Sleep-deprived post-conference musings

A few VERY random takeaways mostly from Neil McCormick's talks at/after the U2 conference, purely because he is the most recent thing in my mind.

First, I was struck by McCormick saying flat-out that U2 are not an Irish band. One knows that only half the band are actually from Irish families, and that The Edge is Welsh and Adam Clayton is English, but McCormick's suggestion that the proper term would be "Anglo-Irish" made a penny drop for me.

Second, McCormick's assertion that the importance of U2's Christian commitment to both their work, and their career arc in general, simply cannot be overstated (and he says this as a skeptic himself.)

Third, this side anecdote. McCormick attended a paper presentation on conservative aspects of U2's work by Steve Catanzarite (who wrote that book on Achtung Baby grounded in Roman Catholic theology) and was critical of it as "hearing what he wanted to hear." Neil picked up the book at the conference and, during a conversation with Bono on Sunday, critiqued it to him, saying that the idea of approaching Achtung Baby as an extended working through the idea of the Fall was, again, inappropriately reading ideas into the album, simply an example of how listeners hear whatever they want to hear in U2's music. Bono responded, "It sounds to me like he's bang on."

Both this anecdote and the previous assertion Neil made ("cannot be overstated") tied in for me (personally) with working through a (completely unrelated) comment from a theologically trained acquaintance who said roughly that it was annoying hearing people "read too much Christian theology into" U2's lyrics. In thinking that over, my response would be that while I very often share a similar annoyance, I'm not sure that the problem is exactly quantity: "too much." I've been shocked a few times myself by the abstruse Christian ideas Bono has cited in connection with or as the actual source of U2 lyrics -- things that, had I heard them from someone else, I'd likely have responded to with "You're reading way too much theological content into that."

I'm annoyed when people choose bits of U2 lyrics as excuses to say something they want to say about theology without stopping to notice what the actual preoccupations of the whole text are. I'm annoyed when people highlight nothing else in U2 lyrics than the kind of material that would of necessity appear anywhere any Christian content is in play. I'm annoyed when people use U2 lyrics to claim U2 for their theological team. I'm annoyed when people pick a few U2 lyrics out of context to check off the "pop culture" box in their largely unrelated Christian talk. I'm annoyed when people act as if every U2 song must somehow be in code, a secret message that's "really" "about" some inner-circle Christian topic. I'm annoyed, in other words, when Christians interact exploitatively, superficially, thoughtlessly, or in a partisan way with U2 lyrics. And yeah, that happens a lot.

But I'm beginning to question if there's such a thing as claiming "too much" theological content for U2 per se. Maybe the real problem is just people claiming that content poorly.


Anonymous said...

Here, here!! Well said. Please let me know if you ever see me straying into that "annoying" category. I'm serious!

I'm flying out on Tuesday morning. Had a pleasant and quite time in the Duke University Chapel tonight. The organ was even playing (loudly). It reminded me of where I was Saturday night. Let's get some rest. Peace.

Tim Neufeld said...

Beth, I left that last comment, and I have no idea why the author is identified as a bunch of numbers. - Tim Neufeld

Nathan said...

It doesn't surprise me at that McCormick said what he said, or that Bono agreed with the "fall" interpretation of Achtung. And after reading the books in recent years in which Bono plainly states his faith, I'm more and more hearing the entire corpus of U2's material as all about this one thing.

Anonymous said...

so there is probably a paper to be written on reading bono is a poet. ie reading his "theology" as that of a poet, imagined, scattered, particular, and never systematic.

maybe it's our definitions of theology that need to change. maybe even systematics like barth are poets.

i'm tired. and bored. at LAX.

great to meet you,


Mark Meynell said...

...when Christians interact exploitatively, superficially, thoughtlessly, or in a partisan way with U2 lyrics...

Completely spot on with that - and I fear I've been guilty of such irritations. But perhaps we can put this in a wider frame. It's not just U2 of course: we do this with most things. When people want to tick the 'pop culture box', with movies, music, literature. And let's face it, with the Bible too.

In the end, I suppose, it's about reading (and listening). Reading with honesty, integrity, generosity. E.g. not being afraid to quote someone, even when they make other points that disagree (i.e. not flattening what they say into an anodyne endorsement of one's own point of view).

What's so encouraging is that the more i read and listen, the more i discover that U2 has been saying what I've been thinking all along - and they've done that without ever having met me to ask my opinion!! And I just love the thought that there is no such thing as too much theological content here. Thanks so much for posting this.

The bottom line I think - and this is certainly true of folks here in London and I guess other places in the west - is that one of the most important jobs we can ever do for folks is to TEACH THEM TO READ! It doesn't really matter what with. So what fun it is to do that with the multi-layered intricacies of U2 stuff...

Mark Meynell said...

ok, just a tiny point, which simply serves prove my clenched pedantry (and I can't quite believe i'm making it), but hey.
I'm also fascinated that NM sees them as Anglo-Irish (which is the right catchall term); but Edge is Welsh and Adam is English which makes them both British (tho I understand Adam now has an Irish passport, while Edge still has his UK one).
Urghgh. Sorry!

Bob K said...

Thanks, Beth - I wish I could have been at the conference. It sounds to me like you're saying that U2's music, much like some other well-known and much loved text, needs to be considered in context and with at least some knowledge of the intentions of the author: Exegesis. Imagine that.

U2 Sermons said...

Thanks for an awful lot of fascinating comments, people.

Steve, there was to have been a paper on Bono and Donne/Herbert, who I think are good poet/theologian connections here -- but the person couldn't come. Great to meet you as well.

Tim, Mark -- the fact that you each display concern about possibly handling U2 inappropriately probably testifies that you aren't! :D

U2 Sermons said...

Mark BTW - thanks for your clarification. We Americans are quite poor at remembering those UK vocabulary distinctions and I have fixed it.

Steve F. said...

Coming back here after way too long. Glad to see you're still here!

I think it's possible that U2 fans are guilty of the sin that a lot of preachers commit: proof-texting. Which is to say, finding a snippet of song lyric/scripture that supports some view, and using what I call "scissors-&-paste theology" to cut it out of context, and use it as proof of something that's somewhat to completely out-there.

I also think it's true that a life of faith is a journey - and comparing Bono now to where he was 2 or 5 or 10 years ago is possible, but often unfair. God knows I am not where I was 10, 15, or 20 years ago (and thank God for it!).

Anonymous said...

Hey Beth, I blogged a follow-up piece on your post. Thanks again.

Tim Neufeld said...

That was me again. I don't know why it's using a number to identify me. -Tim

U2 Sermons said...

Tim -- I'm going to link your post tomorrow. Perhaps there is some odd Unknown-Caller-esque aspect to your being identified by a string of numbers. I'm trying to go for "numinous mystery" here, instead of
"inane blogger glitch." :D

Anonymous said...

you are very gracious to a Limey pedant!

Mary said...

Nice comments. Glad to hear it your comments and I agree with you.

Interesting take on how they are not an Irish band. Well, I disagree. Just because Edge is Welsh and Larry is English (that is part of their ethnic heritage as well as cultural)--however the bulk of their lives have been spent as Irish citizens...you can't escape the Irishness of their cultural hertiage either. I think it's entirely appropriate to call them an Irish band.

U2 Sermons said...

Mary - I take your point. (Just to be clear, the "not an Irish band" remark was not my take, but the take of U2's friend and schoolmate Neil McCormick.)