Arts & Culture

Making music and keeping the faith

4 min read

A blossoming musical career and a career dedicated to exploring religion go hand in hand for one talented Harvard Divinity School (HDS) professor.

The father of two young children and an amateur musician, Matthew Myer Boulton, HDS associate professor of ministry studies, is investigating the spiritual dimension of human experience through the use of song with his newly formed band Butterflyfish.

“As I understand theology, you are trying to make ideas clear and accessible; and for me one way to do that is by writing a book or an article. But a just as powerful – and arguably more powerful – way to do it is to write a song,” he said.

Boulton’s quest began two years ago while searching for spiritually engaging tunes for his kids. Discussing the subject over watermelon at a backyard picnic one afternoon, he and his friends agreed the musical landscape for such songs, ones that weren’t “drenched in synthesizers or theologically flat,” was bleak.

“We really wanted to find music that – in an interesting and intellectually vibrant way – was engaging spiritual life. And we couldn’t find much out there.”

With few viable alternatives, Boulton, his wife Elizabeth, and their close friend Zoë Khrone decided to make the music themselves. Together they created the trio Butterflyfish, which blends American folk, blues, gospel, country, and bluegrass styles with lyrics that explore “the simple, big, and beautiful ideas in the Christian tradition, but with a twist.” “Our music is sort of an ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ for all ages,” Boulton explained.

On a rare sunny Saturday afternoon in June, Boulton and his group had their debut performance at the historic Old South Church in Boston’s Back Bay. They transformed the church’s Gordon Chapel into the scene of an old-fashioned jam session that featured rich vocals and songs arranged for guitar, pipe organ, and harmonica. The concert also celebrated a preview of the group’s first album, “Ladybug.”

“One way to think about it is that it’s kids’ music,” Boulton said. “But I really try to steer away from that, even though some of the songs are childlike in their simplicity. As so often happens in religion generally, and certainly in Christianity, if you’re appealing to kids, you are often appealing to all ages.”

The new CD includes songs such as “What Jonah Learned Inside the Whale,” “Jesus Loves Me,” and “Old Hundredth,” which offer fresh takes on some familiar Christian themes and tunes. As well as its three founding members, Butterflyfish also draws from a stable of professional musicians, including bassist Zach Hickman, who also helped arrange and produce the group’s freshman album.

The son of a religion professor, Boulton shied away from religious studies in college, graduating from Northwestern with a degree in history and film. But an interest in anthropology, ritual studies, and theology eventually drew him to the Divinity School, where he received his master’s of divinity degree. (Boulton received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.)

At HDS, Boulton’s teaching and research revolves around the ways Christian worship founds and forms Christian life. Fascinated with the intersection of ideas and traditions, his work combines his interests in the history and practices of Christian liturgy, theology and public life, biblical interpretation and proclamation, as well as the performing arts, including theater, film, and music.

When it comes to his music, Boulton’s goal is to create songs that are memorable, easy to learn, thought provoking, and fun. His compositions involve a variety of instruments including the guitar, the banjo, the upright bass, and even the glockenspiel, and frequently impart an important message.

“Great songs have great ideas in them, too,” said Boulton. “They are simple but they are not simplistic.”

Though he is quick to refer to himself as an amateur musician – he admits his skill level with the guitar peaked sometime in junior high school ¬– Boulton’s lifelong relationship to music is a profound one.

“I like to say I am an amateur in every sense. The word ‘amateur’ comes from the Latin amare, ‘to love,’ so I am really an amateur musician through and through.”

Boulton will next perform with Butterflyfish on Sept. 13, at 10 a.m. as part of an intergenerational worship service at the Wellesley Village Church, located at 2 Central St. in Wellesley, Mass.

— Jonathan Beasley, Harvard Divinity School communications officer, contributed to this article.