Michael Grimshaw: The Counter-Narratives of Radical Theology and Popular Music

Counter NarrativesSeveral of us at are involved in Mike Grimshaw’s new edited volume, The Counter-Narratives of Radical Theology and Popular Music: Songs of Fear and Trembling, from Palgrave Macmillan’s Radical Theologies series.  Clayton Crockett has an essay on Joy Division; Joshua Ramey’s chapter is titled “Protocols of Surrender: Stammering across the Gothic Lines”; Daniel Barber’s is titled “Stop, Think, Stop”; and my contribution is an essay on the Pet Shop Boys, whose hit, “It’s a sin,” always struck me as a prayer.

I invited Mike to send me something to promote the book (the table of contents follows, below), so he sent a selection from his opening essay.  The book can be found on the publisher’s webpage here and on  Amazon here.


From…Sonic bibles and the closing of the canon:

The sounds of secular, mundane transcendence?

Mike Grimshaw

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

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

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

The worry that our sense of history, as it takes place in everyday culture, is cramped, impoverished, and debilitating; that the commonplace assumption that history exists only in the past is a mystification powerfully resistant to any critical investigations that might reveal this assumption to be a fraud, or a jail. The suspicion is that we are living out history, making and unmaking it-forgetting it, denying it- all of the time, in far more ways than we have really learned.[1]

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

…Nothing has ever moved and excited me like great rock’n’roll – like punk, soul, electro-pop, alt-country and all the other sub-strata of the Anglo-American genus      Rock…what rock’n’roll was really about: the irresistible         combo of sound and spectacle; of music, performance, image, attitude and ritual. [2]

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

Music is about spirit, not matter: it’s about our emotional    lives, not our material status.[3]

Therefore a further qualification is required – rock is the expression and hermeneutics of emotional lives in a material word, of how spirit is claimed and experienced in matter; which I would argue is that tension that drives secular and radical theology…

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

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

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

Radical theology and rock’n’roll are all a type of counter-narrative, a soundtrack to live by that speak of value in a world of kitsch and cheap sentiment, that ache for meaning in a world too easily opiated, that both know and realise it is up to us to remake the traditions and its possibilities to challenge ourselves constantly anew. The death of rock’n’roll has become a challenge for a radical rock just as the death of God called for a radial theology, a theology against theology, just as rock constantly was rock against rock, music against comfort and cheap sentiment. Just as radical theology is done by those outside the mainstream, by those who may not or would not be considered as theologians by those seeking to keep the institutions and the business of theology alive, so the death of rock forces us to rediscover and recover that which existed outside the boundaries of the normative and the respectable.

Sweaty and drunk I sought signs of the divine, in a constructive radical theology of materialist presence. In the mundane these sonic bibles written by and for us challenge with the hopes and fears of life after God; songs of fear and trembling, of idiots running the streets proclaiming the challenge of a new world to the indifferent. When the canon closed the question was how do we interpret it in our here and now. This collection of essays is a type of mix-tape, presenting different attempts to do this, making use of the sonic bibles. As the great rock critic Lester Bangs wrote:

…I was interested, because it seemed to me then, as it does now, that the only questions worth asking today are whether humans are going to have any emotions tomorrow, and what the quality of life will be if the answer is no.[4]

These essays are what happens when those of a radical theological temperament wrestle with the sonic bibles of those dealing with the questions of the quality of life.


Playlist/table of contents

1. Sonic Bibles and the Closing of the Canon: The Sounds of Secular, Mundane Transcendence?; Mike Grimshaw

2. My Affair with Ian; Jennifer K. Otter

3. In the Colony with Joy Division; Clayton Crockett

4. Sonic Stigmatas: Towards a New Fear and Trembling; Sophie Fuggle

5. Improvisation and Divine Creation: A Riff on John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’; Sam Laurent

6. Protocols of Surrender | Stammering Along the Gothic Line; Joshua Ramey

7. Louis Armstrong: A Rhapsody on Repetition and Time; Jeffrey W. Robbins

8. I Know my Way from Here: Walking the Hutterite Mile with David Eugene Edwards; Eric Repphun

9. Meeting God in the Sound: The Seductive Dimension of U2’s Future Hymns; Deane Galbraith

10. Praying the Confiteor at Westminster Abbey: Four-on-the Floor Apocalypse; Christopher D. Rodkey

11. Nick Cave and Death; Roland Boer

12. Combine Dry Ingredients, Mix Well: Constituting Worlds through Mix-tapes and Maxi-mixes: Chris Nichol

13. Why Kanye West Gets it Wrong: it’s not ‘Jesus walks’ but ‘Christ who is glimpsed’…(or how to think theologically in the modern city); Mike Grimshaw

14. Stop, Think, Stop; Daniel Colucciello Barber



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

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

See also:http://www.rocksbackpages.com/

[3] Ibid., p.xi.

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