January 24, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 8

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    Conference will explore the ways music shapes religious experiences

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office


    Gregorian chants, gospel music, klezmer bands, the rhythmic dancing of the Sufis. Lyrical poems praising Allah, Buddhist chants, Christian heavy metal, Mormon hip-hop, the Vedic hymns. Undoubtedly, music has and will continue to play a central role in religious life. An upcoming Divinity School conference aims to examine not only what religious music says about the religious experience but also how music shapes it.

    The all-day conference, “Music in American Religious Experience: Individuals and Communities” will take place from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 25 in Swift Hall, 1025 E. 58th St.

    The conference, which will examine several topics, including religious cultural contexts in America, the logic of music in these contexts and the transformative power of music in religious experience, also will offer several musical presentations. Conference organizer Daniel Sack said the conference will feature at least four different musical presentations of Psalms—a Latin chant, a Jewish liturgical setting, a hip-hop artist and a recording of a Protestant congregation.

    Sponsored by the Divinity School’s Border Crossing project, conference participants will include people from a wide-range of perspectives such as musicians, theologians, clergy, historians of religious music and ethnomusicologists.

    Sack, who administers the Border Crossing project, said the goal is to bring people from different vocations and perspectives together to talk about common issues.

    “Music is so important to religious life,” he said, “but different people engage this issue in very different ways.”

    Clergy often choose a piece of music to engage a theological question, while a church musician may choose a piece as a musical element, as a piece of artistic expression. “What we’re interested in doing is bringing these varied perspectives together, to bring people who can talk about musical pieces as both religious experience and artistic expression. We want to prompt new conversation.”

    Two scholars who have examined the role of music in religious experience will kick off the conference with a keynote presentation at 10 a.m. Philip Bohlman, the Mary Werkman Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities and Music, and Edith Blumhofer, a professor of history at Wheaton College and director of the Institute of the Study of American Evangelicals, will make presentations on hymns in American religion.

    Two of the conference panels, which will be preceded by musical presentations, will reflect on music practices from liturgical, theological and anthropological perspectives.

    “Our hope is that participants, both clergy and academic, will take away new ways of understanding music practice in their own religious communities and in society,” Sack said.

    The conference is the second in the Divinity School’s new “Border Crossing: Collaborative Theological Reflection for Ministry” series. Funded by a generous gift from the Lilly Endowment, “Border Crossing” will offer a three-year cycle of conferences, consultations, teaching partnerships and reflection groups, all exploring the relationship between the professions of teaching and ministry.

    The project aims to bring together practicing ministers, seminary faculty members, and Divinity School faculty and students in a variety of venues designed to enhance the well-informed and deeply engaged practice of teachers and pastors alike.

    For more information on the “Border Crossing” series, please visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/events/lilly/.