Saturday, March 18, 2006

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.


At 1:14 PM, Blogger Bruce said...

Well there is a lot of pressure for churches to be "up-beat." People do come in there with a lot of problems no doubt but many of them do not want them addressed. Or they would rather take part of a different reality, where God is in control. Let's say they want a glimpse of heaven.

You know in the black tradition, despite all of the suffering in their history, their liturgy focused on heaven or biblical characters and they found that consoling. If there are a lot of raw laments in their music, I am not aware of it.

I can relate somewhat, one of my favorite U2 songs is "One Step Closer to Knowing." I don't know that I would call it a lament. I think the inspiration is 1 Cor. 13. It cheers me up to think that I am one day closer to knowing my God. I'm not asking "why" in my heart. I guess I know that has no answer. I just want to celebrate the victory I am gaining.

On the positive side of lament, we do read from the laments a fair amount of time at Blackstone. But as far as singing them, as you said, there is just not a lot out there. I think you are correct though to point out how we need more of this as part of our communal worship. God forbid that we would have a self-identity of "faithful-sufferers."

At 1:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welcome to the wild world of blogging. I'll have to email my blog address to you later.

The topic of U2 really fascinates me, so I'm glad you brought it up. The more I hear of Bono's remarks, the more I think that his heart's in the right place. From what I gather, he feels like an outsider when among church folk. But at the same time you can tell from the songs he sings that He has a real depth in his relationship with God—an honesty that some people could only hope for. Then, he takes Jesus seriously about looking out for the poor and downtrodden. I've really come to respect him in the past few months.
Here are a couple links to some of the ideas that impressed me, in case you hadn't seen them:

-Dan C.

At 10:17 PM, Blogger Sam H. Pace said...

Great insight regarding praise and lament in the Psalms. I'll have to admit that I don't think as much about pop culture as many others. However, I do think a lot about the church, particularly, the congregation I serve. So let me add my two sense worth . . .

I have picked up on the temptation and tendency toward upbeat praise songs from the Psalms. I have also noted the abundant presence of lament in the Psalms.

Here's what I think is going on . . . Monday thru Saturday affords one enough lament. Sunday is a sort of escape from a world that brings loads of lament. The church gathers to remember the events that have taken them from a world of hopeless lament and transferred them into a kingdom of light. Sure, there is lament in the church. I've cried with families who are breaking apart of sin and sickness and divorce and financial difficulty and drug and alcohol abuse. Worship is the one time we can praise God and sort of relish in the life that is "not yet" but we are faithfully certian will come at the return of Jesus.

Okay, we still have to deal with the lament. And we do. We talk about it in our classes and in our sermons. We eat meals together and in our fellowship time we admonish and encourage. Sometimes we laugh together, sometimes we cry.

Tonight I spent a few hours with a young person who has struggled with a drug addiction for a few years now. He's doing better. We both fought back tears as we discussed the passing of a friend of his who overdosed a few days ago. We both agree it was a tradgedy. We both agreed that very well could have been him had it not been for the family of God pursuing and loving on him when he had need. We rejoiced that God has been so gracious to each of us.

Perhaps the church ignorantly leans toward the praise passages of the Psalms. Perhaps that tendency is driven by an understanding of the gospel that bring great joy in the midst of a world that is lost and deteriorating.

I suppose we need to think more about lament in our churches. Not on the level of being sad just to be sad. But on the level of understanding how lament functions to bring the realities of our world into perspective.

Anyway . . . just a few thoughts.


At 9:31 AM, Blogger Randy said...

Greg - loved your sessions at the ACU lectures. I really loved the fact that the coffee shop was filled with lecture guests AND ACU students! Are you planning to write a book? It would be helpful to a lot of parents! Welcome to the land of blog. I'll be a regular. r

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Thanks for joining in. I've written one book on Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("Televised Morality") and have several ideas for others down the road. The idea of doing one on the music of U2 has crossed my mind from time to time.


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