LIKE A DNA helix, music and faith have intertwined throughout the life of Rob Sheffield, a Catholic and rock critic for Rolling Stone magazine. He’s also the author of Love Is a Mix Tape and Talking to Girls About Duran Duran—books filled with his personal beliefs and his love for contemporary music.
“I’ve learned that my faith is always changing in ways I don’t have the power to predict,” he tells St. Anthony Messenger. “Questions that seem clear enough to me one year will seem incredibly troubling the next year. Music is like that, too. You decide one week you have a clear idea of what you like and what music you identify with. Then, the next week, some music sneaks through the walls you’ve built and reaches your heart.”
Sheffield, 45, was born into Catholicism. He grew up near Boston in the 1970s, which he describes as “an exciting time, when the adults around us were deeply inspired by leaders like Cardinal [Richard] Cushing of Boston and the late Pope John XXIII, and by the Second Vatican Council. There was this idea that Catholic spirituality was not something you let the experts take care of for you, and it wasn’t something you watched happen while the clergy did all the work.
“Instead,” he continues, “growing up Catholic meant taking your place as an adult in a collaborative, interpretive community. That was scary as well as exciting because it was a challenge. It meant we learned to ask ourselves tough adult questions about our faith and what it meant, and [we didn’t settle] for easy, dismissive answers.
“It meant shouldering the responsibility for making the Church happen,” says Sheffield. “It seemed obvious to all of us that we were growing up in the best possible time in history to be Catholic. There was an excitement in the adults around us, our parents, our CCD teachers, the nuns and the priests. There was a sense of the Church as a growing, vibrant, dynamic thing.”
In his first book, Sheffield uses music as a recurring theme to recount falling in love with his wife, Renee Crist, guiding her through the process of becoming a Catholic and then enduring a sudden tragedy. They first bonded through music while dating, and both eventually began writing criticism.
After marrying in 1991, Sheffield speaks about how much the responsibility weighed on him: “For two weeks, I would lay awake at night and say a Hail Mary over and over to stop my heart from beating too fast.
“I suddenly realized how much being a husband was about fear: fear of not being able to keep somebody safe, of not being able to protect somebody from all the bad stuff. Knowing they have more tears in them than you will be able to keep them from crying. Love is so confusing; there’s no peace of mind.”
When Renee, a Baptist, decided to convert, she began the RCIA program with her husband as her sponsor.
“It was an intense experience for me,” Sheffield recalls. “I guess it’s always surprising for a cradle Catholic when somebody they know chooses to convert. I was scared, frankly. But I obviously wasn’t going to miss out on this journey of hers. It made me more involved in the parish—meeting with the group and having adult conversations about Catholic faith for the first time in years.”
Sheffield calls the people in the RCIA process “a remarkable community to be part of. We disagreed violently about a lot of matters of theology, ecclesiology, politics and music, but there was a sense that the argument was part of our spiritual lives, and participating in that argument was part of our bond and our responsibility as members of that community. Also, the arguments were fun! I learned a lot from the program.”
A Test of Faith
Their common faith deepened Rob and Renee’s marriage. But their union would be shattered in 1997 when Renee collapsed in front of him and died instantly of a pulmonary embolism.
“Her death made me more alone and more confused. Managing my confusion is always the trick for me,” he admits. “It really confronted me with the inability to make confusion go away and the need to live with that confusion. That’s not easy for me, but there’s something specifically Catholic about that challenge—living with confusion.”
A Good Mystery
Sheffield recalls a joke told by comedian George Carlin, who was raised a Catholic: “If you ask us any really tough questions, we’ll just shrug and say, ‘Hey, it’s a mystery!’”
The critic continues, “I love that joke. To me, that’s part of the great experience of being Catholic. You learn to live surrounded by mysteries and you don’t wait for the mysteries to go away or clear up. You don’t put off your spiritual life until after you have the answers; you just surge onward through the fog. There’s something deeply Catholic about that reverence for mystery, and it means a lot to me.”
In Love Is a Mix Tape, Sheffield again demonstrates that Catholicism is part of his essence. It is found not only in his memories and references, but also in his approach to life as being sacramental. “‘Life being sacramental’ really hits the nail on the head,” he says. “That’s basically what being Catholic means to me.”
He adds that growing up Catholic “was inspiring because there was a sense of interpreting the day-to-day details and challenges of your own life as sacramental signs, and looking for spiritual challenges and spiritual opportunities in every moment.”
That attitude extended to everyday things. “Riding the subway, the Red Line in Boston, which connected the suburbs to the city, seemed like it was a decade of the Rosary, with each stop as a mystery,” Sheffield recalls.
“It seemed like even something as mundane as riding the subway could be a devotion if you looked at it the right way. You could meditate on each step of the journey and reflect on it in a spiritual way. You could meditate on every song on the radio—no matter how trivial or garish it might seem—and look for glimmers of light in it.
“I tend to experience the world around me in a Catholic way. I am always moved by the words, ‘While I am in the world, I am the light of the world’ [John 9:5], and I am always inspired by the Catholic idea of looking for that light around me.”
Sheffield often sees that light in rock music. In his book, he writes about realizing, in his teenage years, that Jesus said, “‘My kingdom is not of this world’ [John 18:36]. So did David Bowie. It tapped into the whole Catholic idea of creating your own saints, finding icons of divinity in the mundane.”
As a teen, he continues, “I would love to read The Lives of the Saints and look for lore of saints and sages; they were like rock stars to me. My grandmother was a big collector of relics, and I was fascinated by her reliquaries—the idea that all these saints had stories and lived on through these stories.”
Again, Sheffield connects faith with music by adding, “Musicians were inspiring to me because I loved music. I was fascinated with the way the power and beauty of music would flow through musicians, as if they were channels of this power and beauty, without really having the ability to control them. There’s something holy about that.
“The musicians I loved most used that power and beauty to ask the same kinds of questions about life that I was asking: punk rockers like The Clash and X and Black Flag and Hüsker Dü and the Replacements; singers like Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin and David Bowie.”
What’s on Your Playlist?
Sheffield’s life has moved from his native Boston to Connecticut for Yale University. From there, he went to Virginia for graduate studies and marriage, and finally to New York City for work as a critic. He now lives in Brooklyn with his second wife, Ally, an astrophysicist.
“My wife is a cradle Catholic like me, with a very similar perspective,” he says. “She’s an Italian Catholic, whereas I’m Irish, so it’s always funny to her how my family makes a big deal out of St. Patrick’s Day. Then, two days later, her family makes a big deal out of St. Joseph’s Day. I’m always learning from her.”
Asked what contemporary performers are Catholic in outlook, behavior or attitude, even if they aren’t Catholic, Sheffield answers, “My favorite bands are The Hold Steady and LCD Soundsystem. They’re two very different bands, but they both have singer-songwriters from Irish-Catholic backgrounds, and they both grapple with a lot of Catholic issues in their songs—while making them
rock, of course.
“The Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday and LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver are two of my favorite albums ever. They’re full of Catholic angst that I can really relate to. The Hold Steady’s songs like “How a Resurrection Really Feels” and “Multitude of Casualties” blew my mind. It was the first time I ever heard a punk rocker sing about the ‘5:30 folk Mass,’ which is the kind of ordinary detail that makes the story come alive. That 5:30 folk Mass is pretty much a universal milestone for Catholics of my vintage.”
As much as he is rooted in contemporary sounds, Sheffield can also relate to music from before 1950. “I love a lot of old-time songs,” he says. “The first music I ever heard and loved was Irish folk music—rebel songs, immigrant songs, songs of drinking and blackguarding. There’s an old song called “Bold Thady Quill” about a famous hurler from Cork. That’s a song I sing to my mom every year on her birthday.”
He also loves what he terms “the whole golden era of American songwriting—Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer, all the greats. I’ve been humming a Hoagy Carmichael song in my head—”A Woman Likes To Be Told.” Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” and “Looking At You”—I never get tired of those songs.”
In his second book, Sheffield describes the poignant scene of his kneeling before his grandfather to trim his toenails because he could no longer do it himself.
Asked if he considered that to be an image of selfless, sacrificial love, like the weeping woman who washed the feet of Jesus, he answers: “That is far too kind. My grandfather made sacrifices all his life on behalf of me and all his descendants—sacrifices that we will never know about, much less appreciate. I was lucky to come from a loving family, and so I always had models around me of passionate people who were inspired by the chance to act out of love.”
In his life, marriage and work, Sheffield constantly displays the Catholicism into which he was born. “I couldn’t really ever decide not to be Catholic,” he admits. “It would be like deciding not to be tall, or not to be Irish or not to get sunburned when the temperature gets above 60 degrees. It’s just a fundamental, permanent part of who I am.”