The Artist Alive

Explorations in Music, Art, and Theology

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Christopher Pramuk
  • Winona, MN: 
    Anselm Academic
    , May
     324 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Christopher Pramuk’s The Artist Alive: Explorations in Music, Art and Theology grew out of the author’s teaching activities, and its organization corresponds to an introduction to the topic of music and theology. In the past when this subject has been addressed, the various musical eras and their relation to theology have been given the most consideration, whereas in this study a conscious decision has been made to select secular contemporary music. The author examines, among others, songs by Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday, Indigo Girls, and Bruce Springsteen. Pramuk writes, “This book is an invitation to explore some of the deepest questions rising from the human spiritual and social journey as mediated by artistic voices in both popular and religious culture” (10).

“The Art Spirit” (Robert Henri) propagates the general comprehensibility of art and opens up a different perception of reality. Pramuk starts from the premise of a possible “surplus of meanings.” This term is known from modern metaphor theory; in the discussion of music theory the postulated surplus is not only considered logocentrically, but also both as imaginary potential (one makes music) and reception aesthetic (one listens to music). Making music and listening to music constantly manifests the “play of imagination” in the aesthetic cognitive process (according to Immanuel Kant), which always takes place as a symbolic process in a societal framework. The theological question in postmodern times is no longer whether one believes in God, but whom one has faith in and how. Reality can thus be opened up for a spiritual dimension under the conditions of modernity.

The author employs the term “real presence,” coined by George Steiner in his classic study on aesthetic philosophy. The works introduced and interpreted by the author are presented, on the one hand, considering the aspect of art production by providing an analysis of the immanent characteristics of the work; and, on the other, they are interpreted in terms of the aesthetic reception of the audience. The author’s starting point is a view of the artifact encompassing three dimensions: the world within the text, the world behind the text, and the world in front of the text.

This triad opens up the possibility of an interaction between music, art, and theology. This method ties into the fundamental debate in music theory about how text and sound relate to each other. This question is new and interesting for the Catholic tradition of (church) music insofar as the school always propagated the primacy of the word over music (Gregorian chants can be considered a classic example of this approach). Thus, modern theology has completed a paradigm shift, which was received by the Second Vatican Council. In the modern age one assumes text and sound are independent but complement each other in harmony (!), yet without competing with each other.

The author illustrates this relation using songs by Bruce Springsteen that came about in the context of the drama of 9/11 in New York. In the face of this apocalyptic scenario, he speaks and sings about a “dream of life,” wanting to bring a little light into the darkness though music and text. Theology, literature, and music are social and intercommunicative media to broach the transcendence in immanence. The religious symbols and languages thereby open themselves up for an intercultural and interreligious point of view. Theology is, like literature, a business of interpretation. The “experienced theologian” (Martin Luther) is ultimately an interpreter. Pramuk opens his final chapter with a love poem by Persian poet Hāfis (“How did the rose ever open its heart?”).

This book can be read for multiple purposes: on the one hand, it is suitable reading for the fundamental issues of an aesthetic theology of music, and on the other it can be used as a manual for the teaching of these same topics. In appendixes Pramuk provides assistance for a didactic and pedagogical implementation of the topics for schools, university studies, and in further education. Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” and Matthias Claudius’s poem Der Mond ist aufgegangen (The moon has risen) show the polyvalent dimension of human reality, which is to be understood as the starting point for spiritual considerations.

Finally, it should also be noted that the author of this work has been inspired by Ignatian spirituality, which is exemplified in his statement: “To form ‘a new kind of humanity that is musical’ has to do with the careful attunement of silence and speech, contemplation and action, active listening and creative expression—in a word the art of spiritual discernment” (281).


About the Reviewer(s): 

Wolfgang W. Müller holds a professorship of dogmatic theology at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland.

Date of Review: 
March 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher Pramuk is an associate professor of theology and the University Chair of Ignatian Thought and Imagination at Regis University in Denver. He received his PhD in systematic theology from the University of Notre Dame and is the recipient of several teaching awards, including the Monika K. Hellwig Award for Teaching Excellence, granted by the College Theology Society.


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