A Presentation on Mashup Religion by John S. McClure

by Steve Thomason

 A Term Paper Presented to Professors Mary Hess and Gary Simpson

Luther Seminary | As a Requirement in Course CL8530 Gospel and Culture

 St. Paul, Minnesota |  2012


John McClure is the Charles G. Finney Professor of Preaching and Worship at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He specializes in homiletics and has written several books and articles on the subject. He is a past president (2003) of the Academy of Homiletics, and is co-editor, with Dale Andrews, of the Academy’s journal Homiletic. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), he served as the pastor of Ensley Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and taught preaching for 17 years at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary before arriving at Vanderbilt in 2003.[1]

McClure’s “street cred” for writing a book about digital music sampling comes from the fact that he is an accomplished musician. He grew up in a musical family, plays several instruments, and has played in various bands throughout his life. His musical styles and interests cover a wide range of musical genres. He now lives in Nashville, which is one of the premier locations for professional sound recording and engineering. He has grown in his knowledge of sound engineering, beginning in an analog world and evolving into the digital age of music samples, remixing, and musical mashup.[2] This book, Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention, uses the world of digital mashup remixing of music as an analogy for how theologians should approach the discipline of theology in a postmodern context.

Content Summary

What does popular music have to do with theological inquiry? Certain theological traditions would say that it has nothing to do with it. Theology, they would say, is a self-contained discipline that derives truth from biblical study combined with human reason and church tradition. The product of theological inquiry is then set in contrast to popular culture for the purpose of either condemning it or transforming it from the top down. John McClure would disagree. He thinks that the theologian has much to learn from popular music—not just from the lyrics, but from the very process of creating music through the digital sampling and remixing of previously recorded “beats” from various musical genres.

The purpose of this book is to use “popular song-making in a heuristic and analogical way. [McClure is] concerned to show that popular song-makers have a lot to teach theologians about inventing artifacts that will both keep traditions alive (through sampling) and foster new ideas through creative juxtapositions across religious traditions, cultures, and traditional disciplinary lines.”[3] McClure uses the popular songwriter as an analogy for the theologian. The popular songwriter stands in contrast to the romantic or bohemian songwriter. These latter two types of songwriters held the ideal that the writer was detached and aloof from culture and wrote into culture from the outside. The popular songwriters habitus stands within culture seeking to develop and mature within a tradition. “Theological invention within this frame of reference is profoundly hermeneutical and communal, sustained by shared traditions of engaging and interpreting texts and life.”[4] The songwriter writes music from within a tradition—jazz, bluegrass, rock, goth, etc.—and seeks to both become deepened within that tradition and expand the tradition with invention. The theological writer, too, writes theology within a tradition—Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc.—and seeks to both become deepened within it and expand it with theological invention.

McClure uses the example of a digital audio workstation (DAW) as an analogy for how to begin composing theology for mashup religion. The DAW is built upon a multi-track system in which multiple tracks of sound are stacked vertically in layers. Each track contains a distinct instrument or sample of a musical arrangement. The tracks play synchronously through time and offer an unlimited array of digital audio manipulation through effects plug-ins. McClure suggests that the theologian has four tracks to work with, based upon four authorities for theological invention—Scripture, culture/experience, theology, and reason. He names these tracks: Scripture tracks, culture tracks, theology tracks and message tracks. The Scripture track is aimed at the listener’s memory. The Culture track is aimed at the listener’s daily lives. The Theology track is aimed at the listener’s theological world and worldview. The Message track is aimed at the listener’s lexicon of ideas. Writing theology across these four layers simultaneously will create a shift from a hermeneutical approach to an intertextual approach to theological invention.[5]

McClure identifies multiple styles within each of these four tracks. This vast variety of styles within the multiple tracks creates what he calls a “theological loop browser.”

The idea of browsing samples of theological traditions and styles of tracking those traditions demonstrates a new kind of reflexivity that is possible in the invention of religious ideas today. Making use of search engines and other technologies for browsing, the theologian browses for ideas within religious traditions that, when juxtaposed, will create theological intonations and ideas that have the potential to convey new forms of religious thought.[6]

A key concept for Mashup Religion is that of intertextuality. “Writers who embrace intertextuality seek new content and forms by entering into relationships with distinctly other voices, juxtaposing their ideas with a lager range of voices than may be available within a given tradition of writing.”[7] McClure calls this inventing the possible. He says, citing Victor Vitanza, that the West has traditionally either thought in terms of the ideal (Plato) or the actual (Aristotle) as the goal. These two forms speak of stability, or stasis. A third alternative shifts to metastasis in the invention the possible. Here the writer steps out into the void to create the goal.[8]

In this situation, random juxtapositions within a particular creative place (chora) and time (kairos) pry memory away from stasis and into metastatic forms of memory (and knowledge) only accessed through positioned and opportune relationships between loci of meaning. An artist or theologian in this mode gains access to new worlds made possible by this adventure into open-ended collaboration.[9]

McClure calls for theologians to move beyond semiotics in which theology must conform to strict cultural/linguistic rules. Post-semiotic theologians will be pragmatic and will embrace textuality and a file-sharing mentality. They recognize that “all words, traditions, and styles of speech are borrowed, plagiarized, and exchanged in an attempt to communicate—that is to discover and share a lived religious world.”[10] Theology of this type will be deeply embedded in a human experience of attempting to articulate a human and transcendent encounter. “Through a range of gestures, utterances, and speaking-across codes and conventions, theologians find that they can cross over onto the ground of another’s desire for God. If this crossing-over process is reciprocated to some extent, theologians can begin to utter together something of the God witnessed through the lenses of these divergent religious desires.”[11] It is as if we have moved past the semiotic domain of formalized Christianity and entered into the day of Pentecost once again in which all languages were brought together to make sense out of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring within their own language and across all the languages.

McClure says that “languages are nothing more than things in the world that human beings shape and reshape in order to identify and deal together with the conditions of life under which they live, as they perceive them, and to identify, live into and bring about certain (hopefully good and true) desires and effects given that situation.”[12] Theologians who cross semantic domains bear witness to a certain type of silence in which God escapes being named. God’s silence of resurrection makes room for speech in response to God. Mashup Religion also bears witness to the breaking of silence. Theologians must speak and make a great deal of noise celebrating the “unrestricted desire to know.”[13]

McClure uses music fan cultures as an analogy for local communities and the purpose of congregations. The average consumer of music now has access to music from multiple genres and has the ability to create her own bricolage of music in a personal soundtrack. This is also true of theological thought. Spiritual seekers can peruse a vast array of theological samples and create a theological bricolage. These theological bricoleurs will view traditional local communities as local resources rather than authorities that contain completed truth. “Local congregations and divinity schools are used as nodes of complexity within the network flows of mediated popular culture.”[14] Fan cultures create “mattering maps” which express what matters most to the people. This helps point the theological writer to what Paul Tillich calls the “ultimate concerns” of people.

McClure says that fandoms are on a spiritual, religious pilgrimage that represents four distinct aspects of all spiritual pilgrimages. The first aspect is a desire to leave. The second is a desire to transcend. The third is a desire to return different. The fourth is the desire to critique. Fans attend concerts, listen to music, and interact with the musicians and fellow fans with these four desires as the motivation. In so doing they create meaning and value in the work of the musician.[15]  These pilgrimages typically take place in disembodied, digital spaces. Eventually the spiritual bricolage process will leave the seeker wanting depth, complexity, and steerage. Local congregations can provide an embodied host through extending true hospitality to these spiritual wanderers.

The theologian must be an ethnomusicologist in order to invent theology for a particular audience. The theologian must then address seven questions. 1. What is the emotional and spiritual feel or affect of people’s lives? 2. What matters to the fandoms in our audience? 3. What are people leaving in order to go on these pilgrimages? 4. What are the forms of transcendence that people seek to experience? 5. What do people seem to take home with them? 6. What are the critiques of the dominant culture and religion that are implicit in these fan cultures? 7. Why are people actually or potentially adding you or your institution as a fandom to their mattering maps? When the theologian attends to these questions she can find greater direction for writing theology and seek to provide depth, complexity, and steerage for the pilgrim and within the local congregation in which they seek to find an embodied home.

The final chapter invites theologians to analyze the lyrics of popular music in order to discover key theological ideas in the culture and thus connect to deep theological desires of the people. McClure walks through several popular artists and catalogues their lyrics into different traditional theological categories.

Critique and Implications

I begin my response with an overall voice of praise for Mashup Religion. I personally resonated with its creativity and inclusivity, as well as its direct applicability to the task of preaching. I will raise two small observation/critiques. They are more questions than anything, because I do not have a constructive response to them. I simply raise them as a conversation point for the respondent and the class.

My first question flows from an observation about the source of McClure’s theology—his Theological World, as he would say. It seems that I hear the theological voice of Paul Tillich and the hermeneutical voices of those who would fall into the category of deconstructive postmodernists, e.g. Wittgenstein, Derrida, Foucault. Tillich’s theological world is that of correlationism, in which God is present in all human systems and the notion of objective or propositional knowledge about God is impossible. Therefore, in conjunction with the aforementioned hermeneuticists, all theological inquiry and writing—and the theological traditions from which they spring—are simply word games and frail human attempts to articulate the infinite. This proposition does, on the one hand, open up vast possibilities for liberative, cross-linguistical sampling and remixing. That is beautiful. However, does it not also eliminate any possibility for evaluation and discernment? McClure does call for a language that is “hopefully good and true”[16] but what is the basis for goodness and trueness?

I have already raised questions, but my real question is deeper. It seems that McClure’s framing of Mashup Religion is dependent upon the Tillichian, deconstructive hermeneutic in order to function. A theological writer must first detach all theological traditions from any semiotic mooring, or illusion of truth, and then equalize all voices as simply “beats” in the DJ’s crate. He appears to value each tradition, but in “crating” them does he not devalue them as well? Is it possible to be a Mashup theologian from within one of the traditions, or does it require a form of “transcendence” out of the bondage of semiotics before one can be enlightened enough to begin remixing? Is McClure truly writing theology from “within” the culture, like the pop songwriter, or has he created a new form of intellectual elitism that allows the writer to “rise above” the crates as a transcendent creator (which would be an ironic contradiction to his call for communal meaning-making).

My second critique is closely related to the first, but takes on a more personal flavor. I found McClure’s critique of the Emergent Conversation generally, and Brian McLaren specifically, to be interesting and telling. In chapter three he tells about a conference of the United Church of Canada at which he spoke. He was accused of two things in the wake of his presentation. On the one side he was accused of being a deconstructive atheist (which is essentially what my previous critique hinted at). On the other side he was accused of being in line with the Emerging Church Conversation. His subsequent undressing and belittling of the Emergent Church conversation left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth for two reasons. First, I must admit, is because Brian McLaren and the book A Generous Orthodoxy[17] was very influential in my life, as it allowed me freedom to see the Gospel and the body of Christ as a multi-faceted diamond. Second, McClure’s critique smells of intellectual condescension. He first categorizes the Emergents as post-evangelicals (which is essentially true). He then divides them into two basic camps. On the one side are those who “ultimately recapitulate to a consistent usage model of theological invention, lining up reflexively under the semantics of the conservative evangelical movement and the new measures pragmatism of Finney.”[18] This group he dismisses. The second group is that of the Emergents who are engaging in the decentered, communicative process of appropriating vintage traditions as suggested in Mashup Religion. However, he calls them naïve and claims that they are not yet appropriating these other vintage traditions in any great depth. These Emergents have reduced McClure’s ideas to their use-value. McClure says, “those of us who are aware of the complexities of these traditions and languages will perhaps be perturbed by this reduction.” Those of us. McClure has drawn the line between us and them, and the way in which he says it seems to elevate the us to a higher state of awareness or enlightenment. I’m sure my critique is flowing from my own naiveté and post-evangelical reductionism and use-value Finneyan pragmatism (my hope is that this question will spark a Dr. Simpson mini-lecture that will re-frame these categories for us!).

My question does have some value for the Missional Church conversation beyond that of the wounded feelings of a recovering post-evangelical who happens to really like Brian McLaren. One of the recurring conversations among CML students at Luther (in my experience) has to do with the observation that the term “Missional Church” has been claimed by multiple groups. Of course, this observation was the impetus for Van Gelder and Zsheile’s book The Missional Church in Perspective.[19] However, the four branches of the Missional Church that they described also labels Emergents and post-evangelicals in sub-missional categories. Those who were placed there did not necessarily appreciate this evaluation. What then is the Missional Church? Would McClure consider his Mashup Religion and its homiletical implications to be missional? Or, would he respond to that label in the same way that he responded to being called Emergent? How does the Trinity factor into McClure’s Mashup Religion? How does Jesus factor into McClure’s Theological World? I leave these questions hanging.

I will now turn to a positive note. Again, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Mashup Religion provides a nice ending point for our Gospel and Cultures course because he provides practical answers for the questions raised by Kathryn Tanner in the first book we read.[20] Tanner proposed that the Gospel lived in the dialogue between Christian cultures. It lives in the spaces that permeate the inbetweeness. It is the engagement between, among, and within Christian cultures (and all cultures, for that matter) and the style with which the engagement takes place that embodies the Good News. McClure’s Mashup Religion shows us how to do that. His analogy of the theological loop sampler and remixing from the “crates” of theological tradition provides the theological writer in this postmodern world with tools to engage in communicative action with the other.

This book has great implications for preaching. It also provides some clear methodologies, or approaches, to how to engage in communicative action within the local congregation. I love the image of the local church as an embodied host and place of hospitality for the spiritual pilgrim that offers religious depth, complexity, and steerage. This vision allows the local congregation and its leadership to blur the lines between us/them, right/wrong, truth/error, and truly welcome the stranger. The church can hold its tradition deeply, while in the same moment enter into an intertextuality and communicative action that will strive, not for the ideal, or for the actual, but for the possible. That sounds like Gospel and Cultures to me.


McClure, John S. Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011.

McLaren, Brian D. A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian. El Cajon, CA: Youth Specialties, 2006.

Tanner, Kathryn. Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology Guides to Theological Inquiry. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Van Gelder, Craig, and Dwight J. Zscheile. The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation The Missional Network. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011.



[1] http://divinity.vanderbilt.edu/people/bio/john-mcclure (accessed December 4, 2012)

[2] John S. McClure, Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011), vii-xi.

[3] Ibid.,  6-7.

[4] Ibid.,  40.

[5] Ibid.,  43-53.

[6] Ibid.,  79.

[7] Ibid.,  87.

[8] Ibid.,  96.

[9] Ibid.,  98.

[10] Ibid.,  102.

[11] Ibid.,  104.

[12] Ibid.,  107.

[13] Ibid.,  108.

[14] Ibid.,  127.

[15] Ibid.,  127-131.

[16] Ibid.,  107.

[17] Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian (El Cajon, CA: Youth Specialties, 2006).

[18] McClure, 105.

[19] Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).

[20] Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).

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