It’s not often that theologians spend a great deal of time espousing the importance of music and lyrics in their work.
In fact music in a church setting has often led to what’s been dubbed ‘worship wars’, with congregations unable to see eye to eye on the style of music best suited to Christian worship.
But for Dr Maeve Lousie Heaney, theology and music go hand in hand, because to put it simply – music is essential and helps us makes sense of life.
Drawing on her education and training as a theologian, and the inherent love of music that being born Irish afforded her, Maeve points to the importance of music within a theological framework in her new book, Suspended God: Music and a Theology of Doubt. The book also explores ways to discuss themes of theology with an increasingly secular world.
“I don’t think we have always thought about how important music is to human life, and if we don’t understand that, then we’re not fully prepared to understand what music is doing in worship,” Maeve told 96five’s Alex Milne.
“One of the groups Suspended God is dedicated to is the strangers on planes and trains I get into conversation with. When they hear I’m a theologian you can see the face change, and a common response is ‘well you must know a lot’.”
“Yet, I would maintain a good theologian isn’t someone who knows a lot, but someone who knows how to answer the questions that life, society and culture have. As theologians we can lose sight of a culture that doesn’t work with words and theories, that culture lives, moves and breathes in different ways and music is a big part of that.”
Dr Heaney celebrated the release of the new book at the official launch last week, held at the Brisbane Campus of the Australian Catholic University.
The event was hosted by ACU’s Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, and featured keynote addresses by Professor Dermot Nestor (Executive Dean of Theology and Philosophy, ACU North Sydney) and Dr David Tacey (Emeritus Professor of Humanities, La Trobe University, Melbourne).
In his address, Dr Tacey spoke warmly of the way that Maeve has addressed her two passions within the book.
“Suspended God is not just another book; it’s a book that encourages and challenges the reader to reconsider everything he or she knows about themselves and their understanding of God and faith.
“It’s a refreshing, delightful book from this perspective. Don’t pick it up and read it in the belief that you will be unchanged; it’s an existentially challenging book where Maeve draws much from her readers.
“For me the primary question that Maeve shares earnestly, is how to talk theology and God to an overly secular and disbelieving world.”
Of course a book launch about the intersection of theology and music wouldn’t be complete without a performance or two, with the audience enjoying a number of Maeve’s original compositions. The night also included words from Australia’s great ‘outsider theologian’, with a special rendition of Paul Kelly’s reimagining of Psalm 23 – ‘Meet Me in the Middle of the Air’.
Ultimately Maeve would like to see her new book travel further than the walls of universities and academia.
“I’m trying to think about how theology should be in the future – I think we do need to be thinking about performative spaces, rather than just words in books however necessary they may be.
“I’d like pastors and theologians to read it, as well as parishioners and worship leaders. I would love it to be a tool for anyone interested in Christian faith with a focus on music, and those who are forming and helping our future composers.
“It is aimed to assist leaders to think about how they need to be helping the musicians that are put into their care.”
About Maeve: Dr. Maeve Louise Heaney VDMF is the Director of the Xavier Centre for Theological Formation at Australian Catholic University, and a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy. Born in Dublin, Ireland, she is a consecrated missionary of a Catholic Institute for consecrated life, the Verbum Dei Community. She completed her Bachelors in theology at the Instituto Teológico San Pablo Apóstol, in Madrid, affiliated to the Pontifical Urbanian University, and her licentiate and doctorate at the Pontifical Gregorian University, in Rome. During that time, she taught both at the Gregorian and at the Rome Base of the Catholic University of Dallas. She was Bannan Fellow 2011-2012 at Santa Clara University, California, teaching at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. As a musician and composer, she interweaves the fields of theological aesthetics, spirituality and the arts, and has recorded five albums.
Listen to the full interview with Alex Milne in the audio player above.