"In other ways, though, comparisons with Dylan are not so wide of the mark. Both are singers, multi-instrumentalists and, taking a protean approach to genre boundaries, songwriters of genuine genius...And if Dylan was the voice of, and soundtrack to, the youth of 50 years ago, Swift—with album sales of 40 million worldwide—is all that and more for today’s young people.
In fact, that is likely the best starting point for a kind of pastoral-theological approach to Taylor Swift. She has evidently touched a huge cultural nerve at the beginning of the 21st century. For those searching for “the signs of the times,” the “T-Swizzle” phenomenon is undoubtedly one. Note, too, that it is among young adults that Swift is most popular—and that the Catholic Church (or any church, for that matter) is increasingly not.
That said, my own Swiftian appreciation comes directly from the committed Catholic students I teach—especially a group of bright, 20-something women. I asked one of them just what it is about Swift that she finds so compelling. Alice Costar, now a razor-sharp theology postgraduate at the University of Bonn, commented on how, being similar ages... things Taylor sang about were happening in my own life at that time. Just as I was beginning to think that adulthood wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, she released “Never Grow Up,” a song about wishing a child could be protected from the inevitable hurts in life. The song “22” was released the year I turned 22 and conjures up memories of easily the best year of my life.
If you spend any amount of time following Swift fandom online—as “research” for a commission from America, let’s say—relatable is a term you will meet often. It is not surprising. Her eponymous album, “Taylor Swift,” was released when she was just 16. Writing and singing about what she knows, Swift is essentially an ethnographer—a participant-observer par excellence—of young adulthood’s everyday “joys and hopes, fears and anxieties” (“Gaudium et Spes,” No. 1). The song “Fifteen,” 2008’s morality tale about navigating “life before you know who you’re gonna be,” is maybe the clearest example. But really, the same applies to her oeuvre as a whole. Would-be youth ministers, take note.
- Stephen Bullivant, "A Theology of Taylor Swift," America: The Jesuit Review
Pastoral theologian with a leaning toward youth ministry. "She has understood all along."
From a process perspective, a pastoral theologian is someone who helps people recognize and understand their experiences—both happy and sad, anxious and carefree—so that they can take the next step in life in constructive, life-enhancing ways. God is present in the fresh possibilities for growth, otherwise known as "initial aims."
Taylor Swift serves as a pastoral theologian with ethnographic leanings: a participant-observer who writes songs based on what she observes. These songs then act as emotional lures in the lives of her listeners. Process theology describes God as a fellow sufferer who understands, and to her fans, Taylor Swift fulfills a similar role. She is, like God, a fellow enjoyer—with a sense of humor that allows for a bit of fun. Or at least, this is her public persona. She also understands the broken side of life. To her fans, Taylor Swift does this. To quote John Caramica from a New York Times review of her recent concert in New York:
"During an acoustic segment, she came out to the very farthest point of the stage, sat at a small piano, and played her very first single, 'Tim McGraw' (the only song she performed from her self-titled 2006 debut album). It was the night's other pillar performance. The song is about memory and the ways in which people fail each other. She sang it heavy with regret and tinged with sweetness. But unlike 'All Too Well,' which now benefits from the wisdom that time affords, 'Tim McGraw' remained as raw as the day it was recorded. No real tweaks, no rejoinder from the new Swift to the old one—just a searing take on the sort of love that makes for a better song than relationship. There are some things Swift has simply understood all along." A pastoral theologian is indeed someone who understands life in relation to others. They build upon the idea that life is relational; that is, we become ourselves, moment by moment and stage by stage, in relation to others: friends, family, lovers, citizens, other creatures, the Earth, the stars. And we do so in response to what Sheri Kling calls "the whole-making nearness of God." Growth depends on how individuals respond to the lure. The key for the pastoral theologian is to be invitational but not coercive. Taylor Swift's songs serve as such invitations. While they are not infallible, some do function as sacred texts. A really good Bible study might be one where Taylor Swift songs and biblical passages are explored together. Aspiring youth ministers, take note.
- Jay McDaniel
The Migration of Religion to Popular Culture
"... there is a growing body of scholars who recognize that, as institutional religion has become increasingly irrelevant to many people, the sector of popular culture has become the new arena for their religious expression...The shift from institutional to cultural religion is summed up in the title of Jon Wiley Nelson's book, Your God is Alive and Well and Appearing in Popular Culture."
-- Robin Sylvan, Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music
Some scholars of religion suggest that religion has migrated to popular culture. By this they mean that many people in the world (Asia, Africa, North America, South America, and the West) turn to popular culture -- sports, movies, films, politics, and popular music -- as contexts in which they form their identities, find satisfying forms of community, develop their worldviews, make meaning of their lives, and enjoy or undergo forms of experience which are, as it were, “touches of transcendence.” This does not mean that their ways of being religious are necessarily healthy or good. Popular religion, like institutional religion, may be unhealthy rather than healthy. Nor does it mean that popular culture cannot be mixed with institutional religion. Consider the way in which evangelical Christians combine what they consider biblical faith with conservative politics. But it does mean that, if you want to look for "religion" today, don't look to formal religion alone. Look also to, say, Taylor Swift concerts, Pittsburgh Steelers games, and MAGA rallies. That is where "religion" is happening in the lives of many people.
- Jay McDaniel
Expanding a Sense of Religion
Fandom and Process Theology
I don't know about you, but when I go to a concert I always think about religion. The same thing happens when I go to a sports event or watch one on television. Or when I watch videos of political rallies, especially Trump rallies. Or when I listen to joggers talk about how much they love jogging. I don't just watch the performers, players, and politicians, I watch the fans and enthusiasts. I think about their emotions, their allegiances, their senses of identity, the "touches of transcendence" they feel at the events - and I think about religion. I think it all began, for me, as I taught the world's religions to college undergraduates.
As I taught religion I gradually realized that for many of my students, popular culture—specifically popular music—functioned as a form of religion in their lives. The rhythms, melodies, and sounds of popular music provided touches of transcendence, often amplified by dance. Lyrics served as springboards for developing values and worldviews, and the communities they formed around the music they loved gave them both companionship and a sense of identity.
Some belonged to other religious traditions, such as Christianity. They had, as it were, two religions. Others described themselves as spiritually interested but not religiously affiliated. However, this lack of formal religious affiliation didn't mean they lacked "religion"; they simply weren't affiliated with the "major" religions I discussed in class. While I wanted to talk about Hinduism and Buddhism, they were more interested in Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Drake, and Adele.
This religious function of popular music occurs privately, in the interstices of an individual's heart, and also communally, through what is called fandom. In popular music, fandom refers to a community of fans who share a collective passion for a specific artist, band, or genre. These communities engage in activities like attending concerts, creating fan art, discussing lyrics, and participating in online forums. Occasionally, these online spaces become forums for discussing life's big questions: How do I want to live? What is happening in society today? What is life all about? In other words, they become settings for developing what some scholars call "informal theology."
Such recognition of the religious aspects in popular music differed from anything I encountered in traditional theology and world religion courses during my graduate studies. There, religion was exclusively framed in terms of established faiths like Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The sacred texts under discussion were the Bible, Qur'an, and Bhagavad Gita, not hip-hop lyrics or the jazz motifs of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," or the songs of Bob Dylan.
However, scholars in religious studies helped me expand my understanding of "religion" to include various contexts where people experience transcendence, form identities and communities, engage in rituals, and construct their own worldviews. They introduced me to the concepts of daily life theology, spirituality, and religion.
These insights blurred the lines between the "secular" and the "sacred" for me. I began offering courses like "Rock, Roll, and Religion" and "Religion and Popular Music." My syllabi included hip-hop, jazz, country music, folk music, rock and roll, and electronic music. Initially, I hesitated to share this focus with friends who assumed I would concentrate solely on traditional religions. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that these courses offer valuable insights into how religion manifests in human life, both positively and negatively.
Often our discussions in class would turn to other dimensions of popular culture, such as sports, movies, TV shows, books, politics, and popular hobbies like gardening and running. These realms also serve a religious function, explaining why courses like "Religion and Sports," "Religion and Film," and "Religion and Political Movements" are increasingly common in religious studies departments worldwide.
In my opinion, this broadened perspective on "religion" is a positive development, but it doesn't imply that all expressions of religion are benign. While music can offer transcendent experiences, it can also perpetuate negative behaviors, harmful ideologies, and foster exclusion. Moreover, the commercial aspects of the music industry raise questions about the "purity" of these spiritual experiences—a concern also present in institutional religions.
The challenge lies in understanding how religion functions in popular culture, while keeping an eye on both its positive and negative aspects. Here, Process Theology offers valuable insights in at least three ways. First, it presents a way to understand God as the spirit of creative transformation at work in the world, transcending arbitrary boundaries between organized religion and everyday spirituality; and it finds God in places where people do not explicitly discuss and believe in God. From a process perspective, God is a living spirit, healing and whole-making, who dwells with each person and within other creatures at work. Belief in God, while sometimes important, is not a gateway to God's presence.
Second, with its emphasis on community and ecology, Process Theology provides criteria for distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy forms of religion. A healthy religion helps its members find personal wholeness while contributing to communities that are creative, compassionate, just, participatory, inclusive, and ecologically responsible. The ethical framework provided by process theologians helps us discern constructive musicality from its destructive counterparts.
Third, its cosmology offers a unique way to appreciate the power of music in human life. In Process Theology, all things consist of energy and feeling; music serves as the sonic expression of these elements. Listening to music allows us to comprehend the universe in a form that resonates with us, and music essentially becomes the sound of feelings, enabling us to understand not just our own emotions but also those of others.
With or without guidance from Process Theology, educators, scholars, and religious leaders have an opportunity—and perhaps even a responsibility—to explore these newly recognized sacred spaces within popular culture. Understanding how religion functions in these contexts is crucial for the ongoing relevance of religious studies and theology. This expanded definition of "religion" could also help bridge gaps between generations and across various cultural backgrounds while providing traditional religious communities with insights into engaging more effectively with modern society.
Moreover, this broader view of religion can serve as a tool for social justice and ecological awareness. Recognizing that popular culture venues can function as sacred spaces enables these venues to become arenas for addressing injustices traditionally associated with religious institutions. This realization can motivate collective efforts to tackle issues like representation, inclusivity, and ethical sensitivity within these spaces.
In short, the expansion of what we consider "religious" or "sacred" has significant implications deserving our attention. Process Theology offers a robust framework for this endeavor, inviting us to continually re-examine and challenge our preconceived notions. It fosters a more holistic understanding of spirituality, honoring its diverse expressions in modern life.
- Jay McDaniel
"Fandom" refers to the community of fans of a particular television show, movie, book, musician, sports team, or other cultural phenomenon. Members of a fandom often share a deep emotional investment in their subject of interest and may engage in activities like discussing plot theories, creating fan art or fan fiction, attending fan conventions, and more. Fandoms can exist in various forms and settings, including online forums, social media platforms, fan websites, and physical events like concerts or conventions.
Fandom can be a way for people to connect over shared interests, and it can foster a sense of community among fans who might otherwise never have crossed paths. It can also serve as a significant aspect of identity for many people. Some fandoms are small and relatively low-key, while others are large, highly organized, and can have a significant impact on the wider culture.
It's worth noting that while the term "fandom" can be used to describe the collective community of fans, it can also be used more broadly to discuss the culture, practices, and activities associated with that community. For example, one might say, "The 'Star Wars' fandom is known for its elaborate fan theories and extensive merchandise."
- Chat GPT
Taylor Swift Fandom and Process Theology
Using Taylor Swift as an example can vividly illustrate how fandoms and popular music can function religiously in American culture, all while relating closely to process theology's emphasis on relationality, dynamism, and transformation.
Community Formation: The "Swiftie" community is built around a shared love for Taylor Swift's music and persona. In process theological terms, this is not a static community but a dynamic one that changes as Taylor's music evolves and as fans interact with each other.
Ritualistic Behavior: Attending Taylor Swift concerts, buying her albums, and participating in online forums dedicated to her can be seen as ritualistic behaviors that help sustain the community. Similar to religious rituals, these actions maintain and deepen the relational bonds between fans and also with Taylor Swift as an artist.
Devotion: The devotion that Swifties show is comparable to religious devotion. They are emotionally invested in her music, and this devotion grows and changes as Swift herself evolves as an artist. In process theology, this would be akin to a relational devotion to a dynamic God.
Identity Formation: Being a Swiftie can be a significant part of a person's identity. Process theology, too, focuses on identity as a constantly evolving feature, sculpted by our relationships and experiences, which closely parallels how fandom becomes an integral part of individual and collective identity.
Empowerment: Swift's music often tackles themes like independence, emotional resilience, and the complexities of relationships. Fans often find a sense of empowerment in her music, which can be likened to process theology’s emphasis on liberation and transformative relational dynamics.
Sacred Texts: The lyrics of Taylor Swift's songs often take on the status of "sacred texts" for fans. These lyrics are interpreted, re-interpreted, and deeply pondered, much like sacred texts in religious communities. This dynamic interpretation aligns well with process theology's view on scriptures as dialogic and evolving.
Pilgrimage: Traveling long distances to attend a Taylor Swift concert can be seen as a modern form of pilgrimage. Process theology understands pilgrimage as not just a journey to a location but as a transformative, relational process, much like the journey Swifties undertake when they travel to her concerts.
Transcendence: Many fans report experiencing feelings of transcendence during her concerts or while listening to her music. According to process theology, transcendence is not an escape but a deeper engagement with reality. Swift's music has the power to help listeners engage more deeply with their own emotions and life circumstances.
So, through the lens of process theology, Taylor Swift's music and the resulting fandom can be understood as deeply religious phenomena that share many elements with traditional religious communities, including but not limited to communal bonds, ritualistic behavior, devotion, and experiences of transcendence.