As in real estate, so in authoring a book: location is everything. And the book Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention shows how critical an author’s location can be. Its author, John S. McClure, is the Charles G. Finney Professor of Preaching and Worship at Vanderbilt Divinity School. This fact—so easily skimmed over on a back cover—is vital for understanding this book, for Vanderbilt is in Nashville, a mecca for the production of popular music. Mashup Religion arises from this location, enabling McClure to reflect on how popular music is created and received as an analogy for what it might mean both to express theology today and to have theology heard by people shaped by popular culture.
The book emerges from the author’s broad experiences and interests, too. McClure has been active in songwriting for popular audiences as well as interested in the technologies of sound recording, editing, mixing, and mastering. Combine the author’s location and musical pursuits with his broad academic interests, and the reader gets a book that is an interesting conversation between professional musicians and music producers, ethnomusicologists, theologians, homileticians, and communication theorists.
The book’s title, referring to a “mashup,” is derived from the world of pop music and points to the central analogy. As McClure explains, “a mashup is a song consisting entirely of parts of other songs,” with these bits being juxtaposed in the process of producing a final music piece with bits of music created by other artists. McClure describes the process of producing pop music—from initial songwriting to reception by fans—to suggest a parallel to what it could mean today to express theology in dynamic ways, cognizant of how people actually put together a religious worldview.
The analogy is both descriptive and prescriptive. Sometimes McClure uses it to describe the way things are. That approach comes across most helpfully when assessing the cultural impact of pop music on people today. And so the book raises useful questions, especially for preachers: in what way does listening to popular music—and becoming a fan of certain performers—influence how people listen to sermons, associate with preachers, and place what they are hearing in church into a broader mix to form a religious worldview?
McClure’s prescriptive use of the mashup analogy takes up more space in the book. In the first four chapters, McClure walks the reader through what’s involved in writing, recording, mixing, and producing pop music, especially in the electronic aspects. He does this in order to argue that as creating music is a complex event, so should be the speaking of theology today. McClure wants to show theologians how they might “foster new ideas through creative juxtapositions across religious traditions, cultures, and traditional disciplinary lines.”
The author applies the analogy most clearly when dealing with preaching, which is not surprising given his academic discipline. But McClure’s goal is broader than merely dealing with a creative way of writing sermons. He captures this breadth in the terms “inventing theology” and “inventors of theology.” It appears that he was trying to find a bridge between his analogy of inventing of a piece of pop music on the one hand and the process involved in coming to a specific expression of theology across a range of vocations (he mentions at one point theologians who are “academic, journalistic, ministerial, artistic, or activist”) on the other. But to place “invent” and “theology” side by side remained disconcerting. And I kept wishing that the book applied its insights to the process of being dynamically theological in corporate prayer.
At several points the book steps out of the analogy to note more literal insights for speaking theologically today. For example, three things were particularly helpful. First, he discusses how theologians release original work to be used by others in remixing. Second, the appendix describes how to lay out notes for a sermon, based on visualizing multiple tracks in a sound recording. And third, he analyzes what is required in sound systems and electronic support for preaching that requires multiple sensory dimensions.
Who might benefit from reading Mashup Religion? Anyone who feels stuck in a rut in preaching, praying, and speaking theologically within a congregation would benefit especially. The book increases awareness of the dynamics involved in creating ecclesial speech. And increased awareness of the process of creation is helpful in reconfiguring one’s approach. The book’s analogy allows the reader to become aware of processes in which one might be engaged but not previously conscious of.
The book does not reflect on the Triune God as the object of theology and ask how this God’s nature should affect how we speak theologically. That omission does not sink the book (no book can do everything), but it should serve to remind the reader not to become too enamored with the novelty of the main analogy, which is easy to do if one is desperate for a panacea and then forgets that there are other things to consider beyond culture in order to express theology in high fidelity. Indeed, the “mashing up” the author intends for readers would necessarily require the careful reader to contemplate God along with the history of theological expression.