk; yoga rave; yoga jam.  And one of the reasons . . . and it’s based very much around a small group within Art of Living, here in the UK. And they said to me, “We do not like the term ‘rave’”, because in the UK rave is so much mixed with the culture of electronic dance music and  part of that is taking lots of NDMA or Ecstasy as it’s more commonly known. So jam – they preferred this terminology. The leader of the group said, “I like the term, it’s cool!” he said. And it kind-of has this kind of connotation of the bricolage and also something that’s fun and enjoyable.

TW: There is a wider movement as well, though, called Conscious Clubbing, which I’m aware of. I have friends from the yoga community – particularly around London, I think, maybe Brighton, maybe places like that – that do conscious clubbing events which are specifically alcohol and drug free. And often early Sunday mornings seem to be a big time for a get-together. And, of course, the music they’re using is very much rave music. But it has that similar sense of wanting to achieve a state of ecstatic kind of communion, a coming-together kind of a feeling and a celebration, but without the artificial stimulants. So there’s kind-of a cross-over there. And then, of course, they’re all often using contemporary kirtan music, contemporary kirtan tunes, which provides another link as well. Whereas kirtan is much more a practice that’s done live. I think that’s one of the big differences for me, is that – not that that’s always a difference between them and the yoga jams, I think – but one of the things that’s clear with kirtan is that it’s always live musicians, live singers, live interactions with the audience, the music happening in real time, if that makes sense.

SJ: Yes. I think one of the things that Theo and I have talked about over the years that we’ve been interested in this, is the difference between participation and just being a part of the audience. And that whole thing has kind-of – it’s a whole kind of array of different relationships of participation. So the traditional kirtan is, of course, a call and response and very much involves everybody. Whereas sometimes the yoga jams and the yoga raves seem to be less participatory, even though there is an element of participation.

TW: Yes. Definitely.

SJ: They’re much more performances, in many ways.

EB: Well, I’m interested in how the two different movements and communities are trying to reconcile traditional cultures and practices with contemporary modern . . . like having yoga and therapeutic things in raves and EDM music. How do you see them reconciling those two? And if they are[seen as] authentic ways of practising and, like, what authenticity means here – because that’s a loaded term.

SJ: OK. Authenticity is a really interesting phenomena. I’ve just been reading a book about authenticity by Lindholm and he says, really, when we’re thinking about authenticity you see two different types of discourses around authenticity. (10:00) One he calls the historical and genealogical,  and the other he calls the romantic and expressive. And what’s really interesting for me is that when you look at discourses about yoga rave and yoga jam and in Art of Living – and indeed their wider practices – is they use both of those discourses. So it’s authentic because it’s Vedic. And of course, if you know anything about the Vedas, sound is very primordial, with the primordial mantra Ohm. In fact, the notion of sound within the Hindu tradition is badly understudied. It’s not studied . . .  it’s not given the centrality by many people the way that it [should be]. So it’s got that roots in a kind of invented or romanticised Vedic past, but it also is part of the therapeutic culture where it’s the experience. But the experience without the roots becomes kind-of too ambiguous and free floating. So you experience a somatic experience, but that somatic experience is then rooted back into an imagined Vedic past.

TW: You see, I would add a third aspect. Because I think that’s all really true, and rings very true with the things I’m looking at. But a third aspect is the notion of authenticity that comes from a personal way to practice, and a personal investment into the practice. That’s what the kirtan wallahs – the musicians and the people who share kirtan – are bringing: it’s a level of experience with that practice. They’re often quite accomplished musicians, although that’s not . . . they’re not necessarily prized for their technical ability so much as a sheer devotion to the practice itself: that they spend large amounts of time doing what they do – which is singing and playing, not just for audiences, but for themselves. And that also, tangentially, has a communal aspect which . . . . One of the things I find really interesting is, when you have big bakhti events, big kirtan events where you have a number of different kirtan musicians playing one after another, they will back each other up. So if someone arrives early, or someone’s around , you know, one will say to another “Could you play shaker on this for me?” or you know, “I’d love to play tabla on yours.” And so you get these individual musicians, or small groups of musicians, but actually when they play at theses events they have all sorts of friends playing with them. And their friends are usually people who have either just played or are going to play again. So there’s this idea that the most joyous thing that they could be doing is playing. Always. So there’s an authenticity there that comes from that weight of practice and that weight of personal history, rather than necessarily genealogy. And certainly, one of the historical aspects that I’m aware of with regards to kirtan here, out in the south-west in particular, is that we have a certain community of people who’ve spent a lot of time in Indian ashrams and loved the experience of kirtan there and began to practice kirtan there. And they’re over here, they’re home again and they miss that community coming together. And a lot of these events are about them coming together with other people, regardless of whether they were at the same ashram, regardless  of whether they’re the same lineage, regardless of even if they have the same devotional roots, even. You have people from different sects and lineages coming together, people with no lineage at all coming together. But what they value is that communal coming together and singing and sharing kirtan, which is really interesting. So there’s that communal weight as well. So that, over time, the community has its own history. So it’s really interesting, when you talk about authenticity with regards to Hindu roots and South Asian roots – which are obviously very real and very true – but what I would say is what I see. And what I see is a weight of practice in this country that’s been going on for decades. And that’s the roots, as much as anything else, that they’re connected to.

SJ: I mean there is a romanticisation of Hindu traditions that Theo and I have talked about. (15:00) It goes right back to cultural roots here in the UK, of course: George Harrison, 1969, the Mahamantra by the Krishna Consciousness got to number 12 in Top of the Pops, sold 700,000. In America you’ve got the counter-cultural movements, particularly people like Ginsberg and the Mantra Rock Dance in San Francisco that had some of the foremost counter-cultural groups, people like Moby Grape. And then also of course, there was Swami Prabhupada the founder of . . . [the International Society for Krishna Consciousness]. In fact, you’ll see his image on the poster for the Mantra Rock dance in ’69. So all of these kind of influences, counter kind-of influences between the West and the East, well they’ve actually been going long before the counter-culture of course. I think the counter-culture is a very important threshold.

TW: It is. It’s a threshold. But I think its a threshold of visibility. That’s what’s interesting about it. It’s that we have these periodic visible manifestations of commercial culture engaging with Hindu devotional music in one way or another. I mean you shared the – was it the Cher?  Cher’s version of the Gayatri Mantra? And it’s really interesting to see those commercial expressions and commercial engagements with Hindu devotional music. But what it’s important to remember is those do not feed necessarily directly from ancient Indian practices, they feed from an existing subculture that is continually engaging with this music and continually engaging with this practice. You know, there’s a transnational culture that certainly in the UK spends time, a lot of them will spend time, going back and forward from the UK. A number of the people involved will be South Asian heritage, a number of people won’t. You know, it’s a whole transnational current that’s going on that’s always there. It’s just the bits that we tend to notice: the bits that get into the top 40 sphere, or the bits that end up on the credits of pop shows, which we were also talking about weren’t we? We were talking about how the Gayatri Mantra was used on the opening credits to Battlestar Galactica, you know – who knew that?! Because it’s a really interesting mantra in terms of its visibility. The story goes that one of the actors basically went to the show runners and said, “We have to use this. We have to use this Mantra.” And he wanted that sense of authenticity of this being something ancient, because the show itself speaks to really interesting themes around religion and rebirth and these different things. But without the counter-cultural and sub-cultural engagements with Hindu devotional music, he would never have had that to bring them. (Laughs).

SJ: Yes. No, Cher wouldn’t have been doing that Gayatri mantra . . .

TW: No. Cher doesn’t rock up at an Ashram in India and go “I think I’ll take this mantra.” She takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else. And the intermediaries are the kind of yoga jam people and the new kirtan people and the bhakti musicians that we’re talking about. And there’s a thriving – certainly in the UK and particularly, in my opinion, in the South West of the UK – it’s a thriving and vibrant little culture. I’m hoping you’ll be able to include some actual music and links.

EB: Well, I hope that David does.

TW: Yes.

EB: Well, I was wondering if you’ve seen or come across any backlash against the use of mantras in Western pop culture? Or even within the kirtan and yoga rave/ yoga jam communities?

TW: I can speak to one really interesting discussion of this by, I won’t mention her by name, but she’ll recognise herself, by an integral yoga teacher of japa, so a mantra teacher. So she was leading a session, that I was at, that wasn’t even really kirtan, it was very much on mantra and the effect of sound and how we can . . . chant, so much more chanting than singing, if that makes sense. So, the effect of mantra on the energetic field, the effect of mantra on our connection to the universe. And she talked specifically about the Gayatri Mantra. And she said a number of things about it. (20:00) She said that the Gayatri is a very ancient mantra – so she connected it to this lineage – that it’s been chanted continuously in India for thousands of years – however the story goes – and then she said, “But these days a lot of people come across the Gayatri Mantra through. . . .” She didn’t mention the Cher version but she mentioned various pop culture versions of it. And she said, in her view, that is absolutely fine because its a way in. People come across these pop culture versions of mantra and it is not the same, it does not have the same effect as a mantra that’s been chanted in community for devotional intent. But the words still have power and the sound still has power and it is the connection – a seed that is planted that can lead people to something deeper and fuller. I’m aware that in the States, in particular, there is a very, very different debate that’s going on, I think, around the issues of authenticity and appropriation. And I think it’s important to be aware that the discussions of appropriation are very different here in Europe and particularly in the UK. Our yoga culture as a whole is less commercialised. It’s still commercialised in many respects but we still . . . we have an enormous grassroots yoga community, still. And our yoga community is still much more integrated with South Asian groups and communities and influences. So, as a result, the conversations are more complicated. That’s not to say that appropriation isn’t an issue and it’s not talked about, but it’s much less polarising than debates have been recently in the States, if that makes sense. Would you agree?

SJ: The discussions about appropriation really only occur in the academic arena because when we’re talking broadly about the Hindu traditions – and I’ll use the plural here – there’s not this idea that, you know . . . . Ok, so you have a Murti and it’s installed in a temple, but anybody can go and buy an image of the Ganesh, or anything. And they’re not so precious about different uses of it. Of course you’ve got the tradition of calendar art in the more visual things. And also when you think about kirtan in India itself, you know, a lot of Hindus are chanting kirtan to Bollywood tunes. So you already have that tradition of, you know, taking a traditional kirtan that goes back to the medieval Bhakti period, but it’s being chanted to the latest Bollywood tunes. And even in India you get CDs like Cosmic Trance for Youth, which is within the Hindu community itself. Young people are taking the traditional mantras and bhajans and giving it their own electronic dance soundtrack, to try and draw young Hindus in India into it. You know, devotional music in India is one of the biggest selling kind of genres of music. You go anywhere like Rushikesh, which is a very important pilgrimage place, and you’ve literally got stall upon stall in the bazaar along the banks of the Ganges selling all of these kind of remixed mantras, if you like.

TW: I also love that the supposedly traditional kirtan instruments that are now accepted to be the ones that everyone should have are tabla and harmonium. And that’s fascinating when you think the only reason that harmoniums ever came to India, as far as I’m aware, is through Christian missionaries.

SJ: Yes, that’s correct.

TW: Christian Missionaries arrived in India with harmoniums and played lots of choral music and got them singing Christian songs. And you know, essentially Indian people, the Indian culture, went: “That’s great, we’ll have that! We’re just going to sing Vedic mantras instead.” And now, if you want a good harmonium you go to an Indian manufacturer. You don’t go anywhere else. One of the few places in the world that still has huge amounts of harmoniums being played is India. And now, if you have kirtan that doesn’t have harmonium and tabla that’s now seen as non-traditional. I mean, I was at an event the other week – it was a bhakti event – and I realised tucked away in the corners around the space were eight different harmoniums waiting for – because everybody has their own – waiting for their particular musicians to come. So I counted eight lying there, which is great. So at which point I’m less interested in  . . . .  I mean, I think cultural borrowing is really interesting, and all religious scholars hopefully are aware of how syncratic religion is, generally.(25:00) There are further discussions you can have about power and about colonialism, but I think those differences are much clearer when you’re talking about multi-million dollar selling pop artists than if you’re talking about kirtan musicians in Bristol, or wherever, who have a day job and sell a few CDS. The level of power that they have to appropriate somebody else’s power is very different, I think, than Sony might have.  (Laughs). What is more interesting to me is the syncretism involved in the music itself. And I don’t know how much that’s true of the yoga rave/ yoga jam side of things, but I know that in the kirtan movement in the south-west, singers are using not just Vedic and Hindu mantras, they’re using Buddhist mantras, they’re using Sikh mantras, they’re using Sufi mantras, they’re using all sorts of different things and bringing them together under the label of kirtan. And I think that’s really interesting.

SJ: Certainly within Art of Living Satsangs you certainly do have occasionally – but it’s very, very occasionally – do they use songs or poems from outside. I’ve heard Imagine done once in a kirtan (laughs). But they tend to stick to their kind-of favourite that come from the Sanskrit and Bhakti traditions. But they do have a kind of – well I wouldn’t call it a song book, exactly – but they do have a list and you flick through and yes, there’s poems by Rumi and [indistinct] chorus, but they very rarely use them ,interestingly enough.

TW: That is interesting.  Well I see a lot more uses of that. One of the classic examples which I personally adore, is a chap called Tim Challice who’s from down kind of Bath and Bristol way. And he has a chant which takes a Hafez poem I think, which is This Place, so, “This place where you are, God circled on a map for you. Wherever your eyes and ears and heart can move against the earth and skies a beloved has bowed there waiting.” Which is rather beautiful, but he takes that and sings that and then he takes it immediately into a Hare Krishna. So we see that as well. We see essentially taking two different traditions and bringing them together in those chants. And the sense, within this community in particular, is that it does not matter. The shape of your belief does not matter. The deity that you are calling to does not matter. These places often have these enormous long altars filled with any number of different Murtis, any number of different images of different Gurus, any deity or anything else that is considered to be sacred can go on there. The point is, is that you come together and you sing. And that’s it. And there’s the idea of devotion without prescribing the object of devotion. And that’s a really interesting thing, I think.

SJ: Yes. I mean there are other artists, we talked about Sheila Chandra who’s a British South Asian and coming from a Hindu background and then bringing in English folk music. She’ll start off with Om Namaha Shiva and then suddenly morphs into some sort of English folk song. I mean that’s kind of cultural thing as well, only from a different side.

TW: Yes. I think there’s really, really beautiful alliances and kind of borrowings that are going on and it’s interesting, again, to go back to that idea of what makes them authentic. What makes them effective. And I think it is a depth of understanding of the music that they’re working with and the practices that they’re working with.

SJ: When you talk to the yoga jam crew they talk abut the Vedic origin and what Guy Beck calls the Sonic Theology that goes back right to the Atharvaveda, is the experience that is also validated through a quasi-scientific discourse around the physics of vibration, which you know, that if you chant the mantras you do not need to know – and of course Staal talks about how it’s the sound not the semantics that’s important; that this is all to do with the science of vibration. (30:00) So it’s kind-of validated through, you know, tracing it back to romanticise a Vedic past, the somatic experience of chanting it, which is again validated through this kind of quasi-scientific discourse around vibrations, which is kind-of interesting.

TW: Yes, and it will eventually change the world. Just keep chanting the Gayatri Mantra, just keep chanting it and all will be well.

EB: Ok so we’re abut out of time for the podcast length, but I’ve enjoyed listening to both of you talk and thank you so much for doing this and talking to me and the RSP about everything you know.

SJ: Well thank you for facilitating this.

TW: Indeed.

EB: Of course. It was my pleasure.

Citation Info: Jacobs, Steve, Theodora Wildcroft. 2017. “Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 September 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 September 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/hindu-traditions-in-comtemporary-british-communities/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts  are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

 

Opportunities Digest – 3 January 2017

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Calls for papers

Colloquium: Education: East and West

March 17–18, 2017

Bath Spa University, UK

Deadline: January 20, 2017

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Conference: Exploring the spiritual in music: Interdisciplinary dialogues in music, wellbeing and education

December 9–10, 2017

London, UK

Deadline: February 28, 2017

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Conference: Holism: Possibilities and problems

September 8–10, 2017

University of Essex, UK

Deadline: February 17, 2017

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Conference: European Sociological Association

August 29–September 1, 2017

Athens, Greece

February 1, 2017

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Conference: The Religious and Ethnic Future of Europe

June 12–13, 2017

Åbo Akademi University, Finland

Deadline: January 31, 2017

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Journal: New Directions in Folklore

Special Issue: The Folk Awakens: Star Wars and Folkloristics in Popular Culture

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Journal: Changing Societies & Personalities

Special issue: Freedom of Conscience in [the] Post-Secular World

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Journal: Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion

Special issue: The Marketing and Consumption of Spirituality and Religion

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Workshop: Religions Consuming Surveillance

March 22, 2017

Edinburgh, UK

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Conference: Mani in Cambridge

March 25, 2017

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Symposium: Places and processes of pilgrimage, past and present

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Professor: History of Religions with Focus on Indigenous Religions

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Musical Secrets and Mystical Language

It’s often remarked, in response to instances of powerful communion or emotional engagement through sound, that music is ‘a universal language.’ The phrase is pretty vague, and it’s demonstrably inaccurate in most ways you could interpret it. There’s nothing universal about music’s effects (what sounds ‘sad’ here might suggest ‘morning’ or ‘high social status’ somewhere else; I find death metal to be relaxing while driving, though I’m aware that not everyone in the car agrees). And music most definitely isn’t language. Rather, as M.J.M. Hoondert hints in his RSP podcast, part of its power lies precisely in an irresolvable tension in relation to language.

There can be few areas where music’s nonverbal power is drawn on more profoundly than when concerned with death and the (secular?) sacred, the areas with which Hoondert’s research on contemporary requiem is closely concerned. Such requiems may well involve verbal texts, such as poems, liturgical texts altered for new purposes, or stanzas of hiphop or haiku. But, as Hoondert points out, the key issue is how the music can mobilize, transform or even subvert the apparent verbal meanings. He observes that, at their best, these musical ways of stirring up words can prompt deeply felt emotions, while helping us to process, interpret or otherwise deal with those responses in consolation or catharsis.

In my own participatory research with audiences of drone metal (an extremely repetitive, extended, amplified and distorted form of heavy metal music), I’ve also been examining how musical experience and language meet (or don’t), particularly with respect to terms like mysticism, ritual and the sacred. I agree with Hoondert that ethnographic work is necessary in dealing with questions of how ritual and the sacred are imagined by people who wish to avoid the authoritarian implications they perceive to be related to ‘religion.’ In secular requiem performances and in metal audiences alike, listeners instead seek a way of understanding and practicing ritual which, as Hoondert suggests, ‘avoids the institutionalized context but refers to the way people deal with those complex questions of life and death.’

Participants in drone metal music are also involved in creating transient but extraordinary sacred spaces through musical rituals. This occurs in private practices developed to enhance the specialness of listening to vinyl records, and in attending live performances where elements described as ritualistic (smoke, incense, darkness, animal skulls and other weird paraphernalia) supplement the overwhelmingly amplified, distorted repetitive sound in creating an atmosphere which is powerful precisely because of its strangeness and opaque resistance to easy explanation. The music is often described with terms such as violence, aggression, pain and suffering, but it is these markers of extremity which allow a sense of catharsis, dark spirituality and even healing according to listeners. Drone metal, then, addresses deep issues of importance in rather different musical and conceptual registers to Hoondert’s requiem composers and audiences. But in exploring the sacred in music, each are equally concerned with profound themes whose impact for many will elude language.

In fact, most reports of drone metal are prefaced with what I call ‘ineffability disclaimers.’ Listeners first describe the music as indescribable, and then go on to offer articulate, creative, and often elaborate descriptions. And while much of my research has involved analysing and writing about these verbal evocations of mysticism, transcendence and spirituality, it’s important to remember this stated distance between what music can do to us and how we can talk about it. As Hoondert puts it, in considering what attendees might seek and find at requiem concerts:

Through the music they find some what I call ‘musical knowledge’ about the meaning of life and death, and that’s not a kind of knowledge which you can verbalize in a dogma or doctrine, but it’s a kind of consoling knowledge that you find for a moment in the music, and perhaps then it’s gone again.

Music and a powerful but ambivalent religiosity are further intertwined in the ways that mysticism has been understood in the study of religions. Freud linked the two in a 1929 letter to Romain Rolland, writing that ‘mysticism is as impenetrable to me as music’ (Freud quoted in Certeau, 1992, p. 12); William James uses the twin metaphors of musical listener and lover in order to explain the incompetence of language in communicating mystical feeling (W. James, 1982, p. 380); and Evelyn Underhill argued that in using ‘suggestive and allusive language the mystical artist often approaches the methods of music’ in order to enchant the reader/listener (Underhill, 1980, p. 408). Michel de Certeau further explores this connection (himself writing in characteristically suggestive and allusive style), drawing comparison between the reading of mystical texts, and the embodied and interpretative practice of playing music (1986, p. 83; 1992, p. 22), and describing the evocative paradoxes of mystical language as ‘musical secrets’ (1986, p. 99).

So, in claiming that music is a universal language, people might at least be indirectly suggesting something about the power of ambiguity: perhaps that music appears to be able to do things we wish that language could? It brings to mind another commonly heard aphorism, variously ascribed (ambivalently!) to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Thelonious Monk and others: that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. That might be fair, but it certainly doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. In acknowledging that strange productive tension between incommensurate modes of expression and experience, we might find ways of understanding the consoling, ritualistic, and sometimes sacred power of music.

Endnotes

Certeau, M. d. (1986) Heterologies: Discourse on the Other (trans. B. Massumi), Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Certeau, M. d. (1992b) ‘Mysticism’ (trans. M. Brammer), Diacritics, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 11-25.

James, W. (1982 [1902]) The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, New York and London, Penguin Books.

Underhill, E. (1980) ‘The Essentials of Mysticism’, in Woods, R. (ed.) Understanding Mysticism, Garden City, Doubleday, pp. 400-15.

 

Death, Music, and Ritual: Contemporary Requiems in the Commemoration of Death and Violence

Apparently, the only two certain things in life are death and taxes. In terms of the former, the requiem has held its grip up until contemporary times. While popular requiems, such as those composed by Mozart and Rutter are still performed, newly composed requiems, or requiem-like pieces are growing in popularity in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe. These requiems make use of previously employed lyrics and composition techniques, but some also rework these elements or leaving them behind entirely. From Mozart, to hip-hop, to haiku, contemporary music for the commemoration of death is variegated in its composition. In this interview, Breann Fallon discusses contemporary requiems with Associate Professor M.J.M. Hoondert of Tilburg University while at the 2016 European Association for the Study of Religions conference in Helsinki. Hoondert highlights the variety of contemporary requiems, noting their different styles, imagery, and convergences, but also the intended affect of the works. In particular, Hoondert discusses the step away from the liturgy associated with requiems as way for today’s individual to deal with death or violence in their own way. Still, it is clear that the ritual elements of the requiem remains, hence where this contemporary music fits into the sacral landscape is up for debate.

Also, be sure to check out DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory with Jonathan Jong

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, coffins, Jennifer Lopez CD’s, and more.

Music, Marketing and Megachurches

During the 20th century, the media has exploded to include radio, television and most recently and perhaps influentially, the Internet. Music has been a big part of this new emerging “mediapolois”, moving from a mostly stand-alone medium, to part of a marketing matrix of  people, places and industries. Today, music’s meaning is more often part of a branded ecosystem, not limited to entertainment, but part of the experience of everyday life, including religion. Evangelical churches and, increasingly, New Religious Movements use music as part of a branding exercise that helps to transform them from local congregations into a transnational enterprise.

To discuss music, marketing and contemporary religion, David Robertson sat down with Dr. Tom Wagner, an ethnomusicologist, percussionist and lecturer at the Reid School of Music in Edinburgh. They discuss the long history of the use of music in promoting evangelical congregations, and the transformation that came with the development of recording and broadcast technologies. Tom describes his research and fieldwork with Hillsong, an evangelical church movement with an international reach who use music both in their worship and their branding. Later, they discuss the use of music in Scientology, to create and maintain a particular aesthetic, and how Tom sees this research developing in the future.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, scuba gear, garden gnomes, and more.

Popular Culture Studies and Bruce Springsteen: Escaping and Embracing Religion

Kate McCarthy in 2013, shortly after the re-release of her co-edited volume God in the Details. However, listening back to this unreleased (until now!) interview, her commentary both on the metamorphic nature of popular culture studies and on the music of Bruce Springsteen remain salient and fresh even today. With “the Boss” having just finished his tour in support of the re-released The River and a new solo album planned, it seemed fitting to unearth this interview between McCarthy and A. David Lewis, tracking Springsteen’s relationships to the Church and to women.

This interview was recorded by A. David Lewis – who has been an interviewee on the RSP twice in the past – for a separate project. As fate would have it, the interview has made its way into our hands and we are delighted to bring it to you now.

Video Games and Religious StudiesReligion and Film, Religion and Literature,Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ornaments, puncture repair kits, and more.

 

Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining (Video)

In the academic study of ‘religion’, an organization that is at the forefront of encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue is the Grace Davie and Jay Demerath – were recorded at the SSSR Annual Meeting back in 2011. While SSSR was originally dominated by the field of sociology, there has been a recent shift in attendees toward other disciplines such as psychology, education, religious studies, nursing and others that share an interest in understanding ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ from their respective perspectives. The diversity of presenters is only matched by the diversity of paper topics presented. While SSSR is typically hosted in an US city, SSSR has gained popularity as an international conference as well with the 2014 Annual Meeting hosting the largest number of international scholars to date.

Considering these observations, the RSP collaborated with SSSR at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana to offer an interdisciplinary panel on the study of religion. Each of the papers presented are not only from different fields in the study of religion but also methodologically or theoretically apply an interdisciplinary approach. The authors represent the best in their fields. Some are established scholars with a body of work while others are up-and-coming talent. We hope you enjoy the RSP sponsored panel on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion. See below for the abstracts of the papers presented.

Many thanks to Chris SIlver, Tommy Coleman, and all at the SSSR for making this recording possible. This panel recording is somewhat different from our usual weekly podcast – if you enjoyed this, why not check out the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes? And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, knitting needles, Alien Ant Farms, and more.

The Religious Studies Project Panel on Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJp5DiV3WKc&feature=youtu.be]

Convener: Christopher Silver

W. Paul Williamson,  Poison-Drinking in Obedience to the Faith: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience

Christian serpent handlers of American Appalachia are most noted for handling venomous snakes in obedience to one of five perceived mandates of Christ in Mark 16:17-18: Casting out devils, speaking new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison, and laying on hands for healing. Over the past two decades, I have studied several phenomena among this compelling group including their sermons, their music, the anointing, near-death serpent bites, community support (Williamson & Hood, in press), and of course serpent handling (see Hood & Williamson, 2008, for summaries of the above uncited studies). The sign of drinking poison, however, has been largely ignored. To address this neglect, I conducted phenomenological interviews with nine serpent handlers who have practiced poison-drinking. Based on a hermeneutic analysis of these interviews, this paper presents a pattern of themes that describe the structure of meaning in the experience of drinking poison in obedience to the faith.

April Stace Vega, “That’s a Really Real Feeling”: Popular Music and the Sacralization of the Self in Evangelical Worship

“Should Churches Play ‘Highway to Hell’ in order to Reach Unbelievers?” This question is posed on a website catering to evangelical pastors with a link to a video. In the video, several prominent pastors discuss the use of the song (by rock band AC/DC) at a recent Easter morning service. It considered a controversial music choice due to the lyrics of the song and the persona that the band projects, but is also considered a useful tool for evangelism. This project is an ethnographic study on the use of music with no overtly religious lyrics in what sociologist Donald Miller terms “new paradigm” churches in the Washington, D.C. area. I view the use of popular-secular music through the lens of the subjectivization thesis of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. In this paper, I focus on one particular meaning ascribed to popular-secular music in these churches: the ability of the music to express “real feeling” in a way traditional sacred music does not.

Tatsushi Hirono, Corroborative Efforts between Social Workers and Religious Leaders in Natural Disaster Relief: A Comparative Analysis among the USA, Philippines and Japan

The United States of America, the Philippines, and Japan, have suffered multiple natural disasters: Typhoon in Philippines (2013), Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005) in the USA, and the 8.9 Magnitude earthquake (2011) in Japan. Immediately after these natural disasters, victims needed shelter, water, food, and blankets. However, a few weeks after, they needed mental health support. The investigator hypothesizes that religion would reduce the natural disaster victims’ PTSD symptoms and increase their “hope.” He sent 1,500 mailing surveys to Christian and Buddhist clergy in the New Orleans, New York, Manila, Tacloban, Tokyo, and Fukushima areas. He found that cultural differences between Christian and Buddhist religious communities: (a) More Christian clergy thought natural disaster relief efforts are their obligation. (b) Christian clergy focus more on “comfort”, “reducing pain,” and “hope,” while Buddhist clergy focus more on “listening” and “praying” when they talk with family members who lost their loved ones.

Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, Against Silver Bullet Explanations for Religion: Toward Interdisciplinary Conversations that Allow for Both Consilience and Divergence

Single explanations of religion from within one particular discipline are partial explanations and do not suffice by themselves. As an enterprise, the scientific study of religion will do well to continue to foster conversations across disciplinary boundaries in an overall team effort, moving, on the one hand, toward increased consilience, or a ‘unity of knowledge’ (E.O. Wilson 1998), while also allowing, on the other hand, plenty of freedom for divergence. This presentation briefly highlights key contributions from disciplines such as biology (e.g., Ridley 2004; Feierman 2009), evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, Tooby 1992; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004), evolutionary-oriented sociology (e.g., D.S. Wilson 2002; Diamond 2012), and semiotic-oriented communication studies (e.g., Baudrillard 1988; Raschke 2012; Bennett-Carpenter 2014) as touch-points for conversation that move toward consilience, while at the same time remaining open to divergence.

More popular than Jesus? Jung, Freud, and Religion

In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, the protagonist’s German psychiatrist is revealed to be a Buchenwald Nazi doctor in hiding. His revealing statement in his own defence hinges on his choice of psychiatric method. “But didn’t I try to atone? If I’d been a real Nazi I’d have chosen Jung, nicht wahr? But I chose Freud instead, the Jew.”

The divide between Freud and Jung (recently dramatized in the mediocre David Cronenberg film A Dangerous Method) is one of our own modern myths, like the divide between Plato and Aristotle in the ancient world. This is particularly true when it comes to their view of religion. I was vaguely conscious, while studying theology, of a sense among my teachers that Jung was acceptable in a way that Freud wasn’t (I remember one of my supervisors cryptically advising me to embrace my shadow self after I’d come to him with the usual postgraduate woes). Jung was sympathetic to religion. Jung didn’t think religion was neurosis. Jung was on our side.[1]

Segal mentions that Jung’s father was a pastor. He doesn’t touch on Freud’s Jewishness, perhaps because Freud himself rejected Judaism along with all other religions. But the differences between their backgrounds is important, perhaps not so much for how it affected their work but how it affected perceptions of their work. As the opening quote from Pynchon suggests, the Nazis could appreciate Jung and his collective unconscious, his initial understanding of Hitler’s rise as the resurgence of the Wotan archetype in the German unconscious. Freud, to the Nazis, would always be the self-loathing Jew with his conception of a universe full of souls as sick and parasitic and pornographic as his own.[2] I saw this split, sans the anti-Semitic undertones, among my lecturers in Dublin and Oxford. Freud was understood as the one who’d seen religion as a sickness, Jung was the one who’d seen it as something deep and beautiful and true in a way.

Segal suggests, with slightly cynical humour, that people like to be told that they’re deeper and more complex than they realized.  People certainly prefer being told that their faith is deep and beautiful and sort of true than it is a neurosis that has something to do with wanting to kill their father and sleep with their mother.

Segal argues persuasively against the idea that Jung could ever have been considered a disciple of Freud. This is a pity, since in many ways the relationship between Freud and Jung has fascinating resonances with my own study of discipleship in the ancient world. My thesis is on Peter and Judas in the Gospels and I am particularly interested in the way that these characters relate to Jesus as disciples.[3] One of my findings is that the ancient world regards true discipleship as adhering unquestioningly to what one’s teacher has taught. The student who develops into an independent critical thinker and questions or rejects his master’s teachings is a traitor just as Judas was a traitor.[4] If Jung was not Freud’s disciple, he can at least be considered the older man’s protégé and, as Segal says, one-time heir apparent. The interview addresses the psychic anguish his break with Freud caused Jung, and Freud’s own deep sense of betrayal is a well-known part of the myth.[5]

But Segal touches on something rather interesting when he comments that Freud’s inner circle of brilliant acolytes all outgrew and turned against him, one after another, while Jung’s mediocre followers remained devoted to his methods even after his death. Is there an implied criticism of Jung there, that he didn’t dare surround himself with people who could challenge him intellectually, as he had challenged Freud? But the ancient Greek archetype[6] of the good disciple was exactly this type of dull, unimaginative person. The primary qualities of a good disciple were his or her devotion to a master and the ability to completely absorb the master’s teachings. Damis, whose memoirs are the source for Philostratus’ third century Life of Apollonius of Tyana, proudly tells us that his task is to preserve even the crumbs that fell from his master’s table.

Finally, I was struck by Segal’s description of how Jung thought religion would fade away –its explanatory role replaced by science, and its role in connecting people to the collective unconscious replaced by Jungian psychiatry. I connected it to Frazer’s similarly misplaced confidence that human belief has moved from magic to religion and is now finally moving to science.[7] Unlike many intellectuals of his day, including Freud, Jung wasn’t troubled by the irrationality of religion but evidently he did share a general belief (in some cases, a hope) that its day was over. And his confidence that he himself would at least partially replace it echoes John Lennon: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now.”

 


[1] Interestingly, my experience in the world of literary criticism is of much more sympathy towards Freud. Just as Segal is not a Jungian, not many literary critics are committed Freudians, but they can still appreciate the power and elegance of his ideas.

[2] It must be said that Freud did not help matters with Moses and Monotheism, his deeply strange book of 1937, which claimed that the Jews had treacherously murdered Moses. Freud was aware of the dangers of making such a claim at a time when anti-Semitism was reaching ever-new heights (and had already driven him from Austria) and did wrestle with the question of whether or not to publish it.

[3] One can see the importance of this theme in the title of Hans-Josef Klauck’s 1987 book Judas, ein Jünger des Herrn (Judas: a disciple of the master).

[4] Origen, in Contra Celsum 2:12, makes the comparison explicit. I sometimes wonder what my supervisors make of this particular line of inquiry.

[5] The same Jung-loving tutors mentioned above took pleasure in repeating the (apocryphal?) story of how Freud fainted the first time Jung disagreed with him. Primarily, I think, because it makes Freud sound rather foolish.

[6] In the Northrop Frye sense, not the Jungian sense.

[7] Northrop Frye posits a movement in Western written language from the metaphorical (Homer) to the metonymic (Plato and continuous prose) to the descriptive (Francis Bacon and Locke). In Biblical scholarship, Morton Smith, Marcus Borg, and J.D. Crossan have written on Jesus as a magician or ‘spirit person’ set against the religion of the Temple.

Heavy Metal as Religion and Secularization as Ideology

Heavy metal as religion and secularization as ideology: a sociological approach

By Mohammad Magout, University of Leipzig, Germany

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 9 October 2013, in response to François Gauthier’s interview on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture (7 October 2013).

In this thought-provoking interview, Professor François Gauthier from the University of Fribourg gives his remarks on a variety of theoretical, methodological, and empirical issues in social sciences. It would be impossible to cover even a tenth of those issues within the limits of this brief article, so I will restrict my response to two themes only: defining religion and critiquing secularization theory and post-secularity.

Gauthier states at the beginning of the podcast that current social theory fails to explain some recent developments in the social world, particularly in reference to subcultures and popular protest movements. He specifically criticizes sociologists of religion for not recognizing certain cultural notions, practices, or movements as religious even when people involved declare them as such. He says that if ravers, for example, believe rave to be just as religious as Catholicism, then sociologists should adjust their definitions of religion in order to accommodate rave as a religious phenomenon.

While I acknowledge that in social research there is always the risk of imposing inadequate, external categories on meanings conveyed by informants, I do have considerable reservations about conflating informants’ self-descriptions with theoretical terms. By saying that rave culture is as religious as Catholicism, a raver might be, for example, making a statement of identity; that is, defining his/her identity as a raver against or in relation to a Catholic identity, which is, of course, a personal right that no one should deny him/her. From a scientific perspective, however, “religion” is a theoretical term that is used to categorize and analyze a specific class of social phenomena. If we were to leave it solely to informants to decide which theoretical concepts and categories apply to them, social research would become very fragmented and incomparable, because different people can and do use complicated terms such as “religion” in widely different ways. Of course, their perspective is important and one should always take it into consideration, but scientific research requires at least some minimum degree of uniformity and consistency in the application of terms and categories.

I am not very well-informed about rave culture, but I can say something about another music-based youth culture with which I am familiar—both as a researcher and as a member—namely, heavy metal. Heavy metal can be seen as one of the most “quasi-religious” youth cultures, not only because religious imagery and symbolism are embedded in heavy metal lyrically, sonically, and visually, but also because of the “striking resemblance” between many aspects of heavy metal (especially live concerts) and religious rituals (Weinstein 2000, p. 231-2). Heavy metal, in addition, defines itself explicitly against traditional religion (Christianity in particular), which in a few extreme cases has reached the level of waging an open war against it (as it was the case with some members of the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990’s who were involved in dozens of arson attacks against churches). Some people have even considered heavy metal to be their “religion.” There was a campaign in the United Kingdom to answer the question about religion in the 2011 census with “heavy metal,” which resulted in more people identifying their “religion” as “heavy metal” than Scientology, Baha’ism, or Taoism.

Even if we grant that some of those who reported their religion as “heavy metal” were serious about it, does that justify changing our definitions of religion, so that they can accommodate heavy metal together with Christianity, Hinduism, Shamanism, and ancient Egyptian religion in the same analytical category? I myself do not think so, and no one so far—to the best of my knowledge—has presented a convincing case of the conceptual and analytical utility of treating a youth culture such as heavy metal as some type of religion.[i]

Gauthier seems to justify his position by stating that religion in the past few decades has morphed into something different than it used to be. It is now more concerned with personal life-style, identity, and morality, rather than correct belief and clerical institutions. This perhaps makes religion (at least some forms of contemporary religion) closer to youth cultures than traditional or institutional religion, which may justify grouping them together in the same category. Still this is not enough to change our definitions of religion. I think social scientists need to be a bit “conservative” about their definitions and conceptual frameworks in order to maintain the consistency of their work and measure change when it occurs. As stated by Steve Bruce, “Fixity of definition is not a refusal to recognize change; it is essential to describing change” (2009, p. 9).

Gauthier concludes his interview by warning us not to repeat the failure of secularization theory by adopting post-secularity, which he refers to as “the greatest threat to sociology of religion today.” He says quite bluntly, “Let’s try not to be as stupid, as ideological.” Since I originally conceived my PhD research project in terms of secularization theory, and have now started to drift toward post-secularity, I felt somehow challenged by Gauthier’s strong words. My intention in this article, nevertheless, is not to present a defense of secularization and post-secularity—especially given that I acknowledge many of the criticisms of these concepts—but rather to problematize one particular critique, which is the claim that secularization and post-secularity are based on certain ideologies or philosophical ideas.

First of all, I would like to say that I do not disagree with this critique: yes, secularization theories often reflected a modernist understanding of history and social change, and post-secularity is a concept that emerged in philosophical and normative discussions of the role of religion in the public sphere in contemporary Western societies. The problem is that many social scientists, in dismissing these concepts as ideologically biased, tend to gloss over the ideologies behind them as sociologically irrelevant. The impact of ideologies on social theory might be something undesirable, albeit unavoidable, but their impact on society is of utmost importance to the social scientist.

Modernism, in its various manifestations (liberalism, communism, nationalism, colonialism, etc.), has transformed our world, including religion, irreversibly.[ii] Most modern states—together with their political, legal, educational, and economic systems—have more or less been established along the lines of some modernist ideology that may have actively sought to marginalize, control, or privatize religion.[iii] Of course, how this might have developed or to what extent it has worked out in different contexts is widely variable. What is certain, I think, is that these ideologies have shaped and continue to shape the world today, despite the fragmentation of their hegemony and the rise of alternative ideologies. It is therefore implausible to think they have hardly changed anything with regard to religion, as some staunch critics of secularization seem to imply (e.g. Stark 1999).

The question I am trying to frame is related to the more general issue of the complicated relationship between ideology and social theory. Social science, more than any other branch of science, is prone to the undesired influence of philosophical and ideological perspectives. The question is, then, how should social scientists deal with ideologically-infused theories without glossing over the ideologies behind them? I don’t have a straightforward answer to this question, but I can refer to Gauthier’s nuanced approach to studying neo-liberalism, which he outlines in his interview.

Gauthier criticizes rational-choice/market theories of religion for interpreting religion in economic terms, as if it were a commercial product. In doing so, these theories fail to understand and explain the relationship between religious change and neo-liberalism, which is not only a dominant economic theory or political ideology, Gauthier asserts, but also a “cultural ideology” that conditions our ways of thinking and behaving. He stresses that any examination of religion, politics, or social relations is not adequate without taking into consideration the impact of neo-liberalism and consumerism, which have become the “structuring” force of our societies. In other words, while Gauthier rejects rational-choice/market theories of religion, he does not dismiss neo-liberalism and emphasizes the importance of studying its impact on religion.

The same approach, in my opinion, should be applied to secularization theory and post-secularity. Criticisms of secularization as an ideologically-infused theory should not make us gloss over its constituting ideology and the concrete sociological implications of this ideology. Similarly, the philosophical origins of the concept of post-secularity do not mean that it is irrelevant for social scientists. One should remember that the boundaries between social theory and social philosophy are not clear-cut and that philosophers and theologians are playing an important role—perhaps more than sociologists—in setting the parameters for public debates about religion (Turner 2012, p. 649). This is not only a matter of intellectual debates, but also of policy-making. There are religious groups, public institutions, and political organizations which are adopting, in one way or another, a “post-secular perspective” toward religion and society and making their policies accordingly. One domain in which this current is becoming evident is academia as some earlier research (Schmalzbauer and Mahoney 2009) and also my ongoing research project on Ismaili institutions of higher education in London seem to suggest.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Bruce, S. (2009) “The Importance of Social Science in the Study of Religion”, Fieldwork in Religion, Vol. 4 No. 1, pp. 7–28.
  • Casanova, J. (2012) “Are We Still Secular? Explorations on the Secular and the Post-Secular”, in Nynäs, P., Lassander, M. and Utriainen, T. (Eds.), Post-secular society, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J, pp. 27–46.
  • Moberg, M. (2012) “Religion in Popular Music or Popular Music as Religion? A Critical Review of Scholarly Writing on the Place of Religion in Metal Music and Culture”, Popular Music and Society, Vol. 35 No. 1, pp. 113–130.
  • Schmalzbauer, J. and Mahoney, K. (2009) “Religion and Knowledge in the Post-Secular Academy”, SSRC Working Papers. Available at http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/post-secular-academy.pdf (Accessed 6 June 2013)
  • Stark, R. (1999) “Secularization, R.I.P”, Sociology of Religion, Vol. 60 No. 3, pp. 249–273.
  • Turner, B.S. (2010) “Religion in a Post-secular Society”, in Turner, B.S. (Ed.), The new Blackwell companion to the sociology of religion, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA, pp. 649–667.
  • Weinstein, D. (2000) Heavy metal: the music and its culture. New York: Da Capo Press.


[i] For a survey of literature on the relationship between heavy metal and religion, see Moberg (2012).

[ii] This is what José Casanova calls “secularism as stadial consciousness,” i.e. secularism as a philosophy of history, according to which humanity progressively “emancipates” itself from religion. Secularization thereby functions as a “self-fulfilling theory” (2012, p. 31-2).

[iii] Another common criticism of secularization theory is its Euro-centrism, which is true, but it is almost forgotten that not very long time ago European powers ruled most countries of the world, established their political systems, wrote their laws, educated their elites, and planned their economies. This certainly does not entail that these countries should follow the same trajectories of modernization followed earlier by European countries, but it does mean that European ideas, theories, and ideologies are very relevant to other countries too.

Religion and Cultural Production

Cusack In the second of our podcasts since our summer ‘break’ we are delighted to welcome back Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, who has previously appeared on the RSP speaking on Invented Religions, and offering advice in our roundtable discussions on building an academic career, and academic publishing. In this interview with Chris, recorded in July in Edinburgh, Carole provides a broad introduction and overview of the study of religion and cultural production, making particular reference to her recent publication, Alex Norman, and featuring chapters from many of our contributors, including our own David Robertson.

In the introduction to their volume, Cusack and Norman write:

It is a truth generally acknowledged that religions have been the earliest and perhaps the chief progenitors of cultural products in human societies. Mesopotamian urban centres developed from large temple complexes, Greek drama emerged from religious festivals dedicated to deities including Dionysos and Athena, and in more recent times Christianity has inspired musical masterpieces including the ‘St Matthew Passion’ by the Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach (1686-1750), the motets of the Catholic William Byrd (1540-1023), and the striking paintings of the Counter-Reformation Spaniards Ribera, Zurbaran, and Murillo in the seventeenth century (Stoichita 1995). Nor can we forget the cinematic renderings of biblical story in such works as William Wyler’s epic Ben Hur (1959) starring Charlton Heston, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s (1922-1975) Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (1964), or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). The Indian religious tradition contributes the magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor (Cambodia), and the exquisite Chola bronze statues, and the many extraordinary renditions of the India epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata onto the small and large screens. Likewise, Islam too has generated the sophisticated Timurid illustrated manuscripts of Firdausi’s Shahnama, the paintings of the various Rajput kingdoms, and from Sufi traditions the devotional qawwali music. Architecturally, perhaps the most obvious cultural products of Islam for those in the West has been the Islamic architecture of Spain such as the Alhambra and the Great Mosque or Cordoba, both now sitting as beautiful cultural legacies (Lapunzina 2005). Many more examples could be adduced, including forms of dance, systems of education, theories of government, special diets, and modes of costume and fashion.

Clearly there is no shortage of data for scholars wishing to delve into this broad topic. But what do we actually mean by ‘cultural product’? How can we claim that ‘religion’ is producing these things in any meaningful way? What can we ascertain about a ‘religion’ from its cultural products? And what makes this approach different from that of Material Religion? This broad-ranging interview tackles such questions, and more, via examples as diverse as religious celebrity, Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum, and Sacred Trees and finishes by addressing whether or not the ‘secular’ university – and, in turn, Religious Studies – can be seen as a cultural product of a particular form of Christianity.

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Podcasts

Drone Metal Mysticism

In this interview, Owen Coggins joins us to talk about the use of religious (and sacrilegious) language and imagery in Drone Metal, a genre which stretches metal to low, slow, repetitive extremes. Drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau, he tells David Robertson that the prevalence of language relating to mysticism and “spiritual experience” may be due to the genre’s focus on the physicality of the musical experience. Expanding out to discuss other forms of popular music which exhibit these modes of engagement, the conversation moves to consider how this case-study might open up new ways to engage with religious ideas in popular culture, and in other practices involving extreme states of bodily consciousness.

This interview was recorded at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective: Publics and Performances conference in Milton Keynes, Feb 19-21 2018.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Sainsbury’s finest porridge, Doublemint gum, and more

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Drone Metal Mysticism

Podcast with Owen Coggins (16 April 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Coggins – Drone Metal Mysticism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Sunny Milton Keynes for the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective Conference where I’m lucky enough to be joined, today, by Owen Coggins, who is an Honorary Associate of the Religious Studies Department here.

Owen Coggins (OC): Hello

DR: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been talking about this interview for quite some time. But we’ve finally managed to get it organised – luckily, just as your book comes out! Let’s start, then with drone metal. What is it that we’re talking about here?

OC: OK. I guess I often describe it as an extreme form of heavy metal that’s characterised by extremes of repetition; distortion; extension; tracks that go on for thirty minutes or forty-five minutes – I went to a concert that was three hours long – and feedback and other kinds of sonic characteristics. But it’s also characterised in the sort of discourse that surrounds it that’s produced by musicians but also by audiences – lots of talk about mysticism and ritual and religious experience and transcendence and so on. And so that was the starting point for me wanting to investigate it for my PhD research.

DR: Now this isn’t the first kind of study we’ve had of religious imagery . . . . Well let’s start with metal, particularly. There’s a long history of fairly obvious religious imagery . . .

OC: Yes, and so I think from Black Sabbath – who are often understood as the originary starting point of heavy metal – and you’ve obviously got kind-of crucifixes and press photos taken in graveyards, and accusations about Satanism and various kind of imagined occult practices. And I think that a real interest in the power of religion and its symbols – and perhaps new or sometimes oppositional repositioning of that kind of symbolism, images and languages and even sounds – has, I think, been a really important part of metal from its beginnings. I think, perhaps what seems to me to be slightly different about this particular form – certainly in the way that academics have approached it – is that religion in metal has often been kind-of approached through the lens of Christianity and metal, whether that’s Christian heavy metal itself, or a discourse of anti-Christian sentiment in metal – burning down churches in Norwegian black metal, and so on – and more recently, sort-of more focus on various other sections of Satanism and paganism in metal. But it’s often kind-of approached in terms of a religious tradition and metal, whereas what I was really interested in is the sort of bricolage and sometimes kind-of orientalist appropriation and redeployment of a really vast range of different kinds of religious symbols and sounds, in this particular form of music.

DR: Now the use of religious imagery in metal, particularly – it’s a very deliberately transgressive kind of discourse. Although obviously it varies how serious they are. That’s not entirely what we find with drone, is it?

OC: I think the issue of seriousness is quite an interesting one. And I think humour in metal is often misunderstood as perhaps one optional counterpoint to seriousness. And so I think that’s an interesting way to look at these things. Because, in some ways, there are things which are done very, very seriously which are at the same time completely ludicrous and absurd. And one example is the classic 1996 record by Sleep which has two alternate titles: “Jerusalem” – which references these ideas of the Holy land, pilgrimage – and also “Dopesmoker”. So “Dopesmoker” and “Jerusalem” are two alternative titles for this one single, hour-long dirge classic of stoner metal riffs. And it’s often kind-of referenced by listeners in terms of the lyrics being simultaneously ultra-serious and completely ridiculous at the same time. And I think, that is an interesting way to think about how some of these symbols might be mobilised and ideas might be responded to, which in the book I talk a little bit about and the idea of “listening as if “. And I think, in some ways, drone metal allows . . . in the ways that audiences talk about it, are going to concerts or listening to recordings as if they are ritual, as if they are mystical, as if they are somehow related in an ambivalent way to religion. And that kind of language sometimes shifts around. So the record I mentioned is often described – even in the space of a short 500 word review for example – as like a pilgrimage, or as a pilgrimage, as a sonic pilgrimage, as sounding like the music that pilgrims might listen to at the end of the pilgrimage. And so I think this kind of ambivalence that I talk about as “listening as if” it’s ritualist, allows people to explore and investigate a kind of imagined religiosity without having to necessarily commit to certain kind of identity statements or dogmas or beliefs. And I think that’s part of where the power lies. And I think that also is part of the real value of music in this kind of exploration. Because it affords a sort of imaginative space for people to sort-of explore that.

DR: And that’s something that’s not unique to music, of course. That kind of mode is familiar in other forms of art that have got . . . there are visual artists and painters who specifically design their work to be experienced in these kind of contexts. You made a nice distinction in the book about different modes of engaging with . . . Certain kinds of music are engaged with in a different way and I think you’d distinguish like your pop and rock, the mainstream musical forms, that there’s a different register of engagement with it.

OC: Yes, I think that was really . . . I mean, I don’t really want to make big claims about the specialness of drone metal against other forms of music. But this was really responding to the ways that my research participants talked about it. And there was often a very . . . listeners often made a very strong distinction between drone metal and other forms of music. And often even drone metal and other forms of metal. Just in . . . partly because of the sort-of abstract nature of this very droning dirge-like music and the practicalities, such as how long the tracks last. The real interest in vinyl as kind-of recreating a separate space and time in which to listen. Often people preferred to listen on vinyl rather than digital formats because it created a certain kind of special space and time through which to listen. And I think that really spoke to the construction of ideas about ritual and mysticism: that there was a deliberate attempt to separate drone metal in space and time, but also conceptually as something kind-of set apart. And obviously, there’s an implied construction of the sacred in there.

DR: Yes, that notion of specialness is something that I’ve actually come across in a few places. And it’s quite interesting when you . . . even for students talking about the study of religion – they want it to be something a bit set apart. Even the discourse itself is something separate. Yes, I like that you mentioned the material culture, and there’s a number of interesting intersections here. I mean the vinyl aspect of it is one we’ve already talked about, but there’s also, you know, a particular aesthetic that goes along with particularly drone metal. But we also have material culture in terms of sensory experience.

OC: Yes, and I think, firstly, it was great to speak to people about this certainly quite extreme form of music, and read thousands of reviews and things, just because of the creative and unusual ways that people talked about it. And that was one of the ways that came up a lot was people talking about going to concerts and the air becoming solid, or having a real, physical bodily experience of the sound. And so I thought material culture was actually a really helpful way to think about that. Because it was almost like sound becoming physically mobilised for people, or them kind of engaging with sound in a very physical way. And I think that was an interesting way to think also about mysticism in terms of the ways that people kind-of use, or interpret, or operate on a particular kind of tradition – in this case heavy metal, I suppose, as well as the surrounding discourses about transcendental experience and mysticism and so on – that it was almost a kind of a way to experience sound as sound, or what sound itself sounds like, or what sound itself “feels” like, as some participants put it. Which, I think, connects up to other aspects of the aesthetic in other quite interesting ways, such as the interest with black letter or Fraktur typography, like the sort of gothic script that’s familiar in a lot of metal cultures as well as drone metal. And what I loved about that was it’s a real visual manifestation of the distortion and amplification of a sign that’s so important in the sonic characteristics of the music.

DR: I found that really interesting: the idea of the sort-of fetishisation of amplification. That is noticeably different than most other forms, even mainstream rock and metal where there’s much more concern on the drum kit or the guitars, rather than in drone where it’s the amplification particularly. And what I found interesting, having been a rock musician, was that when you started talking about this, I was thinking, “Well the first stage of amplification you need in rock is that you have to be louder than the drums. Because you have to play the drums loud to make them sound good! So there’s a level of amplification you need, to get your guitar to there, for your band to sound like a rock band, right? But in drone, that bit becomes the bit that’s of interest. And you go up a whole other level, so that it’s the amplification itself that becomes the act. It’s no longer something that you’re doing in order to get to point A, it becomes point A itself.

OC: Yes, I think I’ve suggested that this is the first or, at least, the only musical culture that I know of where the most important musical instrument, broadly conceived, is the amplifier rather than the guitar or, as you say, anything else that’s being amplified. Although, interestingly, there is a real focus on amplification and speakers in dub reggae and certain forms of electronic dance music, which I also discuss. Because those forms of music have also attracted really quite sort-of prevalent discourses of religious experience and mysticism. But yes, definitely, the amplification . . . sort-of amplification of amplification is the thing that’s really at issue. And I think that’s an interesting way to think about that is that it’s about an interrogation of transmission itself. And amplifying kind-of symbols themselves in order to kind of investigate what their possibilities are rather than, for example, to kind-of communicate particular kinds of musical semantics or structures.

DG: Yes, you mentioned dance music- I immediately pictured the front of “3am Eternal”, by The KLF, where it’s an altar and the sides of the altar are huge amplifiers. Of course The KLF were enormously influenced by situationist theory and the kind of post-hippy, kind-of early cybernetic idealism – you know, Tim Leary and those people. And they were very sort-of consciously creating a temporary autonomous zone. But they were using a lot of religious imagery in doing it. Even the idea of time, you know – so it’s 3am, but it’s 3am eternal. They have a lot of these similar kind-of languages.

OC: And I think that the idea of drone itself is very much about . . . or it affords ways of talking about time which kind-of do similar things. They’re physically and bodily experienced in a particular moment, but they open out onto those kind-of ideas about archaic experience and forms of social organisation. And so, in one of the chapters of the book I talk about those: the ways that audiences talk about drone metal being kind of about elsewhere, and drone metal being given access to these elsewheres. People discuss being transported to outer space or to kind-of imagined empty deserts and so on. And I think that’s a really powerful and important way that people respond to it. Not to say that there’s anything inherently connected in the music, but just that those are conventional ways of talking about the music which have sprung up around it, which seem to have a certain validity for people who are communicating about their engagement in this music.

DR: Nonetheless, I found that really interesting. And we really are thinking about utopias – in the original sense of the word – of nowhere, of places that are idealisations or imagined spaces, in some sense, that there’s almost an attempt to achieve through these kind of trancian and drone ideas.

OC: Yes, and I think in dub, and psy-trance, and in drone metal which, as I said, there are different kinds of utopias. And I think you can also, working backwards from there, think about the reasons why there’s such a strong impulse to try and construct these utopias in a very kind of temporary way – just over the course of half an hour recording, or an hour or so of a live concert. So, for example, for dub, in terms of a black Atlantic diaspora wanting to kind-of construct certain ideas about an Afro-centric religion, for example. And I think, perhaps, for drone metal it’s interesting to speculate about what the construction of utopias might say about the social situation of audiences . . . as a response to alienation and disenchantment.

DR: And interestingly as well, almost pre-modern – despite the fetishisation of technology. There’s a lot of wildernesses and distant places. It’s almost away from modernity.

OC: Yes, there was an interesting example when one of the best-known drone metal bands, Sunn O))), performed at the Royal Festival Hall a couple of years ago. The support act was a group from Russia called Phurpa who’ve supported Sunn O))) on a number of occasions, who style themselves as supporting authentic Bon Tibetan traditional chanting. And so when you see these two things juxtaposed, the Tibetan Bon ritual – where there’s bowls of incense and figures in black robes doing vocal chanting – and then you go out and have your glass of wine at the break time and then you go back and there’s a very similar performance with the Sunn O))) band members in their black robes . . . . But it’s a very kind-of consciously up-dated version of this, with these extremes of amplification, but sonically quite a similar palette, I suppose, they’re working with. And I think that’s a very deliberate association that they’re trying to make with a certain kind of imagined archaic ritual.

DR: Let me give you a deliberately provocative question. So we’ve got a kind-of sense of sacredness or specialness, or temporary autonomous zone – however we want to put it – and we have quasi-religious musical forms: which comes first? You know, in which direction is the movement? Or is it mutually reinforced?

OC: Yes, I think it’s a good question and it’s one that I’ve tried very hard to skip!

DR: (Laughs) I said it was deliberately provocative.

OC: But in order to skip it, to focus instead on trying to . . . . Put it this way, there was a lot of claims about – in my interviews and in reviews about this sort of music – that drone metal really does hark back to ancient – in quotes – “tribal religious forms”, and so on. And I think this is kind-of deliberately played-on by some musicians. And it’s certainly picked-up-on by parts of the audience. But my interest wasn’t so much kind-of proving or disproving whether this really, genuinely had ancient connections to these kind of religions. And in the same way that the group performing the Tibetan ritual music that I mentioned – I’m not so interested in the historical accuracy of their early music production. What’s more interesting to me is how those ideas are mobilised, and why people find them important, and to draw on that. And I think, in part, it’s to make an authority claim. Or to recognise and, after the fact, legitimate something that they felt was quite a powerful engagement. And then, in order to kind of situate that for themselves and the listening community, to sort of connect it to these older imagined forms.

DR: Tell us, then, about how this relates to mysticism – and this is a large part of the book, obviously. I mean, I presume we’re building from the kind-of idea that this is music which is deliberately experienced rather than passively heard?

OC: Yes. So, following on from what we’ve been discussing, there’s also quite a strong discourse of perennialism that you find in Aldous Huxley and so on, in the way that people talk about it – that it’s accessing this kind-of universal underlying form of religious experience. Now that, to me . . . there are some troubling consequences of that idea, that just erases all specific differences. And there are some issues with a kind of orientalist grabbing of bits and pieces from all religions and kind of presenting them as if they were referring to a similar thing. So, for me, what was really valuable in trying to understand these kind of discourses of mysticism and ritual – given that so many people who are coming from different kind of backgrounds and so on are using words that are notoriously difficult to pin down, such as “it was a spiritual experience”, or “this music is mystical” in some way – for me, it was really valuable to look to the work of Michel de Certeau. He both kind-of provides a really valuable way to look at the uses that audiences make of texts in popular culture, and also his work on mysticism. And so this approach to mysticism: instead of trying to look behind the texts for this unitive experience, which the scholar imagines is the same behind all of these instantiations, Michel de Certeau, by contrast, wants to look at the texts which are designated mystical and then identify certain procedures, or gestures, or operations on an inherited language that take place in these texts. So, for me, that was really valuable – for a start because it kind of resolves, or displaces, a kind of division between text and experience which has been quite influential – and quite problematically so, in my view – in the 20th century study of mysticism, where mystical experiences are “ineffable”, they’re “indescribable” and then you have texts which sort-of fail nobly to describe them. So the problem with that is that the experience that’s suggested as being the same – there’s not really any evidence for that. And then the actual kinds of differences in texts are just attributed to the cultural differences in which these same experiences take place. Michel de Certeau, by contrast, allows us to look at the particular mechanics and moves and gestures that take place in these texts. So, for example, talking about how a language of the body emerges in the mystical texts – or texts designated mystical in the 16th or 17th centuries – how they’re interested in the materiality of signifiers. And how mystics are seen by themselves as ultra-orthodox, but by outsiders as heretical in some way, for their treatment of their inherited tradition. And so I think there was a number of these kind-of gestures that de Certeau identified in mystical texts, that I also observed in not only the ways that audiences spoke about their engagement with drone metal, but also in the sound itself. So we had similar . . . in the ways that people talked about going to concerts, you find these very similar and familiar gestures of talking about mysticism and ritual. But I also thought it was quite a good description of what drone metal does to the tradition of heavy metal. So it, for example, takes on lots of signifiers from Black Sabbath but kind-of over-extends them, and pushes them to their breaking point. So, for example, the Sleep album I mentioned earlier was described memorably by Julian Cope in a review, as if a bunch of California teenagers had found Black Sabbath’s first four albums in the desert and started a religion, based on it.

DR: I love that, yes.

OC: And so you can see that just even in the sound. It’s almost like taking a Black Sabbath song and extending it for an hour – sort-of almost pushing it to its limits. And I think this almost fits with de Certeau’s idea of mysticism as an operation, or a performance, in a text which does something to an inherited tradition.

DR: So using drone metal, then, are you using it . . . . You’re not so much using it as an example of mysticism, but as an example of how the language of mysticism is operated. Am I understanding . . ?

OC: Yes.

DR: And does that have ramifications for other . . . like, more widely for how we talk and think about mysticism?

OC: Yes, I think so. I think that it helps to avoid some of the pitfalls of mysticism which it has – as we’ve described before – about conjuring this sort-of fiction of an essentialist, universalist experience, which actually relies on particular ideas about subjectivity which are rooted in a Western academic episteme, I suppose. And I think that’s particularly important in our contemporary political moment where we hear references to the 20th century study of mysticism growingly in political discourse. So, for example, Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer making mention of Julius Evola. And that’s a very, very problematic imagination or depiction or mobilisation of ideas about mysticism: Evola kind-of wanting to forward – as he described it – “a racism of body souls and spirit”, and his sort-of involvement in the school of Fascist mysticism. So I think these ideas can certainly be taken in some very troubling ways. And I think, at root, they’re often based on a kind of essentialism and universalism which can be found in relatively benign forms in ideas of Huxley and Eliade and others. But I think de Certeau gives a much more both ethically and epistemologically-grounded way of approaching mysticism. In addition to saying, “If we look at the mechanics of what happens in the texts which are called mystical, then that’s actually a much more empirically-based way to look at mysticism than kind-of imagining these kind-of supposedly pure visionary experiences.”

DR: Great. So what’s next for you? Where do you take this next?

OC: Good question. I’m really interested in – as I start to talk about in the final chapter – how this kind-of relates to anthropological ideas about ritual, and how that might be connected to ideas about the connection between music and various forms of social structure and imagining social structure. So Jacques Attali’s ideas about noise, for example, which I think, given that this form of music is very much about distortion and feedback and noise, I think there’s maybe some interesting connections that can be made with ideas; Mary Douglas, for example, about the importance of dirt and the positioning of those things in ritual. I’m also really interested in wading into debates about heavy metal and mental health. And it’s often been associated with delinquency, both in popular media moral panics, as well as a certain kind of academic literature.

DR: Except, in fact, heavy metal fans are statistically happier and healthier than the norm, I believe – according to a recent survey!

OC: Yes, well I think you’ve got to take all of these things with a pinch of salt. I think that’s perhaps why it’s so interesting. Because I think the debate is so polarised. But I’d actually kind-of want to make room for the fact that maybe some kinds of music can be good for you, and other kinds of music can be bad for you, and maybe the debate’s a bit more nuanced and complex than some of these polemic positions have suggested.

DR: We love nuance, here at the Religious Studies Project, so thank you for taking part!

OC: Thanks for inviting me. It’s been very interesting.

DR: And before we go, I just want to remind the listener to rock hard, rock heavy and rock lobster!

.Citation Info: Coggins, Owen and David G. Robertson. 2018. “’Drone Metal Mysticism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/drone-metal-mysticism/

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Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

blog_yogarave_1_bellytitleThe spread of religion and practice from origin points to global phenomena is a prevalent topic within religious studies. Stephen Jacobs, a senior lecturer at Wolverhampton University, and Theodora Wildcroft, a PhD researcher at Open University UK, are both interested in the common presence of yoga and bhakti tradition in the contemporary British rave and festival communities. This podcast explores how Hindu belief and traditions have been incorporated into modern western practices. An overview of the British kirtan community and the Art of Living movement is followed by a discussion of authenticity, reconciliation of tradition and modernity, and the influence of popular culture. As appropriation of culture and questions of authenticity pervade conversations across fields, the study of contemporary British Hindu movements is important in understanding how millennia old religious traditions are being used in new, modern contexts.

This podcast is sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes (Masters and PhD) in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

Podcast with Steve Jacobs and Theodora Wildcroft (25 September 2017).

Interviewed by Ella Bock.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Jacobs and Wildcroft- Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities 1.1

Ella Bock (EB): Ok, so. Shall we get started? I guess I can introduce my self to you, first of all, in person. I’m Ella. I go to school at Lewis and Clark College, in Portland Oregon. But I’m currently at home for the summer in Washington DC.

Steve Jacobs (SJ): Ok. Well, I’m Steve Jacobs or Stephen Jacobs if you’re being very formal, but nobody calls me that. I’m senior lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, here in the UK, mostly based in the Media department, but also based in Religious Studies as well.

Theodora Wildcroft (TW): I’m Theo Wildcroft. Nobody calls me Theodora unless they want to make me giggle, basically. I’m at the OU, the Open University, in Milton Keynes, but I’m actually at home in Wiltshire at the moment – in north Wiltshire, in the south of the country. And I am just coming up on my last year of PhD, in full thesis-writing-up-joy at the moment!

SJ: That’s the most exiting bit! (Laughs).

TW: It is, actually. I had a really good supervision on Tuesday, so I’m fine right now. Good supervision, good response. So that’s another two chapters sorted. So fingers crossed!

SJ: Brill.

EB: Congratulations on your PhD!

TW: Thank you.

EB: So, I guess we can jump right into it. My first question is to just get started with introducing what “yoga raves” and “kirtan” are. So if you could, like, explain a little bit what those are, and their presence in Britain, and if they interact at all, and how they would do that.

TW: Well, I think for a while now there’s been a sub-current of kirtan influence in the UK, but it’s not particularly well-known. So we start, I think, with kirtan – because kirtan is an existing practice within South Asia and the Indic and Hindu contexts, basically – which is a practice of devotion or religious practice through sound – specifically through singing and music: sharing singing and music. And that has an interesting history which I think we’ll go into in more detail, in terms of how that has met and interacted with the kinds of sub-culture elements within British culture in the last thirty to forty, maybe even fifty years – at least fifty years, probably. Yoga and the most recent kind of incarnations of that are doing some interesting things that aren’t particularly well-known. But it’s interesting what they’re doing. Yoga raves, I think, is really a much more recent phenomenon and Steve can talk a lot more about that, really being quite specific.

SJ: Yes, I mean yoga raves is a term that’s used by a duo who come from this group called the  Art of Living Foundation, who – well, to cut a very long story short – are a kind of Hindu-derived meditation movement. They’re a very close cousin to Transcendental Meditation. And they wanted to . . . and one of the things with Art of Living is they wanted to draw in a younger audience. So these two musicians who were members of the group, started what they called yoga rave dance parties:  kind-of alcohol, drug-free events that had the same sort of format as a kind-of rave would have, but using traditional kind-of Hindu mantras, to use a loaded term, or bhajans as a sound track – but giving it a Western kind of sound track, particularly an electronic dance music beat. (5:00) So it’ s a kind of interesting syncretic phenomena.

EB: OK

TW: So we’ve got the kind of yoga raves going on – I think, mostly in London?

SJ: Well, yoga rave isn’t a term that’s used by the UK group. They prefer the term yoga jam. So there’s a whole range of different terminology: I’ve seen mantra punk; yoga rave; yoga jam.  And one of the reasons . . . and it’s based very much around a small group within Art of Living, here in the UK. And they said to me, “We do not like the term ‘rave’”, because in the UK rave is so much mixed with the culture of electronic dance music and  part of that is taking lots of NDMA or Ecstasy as it’s more commonly known. So jam – they preferred this terminology. The leader of the group said, “I like the term, it’s cool!” he said. And it kind-of has this kind of connotation of the bricolage and also something that’s fun and enjoyable.

TW: There is a wider movement as well, though, called Conscious Clubbing, which I’m aware of. I have friends from the yoga community – particularly around London, I think, maybe Brighton, maybe places like that – that do conscious clubbing events which are specifically alcohol and drug free. And often early Sunday mornings seem to be a big time for a get-together. And, of course, the music they’re using is very much rave music. But it has that similar sense of wanting to achieve a state of ecstatic kind of communion, a coming-together kind of a feeling and a celebration, but without the artificial stimulants. So there’s kind-of a cross-over there. And then, of course, they’re all often using contemporary kirtan music, contemporary kirtan tunes, which provides another link as well. Whereas kirtan is much more a practice that’s done live. I think that’s one of the big differences for me, is that – not that that’s always a difference between them and the yoga jams, I think – but one of the things that’s clear with kirtan is that it’s always live musicians, live singers, live interactions with the audience, the music happening in real time, if that makes sense.

SJ: Yes. I think one of the things that Theo and I have talked about over the years that we’ve been interested in this, is the difference between participation and just being a part of the audience. And that whole thing has kind-of – it’s a whole kind of array of different relationships of participation. So the traditional kirtan is, of course, a call and response and very much involves everybody. Whereas sometimes the yoga jams and the yoga raves seem to be less participatory, even though there is an element of participation.

TW: Yes. Definitely.

SJ: They’re much more performances, in many ways.

EB: Well, I’m interested in how the two different movements and communities are trying to reconcile traditional cultures and practices with contemporary modern . . . like having yoga and therapeutic things in raves and EDM music. How do you see them reconciling those two? And if they are[seen as] authentic ways of practising and, like, what authenticity means here – because that’s a loaded term.

SJ: OK. Authenticity is a really interesting phenomena. I’ve just been reading a book about authenticity by Lindholm and he says, really, when we’re thinking about authenticity you see two different types of discourses around authenticity. (10:00) One he calls the historical and genealogical,  and the other he calls the romantic and expressive. And what’s really interesting for me is that when you look at discourses about yoga rave and yoga jam and in Art of Living – and indeed their wider practices – is they use both of those discourses. So it’s authentic because it’s Vedic. And of course, if you know anything about the Vedas, sound is very primordial, with the primordial mantra Ohm. In fact, the notion of sound within the Hindu tradition is badly understudied. It’s not studied . . .  it’s not given the centrality by many people the way that it [should be]. So it’s got that roots in a kind of invented or romanticised Vedic past, but it also is part of the therapeutic culture where it’s the experience. But the experience without the roots becomes kind-of too ambiguous and free floating. So you experience a somatic experience, but that somatic experience is then rooted back into an imagined Vedic past.

TW: You see, I would add a third aspect. Because I think that’s all really true, and rings very true with the things I’m looking at. But a third aspect is the notion of authenticity that comes from a personal way to practice, and a personal investment into the practice. That’s what the kirtan wallahs – the musicians and the people who share kirtan – are bringing: it’s a level of experience with that practice. They’re often quite accomplished musicians, although that’s not . . . they’re not necessarily prized for their technical ability so much as a sheer devotion to the practice itself: that they spend large amounts of time doing what they do – which is singing and playing, not just for audiences, but for themselves. And that also, tangentially, has a communal aspect which . . . . One of the things I find really interesting is, when you have big bakhti events, big kirtan events where you have a number of different kirtan musicians playing one after another, they will back each other up. So if someone arrives early, or someone’s around , you know, one will say to another “Could you play shaker on this for me?” or you know, “I’d love to play tabla on yours.” And so you get these individual musicians, or small groups of musicians, but actually when they play at theses events they have all sorts of friends playing with them. And their friends are usually people who have either just played or are going to play again. So there’s this idea that the most joyous thing that they could be doing is playing. Always. So there’s an authenticity there that comes from that weight of practice and that weight of personal history, rather than necessarily genealogy. And certainly, one of the historical aspects that I’m aware of with regards to kirtan here, out in the south-west in particular, is that we have a certain community of people who’ve spent a lot of time in Indian ashrams and loved the experience of kirtan there and began to practice kirtan there. And they’re over here, they’re home again and they miss that community coming together. And a lot of these events are about them coming together with other people, regardless of whether they were at the same ashram, regardless  of whether they’re the same lineage, regardless of even if they have the same devotional roots, even. You have people from different sects and lineages coming together, people with no lineage at all coming together. But what they value is that communal coming together and singing and sharing kirtan, which is really interesting. So there’s that communal weight as well. So that, over time, the community has its own history. So it’s really interesting, when you talk about authenticity with regards to Hindu roots and South Asian roots – which are obviously very real and very true – but what I would say is what I see. And what I see is a weight of practice in this country that’s been going on for decades. And that’s the roots, as much as anything else, that they’re connected to.

SJ: I mean there is a romanticisation of Hindu traditions that Theo and I have talked about. (15:00) It goes right back to cultural roots here in the UK, of course: George Harrison, 1969, the Mahamantra by the Krishna Consciousness got to number 12 in Top of the Pops, sold 700,000. In America you’ve got the counter-cultural movements, particularly people like Ginsberg and the Mantra Rock Dance in San Francisco that had some of the foremost counter-cultural groups, people like Moby Grape. And then also of course, there was Swami Prabhupada the founder of . . . [the International Society for Krishna Consciousness]. In fact, you’ll see his image on the poster for the Mantra Rock dance in ’69. So all of these kind of influences, counter kind-of influences between the West and the East, well they’ve actually been going long before the counter-culture of course. I think the counter-culture is a very important threshold.

TW: It is. It’s a threshold. But I think its a threshold of visibility. That’s what’s interesting about it. It’s that we have these periodic visible manifestations of commercial culture engaging with Hindu devotional music in one way or another. I mean you shared the – was it the Cher?  Cher’s version of the Gayatri Mantra? And it’s really interesting to see those commercial expressions and commercial engagements with Hindu devotional music. But what it’s important to remember is those do not feed necessarily directly from ancient Indian practices, they feed from an existing subculture that is continually engaging with this music and continually engaging with this practice. You know, there’s a transnational culture that certainly in the UK spends time, a lot of them will spend time, going back and forward from the UK. A number of the people involved will be South Asian heritage, a number of people won’t. You know, it’s a whole transnational current that’s going on that’s always there. It’s just the bits that we tend to notice: the bits that get into the top 40 sphere, or the bits that end up on the credits of pop shows, which we were also talking about weren’t we? We were talking about how the Gayatri Mantra was used on the opening credits to Battlestar Galactica, you know – who knew that?! Because it’s a really interesting mantra in terms of its visibility. The story goes that one of the actors basically went to the show runners and said, “We have to use this. We have to use this Mantra.” And he wanted that sense of authenticity of this being something ancient, because the show itself speaks to really interesting themes around religion and rebirth and these different things. But without the counter-cultural and sub-cultural engagements with Hindu devotional music, he would never have had that to bring them. (Laughs).

SJ: Yes. No, Cher wouldn’t have been doing that Gayatri mantra . . .

TW: No. Cher doesn’t rock up at an Ashram in India and go “I think I’ll take this mantra.” She takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else. And the intermediaries are the kind of yoga jam people and the new kirtan people and the bhakti musicians that we’re talking about. And there’s a thriving – certainly in the UK and particularly, in my opinion, in the South West of the UK – it’s a thriving and vibrant little culture. I’m hoping you’ll be able to include some actual music and links.

EB: Well, I hope that David does.

TW: Yes.

EB: Well, I was wondering if you’ve seen or come across any backlash against the use of mantras in Western pop culture? Or even within the kirtan and yoga rave/ yoga jam communities?

TW: I can speak to one really interesting discussion of this by, I won’t mention her by name, but she’ll recognise herself, by an integral yoga teacher of japa, so a mantra teacher. So she was leading a session, that I was at, that wasn’t even really kirtan, it was very much on mantra and the effect of sound and how we can . . . chant, so much more chanting than singing, if that makes sense. So, the effect of mantra on the energetic field, the effect of mantra on our connection to the universe. And she talked specifically about the Gayatri Mantra. And she said a number of things about it. (20:00) She said that the Gayatri is a very ancient mantra – so she connected it to this lineage – that it’s been chanted continuously in India for thousands of years – however the story goes – and then she said, “But these days a lot of people come across the Gayatri Mantra through. . . .” She didn’t mention the Cher version but she mentioned various pop culture versions of it. And she said, in her view, that is absolutely fine because its a way in. People come across these pop culture versions of mantra and it is not the same, it does not have the same effect as a mantra that’s been chanted in community for devotional intent. But the words still have power and the sound still has power and it is the connection – a seed that is planted that can lead people to something deeper and fuller. I’m aware that in the States, in particular, there is a very, very different debate that’s going on, I think, around the issues of authenticity and appropriation. And I think it’s important to be aware that the discussions of appropriation are very different here in Europe and particularly in the UK. Our yoga culture as a whole is less commercialised. It’s still commercialised in many respects but we still . . . we have an enormous grassroots yoga community, still. And our yoga community is still much more integrated with South Asian groups and communities and influences. So, as a result, the conversations are more complicated. That’s not to say that appropriation isn’t an issue and it’s not talked about, but it’s much less polarising than debates have been recently in the States, if that makes sense. Would you agree?

SJ: The discussions about appropriation really only occur in the academic arena because when we’re talking broadly about the Hindu traditions – and I’ll use the plural here – there’s not this idea that, you know . . . . Ok, so you have a Murti and it’s installed in a temple, but anybody can go and buy an image of the Ganesh, or anything. And they’re not so precious about different uses of it. Of course you’ve got the tradition of calendar art in the more visual things. And also when you think about kirtan in India itself, you know, a lot of Hindus are chanting kirtan to Bollywood tunes. So you already have that tradition of, you know, taking a traditional kirtan that goes back to the medieval Bhakti period, but it’s being chanted to the latest Bollywood tunes. And even in India you get CDs like Cosmic Trance for Youth, which is within the Hindu community itself. Young people are taking the traditional mantras and bhajans and giving it their own electronic dance soundtrack, to try and draw young Hindus in India into it. You know, devotional music in India is one of the biggest selling kind of genres of music. You go anywhere like Rushikesh, which is a very important pilgrimage place, and you’ve literally got stall upon stall in the bazaar along the banks of the Ganges selling all of these kind of remixed mantras, if you like.

TW: I also love that the supposedly traditional kirtan instruments that are now accepted to be the ones that everyone should have are tabla and harmonium. And that’s fascinating when you think the only reason that harmoniums ever came to India, as far as I’m aware, is through Christian missionaries.

SJ: Yes, that’s correct.

TW: Christian Missionaries arrived in India with harmoniums and played lots of choral music and got them singing Christian songs. And you know, essentially Indian people, the Indian culture, went: “That’s great, we’ll have that! We’re just going to sing Vedic mantras instead.” And now, if you want a good harmonium you go to an Indian manufacturer. You don’t go anywhere else. One of the few places in the world that still has huge amounts of harmoniums being played is India. And now, if you have kirtan that doesn’t have harmonium and tabla that’s now seen as non-traditional. I mean, I was at an event the other week – it was a bhakti event – and I realised tucked away in the corners around the space were eight different harmoniums waiting for – because everybody has their own – waiting for their particular musicians to come. So I counted eight lying there, which is great. So at which point I’m less interested in  . . . .  I mean, I think cultural borrowing is really interesting, and all religious scholars hopefully are aware of how syncratic religion is, generally.(25:00) There are further discussions you can have about power and about colonialism, but I think those differences are much clearer when you’re talking about multi-million dollar selling pop artists than if you’re talking about kirtan musicians in Bristol, or wherever, who have a day job and sell a few CDS. The level of power that they have to appropriate somebody else’s power is very different, I think, than Sony might have.  (Laughs). What is more interesting to me is the syncretism involved in the music itself. And I don’t know how much that’s true of the yoga rave/ yoga jam side of things, but I know that in the kirtan movement in the south-west, singers are using not just Vedic and Hindu mantras, they’re using Buddhist mantras, they’re using Sikh mantras, they’re using Sufi mantras, they’re using all sorts of different things and bringing them together under the label of kirtan. And I think that’s really interesting.

SJ: Certainly within Art of Living Satsangs you certainly do have occasionally – but it’s very, very occasionally – do they use songs or poems from outside. I’ve heard Imagine done once in a kirtan (laughs). But they tend to stick to their kind-of favourite that come from the Sanskrit and Bhakti traditions. But they do have a kind of – well I wouldn’t call it a song book, exactly – but they do have a list and you flick through and yes, there’s poems by Rumi and [indistinct] chorus, but they very rarely use them ,interestingly enough.

TW: That is interesting.  Well I see a lot more uses of that. One of the classic examples which I personally adore, is a chap called Tim Challice who’s from down kind of Bath and Bristol way. And he has a chant which takes a Hafez poem I think, which is This Place, so, “This place where you are, God circled on a map for you. Wherever your eyes and ears and heart can move against the earth and skies a beloved has bowed there waiting.” Which is rather beautiful, but he takes that and sings that and then he takes it immediately into a Hare Krishna. So we see that as well. We see essentially taking two different traditions and bringing them together in those chants. And the sense, within this community in particular, is that it does not matter. The shape of your belief does not matter. The deity that you are calling to does not matter. These places often have these enormous long altars filled with any number of different Murtis, any number of different images of different Gurus, any deity or anything else that is considered to be sacred can go on there. The point is, is that you come together and you sing. And that’s it. And there’s the idea of devotion without prescribing the object of devotion. And that’s a really interesting thing, I think.

SJ: Yes. I mean there are other artists, we talked about Sheila Chandra who’s a British South Asian and coming from a Hindu background and then bringing in English folk music. She’ll start off with Om Namaha Shiva and then suddenly morphs into some sort of English folk song. I mean that’s kind of cultural thing as well, only from a different side.

TW: Yes. I think there’s really, really beautiful alliances and kind of borrowings that are going on and it’s interesting, again, to go back to that idea of what makes them authentic. What makes them effective. And I think it is a depth of understanding of the music that they’re working with and the practices that they’re working with.

SJ: When you talk to the yoga jam crew they talk abut the Vedic origin and what Guy Beck calls the Sonic Theology that goes back right to the Atharvaveda, is the experience that is also validated through a quasi-scientific discourse around the physics of vibration, which you know, that if you chant the mantras you do not need to know – and of course Staal talks about how it’s the sound not the semantics that’s important; that this is all to do with the science of vibration. (30:00) So it’s kind-of validated through, you know, tracing it back to romanticise a Vedic past, the somatic experience of chanting it, which is again validated through this kind of quasi-scientific discourse around vibrations, which is kind-of interesting.

TW: Yes, and it will eventually change the world. Just keep chanting the Gayatri Mantra, just keep chanting it and all will be well.

EB: Ok so we’re abut out of time for the podcast length, but I’ve enjoyed listening to both of you talk and thank you so much for doing this and talking to me and the RSP about everything you know.

SJ: Well thank you for facilitating this.

TW: Indeed.

EB: Of course. It was my pleasure.

Citation Info: Jacobs, Steve, Theodora Wildcroft. 2017. “Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 September 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 September 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/hindu-traditions-in-comtemporary-british-communities/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts  are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

 

Opportunities Digest – 3 January 2017

Dear subscriber,

Do you have a call for papers, an event announcement, a job vacancy, grant or award you would like others to distribute?

How about having your notification posted with the Religious Studies Project’s weekly Opportunities Digest? It’s easy, just send them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com, which is now back in order!

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Calls for papers

Colloquium: Education: East and West

March 17–18, 2017

Bath Spa University, UK

Deadline: January 20, 2017

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Conference: Exploring the spiritual in music: Interdisciplinary dialogues in music, wellbeing and education

December 9–10, 2017

London, UK

Deadline: February 28, 2017

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Conference: Holism: Possibilities and problems

September 8–10, 2017

University of Essex, UK

Deadline: February 17, 2017

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Conference: European Sociological Association

August 29–September 1, 2017

Athens, Greece

February 1, 2017

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Conference: The Religious and Ethnic Future of Europe

June 12–13, 2017

Åbo Akademi University, Finland

Deadline: January 31, 2017

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Journal: New Directions in Folklore

Special Issue: The Folk Awakens: Star Wars and Folkloristics in Popular Culture

Deadline: January 31, 2017

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Journal: Changing Societies & Personalities

Special issue: Freedom of Conscience in [the] Post-Secular World

Deadline: November 30, 2017

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Journal: Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion

Special issue: The Marketing and Consumption of Spirituality and Religion

Deadline: January 10, 2017

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Workshop: Religions Consuming Surveillance

March 22, 2017

Edinburgh, UK

Deadline: January 15, 2017

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Events

Conference: Mani in Cambridge

March 25, 2017

Cambridge, UK

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Symposium: Places and processes of pilgrimage, past and present

January 11, 2017

Tartu, Estonia

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Jobs

Professor: History of Religions with Focus on Indigenous Religions

University of Tromsø, Norway

Deadline: March 3, 2017

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Postdoctoral Scholarship: Chinese Buddhism

University of California – Berkeley, USA

Deadline: March 24, 2017

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Musical Secrets and Mystical Language

It’s often remarked, in response to instances of powerful communion or emotional engagement through sound, that music is ‘a universal language.’ The phrase is pretty vague, and it’s demonstrably inaccurate in most ways you could interpret it. There’s nothing universal about music’s effects (what sounds ‘sad’ here might suggest ‘morning’ or ‘high social status’ somewhere else; I find death metal to be relaxing while driving, though I’m aware that not everyone in the car agrees). And music most definitely isn’t language. Rather, as M.J.M. Hoondert hints in his RSP podcast, part of its power lies precisely in an irresolvable tension in relation to language.

There can be few areas where music’s nonverbal power is drawn on more profoundly than when concerned with death and the (secular?) sacred, the areas with which Hoondert’s research on contemporary requiem is closely concerned. Such requiems may well involve verbal texts, such as poems, liturgical texts altered for new purposes, or stanzas of hiphop or haiku. But, as Hoondert points out, the key issue is how the music can mobilize, transform or even subvert the apparent verbal meanings. He observes that, at their best, these musical ways of stirring up words can prompt deeply felt emotions, while helping us to process, interpret or otherwise deal with those responses in consolation or catharsis.

In my own participatory research with audiences of drone metal (an extremely repetitive, extended, amplified and distorted form of heavy metal music), I’ve also been examining how musical experience and language meet (or don’t), particularly with respect to terms like mysticism, ritual and the sacred. I agree with Hoondert that ethnographic work is necessary in dealing with questions of how ritual and the sacred are imagined by people who wish to avoid the authoritarian implications they perceive to be related to ‘religion.’ In secular requiem performances and in metal audiences alike, listeners instead seek a way of understanding and practicing ritual which, as Hoondert suggests, ‘avoids the institutionalized context but refers to the way people deal with those complex questions of life and death.’

Participants in drone metal music are also involved in creating transient but extraordinary sacred spaces through musical rituals. This occurs in private practices developed to enhance the specialness of listening to vinyl records, and in attending live performances where elements described as ritualistic (smoke, incense, darkness, animal skulls and other weird paraphernalia) supplement the overwhelmingly amplified, distorted repetitive sound in creating an atmosphere which is powerful precisely because of its strangeness and opaque resistance to easy explanation. The music is often described with terms such as violence, aggression, pain and suffering, but it is these markers of extremity which allow a sense of catharsis, dark spirituality and even healing according to listeners. Drone metal, then, addresses deep issues of importance in rather different musical and conceptual registers to Hoondert’s requiem composers and audiences. But in exploring the sacred in music, each are equally concerned with profound themes whose impact for many will elude language.

In fact, most reports of drone metal are prefaced with what I call ‘ineffability disclaimers.’ Listeners first describe the music as indescribable, and then go on to offer articulate, creative, and often elaborate descriptions. And while much of my research has involved analysing and writing about these verbal evocations of mysticism, transcendence and spirituality, it’s important to remember this stated distance between what music can do to us and how we can talk about it. As Hoondert puts it, in considering what attendees might seek and find at requiem concerts:

Through the music they find some what I call ‘musical knowledge’ about the meaning of life and death, and that’s not a kind of knowledge which you can verbalize in a dogma or doctrine, but it’s a kind of consoling knowledge that you find for a moment in the music, and perhaps then it’s gone again.

Music and a powerful but ambivalent religiosity are further intertwined in the ways that mysticism has been understood in the study of religions. Freud linked the two in a 1929 letter to Romain Rolland, writing that ‘mysticism is as impenetrable to me as music’ (Freud quoted in Certeau, 1992, p. 12); William James uses the twin metaphors of musical listener and lover in order to explain the incompetence of language in communicating mystical feeling (W. James, 1982, p. 380); and Evelyn Underhill argued that in using ‘suggestive and allusive language the mystical artist often approaches the methods of music’ in order to enchant the reader/listener (Underhill, 1980, p. 408). Michel de Certeau further explores this connection (himself writing in characteristically suggestive and allusive style), drawing comparison between the reading of mystical texts, and the embodied and interpretative practice of playing music (1986, p. 83; 1992, p. 22), and describing the evocative paradoxes of mystical language as ‘musical secrets’ (1986, p. 99).

So, in claiming that music is a universal language, people might at least be indirectly suggesting something about the power of ambiguity: perhaps that music appears to be able to do things we wish that language could? It brings to mind another commonly heard aphorism, variously ascribed (ambivalently!) to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Thelonious Monk and others: that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. That might be fair, but it certainly doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. In acknowledging that strange productive tension between incommensurate modes of expression and experience, we might find ways of understanding the consoling, ritualistic, and sometimes sacred power of music.

Endnotes

Certeau, M. d. (1986) Heterologies: Discourse on the Other (trans. B. Massumi), Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Certeau, M. d. (1992b) ‘Mysticism’ (trans. M. Brammer), Diacritics, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 11-25.

James, W. (1982 [1902]) The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, New York and London, Penguin Books.

Underhill, E. (1980) ‘The Essentials of Mysticism’, in Woods, R. (ed.) Understanding Mysticism, Garden City, Doubleday, pp. 400-15.

 

Death, Music, and Ritual: Contemporary Requiems in the Commemoration of Death and Violence

Apparently, the only two certain things in life are death and taxes. In terms of the former, the requiem has held its grip up until contemporary times. While popular requiems, such as those composed by Mozart and Rutter are still performed, newly composed requiems, or requiem-like pieces are growing in popularity in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe. These requiems make use of previously employed lyrics and composition techniques, but some also rework these elements or leaving them behind entirely. From Mozart, to hip-hop, to haiku, contemporary music for the commemoration of death is variegated in its composition. In this interview, Breann Fallon discusses contemporary requiems with Associate Professor M.J.M. Hoondert of Tilburg University while at the 2016 European Association for the Study of Religions conference in Helsinki. Hoondert highlights the variety of contemporary requiems, noting their different styles, imagery, and convergences, but also the intended affect of the works. In particular, Hoondert discusses the step away from the liturgy associated with requiems as way for today’s individual to deal with death or violence in their own way. Still, it is clear that the ritual elements of the requiem remains, hence where this contemporary music fits into the sacral landscape is up for debate.

Also, be sure to check out DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory with Jonathan Jong

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, coffins, Jennifer Lopez CD’s, and more.

Music, Marketing and Megachurches

During the 20th century, the media has exploded to include radio, television and most recently and perhaps influentially, the Internet. Music has been a big part of this new emerging “mediapolois”, moving from a mostly stand-alone medium, to part of a marketing matrix of  people, places and industries. Today, music’s meaning is more often part of a branded ecosystem, not limited to entertainment, but part of the experience of everyday life, including religion. Evangelical churches and, increasingly, New Religious Movements use music as part of a branding exercise that helps to transform them from local congregations into a transnational enterprise.

To discuss music, marketing and contemporary religion, David Robertson sat down with Dr. Tom Wagner, an ethnomusicologist, percussionist and lecturer at the Reid School of Music in Edinburgh. They discuss the long history of the use of music in promoting evangelical congregations, and the transformation that came with the development of recording and broadcast technologies. Tom describes his research and fieldwork with Hillsong, an evangelical church movement with an international reach who use music both in their worship and their branding. Later, they discuss the use of music in Scientology, to create and maintain a particular aesthetic, and how Tom sees this research developing in the future.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, scuba gear, garden gnomes, and more.

Popular Culture Studies and Bruce Springsteen: Escaping and Embracing Religion

Kate McCarthy in 2013, shortly after the re-release of her co-edited volume God in the Details. However, listening back to this unreleased (until now!) interview, her commentary both on the metamorphic nature of popular culture studies and on the music of Bruce Springsteen remain salient and fresh even today. With “the Boss” having just finished his tour in support of the re-released The River and a new solo album planned, it seemed fitting to unearth this interview between McCarthy and A. David Lewis, tracking Springsteen’s relationships to the Church and to women.

This interview was recorded by A. David Lewis – who has been an interviewee on the RSP twice in the past – for a separate project. As fate would have it, the interview has made its way into our hands and we are delighted to bring it to you now.

Video Games and Religious StudiesReligion and Film, Religion and Literature,Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ornaments, puncture repair kits, and more.

 

Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining (Video)

In the academic study of ‘religion’, an organization that is at the forefront of encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue is the Grace Davie and Jay Demerath – were recorded at the SSSR Annual Meeting back in 2011. While SSSR was originally dominated by the field of sociology, there has been a recent shift in attendees toward other disciplines such as psychology, education, religious studies, nursing and others that share an interest in understanding ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ from their respective perspectives. The diversity of presenters is only matched by the diversity of paper topics presented. While SSSR is typically hosted in an US city, SSSR has gained popularity as an international conference as well with the 2014 Annual Meeting hosting the largest number of international scholars to date.

Considering these observations, the RSP collaborated with SSSR at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana to offer an interdisciplinary panel on the study of religion. Each of the papers presented are not only from different fields in the study of religion but also methodologically or theoretically apply an interdisciplinary approach. The authors represent the best in their fields. Some are established scholars with a body of work while others are up-and-coming talent. We hope you enjoy the RSP sponsored panel on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion. See below for the abstracts of the papers presented.

Many thanks to Chris SIlver, Tommy Coleman, and all at the SSSR for making this recording possible. This panel recording is somewhat different from our usual weekly podcast – if you enjoyed this, why not check out the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes? And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, knitting needles, Alien Ant Farms, and more.

The Religious Studies Project Panel on Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJp5DiV3WKc&feature=youtu.be]

Convener: Christopher Silver

W. Paul Williamson,  Poison-Drinking in Obedience to the Faith: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience

Christian serpent handlers of American Appalachia are most noted for handling venomous snakes in obedience to one of five perceived mandates of Christ in Mark 16:17-18: Casting out devils, speaking new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison, and laying on hands for healing. Over the past two decades, I have studied several phenomena among this compelling group including their sermons, their music, the anointing, near-death serpent bites, community support (Williamson & Hood, in press), and of course serpent handling (see Hood & Williamson, 2008, for summaries of the above uncited studies). The sign of drinking poison, however, has been largely ignored. To address this neglect, I conducted phenomenological interviews with nine serpent handlers who have practiced poison-drinking. Based on a hermeneutic analysis of these interviews, this paper presents a pattern of themes that describe the structure of meaning in the experience of drinking poison in obedience to the faith.

April Stace Vega, “That’s a Really Real Feeling”: Popular Music and the Sacralization of the Self in Evangelical Worship

“Should Churches Play ‘Highway to Hell’ in order to Reach Unbelievers?” This question is posed on a website catering to evangelical pastors with a link to a video. In the video, several prominent pastors discuss the use of the song (by rock band AC/DC) at a recent Easter morning service. It considered a controversial music choice due to the lyrics of the song and the persona that the band projects, but is also considered a useful tool for evangelism. This project is an ethnographic study on the use of music with no overtly religious lyrics in what sociologist Donald Miller terms “new paradigm” churches in the Washington, D.C. area. I view the use of popular-secular music through the lens of the subjectivization thesis of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. In this paper, I focus on one particular meaning ascribed to popular-secular music in these churches: the ability of the music to express “real feeling” in a way traditional sacred music does not.

Tatsushi Hirono, Corroborative Efforts between Social Workers and Religious Leaders in Natural Disaster Relief: A Comparative Analysis among the USA, Philippines and Japan

The United States of America, the Philippines, and Japan, have suffered multiple natural disasters: Typhoon in Philippines (2013), Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005) in the USA, and the 8.9 Magnitude earthquake (2011) in Japan. Immediately after these natural disasters, victims needed shelter, water, food, and blankets. However, a few weeks after, they needed mental health support. The investigator hypothesizes that religion would reduce the natural disaster victims’ PTSD symptoms and increase their “hope.” He sent 1,500 mailing surveys to Christian and Buddhist clergy in the New Orleans, New York, Manila, Tacloban, Tokyo, and Fukushima areas. He found that cultural differences between Christian and Buddhist religious communities: (a) More Christian clergy thought natural disaster relief efforts are their obligation. (b) Christian clergy focus more on “comfort”, “reducing pain,” and “hope,” while Buddhist clergy focus more on “listening” and “praying” when they talk with family members who lost their loved ones.

Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, Against Silver Bullet Explanations for Religion: Toward Interdisciplinary Conversations that Allow for Both Consilience and Divergence

Single explanations of religion from within one particular discipline are partial explanations and do not suffice by themselves. As an enterprise, the scientific study of religion will do well to continue to foster conversations across disciplinary boundaries in an overall team effort, moving, on the one hand, toward increased consilience, or a ‘unity of knowledge’ (E.O. Wilson 1998), while also allowing, on the other hand, plenty of freedom for divergence. This presentation briefly highlights key contributions from disciplines such as biology (e.g., Ridley 2004; Feierman 2009), evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, Tooby 1992; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004), evolutionary-oriented sociology (e.g., D.S. Wilson 2002; Diamond 2012), and semiotic-oriented communication studies (e.g., Baudrillard 1988; Raschke 2012; Bennett-Carpenter 2014) as touch-points for conversation that move toward consilience, while at the same time remaining open to divergence.

More popular than Jesus? Jung, Freud, and Religion

In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, the protagonist’s German psychiatrist is revealed to be a Buchenwald Nazi doctor in hiding. His revealing statement in his own defence hinges on his choice of psychiatric method. “But didn’t I try to atone? If I’d been a real Nazi I’d have chosen Jung, nicht wahr? But I chose Freud instead, the Jew.”

The divide between Freud and Jung (recently dramatized in the mediocre David Cronenberg film A Dangerous Method) is one of our own modern myths, like the divide between Plato and Aristotle in the ancient world. This is particularly true when it comes to their view of religion. I was vaguely conscious, while studying theology, of a sense among my teachers that Jung was acceptable in a way that Freud wasn’t (I remember one of my supervisors cryptically advising me to embrace my shadow self after I’d come to him with the usual postgraduate woes). Jung was sympathetic to religion. Jung didn’t think religion was neurosis. Jung was on our side.[1]

Segal mentions that Jung’s father was a pastor. He doesn’t touch on Freud’s Jewishness, perhaps because Freud himself rejected Judaism along with all other religions. But the differences between their backgrounds is important, perhaps not so much for how it affected their work but how it affected perceptions of their work. As the opening quote from Pynchon suggests, the Nazis could appreciate Jung and his collective unconscious, his initial understanding of Hitler’s rise as the resurgence of the Wotan archetype in the German unconscious. Freud, to the Nazis, would always be the self-loathing Jew with his conception of a universe full of souls as sick and parasitic and pornographic as his own.[2] I saw this split, sans the anti-Semitic undertones, among my lecturers in Dublin and Oxford. Freud was understood as the one who’d seen religion as a sickness, Jung was the one who’d seen it as something deep and beautiful and true in a way.

Segal suggests, with slightly cynical humour, that people like to be told that they’re deeper and more complex than they realized.  People certainly prefer being told that their faith is deep and beautiful and sort of true than it is a neurosis that has something to do with wanting to kill their father and sleep with their mother.

Segal argues persuasively against the idea that Jung could ever have been considered a disciple of Freud. This is a pity, since in many ways the relationship between Freud and Jung has fascinating resonances with my own study of discipleship in the ancient world. My thesis is on Peter and Judas in the Gospels and I am particularly interested in the way that these characters relate to Jesus as disciples.[3] One of my findings is that the ancient world regards true discipleship as adhering unquestioningly to what one’s teacher has taught. The student who develops into an independent critical thinker and questions or rejects his master’s teachings is a traitor just as Judas was a traitor.[4] If Jung was not Freud’s disciple, he can at least be considered the older man’s protégé and, as Segal says, one-time heir apparent. The interview addresses the psychic anguish his break with Freud caused Jung, and Freud’s own deep sense of betrayal is a well-known part of the myth.[5]

But Segal touches on something rather interesting when he comments that Freud’s inner circle of brilliant acolytes all outgrew and turned against him, one after another, while Jung’s mediocre followers remained devoted to his methods even after his death. Is there an implied criticism of Jung there, that he didn’t dare surround himself with people who could challenge him intellectually, as he had challenged Freud? But the ancient Greek archetype[6] of the good disciple was exactly this type of dull, unimaginative person. The primary qualities of a good disciple were his or her devotion to a master and the ability to completely absorb the master’s teachings. Damis, whose memoirs are the source for Philostratus’ third century Life of Apollonius of Tyana, proudly tells us that his task is to preserve even the crumbs that fell from his master’s table.

Finally, I was struck by Segal’s description of how Jung thought religion would fade away –its explanatory role replaced by science, and its role in connecting people to the collective unconscious replaced by Jungian psychiatry. I connected it to Frazer’s similarly misplaced confidence that human belief has moved from magic to religion and is now finally moving to science.[7] Unlike many intellectuals of his day, including Freud, Jung wasn’t troubled by the irrationality of religion but evidently he did share a general belief (in some cases, a hope) that its day was over. And his confidence that he himself would at least partially replace it echoes John Lennon: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now.”

 


[1] Interestingly, my experience in the world of literary criticism is of much more sympathy towards Freud. Just as Segal is not a Jungian, not many literary critics are committed Freudians, but they can still appreciate the power and elegance of his ideas.

[2] It must be said that Freud did not help matters with Moses and Monotheism, his deeply strange book of 1937, which claimed that the Jews had treacherously murdered Moses. Freud was aware of the dangers of making such a claim at a time when anti-Semitism was reaching ever-new heights (and had already driven him from Austria) and did wrestle with the question of whether or not to publish it.

[3] One can see the importance of this theme in the title of Hans-Josef Klauck’s 1987 book Judas, ein Jünger des Herrn (Judas: a disciple of the master).

[4] Origen, in Contra Celsum 2:12, makes the comparison explicit. I sometimes wonder what my supervisors make of this particular line of inquiry.

[5] The same Jung-loving tutors mentioned above took pleasure in repeating the (apocryphal?) story of how Freud fainted the first time Jung disagreed with him. Primarily, I think, because it makes Freud sound rather foolish.

[6] In the Northrop Frye sense, not the Jungian sense.

[7] Northrop Frye posits a movement in Western written language from the metaphorical (Homer) to the metonymic (Plato and continuous prose) to the descriptive (Francis Bacon and Locke). In Biblical scholarship, Morton Smith, Marcus Borg, and J.D. Crossan have written on Jesus as a magician or ‘spirit person’ set against the religion of the Temple.

Heavy Metal as Religion and Secularization as Ideology

Heavy metal as religion and secularization as ideology: a sociological approach

By Mohammad Magout, University of Leipzig, Germany

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 9 October 2013, in response to François Gauthier’s interview on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture (7 October 2013).

In this thought-provoking interview, Professor François Gauthier from the University of Fribourg gives his remarks on a variety of theoretical, methodological, and empirical issues in social sciences. It would be impossible to cover even a tenth of those issues within the limits of this brief article, so I will restrict my response to two themes only: defining religion and critiquing secularization theory and post-secularity.

Gauthier states at the beginning of the podcast that current social theory fails to explain some recent developments in the social world, particularly in reference to subcultures and popular protest movements. He specifically criticizes sociologists of religion for not recognizing certain cultural notions, practices, or movements as religious even when people involved declare them as such. He says that if ravers, for example, believe rave to be just as religious as Catholicism, then sociologists should adjust their definitions of religion in order to accommodate rave as a religious phenomenon.

While I acknowledge that in social research there is always the risk of imposing inadequate, external categories on meanings conveyed by informants, I do have considerable reservations about conflating informants’ self-descriptions with theoretical terms. By saying that rave culture is as religious as Catholicism, a raver might be, for example, making a statement of identity; that is, defining his/her identity as a raver against or in relation to a Catholic identity, which is, of course, a personal right that no one should deny him/her. From a scientific perspective, however, “religion” is a theoretical term that is used to categorize and analyze a specific class of social phenomena. If we were to leave it solely to informants to decide which theoretical concepts and categories apply to them, social research would become very fragmented and incomparable, because different people can and do use complicated terms such as “religion” in widely different ways. Of course, their perspective is important and one should always take it into consideration, but scientific research requires at least some minimum degree of uniformity and consistency in the application of terms and categories.

I am not very well-informed about rave culture, but I can say something about another music-based youth culture with which I am familiar—both as a researcher and as a member—namely, heavy metal. Heavy metal can be seen as one of the most “quasi-religious” youth cultures, not only because religious imagery and symbolism are embedded in heavy metal lyrically, sonically, and visually, but also because of the “striking resemblance” between many aspects of heavy metal (especially live concerts) and religious rituals (Weinstein 2000, p. 231-2). Heavy metal, in addition, defines itself explicitly against traditional religion (Christianity in particular), which in a few extreme cases has reached the level of waging an open war against it (as it was the case with some members of the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990’s who were involved in dozens of arson attacks against churches). Some people have even considered heavy metal to be their “religion.” There was a campaign in the United Kingdom to answer the question about religion in the 2011 census with “heavy metal,” which resulted in more people identifying their “religion” as “heavy metal” than Scientology, Baha’ism, or Taoism.

Even if we grant that some of those who reported their religion as “heavy metal” were serious about it, does that justify changing our definitions of religion, so that they can accommodate heavy metal together with Christianity, Hinduism, Shamanism, and ancient Egyptian religion in the same analytical category? I myself do not think so, and no one so far—to the best of my knowledge—has presented a convincing case of the conceptual and analytical utility of treating a youth culture such as heavy metal as some type of religion.[i]

Gauthier seems to justify his position by stating that religion in the past few decades has morphed into something different than it used to be. It is now more concerned with personal life-style, identity, and morality, rather than correct belief and clerical institutions. This perhaps makes religion (at least some forms of contemporary religion) closer to youth cultures than traditional or institutional religion, which may justify grouping them together in the same category. Still this is not enough to change our definitions of religion. I think social scientists need to be a bit “conservative” about their definitions and conceptual frameworks in order to maintain the consistency of their work and measure change when it occurs. As stated by Steve Bruce, “Fixity of definition is not a refusal to recognize change; it is essential to describing change” (2009, p. 9).

Gauthier concludes his interview by warning us not to repeat the failure of secularization theory by adopting post-secularity, which he refers to as “the greatest threat to sociology of religion today.” He says quite bluntly, “Let’s try not to be as stupid, as ideological.” Since I originally conceived my PhD research project in terms of secularization theory, and have now started to drift toward post-secularity, I felt somehow challenged by Gauthier’s strong words. My intention in this article, nevertheless, is not to present a defense of secularization and post-secularity—especially given that I acknowledge many of the criticisms of these concepts—but rather to problematize one particular critique, which is the claim that secularization and post-secularity are based on certain ideologies or philosophical ideas.

First of all, I would like to say that I do not disagree with this critique: yes, secularization theories often reflected a modernist understanding of history and social change, and post-secularity is a concept that emerged in philosophical and normative discussions of the role of religion in the public sphere in contemporary Western societies. The problem is that many social scientists, in dismissing these concepts as ideologically biased, tend to gloss over the ideologies behind them as sociologically irrelevant. The impact of ideologies on social theory might be something undesirable, albeit unavoidable, but their impact on society is of utmost importance to the social scientist.

Modernism, in its various manifestations (liberalism, communism, nationalism, colonialism, etc.), has transformed our world, including religion, irreversibly.[ii] Most modern states—together with their political, legal, educational, and economic systems—have more or less been established along the lines of some modernist ideology that may have actively sought to marginalize, control, or privatize religion.[iii] Of course, how this might have developed or to what extent it has worked out in different contexts is widely variable. What is certain, I think, is that these ideologies have shaped and continue to shape the world today, despite the fragmentation of their hegemony and the rise of alternative ideologies. It is therefore implausible to think they have hardly changed anything with regard to religion, as some staunch critics of secularization seem to imply (e.g. Stark 1999).

The question I am trying to frame is related to the more general issue of the complicated relationship between ideology and social theory. Social science, more than any other branch of science, is prone to the undesired influence of philosophical and ideological perspectives. The question is, then, how should social scientists deal with ideologically-infused theories without glossing over the ideologies behind them? I don’t have a straightforward answer to this question, but I can refer to Gauthier’s nuanced approach to studying neo-liberalism, which he outlines in his interview.

Gauthier criticizes rational-choice/market theories of religion for interpreting religion in economic terms, as if it were a commercial product. In doing so, these theories fail to understand and explain the relationship between religious change and neo-liberalism, which is not only a dominant economic theory or political ideology, Gauthier asserts, but also a “cultural ideology” that conditions our ways of thinking and behaving. He stresses that any examination of religion, politics, or social relations is not adequate without taking into consideration the impact of neo-liberalism and consumerism, which have become the “structuring” force of our societies. In other words, while Gauthier rejects rational-choice/market theories of religion, he does not dismiss neo-liberalism and emphasizes the importance of studying its impact on religion.

The same approach, in my opinion, should be applied to secularization theory and post-secularity. Criticisms of secularization as an ideologically-infused theory should not make us gloss over its constituting ideology and the concrete sociological implications of this ideology. Similarly, the philosophical origins of the concept of post-secularity do not mean that it is irrelevant for social scientists. One should remember that the boundaries between social theory and social philosophy are not clear-cut and that philosophers and theologians are playing an important role—perhaps more than sociologists—in setting the parameters for public debates about religion (Turner 2012, p. 649). This is not only a matter of intellectual debates, but also of policy-making. There are religious groups, public institutions, and political organizations which are adopting, in one way or another, a “post-secular perspective” toward religion and society and making their policies accordingly. One domain in which this current is becoming evident is academia as some earlier research (Schmalzbauer and Mahoney 2009) and also my ongoing research project on Ismaili institutions of higher education in London seem to suggest.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Bruce, S. (2009) “The Importance of Social Science in the Study of Religion”, Fieldwork in Religion, Vol. 4 No. 1, pp. 7–28.
  • Casanova, J. (2012) “Are We Still Secular? Explorations on the Secular and the Post-Secular”, in Nynäs, P., Lassander, M. and Utriainen, T. (Eds.), Post-secular society, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J, pp. 27–46.
  • Moberg, M. (2012) “Religion in Popular Music or Popular Music as Religion? A Critical Review of Scholarly Writing on the Place of Religion in Metal Music and Culture”, Popular Music and Society, Vol. 35 No. 1, pp. 113–130.
  • Schmalzbauer, J. and Mahoney, K. (2009) “Religion and Knowledge in the Post-Secular Academy”, SSRC Working Papers. Available at http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/post-secular-academy.pdf (Accessed 6 June 2013)
  • Stark, R. (1999) “Secularization, R.I.P”, Sociology of Religion, Vol. 60 No. 3, pp. 249–273.
  • Turner, B.S. (2010) “Religion in a Post-secular Society”, in Turner, B.S. (Ed.), The new Blackwell companion to the sociology of religion, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA, pp. 649–667.
  • Weinstein, D. (2000) Heavy metal: the music and its culture. New York: Da Capo Press.


[i] For a survey of literature on the relationship between heavy metal and religion, see Moberg (2012).

[ii] This is what José Casanova calls “secularism as stadial consciousness,” i.e. secularism as a philosophy of history, according to which humanity progressively “emancipates” itself from religion. Secularization thereby functions as a “self-fulfilling theory” (2012, p. 31-2).

[iii] Another common criticism of secularization theory is its Euro-centrism, which is true, but it is almost forgotten that not very long time ago European powers ruled most countries of the world, established their political systems, wrote their laws, educated their elites, and planned their economies. This certainly does not entail that these countries should follow the same trajectories of modernization followed earlier by European countries, but it does mean that European ideas, theories, and ideologies are very relevant to other countries too.

Religion and Cultural Production

Cusack In the second of our podcasts since our summer ‘break’ we are delighted to welcome back Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, who has previously appeared on the RSP speaking on Invented Religions, and offering advice in our roundtable discussions on building an academic career, and academic publishing. In this interview with Chris, recorded in July in Edinburgh, Carole provides a broad introduction and overview of the study of religion and cultural production, making particular reference to her recent publication, Alex Norman, and featuring chapters from many of our contributors, including our own David Robertson.

In the introduction to their volume, Cusack and Norman write:

It is a truth generally acknowledged that religions have been the earliest and perhaps the chief progenitors of cultural products in human societies. Mesopotamian urban centres developed from large temple complexes, Greek drama emerged from religious festivals dedicated to deities including Dionysos and Athena, and in more recent times Christianity has inspired musical masterpieces including the ‘St Matthew Passion’ by the Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach (1686-1750), the motets of the Catholic William Byrd (1540-1023), and the striking paintings of the Counter-Reformation Spaniards Ribera, Zurbaran, and Murillo in the seventeenth century (Stoichita 1995). Nor can we forget the cinematic renderings of biblical story in such works as William Wyler’s epic Ben Hur (1959) starring Charlton Heston, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s (1922-1975) Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (1964), or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). The Indian religious tradition contributes the magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor (Cambodia), and the exquisite Chola bronze statues, and the many extraordinary renditions of the India epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata onto the small and large screens. Likewise, Islam too has generated the sophisticated Timurid illustrated manuscripts of Firdausi’s Shahnama, the paintings of the various Rajput kingdoms, and from Sufi traditions the devotional qawwali music. Architecturally, perhaps the most obvious cultural products of Islam for those in the West has been the Islamic architecture of Spain such as the Alhambra and the Great Mosque or Cordoba, both now sitting as beautiful cultural legacies (Lapunzina 2005). Many more examples could be adduced, including forms of dance, systems of education, theories of government, special diets, and modes of costume and fashion.

Clearly there is no shortage of data for scholars wishing to delve into this broad topic. But what do we actually mean by ‘cultural product’? How can we claim that ‘religion’ is producing these things in any meaningful way? What can we ascertain about a ‘religion’ from its cultural products? And what makes this approach different from that of Material Religion? This broad-ranging interview tackles such questions, and more, via examples as diverse as religious celebrity, Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum, and Sacred Trees and finishes by addressing whether or not the ‘secular’ university – and, in turn, Religious Studies – can be seen as a cultural product of a particular form of Christianity.

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