Sound Doctrine: Musicality, Memes, and Ministry

By Braxton Shelley

This is an exciting moment to be positioned at the intersection of African American music and theological education.[1] Something important and long-overdue is clearly afoot. All this is, at once, a sign of significant progress and a reminder of profound failure, a pivot from which we can and should look in both directions, both forward and back. Though the past is littered with oversight and erasure, the future is in no way a slam dunk. Such new programs here and elsewhere will be accountable to the kinds of questions that are being asked about the broader institutions they occupy. Namely: are the things we are prepared to teach really the things our students need to learn? Given the decline and dissolution of many church music programs and the ever-increasing uncertainty of the job market for artists—in the church and outside it—can these new investments promise anything in the way of actual return? 

I think that the answer is yes … and no … but mainly yes. 

Attention, Please

Attending to the arts in theological education has a value that transcends obvious questions of utility. Studying the arts is one of the best ways to attend to attention itself: to see seeing, to hear hearing, and to feel feeling. Among our program/curricular descriptions we find religion’s many ands: religion andthe visual arts, religion and literature, religion and music—all of this reveals the artificiality of the conjunction “and” in each of the foregoing phrases. Religion, the visual arts, literature, and music are all too entangled to be divided so neatly. If placements, gifts, and grants are all that we seek, then the future might seem bleak. But if more skilled practices of attention are what theological schools hope to produce, then the future is bright. 

In my tradition, sound is essential. Surpassing any single creed, transcending any denominational structure, the most important beliefs about the reality of the divine’s presence in this world resides principally in sound.

I guess I’m thinking about theological aesthetics in the way the theorist Lauren Berlant conceives of the broader category of aesthetics as “a training in attention,” and “a training in capacities for attention.” This kind of Attention is always evidence of some system of formation. Nowhere is that more clear than in faith’s artistic materialization. Believers of various traditions—spread across vast expanses of space and time—use the arts to engage and grapple with the reality of God. Doing so with great intensity, they show just how precious attention is. Scripture’s many requests for God to incline the divine ear in the direction of human petition is a projection and confession of the frailty of our human attention, its vulnerability to fashioning and misdirection. This is our burden. The theological academy is ideally placed to produce citizens and leaders, ministers and artists who leave our programs with a renewed sensitivity to form, a better handle on the ultimate significance many locate in the patterns, shapes, and arrangements of creation—both human and divine. 

Soundings of the Divine

Given my practical and scholarly preoccupation with the Black gospel tradition, its songs, sermons, and prayers, I spend a lot of time in classes, and in my own writing, searching the many incarnations of belief, asking myself, my readers, and my students: just where do gospel’s most important beliefs reside? In my tradition, sound is essential. Surpassing any single creed, transcending any denominational structure, the most important beliefs about the reality of the divine’s presence in this world, and this world’s meaningful connection to another, more real and more powerful one, resides principally in sound.

This is a challenge—but not a new one. How to see and hear belief, even and especially when it doesn’t show up in creed, or when its most important traits cannot be gleaned from reading its words? How to name the thought that is contained in a particular inflection of voice or in an enduring tradition of ecstatic dance? How to develop a nuanced and rich vocabulary for investigating faith’s artistic forms? If the members of a diverse student body can learn to listen in this way, or in any number of other ways, then their sensitivities will be sharpened. 

This semester I am teaching a class on the musicality of Black preaching. It’s not a tutorial in how to preach musically. But it’s also not not that. We are immersing ourselves in centuries’ worth of accounts of characteristically musical and Black ways of preaching. We are also tarrying with the probity and necessity of these forms of sonic difference, asking how subtler attention to form might inform the preaching and speaking of those around the table. In the class, I have students who are Christian and those who are not theistic. Students from a host of Christian traditions. Students who are earning Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Religion, or Master of Sacred Theology degrees, as well as Ph.D. students from the Department of Music. The robust conversation we have as we attend to specific moments in dozens of sermons, and use that to reflect on services currently unfolding in Marquand Chapel, are enriched by the varied perspectives that assemble around the seminar table. As we seek to hear what our neighbor heard in one of their chosen excerpts, we come to terms with the constructedness and contingency of our own modes of attending. This is the urgent luxury of theological education as a time to cultivate attention and a time for tarrying: time to attend to the fragment, and time to attend to the role of the fragment within the larger texture of sound and of Christian community.

Platform Pluralism

The future of theological education and the future of public ministry will require more of these practices of attention: an individual’s attention to a text or a sound, and our attention to each other’s different aesthetic perceptions. This is urgent, given the increasingly interconnected attention economy mediated by social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. Now that the digital is the primary realm of religious practice, attention is becoming even more precious. How can the platform ecosystem expand our ecclesiologies in ways that might improve a church’s capacity to survive even in the face of declining traditional membership? How do we shape religious leaders who can enter a fray where the common denominator of religious speech is not the full sermon, but the minute-long online excerpt? How to preach when the risk of decontextualization makes it oh so easy to be canceled? How to inhabit the theological academy, how to do ministry in a moment when many past, present, and potential congregants are more likely to make a meme about a scriptural scene than they are to attend those rituals we used to call Bible study?

The One-Minute Sermon?

The last of these questions bring us back to the arts—not to hymns or sermons or iconography, but to memes, those parodic, digital artifacts that pervade the networked society. I want to end on this topic because it points to one of the opportunities that is tucked into one of the great challenges of this moment. If you spend any time on a social media platform, you know that there is, beneath the humor and occasional danger of the meme, a popular preoccupation with form, with attention. Like the literary critic Michael Dango, I think of the meme as a resurgence of “everyday formalism.” Memes of various kinds are ubiquitous evidence of increasing energy spent on making and mastering the forms that enable communication, and not just the content. I see this in my own research in the digital afterlife of the late Bishop G. E. Patterson. When I drilled down into this data, I discovered that much of this online archive is shaped by the logic of the meme. Fans use the musical fragments Patterson repeated throughout his life to make their own musical fragments of his messages—to great effect. With the technology of the meme, they innovate a distinctive genre of Black sacred music.

Like it or not, the memefication of lived religion is probably here to stay. And this fact might turn out to be an opportunity. If, as Michael Dango argues, “the popularity of memes suggests … that formalism may be alive and well where we least expect it,” then some of the narratives of religious decline might be incomplete. Bible study might be happening where we least expect it. The one-minute sermon, a crystalline condensation, might be a measure of success both in its form and in its content. And we might find that those trained at the intersection of theology and the arts are best prepared to meet the needs of these emerging congregations.

Musicologist Braxton Shelley is Associate Professor of Music, of Sacred Music, and of Divinity, with Yale appointments in the Department of Music, Divinity School, and the Institute of Sacred Music. His research interests focus especially on African American gospel performance but extend also to media studies, sound studies, phenomenology, homiletics, and theology. His next book, An Eternal Pitch: Bishop G. E. Patterson and the Afterlives of Ecstasy, is forthcoming from the University of California Press. This essay is an adaptation of his remarks during a YDS panel on “The Future of Theological Education” in October 2022.

[1] At Yale, the Institute of Sacred Music recently launched the Interdisciplinary Program in Music and the Black Church. At Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, the new Junius B. Dotson Institute for Music and Worship in the Black Church and Beyond is a partnership of the seminary with the Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church. At the University of Arkansas, a Master’s degree in Black Sacred Music has recently been approved.