Danielle Lynch, currently of Melbourne, recently of Cairns and originally of the north east of England, is a discerning Catholic who claims a rich musical background. These two elements combine in her commitment to ‘music as theology’, a commitment that led to a published doctorate in the field.
Danielle recalls, ‘When I was growing up, my grandma would sing songs to us when we went to bed, and we would watch musicals together – The Sound of Music, The King and I, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics – so I was exposed to different musical styles. I had trumpet lessons in primary school, but it wasn’t until my brother taught me a few guitar chords that I hit it off with making music’.
‘In secondary school, I had piano lessons, and played in most of the school bands. Like most teenagers, music was an important part of my friendships and I played in bands with friends as well as writing some original songs’.
Sadly, those early songs are lost to history, but it was at university that ‘music and theology really started to intertwine for me’. Music, of course, has always been an integral part of liturgy and more broadly, of people’s religious experience. Readers-of-a-certain-age may even have played Living Parish Hymn Book bingo! However, music as theology – as a vehicle for forming and exploring theology – is different.
Music creates meaning
‘If theology is seeking answers to ultimate questions or if it is faith seeking understanding (St Anselm’s definition), then it seems to me that music is one of the more prevalent ways in which we create meaning and attempt to understand our experiences – whether we are writing songs, making music, or listening to music. My PhD was largely theoretical but since 2017 I have been writing songs which convey some of the things I’m thinking about or working on’.
As well as returning to songwriting, Danielle has been engaged in university tutoring and teaching religion to secondary boys at schools in Cairns and now Melbourne.
She finds the contrast life-giving and complementary: ‘My teaching as a tutor in theology at Australian Catholic University is better because of my experiences in school, keeping me grounded, and because I have to think on my toes to keep lessons on religion engaging for teenage boys.
‘My experiences with young people give me hope for a better world. The young people I teach find deep meaning in the social justice teachings of the church, and I have been blessed to work alongside students who give so much of themselves in service. This is a great reminder that real-life experiences are points of connection to the spiritual and divine’.
Being a teacher of boys is also an opportunity to send an unspoken message: ‘It’s important that they see an example of an academic female with strong leadership skills and that they have a teacher who is an expert in the field’.
The importance of ordinary
While she is, indeed, an expert, Danielle is no academic removed from reality. She is involved in music at both school and parish level and says, ‘I’m particularly drawn to theologies of popular culture which recognise the importance of the more ordinary elements of our lives through which we find or make meaning’.
In addition, she believes, ‘Theology needs to come down from the exclusive domain of the ivory tower. It’s important to highlight – and be reminded often – that theology is always on the run, as Sallie McFague suggests. It can never claim to be the whole truth, as our knowledge of God can only ever be incomplete and contextual. This suggests that all theologies should commence from a place of humility, yet that has been lacking at times.
‘Music is a great reminder of the partiality and temporality of our meaning-making. Songs can be both deeply meaningful and yet highly disposable. I think music can be one of the ordinary means by which we convey theology’.
To grasp what Danielle means, here’s an excerpt from her song ‘Broke the Frame’:
Remember all the ones whose voices went unheard
Though they spoke out, tore their souls out
In wanting to create a world which reflects reality
Of humanity, beyond the depravity
Of the structures they inherited which hold women back
They broke the frame of patriarchy
But no one ever told them they were good, so good.
You’ll grasp more if you listen to the song on her album, Into Silence.
Dignity and equality of all
Danielle is deeply aware of the inadequacy of the Church’s offerings to women. ‘I think we should take the dignity and equality of all people seriously. Church structures don’t do this at the moment. Pope Francis says a lot about respecting women but does not take seriously their scholarship or quote them in his encyclicals. The Catholic Church needs the wisdom of the people of God and needs to take account of the sensus fidelium in all people’.
‘There are highly accomplished and competent female theologians – not to mention others with significant knowledge and skills in other areas – who are ready and keen to take on leadership roles in the Church, and yet they are extremely limited in the places and spaces in which they can work. Catholic education is one place in which this is not so much the case, and so I’m glad for the opportunity to work in that field!’
One of the reviewers of Danielle’s book, God in Sound and Silence: Music as Theology, wrote, ‘This is an exploration of the means by which music might say something otherwise unsayable, and in doing so, allow for an encounter with the mystery of God’.
Danielle Lynch’s ministries of teaching, songwriting, and sharing her music are leading others to an encounter with the mystery of God.
This article was written by Tracey Edstein, and was first published in Madonna Magazine (Autumn, 2021, pp. 8–9). It is used here with permission.