Fuller’s SXSW Class

Exploring the Relationship between Theology and Culture

Shot of a crowd on the street at the 2014 SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas

Nate Risdon, Associate Director for the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Seminary, recently returned from the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin, Texas. Accompanied by a group of Fuller students, alumni, and friends, Nate joined in daily morning discussions as well as afternoon and evening forays into scores of music venues throughout the city, listening to live music and interacting with musicians from near and far. Following is Nate’s recount of the week, which—in his words—was “exhausting, exciting, and filled with discovery!”

From its somewhat humble beginnings in 1987 with 700 bands playing throughout the multiday festival in Austin, the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival has served as a bellwether for noteworthy bands and musicians. It is also a phenomenon that temporarily takes over and transforms the city. Likewise, Fuller has a long tradition of serving as a bellwether of sorts as it explores the relationship between theology and culture. This year, Fuller and the Brehm Center organized faculty, students, alumni, and friends for a class about music and religion, held in the surroundings of the world-renowned SXSW Festival.

The SXSW class gave students and participants an opportunity to think critically and theologically about an event that is regarded as a significant shaper of culture. SXSW also was considered from the standpoint of how it relates to ministry and the mission of the church. The concept of living incarnationally was stressed again and again in the class, as participants were challenged to live a way of life beyond the bounds of our worship services.

“Going to the SXSW Festival not only gave me insight into the human condition,” said Fuller alum and class participant Julie Kang, “it also can help us as we figure out how to be a church at this time in history.”

Because of the global nature of SXSW (and depending on which street corner you turned and which door you opened), you could listen to music from Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Russia, or Denmark . . . just to name a few of the countries represented by musicians. Music, like the other arts, has and always will be a means by which one can begin to understand someone else, whether he or she comes from across the globe or just down the street.

If we truly listen and think critically from a social anthropological framework, we can explore how people are making sense of the world, and we can begin to find our common ground as well as to better understand our differences.

We couldn't help but observe the “herd mentality” and curious parallels between the euphoria seen at concerts and that which many of us experience in the context of a worship service. We began asking ourselves questions about community, the power of music in a particular time and space, and how it influences the human psyche.

In addition to the class activities, Fuller alum Barbara Buck, Associate Pastor at St. Peter’s By the Sea Presbyterian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., began a mini-documentary research project designed to discover why the millennial generation is abandoning traditional models of worship. With the goal of completing her project by April of 2014, Barbara shared that the music festival “was an ideal place to start her exploration.”

With classes like SXSW, Fuller Theological Seminary is leading the way in exploring what it means to be human in this day and age and how we, as Christians, live as we are called to live. We hope that this and other courses like it serve to broaden the perspectives of our students, alumni, and other participants to better prepare them to live and serve as they are called to by God.

Elijah Davidson, editor for the Brehm Center and student of Intercultural Studies and Theology and Art at Fuller, shared his experience in these words: “The SXSW course is the Brehm Center and Fuller Theological Seminary at its finest. They are on the ground, among people, in the messy places where life and culture are happening.”

Headshot of Nate Risdon - Associate Director of Fuller Theological Seminary's Brehm Center for the Arts

For more information or to share a comment, contact Nate Risdon at

To see a story by Nate called “Sitting at the SXSW Table” about Fuller’s SXSW course, featured in Q Ideas, click here.

Click here
to see thoughts about what the church can learn from SXSW by David Moore, Administrator for the Brehm Center’s Church in Contemporary Culture Initiative.

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