Monday, May 29, 2017

The Gospel According to Bono

Last week I watched U2 perform their album, The Joshua Tree, live at the Rose Bowl.  They are on tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of their breakout release.  While I like U2, I wouldn't necessarily consider myself a huge fan to the point of saying, "OMG, I have to see this concert!"  (Although I do admit regretting not taking the opportunity to see them live on their PopMart Tour back in 1997, after hearing how elaborate and technically advanced their show was.)  But I do remember one summer listening to that album on a seemingly endless loop while painting a house with the campus ministry I was involved with at the time.  We would take breaks from the heat and discuss the spiritual themes in the songs we were listening to.  Those discussions planted seeds that grew when I read about how and when the band was baptized early in their career and how seriously, if unorthodox, Bono took his faith.

On the one hand I admired Bono's boldness on the global stage- meeting with world leaders, advocating for the poor and hungry.  But on the other hand I found his politics and sanctimony tiring- there are times when it seems like Bono is everywhere with a solution for everything.

So a live concert celebrating the milestone of an album that played an important part of my own spiritual development seemed like a perfect excuse to see and hear the man himself.  (That, and the added bonus of taking my wife out for a rare time without the kids)

U2 wrote The Joshua Tree as a love-letter to America.  Their songs reflected the landscape they encountered while touring for their previous albums.  Bono describes their album as describing not just the physical aspects of the United States, but also the emotional and spiritual (a point he made during the concert and referenced in just about every article written about the album).  And the titular tree, standing alone in the desert, symbolized hope- reaching heavenward out of desolation.

The "gospel" that Bono preached that night was one of hope.  Prior to one of his songs, Bono proclaimed, "it's Saturday night but let's sing like it's Sunday morning! Lift up your hands!"  He didn't shy away from politics, and yes he was heavy-handed at times.  But that sense of hope permeated the concert, from his on-stage antics to the videos playing behind him (including at one point lyrics from Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech).  The album is described as celebrating not what America is, but what it could be.  And that is the good news of U2.

Regardless of political platitudes and playing up to the climate of the time, Bono gives hope for a country that his once-nemesis Ronald Reagan described as a "city on a hill".  There is hope for a country that claims to be over 70% Christian, despite our politics and policies betraying such statistics.  There is a hope for a country with more resources than most of the world combined.  There is hope for a country to overcome systematic racism and what Pope John Paul the Second described as a "culture of death".  There is hope for thousands of concert-goers who feel energized by current events to just do something to make this world a better place.

Maybe music isn't the appropriate means to deliver such a gospel.  Perhaps Bono's ego makes him a self-serving messenger (his sit-down with Eugene Peterson would suggest otherwise).  But that doesn't invalidate the message.  We should be striving for better- better politics, better relationships, better stewardship.

Maybe we should listen as Bono admonishes us to "take it to church"


Monday, May 01, 2017

This Song is About Me!

I read this a week or so ago in my Facebook feed from the click-baity site Hello Christian: "Is the Song 'What a Beautiful Name It Is' Heretical?"  As expected, commenters were quick to defend the ear-worm song specifically and Hillsong's ministry in general while criticizing the author for picking at nits (or staining gnats, if you prefer).

The author, Sam Storms, a pastor in Oklahoma who was just recently elected vice president of the Evangelical Theological Society, tried to make the point that the line, "you didn't want heaven without us" paints God/Jesus as being needy, as if his worth relies on our "acceptance".  Responses to the effect of, "it's a song, get over it!' miss his point entirely and ignore stories like Esther, to whom Mordecai pointed out that God's deliverance of Israel didn't depend on her, or Paul's words on Mars Hill in Athens that God "is not served... as if he needed anything."

As authors N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and others have (I believe) rightfully pointed out, the terms "gospel" and "salvation" have been diluted in Western Christianity to satisfy our personal tastes, making God no different than Santa Claus.  We "accept" Christ in "our hearts".  We lament how politicians "keep God out of our schools" as if that's even possible.  We church shop based on worship, children't ministry, or we don't even front and base it on how much time it takes out of our Sundays.  I've often heard the phrase, "if you were the only person on earth, Jesus still would've died for you."  So in other words, the gospel is all about me.

And we hear it in the songs we sing.

'What a Beautiful Name It Is' isn't the only one.  Another that always makes my skin crawl every time I hear it is 'This is Amazing Grace' by Phil Wickham.  I pointed this out to my pastor the other day and now he says he can't not hear it.  The chorus goes like this:

This is Amazing Grace
This is unfailing love
That you would take my place,
That you would bear my cross

You laid down your life
So I might be set free
Oh, Jesus, I sing for
All that you've done for me

Do you see it?  No, I'm not talking about "all that you've done for me".  Rather that Jesus took my place to "bear my cross".  This runs counter to Jesus' very words that following him is conditional upon us taking up our own cross.  It's not like he said it just once either.  You can find the message to "take up your cross and follow me" in Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, and 14:27.  Yes, I know, synoptics.  But my point is, this isn't some obscure teaching that you only find in the fine print.

Jesus puts this condition as a "must" in Matthew 16, Mark 8, and Luke 9.  You're not "worthy" of following Jesus if you don't in Matthew 10.  And perhaps most hard-hitting, you "cannot" even be his disciple unless you do so in Luke 14.

So it's a pretty big deal.

Yet we sing the opposite because it makes us feel better.

I don't think Phil Wickham or Brooke Ligertwood include such lyrics intentionally.  (Another example that I think makes it obvious this isn't intentional is TobyMac's 'Until the Day I Day' where he repeats that he'll follow God until things stop going well ("til the spotlight fades"))  The phrases fit the rhythm of the song and rhyme just right.

But I think this individualized gospel is so ingrained that we don't even realize it when lyrics like this slip into the songs we regularly listen to or when it permeates the language we use.  And that individualism drives our religious decisions, our convictions, and our evangelism.  So we perpetuate it and it gets worse.

Songs are meant to impact us emotionally, so obviously we like songs that make us feel good.  But our theology shouldn't be the same way.