The Bloomsbury Handbook of Religion and Popular Music

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Christopher Partridge, Marcus Moberg
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , April
     440 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The challenges of creating a comprehensive reader on religion and popular music are manifold. From the religious studies side arise questions about what counts as religion; whether to emphasize actually-existing traditions or more generalized orientations toward the world; and where to draw the line between the spiritual and the religious. From the music studies side, scholars face vexing questions about how to define popular music; whether in studying music we should emphasize verbal texts, non-musical sounds, or the social context in which music is created; and how to weigh the intentions of music-creators vis-a-vis the meanings that audiences create through their individual or communal experiences of listening.

Fortunately the editors and contributors to The Bloomsbury Reader of Religion and Popular Music have confronted these questions squarely and risen to the challenge. As a handbook, its scope is necessarily broad—“an introduction to the study of religion and popular music, as well as, more widely, to indicate the significance of ‘the sacred’ in the cultural work of popular musicians, their listeners and the recording industry” (9)—but there is a surprising degree of granular detail as well. Most of its thirty-one chapters engage, to some extent, with meta-questions about religion and the popular but avoid bogging down in definitional quandaries. A brief introduction by the co-editors broaches these issues in addition to sketching the primary methodologies available to scholars. Then it’s off to the races.

This collection is divided into three parts: the first, and shortest, is concerned with theoretical perspectives and methodologies; the longer, second part explores popular music in a range of traditions; and part 3 is organized according to musical genres. Part 1 contains the most abstruse discussions, with a good chapter on ethnographic methods followed by chapters that connect popular music to emotion and meaning, to protest, to censorship, and to feminism and gender, with the latter chapter focused almost exclusively on music and barely mentioning religion.

Part 2—“Religious Perspectives”—includes four chapters more-or-less concerned with Christianity and music, followed by a chapter each on popular music and Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Japanese religions, Chinese religions, paganism, the occult, and Caribbean religions. This section might have been well served by a regional chapter on South Asia, similar to the ones on Japan and China, but there is just the chapter on Hinduism. Most of the expected musical genres receive attention in Part 3, along with a few that may be less familiar: electronic dance music and trance, psychedelic, goth, and ambient. The organizational scheme means we get some cross-referencing between Part 2’s chapter on Caribbean religion and Part 3’s chapter on reggae, for example, as well as Part 2’s occult chapter and Part 3’s heavy metal.

The authors seem highly qualified to write their respective chapters. The roster is refreshingly international: out of thirty-two contributors, only six hail from the United States. The rest are based mainly in the United Kingdom, Europe—chiefly Scandinavia—Australia, and South Africa. Several of the contributors identify themselves as musicians or participants in various scenes. But despite the attention to ethnographic methods near the beginning, there is little ethnomusicology here, apart from the chapters on Japanese religion and on goth music and subculture—which might be the strongest essay in the collection. There is not a single musical notation in the entire text, although a few essays do include brief formal descriptions of music. This is not the collection to read if you want to get a vivid sense of what any of these musics sound like.

As would be expected, the chapters vary significantly in terms of organization, methodology, critical orientation, and style. Despite the differences presented by multiple authors, a careful reading reveals more than a few places in which chapters speak to each other across boundaries of religion, region, and genre. The adjacent chapters on the popular music of Hinduism and Buddhism provide one example. The former takes a hard line against cross-cultural collaboration, finding abundant neo-orientalism in almost all Western appropriations of Hindu music: George Harrison, Kula Shaker, Madonna, Beyoncé, and Coldplay. The chapter that follows, on Buddhism, takes a more nuanced and generally accepting position on various instances of Western musical encounters with Buddhism—from the Beatles and Beastie Boys to John Cage, Philip Glass, Mickey Hart, David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen. The adaptation of traditional tropes of romantic love in Hindi film music and in Chinese romantic pop provides another intriguing thematic convergence across chapters.

Though few readers are likely to plow through the volume cover-to-cover as this reviewer did, the chapters, averaging ten pages each, seemed just the right length: long enough (given the small font) to offer quite a bit of detail and analysis but moving along briskly. All of the essays are documented well enough to launch an interested reader in the direction of the important sources. The writing is generally accessible; I plan on assigning several of these essays when next I teach a course on music and religion.

The Handbook of Religion and Popular Music includes a comprehensive bibliography as well as a discography and filmography. Only one chapter contains photographs; another offers schematic diagrams. A volume like this obviously would be well served by an online companion of musical examples. Fortunately many of the essays contain URLs for YouTube samples and other sites for the majority of readers unlikely to track down the CDs listed in the discography.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David W. Stowe is professor of English and religious studies at Michigan State University.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher Partridge is professor of religious studies, department of politics, philosophy and religion, Lancaster University, UK.

Marcus Moberg is senior researcher in the department of comparative religion at Abo Akademi University in Turku, Finland. His research interests include the sociology of religion, media and culture, religion, markets and consumer culture studies, and the discursive study of religion.


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