U2 and Lament
I recently returned from delivering several lectures at the Abilene Christian University lectureship. I did three lectures on “The Church Goes to the Movies,” “Hollywood Morality,” and “Fairytales, Violence, and the Dark Things.” However, the lecture that has most stayed with me is my Sunday night coffeehouse lecture on “From Rage to Ecstasy: U2 and the Psalms.”
The thought that I can’t shake is the difference between what church members see in the Psalms and what professional musicians see. In recent years, Christian songwriters have turned to the psalms for inspiration and our current song books now overflow with the words of the psalter set to music. Yet, have you looked at those songs closely? They are exclusively, singularly, praise songs. By contrast, blues musicians and rock stars like Bruce Springsteen (“My City of Ruins”), Michael Jackson (“Will You Be There”) and especially U2 (“40”, “Love Rescue Me,” “Peace on Earth” etc) have also mined the Psalms for inspiration; yet, when they do so, they turn almost exclusively to the laments.
What do they see in the laments that we in the church do not? What are they embracing that we are so afraid of? As musicians, are they recognizing a power to the lament psalms (which, by the way, are ancient songs) that the church cannot dare admit? My theory (and I would love to hear others) is that lament psalms are about brutal honesty before God. Despite our advertising slogans, we in the church have never been very comfortable with brutal honesty when it comes to our relationship with God. Because brutal honesty means admitting that we don’t have it all together, that a relationship with God can often be rocky and tumultuous, laden with confusion and, sometimes, even anger. Communicating this to the outside world is not good evangelism . . . or is it? Is “good news” the message that if you become a Christian, then all will be right in your life and with the world or is good news the message that God’s faithfulness is not about removing all pain, difficulty, and confusion from your life, but about remaining true and steadfast through it all?
Blues and rock musicians gravitate to the laments because rock and blues have always been about brutal honesty; about facing the difficulty of life head on and dealing with it. Maybe the church can learn something from that. Just as the lament psalms in Scripture often conclude with praise, likewise U2 frequently balances their contemporary lament songs with songs that praise the blessings of life and the goodness of God. In this, I suggest that U2 is more faithful to the spirit of the psalter than has been the church because they take seriously the fact that the faith that laments and the faith that praises is the same faith.