Alumni Posts

Personal Jesus: How popular music shapes our souls–Alum Vaughan S. Roberts

I have always been interested in how we as human beings make sense of the world in which we live, and how that relates to religion in general and the Christian faith in particular. This was stimulated in many different ways by my time at McCormick but particularly by Carl S. Dudley and Homer Ashby’s “Contexts of Ministry” class. Much of my ongoing ministry is based on the idea that human beings are sensemaking creatures who want to understand our world and experience – whether that is in our everyday life or in moments of great significance such as births, deaths and weddings. And within our sensemaking stories some of us have space for and experience of God, and for religious practise whilst others use different cultural expressions to achieve meaning (such as popular music, film, sport, literature, poetry, work and the much more).

PersonalJesusPersonal Jesus is a collaboration between friends. My co-author, Dr Clive Marsh (University of Leicester, UK) and I have known each other since we studied theology together at college but other friends have been involved too and relationality is at the heart of this book. We have always been fascinated by a broad range of popular music and how important it has remained not only in the lives of friends and colleagues but within the whole of Western culture.

Following on from a joint paper that Clive and I gave at the American Academy of Religion in 2009 about religious expressions on U2 fansites, we were encouraged to explore some of those ideas further by William A. Dyrness and Robert K. Johnston with an invitation to write for their Engaging Culture series published by Baker Academic Press. We were excited to examine how people’s use of popular music connected to the changing nature of religious practise.

Much of the work done in the field of religion and pop music has tended to focus on the religious nature of song lyrics but we wanted to explore different aspects, for example: is there a ritualized aspect to how we use pop music? What about the embodied nature of music and the embodied nature of practising faith? Are there parallels between the ways in which consumerism and the marketplace have impacted upon religion and music? Those who go to music shows regularly talk about an experience of transcendence – how does that relate to religious understandings of the term?

We set about collecting survey data on how people use popular music with a questionnaire which we shared online and in a wide variety of situations. One of those was on a 14-state road trip from New Mexico to Oregon and then Minnesota with Tim and Beth Hart-Andersen, friends from McCormick days (and with whom I saw U2 in Chicago at the band’s first show in the city). That data fed into Personal Jesus and into two further articles on our quantitative and qualitative findings published by the Journal of Contemporary Religion in 2015.

The title Personal Jesus comes from a song by the English band Depeche Mode which came out in 1989. It has been covered since by a number of artists, perhaps most notably by Johnny Cash (2002) and Marilyn Manson (2004). The fact that the song has been taken up across a range of musical genre (Electro-pop, country, rock) was one of the things that appealed as a title.  Although our book seeks to be academically rigorous and credible, it also aims to be practical for potential readers who are involved in ministry. We conclude with a section on what we think some of the implications our work has for churches, the academy and daily living.

Alongside my ongoing church ministry I continue to write and research in these areas because our churches need to be able to relate to the changing cultures and contexts in which we minister. I should have an article out soon on the song Scarlet Tide by T Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello (from the movie Cold Mountain) plus a chapter in the forthcoming Bloomsbury Guide to Popular Music. I am always interested in conversations about these matters and hearing about other people’s experience. I can be contacted by email ( or Twitter (@VaughanSRoberts) and articles referred to in this blog along with other papers and reviews are available at

Vaughan_S_Roberts (1)Vaughan S. Roberts is presently Rector at St Mary’s Collegiate Church in Warwick, UK. He writes and speaks about religion and popular culture, and is also interested in how churches engage in organizational storytelling. He and Clive Marsh met at the University of Bangor and Vaughan was an International Student at McCormick in 1980-81. His PhD (University of Bath, UK) is on how two church communities used metaphor and narrative in their sensemaking processes. As well as co-writing Personal Jesus, he has contributed chapters to Explorations in Theology and Film (Blackwell, 1997), Managing the Church (Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), How To Become A Creative Church Leader (Canterbury Press, 2008) and Untold Stories in Organizations (Routledge 2014). He is a member of AAR and on the steering panel for the Theology, Religion and Popular Culture Network, which organizes an international conference every two years. Vaughan enjoys meeting up with family and friends, travel and walking, movies and TV and (naturally) many forms of music!