The Necessity of Metaphor for God-Talk: Reflecting on Bono & Eugene Peterson on the Psalms

Yesterday Fuller Studio released its first film: a conversation between Bono and Eugene Peterson on the Psalms. Bono is the lead singer of U2. Eugene Peterson is a Christian pastor and author, most notably of The Message a translation of the Bible in modern idiomatic English.

In the video it is clear both men give great attention to the importance of language, particularly our speech to God. In a critique of contemporary Church music they lament the lack of honesty and realism before God. Bono compliments the beauty of the music found in churches, but finds the lyrics too safe and sanitized. Contrast that to the Psalms, which are prayer-poems of honest rawness.

Beyond the need to recapture the honesty of the psalmists, these men talk about the importance of metaphor. Bono says in the film, “The only way we can approach God is if we’re honest through metaphor, through symbol.” This statement woke me up. I love the arts and have even argued for their necessity in the life of the Church. I’ve written devotionals on the Psalms and spend a good amount of time in them trying to help readers enter the worlds evoked in their language. Bono’s statement revealed to me just how reflexively drawn I am to analytical language. Somewhere deep within me I think concrete analytical language is more valuable than mysterious symbolic speech.

There is room for measured, careful analysis, but a thesis followed by three supporting paragraphs and a clear conclusion can’t capture the truth of desperation found in Psalm 22.1-2:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (NRSV)

We need symbolic language to express the reality of our wonder before the grandeur of God as the writer of Psalm 18 does:

The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (NRSV)

By writing this way the psalmist evokes a greater response than if he simply wrote, “God offers safety and deliverance.” But this symbolic language does more than express a truth artfully. The metaphor, the symbol, is the truth itself. If the psalmist wants to be analytical, he would write an essay. He chooses to express himself in a poem. Metaphors and similes are not window dressing, they are the message itself. We inhabit a world we cannot fully understand. We encounter a God who will always remain a mystery to us, whose reality will always push the boundaries of our speech. Symbolic language is a step in the right direction at expressing our wonder before the mystery.

I want to dive into symbolic language. Metaphors invite and even demand readers to get dirty. We cannot stay objective or removed. The question for readers of the Psalms is not, what is the concept behind this metaphor? For once we find said concept, we often discard the metaphor. God then becomes merely an abstract source of safety and is no longer a fortress. We lose the powerful image. The real questions might be, how does this metaphor open me to truth? How do these symbols welcome me into the mystery?

I greatly appreciate the work of both Petereson and Bono. Peterson’s books on pastoring greatly shaped my understanding of the vocation while I served churches. His work reminded me of why I was there and what was truly important in the midst of myriad tasks — things like praying, reading Scripture, spiritual direction. U2 has been one of my favorite bands for years and I recently wrote about how I find much beauty in the earthy transcendence of Bono’s lyrics.


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

Multiple Bottom Lines: Reforming Capitalism

In a column for the Autumn 2013 issue of Prism, “Bono on Capitalism with a Conscience,” Rudy Carrasco cites Bono’s defense of capitalism as a better means of lifting people out of poverty than aid. This shift seems to have surprised some folks given Bono’s famous campaigning for increased aid and debt relief, as if these endeavors are mutually exclusive to other forms of economic development. Regardless, Bono has become a vocal supporter of capitalism. In a 2012 speech at Georgetown University, he said, “Aid is just a stopgap. Commerce [and] entrepreneurial capitalism take more people out of poverty than aid.”

Carrasco explores some of the hesitations with embracing capitalism among justice-minded folks.

I know where the ambivalence comes from. We who consider ourselves justice advocates do not subscribe to a single bottom line, the financial bottom line. We desire a multiple bottom line, one that acknowledges people, purpose, and planet alongside profit as vital components to the “life that is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:19).

Carrasco then highlights a couple of businesses with a multiple bottom line, including Broetje Orchards, which pursues “people, planet, profit, and purpose.” Expanding the bottom line beyond mere profits is an important development, one I believe makes capitalism more just and humane. In a capitalist system, businesses will succeed and fail, but if those businesses which succeed are interested in the common good as well as their own balance sheet, the negative effects of failure and success can be better mitigated.

At the same time, I do not necessarily fault justice advocates for being hesitant about fully embracing capitalism as it currently stands. I would venture to guess the vast majority of large corporations and defenders of capitalism don’t espouse a multiple bottom line. Instead, they would likely agree with economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, one of the most articulate and influential voices supporting a radically free market. In 1970 he wrote a seminal article in The New York Times Magazine entitled, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.” He criticizes the idea that executives of corporations have any responsibility to guide their businesses’ practices so that they might help society. His argument says executives work for shareholders and are playing with shareholders’ money. Friedman sees any use of shareholders’ money that does not maximize profits as essentially a tax and those who believe a business might have more than one bottom line are “preach­ing pure and unadulterated socialism.” (How it can be socialism when one may freely buy shares of a business and seek to fire executives or divest from the company if one is disappointed, Friedman does not say.)

What we then need is a capitalism where more businesses are encouraged to pursue multiple bottom lines. This means reforming capitalism and reclaiming it from those who see profit as the chief end of businesses. We need to pay attention to success stories of companies like Broetje Orchards or even high-end office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, whose former CEO, Max DePree argued profit is only a means to an end. He writes in Leadership is an Art, “Corporations can and should have a redemptive purpose. We need to weigh the pragmatic in the clarifying light of the moral. We must understand that reaching our potential is more important than reaching our goals.” (69) We must remember humans create markets, they are not naturally-occurring forces like the tide. Our values and beliefs shape markets. We decide what the bottom line is. We must also remember that while our values shape markets, the markets return the favor. If we value monetary profit above all other things, our markets will primarily reward monetary profit and will shape us to only value profit more.

So let us ask, what do we value and how can we shape markets to reward excellence, innovation, and efficiency in areas other than profit?

I am of the opinion that it would be wonderful for a greater embrace of business and free enterprise among justice advocates. The successes of capitalism to bring communities out of poverty should not be diminished. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should remember aid is meant to address short term needs. The transformation of communities in poverty requires more than one-time assistance. A healthy economic environment is the result of many factors that aid alone cannot achieve—e.g., good governance, sustainable capital, etc. Equally important, I believe it would be wonderful if our business schools and corporations taught more about ethics and morals. We must measure the success of a business by more than the balance sheet. In order to reform capitalism, I believe we need to engage the system. Support and invest in businesses pursuing a multiple bottom line. Let’s change that bathwater.