Does popular music create overly-sentimental versions of biography for our imaginations, or does popular music enliven our imaginations to reconsider some of our conceptions about last things, especially issues concerning the construction process of life narratives?
I am convinced that moments of key memory associated with a loved one’s death moves one beyond taste to a place of possible true sentiment. Of course, sentimentality has always been a risky, even unsteady hermeneutic partner, but perhaps, sentimentality should not be cast aside for fear of reckless observance. Robert Solomon argued: “it is charged that sentimentality is distorting, self-indulgent, self-deceptive. I argue that all of these charges are misplaced or themselves distorted and betray a suspicion of emotions and the tender sentiments that is unwarranted.”
One reason in support of popular music as a means for offering a hermeneutic of memory is found in music’s tendency to stimulate the emotions, even to the point where words seem to be insufficient. Don Saliers observes:
theology respects the going beyond words because the object of theology is not captured in the web of language. It is no accident that when poets or great theologians wish to speak of the deepest realities, they move toward poetry and music – heightened speech – as an attempt to “sound” spiritual matters.
Memorial services and funerals are moments of heightened sentimental vulnerability, where “the theologian of culture must understand exactly what is being enacted in a given art-form and bring that action under gospel light for better understanding.” For example, Jeff Keuss recounts in Your Neighbor’s Hymnal that in preparing to officiate a memorial service in his church for a young woman, he noticed the song selection included a music piece by Metallica, among others. He recalls James Hetfield’s (lead singer for Metallica) “Nothing Else Matters” fitting perfectly in the service as “the song is about longing for something more.” Keuss remembers:
As the song ran its course, arms covered with more ink than a stack of comic books were rubbing their eyes and waiting for something beyond James Hetfield’s simple tune as we looked toward the cross that hung over that casket. “Nothing else matters” opened the way, for “something else” must matter amidst all this sorrow. When people ask me what pop music has to do with theology, it is moments like these I wish I could bottle up and hand to cynics.
Even where common forms of oral and literary theology, such as stories, prayers, scriptures and letters may contribute, popular music provided the key element for the memorial hermeneutic.
A critique sometimes leveled against traditions emphasizing spiritual experience is the lack of attention to shared tradition, as well as an over-emphasis upon emotional criteria. If emotional criteria, such as the “warming” of a heart, or the “tears” of joy, or the “peace” of mind, or the “laughter” of thankfulness are signals of divine encounter, then the possibility of these experiences becoming recontextualized in any setting where emotional criteria are met, even outside of the ecclesiastical structures, is for some an unsettling prospect and for others, a witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit with us.
Question for consideration: Do popular songs become more trustworthy for theological consideration once connected to the memory of a loved one?
Timothy Allen and his family reside in St. Andrews, Scotland where he is writing his PhD dissertation under the supervision of Professor David Brown. Currently, Tim’s research focuses on the dialogue between theology and popular culture – more precisely, on the role of the imagination in theological constructions of the doctrine of heaven.
 Robert C.Solomon, In Defense of Sentimentality (Austin: ‘Oxford University Press’), 1.
 Don E. Saliers, Music and Theology, Horizons in Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 72.
 James Wm. McClendon Jr., Systematic Theology: Witness, 3 vols., vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 178.
 Jeffrey F. Keuss, Your Neighbor’s Hymnal: What Popular Music Teaches Us About Faith, Hope, and Love (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 28.
 Ibid, 29.
 Clive Marsh and Vaughan S. Roberts, Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012). Marsh and Roberts argue that the seventh function of popular music is to “shape life”. 132.