Emeli Sandé and romantic transcendence

Emeli Sandé’s Our Version of Events is, so far, the biggest-selling debut album of 2012 in the UK. Unusually for the holder of such a title, it is also actually rather good. Sandé is a young Scottish musician who already has an impressive list of songwriting credits (she’s written for Tinie Tempah, Professor Green, Cheryl Cole, The Saturdays, …); anyone who heard her sing ‘Abide with me’ unaccompanied during the Olympic opening ceremony will have spotted that she has a fine voice also. The album would not be difficult to mine for Christian themes: the opening song, ‘Heaven’ is a lament over personal weakness and failure – ‘O heaven, I wake with good intentions, but the day it always lasts too long…’; ‘My Kind of Love’, which I’ll discuss in a moment, could be heard in very theological ways; and ‘Read all About it (Pt III)’ is such a great tune, with such obviously applicable lyrics, that it seems destined to be the play-out song of every other Christian conference for the next five years (I’ve done it already…): (Yes, you heard the chorus when she duetted with Professor Green on a single a while back…) That said, I know nothing of Ms Sandé’s faith or lack thereof; her songs witness to a strong but curious cultural phenomenon: the search for some lasting account of ultimate meaning in romantic love. One of the lighter songs on the album, ‘Lifetime’, confesses this in very simple terms: ‘Dreaming only lasts until you wake up and find you’re not asleep. / Silence only sticks around till someone in the room decides to speak. / And luck runs out and hearts grow cold. / We’re only young until we’re old … But you – you last a lifetime.’ The lasting nature of romance is contrasted with the passing nature of every other human experience. A more substantial composition, one of the singles from the album called ‘My Kind of Love’, expresses the same thought in reverse, so to speak, promising extravagantly that her love will last through everything: ‘When you’ve given up / When no matter what you do, it’s not good enough / When you never thought that it could get this tough / That’s when you’ll feel my kind of love.’ (Did I mention the possibility of a theological reading?) The video locates the love expressed in terms of supporting a sick friend, but the album as a whole seems sufficiently constructed around a particular romantic relationship that it seems appropriate to read the song as belonging there. Lasting meaning in life, an experience of transcendental purpose, comes from romance, on this telling. Ms Sandé is of course not alone in looking to romance to provide lasting meaning and purpose for life; it might even be the single most prevalent theme of contemporary popular music. This is therefore not an idiosyncrasy, a strange idea found in one artist; it is a general cultural longing. The curious thing about this is the focus on permanence. ‘You last a lifetime’ is, in boringly statistical terms, a very odd thing to say of a lover in contemporary Britain – most just don’t. (Marriage tips the odds, but not to anything like a certainty; civil partnership is still too new for the data to be available.) It is the general experience of contemporary Britain that love affairs are generally relatively brief and passing, that even those relationships that are sufficiently long-lived to proceed to cohabitation and marriage (or civil partnership) can often fall apart. So why locate an account of lasting meaning here? The intensity of a romantic relationship (in our present cultural understanding) is remarkable; it changes in character, from initial infatuation through to a very mature symbiosis, but at every stage – even when marked by conflict – the relationship is peculiarly intense. This is also a peculiarly accepting relationship: the faults of the beloved are known intimately and, if not forgiven, at least discounted. Is it a surprise that there is a widespread cultural desire for a relationship of such an intensity, and including such acceptance, should be firm and lasting, a cultural desire that will persist even in the face of extensive empirical evidence that suggests that it is misplaced? You can make your own gospel...

Read More

Tim Bulkeley’s Not only a Father: an experiment in e-theology

Dr Tim Bulkeley, of Carey Baptist College, NZ, has recently published a monograph based on his doctoral work on naming God. Alongside the print publication, Tim has put the entire book up on a website, with the facility for comment and discussion attached to each paragraph. I am sure the web will change the way we engage with academic literature, but I haven’t seen a good example of that happening yet; Tim’s experiment is an interesting one which might help us explore one potential way forward. You can read the book and interact with it and other readers here – or buy it in a more traditional format here (Amazon.com – amazon.co.uk does not seem to have it listed...

Read More

On discovering (again) the utility of theology

The last few days have included at least one gift of grace: a series of conversations in which I have been reminded that what I do with my life is actually useful from time to time. Such a statement already presumes an account of utility; I have to acknowledge that I don’t really accept a proper academic account of what it is to be useful. The hero of A.S. Byatt’s Biographer’s Tale (whose name, not inappropriately given the story, escapes me) comments at one point ‘I do exist on the earth, and would like to be of some use, and discover a meaning or two…’ That is the way an academic is supposed to think, regarding the finding of meanings as useful; I own that, whilst I’ve been around universities long enough to be reasonably confident that I am moderately good at this task, I fail to find it very satisfying of itself. If I am completely honest, I want to make a dent or two – or, better, to repair a dent or two – and not just to find a meaning or two. I want to change the world in some small but noticeable way, not just to understand it. In the words of a beautiful Over the Rhine song, ‘I want to take this world, and get it undamned…’ (OK, I’m too much of an Augustinian to believe this is possible, this side of Jesus’ return – but also too much of an Evangelical not to want to try…) I know I am very far from the only university employee to think like this; but I also know that this is a deviation from the presently-accepted core mission of the university in Western culture. We have constructed a culture in which academics understand things, and pass on their understanding to others, who use them to do things. That is OK, but when the specialism reaches the point of resisting any question of the utility of research, I become uncomfortable. I want the work I do to make a difference, and a value it because it can. I am conscious that this thought hovers close to a contemporary discussion about research funding in British universities: should researchers be asked to specify the public goods produced by their works in advance, if they wish to receive public funding? This is not the same question as I am asking, and I would deny that they should for two reasons: first, I do not accept that every academic should think the same way as I do; second, I want to distinguish between caring about the public good that academic work might produce, and being able to specify the public good that academic work might produce. So, for me, a passing expression of gratitude from someone who is giving their life to changing the world is one way I find some validation of my work. ‘Do you remember, I asked you about X last year and you said look at this or read that?’ (The answer is almost always no, I don’t remember; these sorts of conversations come far too often.) ‘Well, I read it, and it was just what I needed, and now look what has happened as a result!’ Such conversations mean an immense amount to me; they are moments when, buried in the business of teaching and considering the research of others, I realise that theology is useful, that the expert knowledge I have amassed over two decades or so can be put to positive good in the world. But, when I reflect on these sorts of conversations – as I say, several over the past week – I notice that the bits and pieces of theological thought that turn out to be useful to someone are, as often as not, odd little corners of the tradition, and are not in any way predictable in advance. This is only at the level of anecdote, of course, but if it turned out to be a general observation – for theology, or for academic disciplines more generally – it says something interesting about the particular role of the academic, or at least of the academic theologian. Usefulness comes not from pursuing it, but from patiently gathering enough of a reservoir of material so that one has the quirky bit of knowledge about practices of iconography, or Catholic mysticism, or Reformed Christology, or ninteenth-century missions theory, or whatever, that turns out to be the key to unlocking the problem which someone offers. The academic theologian becomes useful to the church and the world by reading widely, and remembering broadly, across the tradition, by being and becoming a catalogue of what...

Read More
get facebook like button