Brief Book Review: Exploring the Spiritual in Popular Music

Exploring the Spiritual in Popular Music: Beautified Beats
Edited by Mike Dines and Georgina Gregory

Who’s it for? Meant for academics of religious studies, cultural studies, and popular music, yet anyone curious about the currents of spiritual expression and implicit religion in and through popular music will enjoy this collection of essays.

What’s the main point? There is sacred power in pop music, and it is worthy of scholarly attention.

What intrigued me the most? I was most intrigued by essays that dealt with the spiritual content of selected genres (such as Straight Edge Punk and EDM) or composers in popular music, such as the essay by Jirí Mêsíc on threads of Sufi mysticism in the work of Leonard Cohen.

Quibbles. The essays do not neatly dialogue with each other. In part, this is due to the nature of an interdisciplinary volume with a diverse collection of authors from many countries. There is not a common understanding of religion/ the sacred/ spirituality between and even within the essays. Most are written from scholars of music, pop culture, and media out of the United Kingdom. And some of the groupings of essays into sections seemed clunky (such as the essay on the Rastafarianism of Congo Natty under the “Christian” section…while the essay on country music and Christianity was placed under “Personal Spirituality”). As a scholar of religion, specifically Christian Liturgy and technoculture, I regularly questioned what religious and spiritual framework authors were using to engage popular music’s spirituality. Theological frameworks are not operative, rather religious studies and anthropological/sociological approaches to the sacred.

Kudos. Some authors offered intriguing and fascinating insight into the power of popular music to cultivate and amplify the sense of the sacred. The fall of Christian Britain did not mean people wandered away from the spiritual and many essays speak to pop music as an individual/communal mean to organize dis-enchanted 21st century Westerners with a sense of belonging and certain practices and behaviors to deepen the belonging to a particular pop genre or star. It behooves religious leaders —and this book speaks to Sufism, Christianity, occultism, Krishnacore, atheism and more—to move past notions that pop music is merely throw away art or even crude, offensive acts. These essays reinforce the power of music to express what is sacred, beyond boundaries of religions, no matter the instrumentation of the era.

Dines, Mike, and Georgina Gregory, eds. Exploring the Spiritual in Popular Music: Beautified Beats. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. 244 pages. $82.00. ISBN: 9781350086944.

REVIEWER: The Rev. Dr. Casey Thornburgh Sigmon
is assistant professor of preaching and worship at
Saint Paul School of Theology in Leawood, Kansas.

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