A Conversation between Clive Marsh and Vaughan S. Roberts, Authors of Personal Jesus

Since the Grammy awards were last night, we thought it a good time to post this exchange between Clive Marsh and Vaughan Roberts about their recent Baker Academic book Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls.

Clive Marsh (DPhil, University of Oxford) is senior lecturer and director of learning and teaching at the Institute of Lifelong Learning, University of Leicester, in Leicester, England. Vaughan S. Roberts (PhD, University of Bath) is vicar of Collegiate Church of St. Mary in Warwick, England, and an active writer on topics of religion and contemporary culture.


Marsh: Can you even remember how we came up with the idea for Personal  Jesus?

Roberts: Not in detail. We’d both been involved in Explorations in Theology and Film back in the late 1990s, and because we’ve been in regular contact and always talking about how people, Christian or not, use popular culture, it seemed logical to take things a bit further. We had both carried on to do more theology and film work, including your volumes on theology and movies, and significantly for this project the process of film-watching.

Marsh: And I’ve known since we first met that your knowledge of popular music was much greater than mine!

Roberts: But I think we both recognized that music was doing something similar, yet also distinctively different, from film. This was perhaps partly through the experiences that we were each having with a wide range of people as they explored and wrestled with faith while also being deeply shaped by the experience of making or listening to music.

Marsh: Yes—and that meant that it was too simple to talk about “theology and popular culture” or “theology and the arts,” even though we saw that there were always going to be some common issues across inquiries into what various types of popular culture were doing to and for people.

Roberts: I think it’s significant that we’re not musicians ourselves, but we both are avid and attentive music-listeners and are deeply rooted, and practically involved in, real flesh-and-blood Christian congregations, with all the joys, stresses, and strains that come with that.

Marsh: What are you particularly pleased with about the book?

Roberts: We have sought to break an established pattern of treating music as a “text,” in which the meaning of a song is established by analyzing and interpreting the lyrics. It’s easy to see why such an approach readily appeals to those with a religious background (particularly Christianity), where there’s often a focus on a sacred text and a long tradition of scriptural interpretation. But however important words may be, songs are always much more than a poem set to music, particularly in a culture in which the visual image of an artist or the representation of their work in a video plays a crucial role in how songs are marketed.

And what about you? What are you especially pleased with?

Marsh: I think it’s the fact that we had the courage to do some serious theological reflection in part 3 and did not shy away from that, even though we knew it might make the book seem a bit heavy for some readers. We’ve taken the risk of suggesting, Yes, we know that a lot of pop music may be lightweight, throwaway, not uplifting, manufactured, even dangerous at times; but we also want to acknowledge what it is doing and can do, even if it makes Christian meaning-making a bit more messy and complicated than we might like. And we’ve taken the risk of reflecting on the fact that some of what popular music is doing really does ask awkward questions of Christian faith today. For example, Christians are sometimes not good at valuing the body, despite the incarnation. Christians sometimes can’t accept the fact that churches and worship really are boring and ineffective, and that other groups fulfill church-like functions, whether we like it or not. . . .

Of the chapters of which you were the primary writer, which was your favorite?

Roberts: The chapter on pop music and the body was particularly enjoyable to write, as it brought together my interest in popular music with work that I’d been doing in other fields on notions of embodiment and how our physical experience shapes our cultural use of the body as a metaphor for all kinds of meaning-making. For us, it’s probably the most contentious section of the book; I know you remain to be convinced by the four-fold model of embodiment that it sets out, and we also have different views on how over time Christianity has related to the body—

Marsh: —Though it was very creative to have some tensions and squabbles while we were writing, don’t you think?

Roberts: Yes, it was, even if it was tough at times! I think both of us see it as a strength of this volume, though, that two people can explore a topic together in a way that sets out the common ground as well as our differences as part of the conversation.

…Which chapter was your favorite?

Marsh: I really enjoyed working on the one on the concept of canon (chapter 8)—the idea that, whatever we “consume” culturally (in the arts or religion), we’re always wrestling with the question of whether it is worth spending time on. And we’re always discussing, and agreeing and disagreeing with others, as we do that. In the case of music: what is it worth listening to again and again? And why do we do this? In part, of course, it’s what makes us feel good. But we also link up with others. And music which we think is valuable will have something to do with the values we live by, the company we keep, and what we think matters.

For more information about Personal Jesus, click here.


  1. Vaughan S Roberts says:

    In his discussion of the book Tom Beaudoin has posted a link to a live version of Depeche Mode song ‘Personal Jesus’ on the Rock and Theology website http://www.rockandtheology.com/?p=6766