Christianity and Pop Culture, Part 2: U2 as Parable


The concert began with a declaration of beauty, then explored the darkness of brokenness, oppression and evil, and ended with a declaration of grace and a light and song pointing to heaven. The lead singer shouted out several times, “Grace abounds, grace abounds!” and led the stadium in “Amazing Grace”. There was no altar call at the end, but it was clear that there was something meaningful and important — and fun — in the air. But it wasn’t a Christian music concert. No confessions were taken, and there was no altar call at the end. Yet, I dare say that many of us were saved. It was the U2 Concert at the Rose Bowl two weeks ago here in Los Angeles.

One hundred thousand people crowded into the Bowl to witness one of the great concerts in LA history, and the concert was broadcast live on YouTube to millions around the world.  Yet, this same band that filled the Bowl and who enjoy the highest attended concerts in the world also are followers of Christ.  They are not typical Christians, and lead singer Bono even rejects that name as a description of himself because of its baggage.  Bono, like many Irishmen, has been known to love his whiskey and cigarettes (though he quit recently and his improved vocals are evidence), and he lets the “F” word slip from his tongue rather loosely.  Yet, there is no question of the impact that Christian faith has on Bono and the U2 band.  Bono is faithful to his wife of many years, he has led the world in decreasing third world debt and raising funds for AIDS relief in Africa, and he writes songs with metaphors that often are lifted right off the pages of the Psalms or the words of Jesus.  At times, such as at the National Prayer Breakfast, Bono is more straightforward about his faith. At other times, he speaks and sings in metaphor and image that allows the listener to seek and find.

But as I looked around me at the crowd in the Bowl that evening, I was convinced that most were just there to dance, drink, sing and be entertained.  I also saw those who were aware that they were at a concert by Christians as they lifted their hands in the sky during “With or Without You” or sung in earnest and hope “Where the Streets Have No Name”.  The whole event reminded me of the saying of Jesus about his own ministry of teaching in parables, “That they may be ever seeing but not perceiving.” Jesus often did not explain his parables until asked. For some, they were just entertaining stories. For others, they held the keys to truth and the kingdom of God. Bono, much influenced by the image-laden Gospel of John, also writes songs in metaphor that serve as parables for faith and the way of Jesus to those who have the ear to hear. And U2’s message is not without effect: millions of individuals have bought (Red), donated to AIDS relief, fought for just policies for the poor, and lobbied for debt relief for poor nations because of U2’s influence.

My comments here on U2 certainly are not new as many well-written books and articles are available including my favorite book Walk On and a Rolling Stone interview with Bono from several years ago.  As we ponder the relationship of Christians to pop culture and Hollywood in particular, what are the implications are for those Christian artists who also seek to impact culture and speak of their faith through their artistry.

Christian music artists since the 1980s have attempted to have the same success that U2 enjoys, but very few have come anywhere near this kind of impact on music or on culture. Much of Christian music, and especially worship and praise music, is for the church itself. Some of its rightly belongs in the worship hymnals and repertoire of church worship. Much of it is cheesy, badly written, and musically are copy cat versions of secular artists.  These artists show no particular creativity or artistry, and this development has caused many in the music industry to poke fun at Christian artists for how bad the music really is for anyone with an ounce of music taste or sophistication. And yet, Christians have embraced music that is substandard just because it mentions the name of Jesus.  Which raises the question of whether Jesus would want his name on something that is a laughingstock to many in culture?  Last time I checked, Jesus put his name on the best wine and not the 2 Buck Chuck.

U2 is anything but a laughingstock in the culture, and they serve to entertain, inspire and also contribute to music with works of excellence and entertainment. You get the sense, on one hand, that their music and the crowd’s enjoyment of it really is their agenda. There is not a secretive agenda, no “bait and switch”, that is lurking somewhere beneath that robs the unbelieving listener of the enjoyment of the music and the concert.  In other words, U2 is first present to give its artistic gift, not to receive a particular response that must be achieved through audience manipulation. They come first to delight — everything else is secondary. This shows respect for the ticket holder and the listener.

If U2 is a parable for how other Christian artists can impact their culture and contribute to their field, and I would argue that they should be, perhaps this is the first place to begin. All art –and especially popular film, television and gaming which have as their primary purpose to delight and entertain — should do just that.  The viewer should not feel that there is some other agenda or some bait and switch altar call at the end of the film or show.  The viewer should get what they came for — a work of excellence that entertains with abandon.  Pixar, whose DVD release this week “Up” was written and directed by people of Christian faith — does this better than any media company that I know. Yet, for those who seek, there are many messages and even Christ figures in their films.

A second way that U2 is able to be “Christian” but also gain a hearing among the broader culture is its insistence on speaking in metaphor and image.  Metaphor, image and parable shows respect for the dignity of the viewer or listener because it allows them to enter into the song or story where they are rather than where the artist wants them to be. It allows for the consumer to make their own decisions about its meaning, and it trust the Spirit’s work to speak as the Spirit will and as the hearer desires. There is no force or manipulation. Yet, for those “who are perceiving”, the truth and beauty of the Story is available to embrace.

Thirdly, U2 also gets a hearing in Hollywood, at the White House and around the world because the band refuses to align itself with Christian Right causes — or the gay civil rights agenda. In other words, U2 avoids the political extremes, and instead speak to human rights where there is more common ground.  Neither is there a secretive Christian conservative agenda that causes many in our culture, and particularly in the cultural power centers of LA, Boston, San Francisco and New York, to dismiss the contributions of many of many otherwise talented artists.  U2 confidently believes that its faith in Jesus is intimately connected to the welfare of “the least of these”, and it earns its moral credibility by both personal integrity but also an equal commitment to putting their money and time where their mouth is. Younger film makers and writers are understanding this as they write and direct films about human rights, sexual trafficking, the lost boys of Uganda, the genocide in Sudan, and AIDS in Africa that are areas of common interests in the cultural capitals and not political footballs that belong to the political Left or Right. They are as glad to work with George W. Bush as Barack Obama to accomplish their mission.

Finally, U2 has experienced its success and impact because they are hospitable.  There is no litmus test for attending their concert.  No one will be turned away. Gay and straight, people of every ethnic background and race, and people of faith and no faith at all are in attendance.  You can raise your hands and pray, or you can drink your beer and dance. There is no judgment, either from the artists or the songs they sing. Everyone is invited, and everyone leaves with the entertainment or the inspiration they sought. No one is gipped. No money was raised. It was just a damn good time, and amidst it all, some of us heard the Good News pregnant within the songs we sang, we saw a glimpse of heaven as the concert lights pointed towards the sky, and we knew the grace of God that comes to us through unlikely messengers like Bono and the most unlikely of places like a concert in Los Angeles.

What if Christians in film and television took the same approach as U2?  Entertaining, respectful of the viewer, depoliticized, creative and hospitable?  More on that to come …

One Response to “Christianity and Pop Culture, Part 2: U2 as Parable”
  1. As a member of the choir you write too, it’s my prayer I can become part of the solution here. Thanks my friend.

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