"I am a singer and a songwriter but I am also a father, four times over. I am a friend to dogs. I am a sworn enemy of the saccharine; and a believer in grace over karma. I talk too much when I'm drunk and sometimes even when I'm not."
-- Bono, 2001 Harvard graduation speech
Column: off the record ..., vol. 12-534
September 30, 2012
Are there any students out there? How about students of U2? I have the really fun privilege of teaching a semester-long course on U2 at Fresno Pacific University in California. I've created an interdisciplinary class called "Theology, Culture and U2" in which we examine not only theology, but political science, history, sociology, global geography and more. I'm teaching it again this fall, so I'm spending a good chunk of time each week studying, watching, listening to and thinking about the best band on the planet. Not a bad job, eh?
So far this semester, my students and I have examined how to interpret a piece of art, learned about the history of Ireland from St. Patrick to the Troubles, discussed the innocence of the band's first trio of albums and reflected on U2's impact on America (and vice-versa) in the Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree eras. Next up, the sensuality of Achtung Baby and the introspective experiment that turned into Zooropa and Pop. Soon after that, we'll look at the band's return to its roots in All That You Can't Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. We'll round out an overview of the albums by examining the mystic No Line On The Horizon, which is definitely one of my favorites. Later in the semester we'll consider how different biblical genres like psalms, wisdom literature, parables and apocalypse have influenced the band’s songwriting and live performances.
We don't settle for just reading and writing typical term papers. Students have two textbooks: Bono: In Conversation With Michka Assayas by Assayas and Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog by Raewynne Whiteley and Beth Maynard. You may remember the great paper Beth presented at the U2 conference in 2009 titled "U2 Live: Where Leitourgia Has No Name" ("Leitourgia" means "liturgy"), which is also included in Scott Calhoun's collection of essays from the same conference, Exploring U2: Is This Rock 'n' Roll?.
But students have other nontraditional homework as well. They have to spend an hour each week perusing the Internet for items about U2's engagement with culture, social justice and global poverty. The two sites I recommend are Beth Maynard's blog, which supports her book, and of course, @U2. Students also have to do a film review comparing and contrasting Rattle And Hum with 360 At The Rose Bowl and a reflective paper on the spiritual significance of five to 10 U2 songs of their choice. (What would you pick? "Beautiful Day," "Streets," "Walk On" and "I Still Haven't Found" are usually at the top of many lists.)
Throughout the course we listen to interviews of the band, read news stories and watch concert footage. Most students see quickly that U2 have a spirituality that compels them to be active in the world, addressing relevant cultural issues. One of my goals is that class participants will themselves be challenged to engage the world they live in and seek ways to make a difference. Like many of you, I'm so glad U2's music doesn't just lay dormant in a musty studio somewhere. The spirit of this band is so much bigger than a digital recording.
I'm kicking around the idea of offering an online version of this course. Feel free to let me know if that’s something of interest to you. And by the way, I'm not the only one who teaches a class on U2. Our @U2 staffer Arlan Hess recently wrote in the OTR from Aug 26 about her course called "Rock and Roll, Culture and U2" at Washington & Jefferson College.
Since we’re already talking about our favorite band’s propensity to spread good will around the globe, I should give an update of one of my heroes. Aung San Suu Kyi is currently in the U.S. for 17 days as part of a world tour. It’s been over 20 years since this Burmese opposition leader left her country of Myanmar, spending 15 of those years under house arrest. Committed to nonviolent resistance in the face of a brutal military junta, Suu Kyi has had a special relationship with U2. I’ve previously shared some of those highlights in a "Like A Video" segment from July 26.
On an earlier jaunt through Europe, Suu Kyi stopped in Oslo to formally receive the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded 21 years ago and also shared the stage with Bono in Dublin for a concert in her honor. During her visit to the U.S., she has met with President Obama and received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor a civilian can receive.
At one notable gathering, sponsored by Amnesty International in Washington, D.C., the family and friends of Pussy Riot met with Suu Kyi, reverently honoring her deep and patient commitment to justice. Three members of Pussy Riot, a feminist group of Russian punk rockers, have recently begun a two-year prison sentence in Moscow for spreading anti-Kremlin propaganda. Speaking in favor of these recent political prisoners, Suu Kyi said, "I don’t see why people shouldn’t sing whatever it is they want to sing" as long as they aren’t "nasty to other people."
Thomas Friedman, an economist and columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote an opinion piece about Suu Kyi. In it, he highlights the need for global leaders who would offer a stark contrast to the opportunists now clinging to power. He believes that the way forward is not to be found in presidents or prime ministers, Republicans or Democrats. Holding up Suu Kyi as a model, Friedman concludes, "Let’s honor The Lady from Myanmar, not just with a medal, but in a way that really matters – with emulation." I couldn’t agree more.
Thanks for reading some of my thoughts about U2 and Aung San Suu Kyi. They’ve both been important influences in my life. As we walk into a new week, it might be appropriate to think about a quote from The Lady: "I've always thought that the best solution for those who feel helpless is for them to help others. I think then they will start feeling less helpless themselves."
(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2012