When we opened our store 27 years ago, we had a media studies and pop culture section, but William D. Romanowski’s seminal Pop Culture Wars (IVP; $22) wasn’t even out yet. We were years before the explosion of interest in religious cultural engagement, thinking Christianly about film and rock music, and while there were good titles here and there, it was rare that theologically oriented bookstores like ours featured that kind of cultural criticism. Now we’ve got stuff like the wonderful Culturally Savvy Christian by Dick Staub (Jossey Bass; $14.95) and the extraordinary series of “Engaging Culture” released by Baker with titles like Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theater in Dialogue by Todd Johnson and Dale Savidge or Jeremy Begbie’s spectacular Re-Sounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music. We have shelves and shelves of this kind of good work, including books on TV and film and advertising.
Cool and insightful writers who are very, very talented like Cathleen Falsani cite pop stars and current events in moving memoirs like her Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, published by mainstream evangelical publishing houses like Zondervan, who wouldn’t have touched a book like this two decades ago. (And, get this–Ms Falsani and the aforementioned publisher has a study of the grace-haunted, if troubling, films of the eccentric Coen brothers coming out soon, entitled, with reference to The Big Lebowski, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. I kid you not.) But we are ahead of our story. In the early 80s there was not an evangelical consensus to be thinking faithfully about the popular or entertainment arts, and mainline Protestant and Catholic writers had little to offer, either. “Christ transforming culture” may have been a category in Neihbur’s book that the mainline pastors knew, but nobody was doing much in this regard. Westminster/John Knox had a great little book by a Presbyterian guy named Robert Short called The Gospel According to Peanuts, though, which is still in print. I think it has sold over ten million copies. I think they were on to something.
We did have an interesting record section, though, and it was always interesting to tell people about Bruce Cockburn, ponder the mysticism of Van Morrison, slap on the latest album of Mark Heard (God rest his soul) or, eventually, edgy and thoughtful bands like the 77s or The Choir. I will never forget, though, a thoroughly secularized friend, a guy I knew from the nuclear freeze campaign, who just couldn’t believe we stocked U2 (not to mention other Irish rockers like The Pogues or The Waterboys, but that’s another story.) October and Boy were essentials, then War and the swirling, significant Unforgettable Fire, one of the truly great recordings in rock history. We stocked the shocking book of artwork from Hiroshima from which the album drew its name and it seemed anointed, extraordinary for speaking into the times. When a loved one went on a prayerful peace witness into the war zones of El Salvador and Nicaragua and Bono spit out the lyrics to “Bullet the Blue Sky”, it was deeply, deeply moving for me; I did a lot of praying and plotting protests to the soundtrack of these angry young men. Evangelical rock critics like Steve Turner, Mark Joseph, Bill Romanowski and eventually Charlie Peacock and John Fischer, all who wrote for CCM magazine, were inviting evangelicals out of the contemporary Christian music sub-culture, and a few folks understood, early on, that U2 were, in many ways, doing what we yearned for: culturally and politically relevant, faith-infused, artistically-satisfying, big, commercial alternative rock. And what a spectacle it has been. We’ve carried and celebrated all their stuff, even reading a section from Screwtape Letters once, out loud, to a customer who was confused by the satire of the MacPhisto devil horns in the Zooropa Tour era. Soon enough, nearly everybody realized that these boys from Ireland with a past in a charismatic house church, were, in their own way, followers of the Christ, and were making significant contributions to global artistic and political culture, despite (perhaps because of) their tendencies towards the profane and sensational. Who else could hang out with hawkish Republican Senators and Desmond Tutu; address British political parties, and get Bruce Springsteen involved in the Amnesty International humans rights work? Who else could cite Bruce Cockburn and C.S. Lewis and get gigs with Muddy Waters and Frank Sinatra? And who would call up Eugene Peterson to thank him for The Message, which he read at his father’s deathbed, which he told tens of thousands of fans night by night by night. And who eventually would end up speaking at the MTV awards and the National Prayer Breakfast, which has been published as a small gift book (kudos to Nelson for releasing it as On the Move; $12.99) then gracing the cover of Christianity Today?
Steve Stockman, a fabulous and fun Irish theological activist, was the first to explore their faith in a major book, and did a wonderful job in Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 (Relevant; $13.99) which was eventually expanded and re-issued. Stockman knows his stuff and it is a fine little study, full of great stories and insights. There is a great collection of sermons inspired by U2 lyrics, Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog, edited by Raewynne Whiteley & Beth Baynard (Cowley; $14.95) that we really, really, like. I’ve written before that many of these real sermons are great, but that four of the sermons themselves, alongside other good ones, are so incredibly rich that they make the book worth owning. Two by Brian Walsh, and two by Steve Garber are so well done and Biblically-astute that I’ve read and re-read them.
Brian Walsh also supervised an academic thesis done at Wycliffe College in Canada on U2 which was eventually turned into a brief but very powerful book: Religious Nuts and Political Fanatics: U2 in Theological Perspective by Robert Vagacs (Wipf & Stock; $15.) It may be the most mature stuff written about the songs (and, through a friend who knows Bono, I got to give a copy that I hope got to him.) The story of how their music helped a group cope with the grief of a dying child is stunning in its power and faithfulness, and the book unfolds from there. Excellent.
oo long ago, Yale Divinity School theologian Christian Scharen published a very solid study entitled One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God (Brazos; $14.99.) It has gotten great reviews from the likes of Charlie Peacock and Tony Jones and Miroslav Volf and David Dark.
Do you know the British pocket paperbacks called 331/3 published by Continuum ($10.95)? They are small books on specific albums (from Court & Spark to Let It Be, from There’s a Riot Goin’ On to OK Computer, and so many more.) The one on Achtung Baby (the only U2 record to be done in this series) is written by a devout Catholic scholar–he quotes George Weigel, Frank Sheed, Peter Kreeft, and such—Stephen Catanzarite.
Just recently we’ve gotten one in the famous, on-going “and philosophy” series (alongside
books about The Simpsons, Lost, Football, and so forth.) U2 and Philosophy: How To Decipher an Atomic Bomb is edited by Mark Wrathall (Open Court Press; $17.95) and includes seriously philosophical works, studying U2 lyrics alongside Derrida, Heidegger, Nietzsche or Levinas. One chapter, for instance, is called “Aristotle, U2 and the Abolition of Man: “A Feeling Is So Much Stronger Than a Thought”” and another (“Staring at the Sun” looks at a U2ian experience of Kierkegaardian despair. Yet another studies the sense of place in The Joshua Tree.) Some pieces get pretty deep, although the one’s I’ve read are interesting, if you like that sort of thing.
Now, though, we have the best of them all, We Get to Carry Each Other: The Gospel According to U2 by Greg Garrett (WJK; $16.95. ) Garrett is no stranger to the theologically-informed study of pop culture (indeed, has co-authored with Chris Seay a book on The Matrix, one on comic books and graphic novels called Holy Superhereos! and did a recent study of religious themes in Hollywood movies which is very good. He just released a very new and helpful one on grief called Stories From the Edge. (Is there an allusion to Mr. Evans? ) Greg Garrett is a novelist who is also an Episcopalian lay preacher, and a teacher at Baylor U. He is more than competent as a writer and is a delight to read. And, most importantly for this book, he loves the music of U2, has followed them for years, but has not always understood their spiritual vision. Although he makes a case that we simply must attend to this obvious aspect of their work (even chiding a well-known rock critic for missing the obvious religious prayer of “Magnificent” off the recent No Line on the Horizon disc) he is aware that for many, this is, oddly, pretty new territory. It is a perfect book for seekers or those who don’t usually read religious literature. They will be surprised, it seems, to learn that there is deep theology and much Biblically-literate art, beyond the obvious in “40” or “Yahweh.”
The joy here, though, is how Garrett turns us towards the important themes of Bono and the boys, time and again, showing and ruminating on, their lyrics and shows. With lots of lyrics cited, a few moving U2 stories (the death threat story from an Arizona show nearly took my breath away) and some first hand accounts of concerts and interviews, Garrett walks us through the career and activism of the band, helping us see the theological impulse behind their work. Like the Christian Scharen book, he works on a particular theme in each chapter of We Get To Carry Each Other, exploring topics such as belief, communion, and social justice. (A concluding “Ten Spiritual Lessons from U2” was a bit of a let-down, a nice little conclusion, but not as gritty, Biblical, or as richly offered as it might have been. I wonder what you might do, though, to conclude such a book?
That Bono holds to something like an African ubuntu theology, a mix of liberationist and social gospel, pitched with evangelical fervor, should come as no surprise. He’s read the prophets, after all. That a young theologian fluent in this stuff is able to help draw out these themes is very helpful. There is fine theological engagement with the songs, with citations from Brian McLaren and Rowan Williams, Jurgen Moltmann and N.T. Wright, Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero, alongside the usual lyrical quotes from all the albums. And, just as Garrett cites some unusual theologians (the desert fathers or John Bunyan or Jeremy Begbie) he cites some unexpected lyrics from some unexpected songs, too. All in all, this is a great intro to the broadest vision of the band, and a gold-mine of inspiration for those of us who know their music well.
Is this the best and final book on this high profile and boisterous band? No. Is it worth reading, sharing with friends, giving to fans who might not read any other theologically inclined book? Absolutely. Greg has done a good job bringing together a ton of stories, interviews, speeches and press clippings, all alongside an obvious love for the music. His own interest is contagious (and the playlists he offers for each chapter are a good touch.) We are happy to recommend this, glad for the music, glad for this guide to the music. Besides reminding us of this great band and their evocative lyrics and significant social activism, it reminds us that good theology is a work of the people, bringing thinking about God and life together into the issues and contexts of the day. This is street level theology, as it should be.
Here is a great interview with Greg at the Read the Spirit website. Check it out, and come back here to order the book (please.) Thanks.
Greg ends his final page with a lifting from the gorgeous song Yahweh, stealing Bono’s prayer that his life be a blessing, and offers this prayer for you, the reader of his book:
Stranded in some skin and bones.
Take this soul
And make it sing.
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