The SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, draws musicians of every kind from all over the world who bring the city alive with every kind of music all day and deep into each night of the spring ten-day event. Every year Fuller’s Brehm Center offers an unparalleled immersive experience at this premier gathering of musicians on a citywide stage—with a billing that includes everything from an indie-guitarist at the Starbucks to Bruce Springsteen giving a keynote address and playing “secret” shows around town, and every imaginable musical experience in between.
There are many reasons to immerse in a unique, massive cultural event like “South by.” Primary among them is to think about theology in engagement and action with the diverse worlds where we actually live and minister. Part of the Brehm Center’s vision, and Fuller’s mission, is to equip people to connect the church and the world in vibrant and meaningful ways, to have missional impact. Our commitment to academic excellence is best evidenced when it results in transformative ministry in the real world.
It’s valuable to read about music theory or dissect popular songs in classroom environments, to determine our opinions about the worth and value of music relative to theology and faith in a seminary coffee shop: it’s quite another to engage music where it lives by taking our theological perspectives and letting them interact with performers and their audiences on the streets of a city. At SXSW, we hear music producers, songwriters, performers, artists, and music business people talk about the challenges and meaning of music-making, and we have access to discuss that with them and with each other.
The city of Austin with all its performers and performances becomes the text we examine together in our meeting place as a class, where we discuss what we have seen and heard. This is where we can do the tough and exciting work of making theology come alive. We confront the undeniable reality of pop music as a potent social glue, binding people together in community and experience. We explore ways in which church, faith, and theology can engage meaningfully with a world shaped by much of the content of popular music—not just lyrics, but whole worlds that it creates, fan communities it stimulates, emotional contributions it rouses, and the less visible but culture-shaping aspects of this enduring art form.
To be sure, a week in Austin at SXSW is not everyone’s cup of tea—it is demanding—but for any student interested in actively engaging faith and culture who has a favorite rock band, or who loves the blues or gospel, or has questions about music in general, SXSW 2016 is on the calendar.