"Music expresses the inexpressible. All our songs are about that, about inarticulation."
Prayer, Prophecy, and Pop Culture - The Hallelujah Mix
January 21, 2004
This is going to be tricky.
There's this new book out called Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog. It's a collection of sermons written about, or referencing, U2 songs. I interviewed one of the editors and several of the contributors for this article.
The tricky thing is that you out there in @U2 Reader-Land are a diverse bunch. The only thing I can count on is that you're all U2 fans. Otherwise, you live in different parts of the world, you are of all ages and persuasions, you are of varying religious backgrounds or you want nothing to do with religion. I have reason to believe you are just the folks who would get a lot out of this book, but maybe that word "preaching" in the title would scare some of you away.
So -- before we go into these interviews, let me give some caveats.
First, this book we're talking about was put together by Christian ministers from many different denominations. "Christian" is a word that has been used to mean different (and sometimes contradictory) things. Keep in mind as you read this piece that your definition of "Christian" may not be someone else's and we'll have an easier time of this.
And about that word "minister": if you're like me, it may conjure for you images of that cadaverous priest who never wanted to drop the Baltimore Catechism and who wouldn't know U2 if Bono came up and bit him. If that's been your predominant experience, I just have to say you're about to meet some ministers who aren't like that at all.
Finally, we're going to be tossing around terms that are very useful in the God-trade, but which might sound like jargon to those of us who have not had the same professional training. I happen to have an amateur's enthusiasm for the subject; I can happily listen to people going on about "substitutionary atonement" and "glossolalic exhilaration" all day. I do realize this might make your eyes glaze over, though, so I'll do my best to keep as much as possible in layman's terms. All right. Ready?
Twenty-four names are listed on the "Contributors" page of Get Up Off Your Knees, with "pastor," "theologian," "professor" and "U2 fan" appearing in various combinations in their bios. One name should be particularly familiar to regular readers of this site: Eugene Peterson, author of The Message translation of the Bible. He's responsible for the first major chunk of writing a reader will encounter when s/he cracks open Get Up Off Your Knees, so let's start by talking about him.
"For obvious reasons, he was our number one choice to write the foreword," says Beth Maynard, speaking for herself and Raewynne J. Whiteley, the co-editors of the book. "I can't even remember anyone else who was on the list. We had some kind help in faxing him from the people at NavPress who publish The Message (all U2 fans, by the way.) And then one day I answered my phone and it was Eugene Peterson. I was completely starstruck, having studied his work in seminary [Maynard is an Episcopal priest] and having been using The Message since about 1997. He said he'd love to do it and could I send him some excerpts from the book to give him a sense of who we were and what we were saying."
In an interview with @U2, Peterson had not come across as much of a U2 expert. Maynard sent him "things that I hoped would help explain it all. But of course, as we found out when we read the essay, he'd done a lot of learning on his own in the meantime and was well prepared to talk about their work. And then the essay itself was a thrill, pure vintage Peterson about language and the freshness of God and how U2 fit in with both."
Peterson's piece keeps referring to U2's "prophetic voice." You might be surprised that a Presbyterian pastor and professor uses a term like prophet for someone other than Isaiah, Micah, Zephaniah and their ilk.
"There's a larger issue than just U2, which is seeing elements of popular culture as being fantastic theological texts," contributor Mike Kinman says. "Out there in the sea of stuff there's some great theology being worked out." He mentions sermons he's preached on songs by R.E.M. and the Indigo Girls as well as sermons incorporating video clips, everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dogma.
Contributor Brian Walsh, who, like Kinman, works with college students, says, "Essentially, Christian ministry in any context, but certainly in a campus setting, is preoccupied with imagination. What kind of images shape people in our culture?...In a consumer-saturated culture, in which our imaginations have been taken captive by the corporate powers that be, Christian ministry seeks the liberation of our imaginations...So the question then becomes, what are the resources for such a transformed imagination? And, of course, Scripture and liturgy are central to all of this. But we are in need of other sources of imagination as well. That is where the arts come in, and specifically the art of U2."
Not all ministers seem to be aware of this resource. Walsh thinks they should be: "Why isn't the U2 catalog integral to the curricula of theological seminaries around the world? Why aren't there courses on biblical interpretation where Bono's lyrics are set side by side with biblical texts and their commentators? Why don't liturgists study concert footage to see how worship really happens in a postmodern world?"
Maynard reports that the most surprising thing about working on this book was "coming across a fair number of church functionaries who apparently inhabit such a circumscribed highbrow religious culture that they could live through incessant coverage of the Elevation tour, U2 on the Super Bowl, back to back Grammys, Bono's AIDS crusade [mentioned] on the cover of Time and flogged tirelessly on everything from the Today show to C-SPAN...and still tell me, when I mention the book, that they have never heard of U2.
"...Trying to speak to a culture when you don't know what it's reading, watching, and listening to is like trying to run a church in Mexico without taking the time to learn Spanish. You don't have to know all the details of every little thing, but if you don't at least have basic familiarity with the surrounding culture, you will end up teaching people that God only fits some official box remote from their actual lives."
No remoteness here. In fact what comes across in these conversations time and again are connections -- not just between U2 fandom and spiritual experience, but music fandom and spiritual experience. Kinman got to thinking along these lines after hearing fellow fans talk about camping out for the Elevation tour. "There's something in the power of music...It has the power to take us to a different place, but it also has the power to gather a community together. I think that happens with the music itself; not just the lyrics, but the music. It connects with so many people even if they don't think in terms that are theological...The things that connect with us on a profound level, they cut through our armor in ways that we don't let other people do. And then if we find someone who has had that same experience there's a bond there immediately and you don't even have to talk about it."
I ask Maynard, "What elements do fan communities and faith communities have in common?"
She answers, "Both communities have a shared text, or a narrative that they use to look at their own lives; would that all faith communities took ours with the fervency and creativity most fandoms give theirs."
Does it matter which bands a fan follows? Yes and no, she says. Sociologically, fan communities are all probably rather similar. Still, anytime we give something "power to shape our souls," as she puts it, that decision will have a consequence. "There is a notion in the Bible that we take on the likeness of whatever we worship..."
Maynard wrote a "Brief History of U2 for Novices" that appears in an appendix, clearly expecting that at least some readers will know more about Biblical notions than what it's like to camp out for a concert. It could be that this was the audience the writers and editors of Get Up Off Your Knees had in mind, not those of us who can quote psalms more easily if Bono's sung them first. But in the process, Whiteley, Maynard and company have created a book that could have been subtitled A Brief Look at Christianity for Novices. You might not know the theological jargon, but if you're a U2 fan you probably have experienced the sorts of things these writers were taught about at their divinity schools.
Get Up Off Your Knees is available from Cowley Publications. All royalties from sales of the book will be donated to the AIDS Support Organization in Uganda. Visit u2sermons.blogspot.com for more info.
© @U2/Pancella, 2004.