Monday, December 21, 2009

The Gospel According to U2 ("Still Looking?")

(#3 in a series of 4)

On Sept. 25, 1976,  14-year-old Larry Mullen, Jr. had some new friends over to his house.  He’d posted an ad at school for starting a band and had gotten several takers.  He invited them to a meeting in his kitchen to begin what was to be The Larry Mullen Band.  Mullen explains that that dream lasted for about 10 minutes until a particularly high-wattage student named Paul Hewson (nicknamed Bono Vox after a local hearing aid shop) walked in and blew away the chances of anyone else even trying to lead the band.  Four years later a record deal…the rest, as they say, is album sales. 

In the years since that first meeting, U2 has become not only a primary band in the secular music world, but certainly the largest Christian secular band.

The work of U2 offers a textbook example of how deeply our backgrounds shape our Christian beliefs.  While certainly the written truths in scripture are to be taken at face value, our experiences in life have a dramatic effect on just how we take those beliefs at face value.   For instance, just imagine how different the sermons you hear are from the whatever sermons are furtively shared in a house church in a persecuted 3rd World setting. 

U2 came together against a very turbulent setting.  Their childhood was spent against the backdrop of “The Troubles” in Ireland, where Protestant-Catholic tensions had created strife that was only inches away from a civil war.  Bono himself was the child of a mixed home, with a Protestant mother and Catholic father.  His mother died when he was 10, and his relationship with his father was very conflicted.   Furthermore, as the band developed three of the four members were part of a Christian community that pressured them to choose between their church and their band.  Leaving that community was a difficult experience for them.

As a result, U2 writes their songs against a backdrop of pain.  Listen, for instance, to Sunday, Bloody Sunday, one of their early anthems protesting the British attack against unarmed demonstrators in the town of Derry in Northern Ireland.   This was for Ireland what the Kent State attacks were for US during the Viet Nam era.

In contrast with other bands, such as The Clash, U2 were not promoting anarchy.  They offered hope, but hope that seeped in through the wreckage of war.

Experiences like these will inevitably result in a different approach to Christianity.  Here in the United States today we tend to avoid ambiguity.  We prefer them clearly laid out, cut-and-dried.  (“Would you like fries with those commandments, sit?”)  

Take, for example, our understanding of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, as we know it from Luke 15.  A typical reading of the story renders it pretty simply:  there’s a good guy and a bad guy, and by the end the bad guy becomes another good guy.

It can be easy to miss a lot in a story like that.  For instance, why didn’t the father give his “bad son” a decent hearing with his apology?  He cut him off before he could roll into the confession that he’d been struggling with for weeks.  Or, why did Jesus leave the “good son” out in the cold at the end of the story?   That’s no happily-ever-after.   And perhaps more troubling, why do most of us hope our kids grow up to be older brothers?  Frankly, we could do worse than have our kids grow up to hard-working responsible types who don’t ask for much, not even a goat.

My point is this:  questions like these are troubling, because they can lead to tension and ambiguity.  And so we avoid them, to our detriment.

What we miss in our compulsive clarity is that the Christian faith is not merely a religion, it’s a relationship.  And relationships tend to be messy, conflicted things.  

Religion is generally pretty simple:  either you sign on or you don’t.  If our Christianity is primarily a religion with rules and doctrines and facts to memorize, then it will ultimately be pretty easy to draw the lines to determine who’s in, who’s out. 

A relationship, on the other hand, tend to be a lot more complicated than that.  Compare getting vaccinated to getting married.  Both can be accomplished in less than an hour, yet the one can still remain a mystery decades later. 

The music of U2 is marbled with tensions and ambiguity.   For the First Time portrays the ambivalence of the sons in the Luke 15 parable, and all of us in our exile from Eden.  Until the End of the World offers a poignant portrayal of Judas reaching out for Jesus from the afterlife.  And the tension in Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For  is self-explanatory.

The cumulative effect of a library of U2 music is to deepen our ache for shalom.   Shalom is the Hebrew word describing a situation where everything is right, as it should be.  Take every TV ad you’ve ever seen for luxury cars, for investment firms and for brands of beer and morph them all together.  The end result will be a brittle concept of shalom.

U2 helps us ache for shalom.  A society like ours can tend to numb us, keeping us too busy to ache much for anything.  A band like U2, and a man like Bono, help keep our wounds just raw enough that they can really heal.

Have you ever been famished and had just a tiny nibble to hold you until dinner?   (In a family with three growing sons that seems to happen to someone on a daily basis).  A bite-sized sample of a coming dinner can only leave you more hungry than before.  U2 hungers for shalom, not because they haven’t found anything, but because what they’ve found has only whet their appetites for more. They tasted the feast of the Kingdom, but discovered that dinner might not be served for a while. Jesus put it this way:  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Question: if God gave you the choice between being numb and being healed, which would you choose?  The fact is most of the things I bring to God in prayer probably fall into the category of pain-relievers.  I want my nuisances to go away, my impatience to be satisfied, and my guilt and shame to subside.

Fortunately God loves me too much to merely give me spiritual ibuprofen to mask my lack of shalom.   I have a growing sense that many of the things I most resist in my life are actually there to play some part in my healing. 

God loves us too much to merely numb us into complacency.  Instead he prompts us to ache for the Shalom that rings through the pages of scripture.  On a good day, that makes sense to me.

So when’s dinner?  I'm starving.

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