Tom Beaudoin is a newly tenured associate professor of Practical Theology at Fordham University. His books include Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (Jossey-Bass, 1998), Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are with What We Buy (Sheed & Ward, 2007) and, most recently, Witness to Dispossession: The Vocation of a Postmodern Theologian (Orbis). Beaudoin talked to PW about his start in writing, his latest book, and what it feels like to be on the other side of tenure.
How did your first book come about?
Virtual Faith happened because I didn't know that I shouldn't be writing books before I had a doctorate. There was a lot of energy around Gen X in film, literature, and academic research in the mid-'90s. I wanted to speak to anybody thoughtful enough to be curious about how to live today. I also thought that theology was too interesting and too funky and too important to be just left to the academics. At the time, I was at Harvard doing my master's degree, and I said to Harvey Cox, “I think I'd like to make a book based on Gen X and what I'm learning about theology.”He agreed that I had something to contribute and put me in touch with his agent. Without that patronage, I don't know that it would have gotten published. Also, early on I got advice from some academics that I should be careful about publishing “too soon.” I thought this was advice based on old codes of academic identity and not on the future of theological work.
When it came to publishing my next book, Consuming Faith, it was much easier. I had contacts, a sense of writing for a broad audience. I had more confidence as a writer.
How did Virtual Faith affect your career?
It got me lots of opportunities to lecture and give presentations at academic and ecclesial institutions. It was also important for making money during graduate school. Academic life in theology does not provide enough money to support your family even after you get a full time job.
The experience also gave me a source of identity, of affirmation, and conversation partners that overlapped with, but were distinct from, the academy. The academic world is a home base for me, but one amongst several. Having a larger publishing and public speaking world is a way of escaping some of the narrowness built into academic identity.
How does your newest book, Witness to Dispossession , fit into your professional identity and writing? Was it your “tenure book”?
For what it's worth, I find the whole idea of a tenure book to be of little service to the most creative, dynamic and courageous parts of a theological life. I understand why people need to write tenure books—to secure a place in the academy—but I have had the unusually good fortune to choose what I want to write on a schedule of when I want to write it. That privilege was made possible through all the audiences the first book opened up to me. I'm not recommending this life for everyone in the academy or theology—but I think it raises questions for how we configure academic and theological life. So Witness to Dispossession was not intended to be a tenure book. The writing has all sorts of examples of traditional, theological rhetoric, and on the other hand, I also quote rock 'n' roll lyrics and deal with issues of contemporary spiritual life.
Congratulations on getting tenure at Fordham. Will your writing projects change as a result?
First I would say: a theological critique of the tenure system is one of the most pressing contributions theologians can make to academic life today in general. Second, for me, having tenure is not changing my basic commitment to explore the problem of learning how to live in contemporary culture. But third, what will change and is changing is that I am now freer than ever to indulge a confrontation with reality in my theology.
What will you do next?
I am co-leading a project on rock 'n' roll and theology with Brian Robinette of St. Louis University. It features an academic side that researches the relationship between rock and theology, and a performance side that gathers theologians who are also rock musicians to play shows together. The very summation of my theology would be to play back-to-back shows at St. Peter's and the Pantheon.
How do you feel about your photo on the cover of your new book?
TB: Halfway comfortable. It was Robert Ellsberg's idea, the editor at Orbis. Academic theology usually likes to proceed a little more anonymously. On the other hand, it isn't the first book to do this. I can't say it's not flattering.
|Freitas teaches at Boston University and is the author of Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America's College Campuses (Oxford).|