Musically Speaking the Lectures

I'm delighted to post this from our newest contributor, Catherine (Kate) Bowler, Professor of the History of Christianity at Duke Divinity School. Her teaching focuses on topics in American Christianity including religion and ethnicity, religion and health, and contemporary popular religion. Her research centers on the American prosperity gospel. Her publications include “Blessed Bodies: Healing within the African-American Faith Movement,” in the forthcoming book Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing (Oxford University Press, 2011) and “From Far and Wide: The Canadian Faith Movement,” Church & Faith Trends, February 2010.

Musically Speaking
By Kate Bowler

‘Tis the season for behemoth core courses and this teacher finds her heart (or ears) inexorably turned to song. There is something about teaching American Christianity to 150 divinity school students in a 75-minute slot that gives me pause about barreling through with my regular lectures and wild hand gestures. As instructors, we seem to obsess over finding provocative prose for students to digest or non-copyrighted visual images to appreciate. So why not historicize the most common ritual of congregations of every stripe: music? After all, the sociologist Mark Chaves and his 1998 National Congregations Study found worship and the arts to be more important to church life than either politics or social services. (Chaves, Congregations in America, 5)

This semester I decided to experiment with a musical element in every lecture. In discussing Jesuit Jean Brébeuf and his indigenizing efforts with the Hurons, we sang the Huron Carol where “chiefs” and “hunter braves” visit the swaddled babe. While the Puritans bemoaned the Catholic vestiges of Mother England, we called out the bare unison sounds of psalmody. When a German Bible became the first holy book published on these shores, we put Luther’s “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” to shame.

Which brings me to these preliminary conclusions. Why not include music? Well, Augustine may have opined that music was theology in the form of love, but some musical acts do not come off as loving. Music requires performance, and this, in turn, requires a certain willingness to tolerate a number of missteps. Systems fail and might leave you wailing alone. Sometimes the pitch is too high or low and—given that you are not a professional musician—you can do nothing but stand there and bear it.

Further, it can be difficult to historicize music at all. Recreating a sound from a colonial moment, for example, requires particular instruments that may not be available. Sheet music is frequently updated for ease of use. Original language—and the historical distance it creates—may be lost as communities try to keep their worship current.

That being said, I have been surprised by what music can accomplish in the classroom. Not only does it give tired learners a break when a student’s fancy turns to Facebook, but it reminds listeners that these are living faiths. Among other things, music cultivates affect and atmosphere. The act of feeling a connection to historically distant groups is especially powerful for this experientially-driven generation. Further, diverse musical performances allow yet another way to show students multiple traditions. From Appalachian folk tunes to spirituals to CCM, students appreciate the chance to showcase talents and traditions that may not make it into the lectures. So thus far in the semester I would say, go ahead and sing. Just remember to turn off your microphone. 


Great post, Kate! Glad you've hopped aboard the blog. I think you're right on the money about how music can keep student interest and really help a lecture.

I like to use songs anachronistically to help students remember things. I played "I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me" before a lecture on Foucault and the panopticon. I even know a professor who used all 7 minutes of the studio recording of the Doors "Come on Baby Light My Fire" to open a class on religion and sexuality.
Angela said…
When I was a student at Wellesley, Steve Marini (who is also a choirmaster) used to do a whole section on early American music. Next thing you knew he had us reading shape note music and attempting to sing it. Of course, he had the skill set to try to direct a group of wayward women to learn to sing Sacred Harp music, but I agree that music is singularly important in American religion.

Last year I was undergoing some major dental work, which scrubbed a lecture in my class. A music colleague kindly volunteered to give a presentation on Gospel music for me to sub in for my lecture. By the end of class she had my shy religion students belting out "This Little Light of Mine" in full foot-stomping Gospel style. All my students remarked how much they loved that one class, and since then I have tried to incorporate more music into my lecture.
Edward J. Blum said…
for US historians thinking about theorizing sound for inclusion, Mark W. Smith's work is fantastic on this.
Anne Blankenship said…
Super post, Kate. It's a good push for us to move beyond the standard stock from the civil rights movement and contemporary Christian pop. I'd love to hear what material you've found most useful in the classroom--what are students most enthusiastic about singing?

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