The Earthy Transcendence of U2’s Lyrics

Lately my music rotation has leaned heavily on U2. (Shocking, I know, that a Christian white male in his mid-30’s likes U2. It just proves some stereotypes are true.) While I love the music, I find myself in this season drawn specifically to Bono’s lyrics. His words evoke an earthy transcendence that is at the same time grounded in the beauty and muck of this world and open to a greater reality out there.

This is not an easy feat. Writers are stuck between two poles. At the one end is the claim the stuff we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste is all there is. Existence is nothing more than a bunch of atoms thrown together at random. Your atoms are animated for a few decades and then you die and that’s it. That’s not to say art that espouses this materialist view cannot be beautiful or wonderful. It’s just that this view will never reach real transcendence.

At the other pole writers deny the value of the physical world and claim only the spiritual or more ephemeral ultimately matters. This kind of writing hopes for transcendence, but really it is gnostic and escapist. It resonates with our longing for a better world. It cannot give a true account of our experiences of pain and goodness in the physical world we inhabit. If writing at the first pole cannot lift off the ground, the writing at the second pole cannot connect with the real dirt between our toes.

Bono’s lyrics don’t merely vacillate between the two poles. Rather, his words wake us up to the wonder of the everyday stuff like father-son relationships and medical breakthroughs and shoes walking down the street. Like other great poets, Bono can see ocean waves breaking on the shore as massive forces of H2O and as metaphors for a couple in a relationship stuck in a cycle of doom and rebirth.

For however lofty Bono’s lyrics can be in imagining a world shaped by compassion, I love how unsentimental and unromantic they are. Take the great song, “One,” from Achtung Baby. In it he sings, “We’re one, but we’re not the same.” In this one lyric he turns on its head every flimsy free-love song from the 1960’s that claimed people are all the same. Bono acknowledges our essential differences that are not easily reconciled, but reminds us we are all in this together. The result is, “We get to carry each other.” Notice carrying each other is not considered a natural reflex. We have to choose to care for one another. Whether it’s the father we have fought with for decades, the spouse who has raised children with us, or our enemy, we must make conscious decisions for love, oneness, and unity. True love doesn’t eliminate our differences. True love simply doesn’t allow those differences to keep us apart, it embraces the differences of the other.

Consider, “Love and Peace or Else.” The title alone shocks us as Bono mingles a Summer of Love image with a threat. As we listen to the song, we see Bono further grounding the ideas from “One” in the realities of generational religious and ethnic conflict. “All you daughters of Zion” and “All you Abraham’s sons,” the seemingly eternally warring adherents of the Abrahamic religions, are all called to “lay down your guns.” Again, Bono makes no claim that love and peace are our natural states. Love and peace are hard choices requiring work on our part. We have to decide, we have to act to, “Break the monster’s back.” This anti-war song continues the tradition of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” in which Bono claims “Tonight we can be as one,” which requires the disciplines of seeing the truth, rejecting being immune to others’ suffering, and “To claim the victory Jesus won.”

In rejecting a sentimental view of life while also acknowledging a transcendent reality, Bono evokes the biblical language of the psalmists. A pie-in-the-sky view of reality cannot help us stand against evil and injustice. The best we can hope for is escape. Plenty of pop music offers us escapist denial. A view of reality completely lacking transcendence can only see the mire. It can name injustice without real hope of a better world. At most we can hope that enough random atoms will move in a random way in enough random people that they accidentally commit to peace and unity. Ultimately we despair.

Because Bono does not deny the reality of suffering nor the reality of a better world, he can truly hope, he can lament like the psalmists. So he can sing to Jesus, “Wake up dead man,” as he deplores being alone in this world. He can also recognize goodness breaking through the cracks. First hearing the Ramones is for him a miraculous experience that gives him his vocation—he recognizes music will allow him to “exaggerate my pain and give it a name.” The physical world points us to a greater good. “Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby’s head.”

I am attracted to Bono’s lyrics during this season because they remind me of two important realities: the stuff around me is not all there is and there is wonder and mystery infused in that same stuff. Bedouin fires, the Chinese landscape, even oilfields at sunrise wake us up to a beautiful day in which we can once again be shocked out of our stupor and ask for help to have eyes open to transcendence.

Touch me

Take me to that other place

Teach me

I know I’m not a hopeless case

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Say More About That

I want to make it my habit to use one phrase as my response to other people: say more about that. This statement is a countercultural act. Social media encourages quick responses to events. The statements that garner the most attention are usually the most opinionated—all the more if they come in the form of a sarcastic meme or gif—no matter if those opinions accurately reflect reality. I want to stop, listen, and learn, rather than simply offer my opinion. I want to hear the other person in a conversation instead of merely waiting for my turn to talk.

By temperament and training I make quick evaluations of arguments. As I read or listen to a person’s point of view I am constantly keeping a running tab of where I think they are right, and, more usually, where I think they are wrong. I have written before how my systematic theology professor in seminary, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, challenged me by his example to seek areas of agreement with others’ views before pointing out disagreements or offering corrections. I see I need to take a step further, or a step back, if you will. Before I look for areas of agreement, I need to make sure I understand the other person. To do that, I need to truly hear them.

When I read a statement from someone, I am quick to assign beliefs and values to them that have nothing to do with the argument they set forth. I think I understand their worldview entirely. If I disagree with an author on a political point, I will assume they espouse all sorts of unseemly social values. I hurriedly dismiss instead of seeking understanding. This is particularly dangerous in our pithy and distracted discourse. The truth is no one can be reduced to 140 characters. Slowing down and seeking deeper understanding of the other by asking them to, “Say more about that,” will hopefully help me see the nuance in the other’s argument. It will help me know more accurately whether I do agree or disagree with the person’s claim. And I will be better able to craft a thoughtful assessment of their position. Hopefully, such a discipline will help me see more dimensions in the person as well.

Last year Alissa Wilkinson wrote a thoughtful essay, “In Praise of Slow Opinions,” in which she laid out the reasons for not giving in to the pressure to form an immediate response and instead, to ruminate on a thought before giving your view. Wilkinson writes, “The good thing about forming opinions slowly, and then bouncing them off people who routinely disagree with you and aren’t afraid to say so—which describes most of my closest friends—is that when you are finally ready to write or say something, you can be more certain of it, because you’ve got a leg to stand on.”

I see a danger in this program. I might give in to the temptation to hide behind wanting more analysis when speaking against or for a controversial topic is needed. Asking someone to “Say more about that” should not be a means of avoiding taking a stand for justice. Rather, listening better should make me better able to clearly state why an unjust act or position is wrong. Sometimes situations demand swift action before a slow, reasoned discourse can happen. Just as knee-jerk responses are encouraged by our current instant discourse, my suggested discourse might have the opposite problematic effect of delaying when immediate response is needed. Discipline is needed to know when to speak and when to listen.

Using, “Say more about that,” may not drive up my shares or likes, but hopefully it will help me to understand people better and to appreciate their humanity more, even if I disagree with them.

Veep Valentines, the Second Term

Round two of Veep Valentines. I had great help from my friend Jim Rossi, a history teacher who loves Vice Presidential jokes even more than I do. Jim suggested many of the Vice Presidents in this batch and wrote or had a major hand in writing the text on the Johnson, Nixon, Burr, and Coolidge Valentines.

Lyndon Johnson Veep Valentine Aaron Burr Veep Valentine Theodore Roosevelt Veep Valentine Richard Nixon Veep Valentine Continue reading

Veep Valentines

My son has a Valentine’s Day party at school this week. I inwardly groaned when I thought of buying Valentine’s cards that are little more than advertisements for film or superhero franchises. I wondered what would be an odd alternative to Iron Man or Yoda?

I present that answer: Veep Valentines, featuring some of the men who served as Vice President of the United States. They had only two Constitutional duties. They lived only a heartbeat away from the top office in the land. They will forever be in our hearts.

Dan Quayle Veep Valentine

Joe Biden Veep Valentine

John Tyler Veep Valentine

Dick Cheney Veep Valentine

Al Gore Veep Valentine

Gerald Ford Veep Valentine
Continue reading

The Most Basic Political Practice for Primary Season

“The most basic political practice for us is not voting, it is not petitioning elected representatives. For followers of Yahweh, our most basic political practice is prayer.” —from The Politics of Praise

Politics of Praise-page001

With the Iowa caucuses, voters have rendered irrelevant earlier prognostications of which candidates will succeed. We have already seen a number suspend or end their campaigns. Citizens in other states will soon cast their own votes for candidates to become their party’s presidential nominee. Each voter will evaluate which candidate’s values best lines up with theirs.

Do we stop to ask what shapes our values and political commitments? I am challenged by this question when I consider how much time I spend to reading news articles and opinions about the candidates. I believe being an informed voter is essential, but I probably give more energy to political reportage and debate than I do to prayer.

For followers of Christ, ensuring our values stem from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is vastly important. It is easy to acquiesce to the loudest voices and uncritically adopt the agendas of candidates or political parties as our own.

Prayer, reflecting on Scripture, and engagement in Christian community are essential practices to make sure our political values reflect the God we worship.

Last year I published a devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146, that helps readers pray through these two very political psalms. Psalm 146 is a terrific prayer as we listen to candidates share their agendas. Praying this psalm allows us to see God’s agenda of creation, justice for the oppressed, and renewal for the abandoned. Psalm 72 is a prayer for governmental leaders, but it gives us an image of the kind of nation God blesses. This is a nation that prioritizes the weak and needy, the people on the margins.

I encourage you to pray through these psalms as you consider which candidate will receive your vote. May we use these psalms as guides to petition the candidates to, “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” (Psalm 72.4)

The Politics of Praise is available in both the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.