October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
December 14, 2007
In a recent negative critique (a kind way of saying rant against) of the phenomena of U2charist services being undertaken at a number of churches worldwide,The Other Journal writer John Totten challenges the move as two fold liturgical error. On the one hand, Totten believes Bono has not sufficiently focused on the liturgical challenges of the Eucharistic meal in his art to merit its use in worship. He states “U2 writes pop songs, sometimes about women, sometimes about politics, sometimes about God, but mostly vague pop clichés.” In reference to a worship service where the song I Still Haven’t Found What I am Looking Forwas being used in relation to biblical narrative, Totten suggests these ‘vague pop clichés’ may provide “a nice sentiment indeed but one that doesn’t quite reflect the narrative of the Eucharist, the Last Supper, or the atonement of sins.”
In addition to his critique of the U2 corpus being artistically lacking in sufficient clarity in relation to the Eucharistic meal being meaningful, Totten goes on to state that “Communion should be real. It should be the most real part of worship.” This call to make worship “real” permeates Totten’s challenge that ultimately “[t]he U2charist is a manipulation of pop culture to create a worship experience that is not quite a picture of culture and not quite a picture of worship but something in between. Real worship however, and real communion, is a recognition of God’s plan to redeem a culture that is fallen but valid.”
I find this call to “real worship” deeply troubling and evidence of a lack of understanding as to what Jesus is challenging the faithful with through the institution of the Eucharist in Luke 22:19. If by “real” we are being called to “authenticity” (Greek: aletheia, ‘truthfulness’, ‘sincerity’) then we must remember that the Lord’s Supper is a call to powerful imagination over and against some high and venerated traditionalism.
And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”1
There is an authenticity that comes in and through the poetic act that is truly a re-membrance of Jesus. The directive of Jesus for this remembrance is a creative act as seen in verse 19 where the ‘do this’ of remembrance recalls poiesis, which is the root of poetics. Such was the act of remembrance that U2 has found in writing music that points to, yet never limits what is possible in the remembrance of Christ at the Lord’s Supper.
The search for the basic shape of this central doctrine of the Christian faith—Jesus as the Christ remembered in the Eucharist—goes back to the very foundations of the Church itself. Given the literary basis of Christianity (the Word made flesh), this shaping activity that is manifested in liturgical practices is ultimately an employment of poetics— “a declaration of principle with regard to the ideas about literature [and music for that matter] that have been embodied in the events [of a given] text [or work].”2 If true poetics is the act of imaginatively releasing the authentic form and content of ultimate meaning,3 then I would argue that the U2 canon functions—certainly in part if not in whole—as a more authentic declaration of what the Eucharist is about than some so-called liturgical practices in churches today.
This question of form has been central to Christianity and its attempt to give voice to the nature of the subject, the figuring of the sacred and incarnation as nexus of subject and sacred in Christ. From the New Testament to writings of the church such as the Creeds and works of St. Augustine, this favouring of structure to the point of delimiting the ‘possible’ is evident. Yet prior to the Council of Nicaea of 325 CE and the forming of the Symbol of Chalcedon in 451 CE, language used to figure Jesus, as noted by John Hick, “seems generally to have been devotional, or ecstatic, or liturgical (or all three), rather than an exercise in precise theological formulation. It was analogous to the language of love, in which all manner of extravagances and exaggerations are entirely appropriate…”4
In listening to what U2 has attempted to draw forth in their vast back catalogue, I assert that their music (whether it is your cup of tea or not is more a matter of preference) is grounded in the ‘language of love’—that which comes before theological form—and is what Bono and company continue to recover, remember, and refigure in their musical poetics. For Bono, that which has become the concern of most quests for Jesus in art and in Christian practice is not the ultimate concern for the very figure that has been searched for. I do not think it is too much of a stretch to state that I place U2 as artists standing on the top of the Pisgah view of Deuteronomy 3: 27, 28 where Moses is allowed to view the Promised Land but not allowed to cross the River Jordan, being told by God that his descendants will eventually enter the land: “Go to the top of Pisgah and look west and north and south and east. Look at the land with your own eyes, since you are not going to cross this Jordan. But commission Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he will lead his people across and will cause them to inherit the land you see.”
While some may view the U2charist as not “keeping it real” in relation to the heritage of the Eucharist as a liturgical practice, I argue that intentions of Jesus calling for a poetic and prophetic remembering of his ministry through the meal sits squarely with what U2 has done and continues to do in art and activism. As artists amidst our current cultural malaise, U2 stands along with other theologians and artists before them who in their different ways live into the humble understanding that the promised land was to be found in stepping free from the forms they had inherited and announcing the challenge to move beyond them. The U2charist may not get us to the promised land, but some have been awakened by these services to seek yet again what it means to ‘remember Christ’ in our time and for all times.
Gotthold Müller, reflecting on those theologians who espoused an a/theological approach such as David Friedrich Strauss’ attempt in Das Leben Jesu, made the following insight:
In them, the dubiety is not so much about marginal doctrine as about the essence of faith itself: the existence of God. What makes this new phenomenon especially interesting is that these professional theologians do not leave the Christian community or give up theology. They are still preoccupied with the significance of Jesus Christ for human life, and they read and comment on the work of other more orthodox theologians. Nevertheless, they are deeply estranged from the faith and their work reflects this estrangement. They are “unhappy lovers” of Christian theology.5
U2 exemplifies and embodies for many those who would certainly be counted among those “unhappy lovers”. As one whose creative journey as both critic and writer of pop music and cultural critique, Bono’s journey is an “unhappy love” with the systematic renderings of many thinkers that have rigidly framed the Christian faith into the 21st century while finding the questions raised by such thinkers nonetheless compelling. Yet unlike these writers, U2 has not opted to remain at the top of Pisgah. U2 offers a poetics that has not only mapped the history of the 20th century’s continued search for Christ, but offers a mapping in their music that embodies this search as the very figure of Jesus as the Christ.
For example, listen to the sonic and lyrical moves that form the War album from beginning to end—the tensions between the songs produce a recovery of Jesus as a poetics that is, recalling Thomas Altizer, “an apocalyptic totality if only because it embodies such a radical and total transformation” in both evoked image and prophetic proclamation. The characters that fill the songs of U2 continually cry out, lament, are silenced, and arise anew. They represent a consistency of the human saga that rests upon the transfigurational poetics of Thomas à Kempis as a source for what humanity is truly seeking.
Ultimately, as one looks to the characters framed throughout U2’s poetics—differing though they are—one finds characters that ask similar questions of meaning and yet show different expressions of a common face that has troubled U2 from the beginning of her music dating backto Boy. This ‘face’ that has troubled them and gave form to their resulting music, continues to point back to the face and person of suffering Christ. True, this is the Christ whom theologians like Barth, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, Tillich, Hauerwas, and others write about in the high reaches of the academic guild—but U2 brings this Promethean flame and awareness down to the FM stations and Mp3 files in a manner that not only recalls Christ, but lifts him into a song that is without end.
Anyone who has read the various interviews with the band and listened to their music will be hard pressed to argue otherwise. To sum up and therefore dismiss their music as a collection of “vague pop clichés” is akin to simply walking by a lake and assessing its depth by a passing glance at the surface and not risk diving in. As a writer, Bono has not attempted to render an idealised Christ that was beyond the reach of common humanity, nor did he seek to entrap the figure of Christ within a systematic poetics that, as Matthew Arnold noted regarding Strauss, was an “imperturbable resolution of a … professor in making all the facts suit a theory which he had adopted.”6
As one who was an “unhappy lover” of the Christianity of their era, U2 has seen the reality of Christ as that particular manifestation of the sacred which is constantly appearing and disappearing at the same time, a veiled character whose very absence makes evident a sense of presence desired for, longed for, and always sought for. It was those “German System Mongers” (a term Victorian novelist George Eliot used to describe some systematic theologians) who sought to fashion a system to frame a static and dead Christ that has sickened U2 for their lack of understanding of what they presumed to show forth in their projects.7
In this regard, as a band that Still hasn’t Found What They Are Looking For, I see U2 as “unhappy lovers” of the unacceptable systems of rendering Christianity “real” that cloud the face of Christ from view. As they continue to produce music new and fresh, they evidence a deep desire and compelling drive to re-tell through their poetics something more akin to Gospel as showing forth Jesus in both content and form of their music. U2’s search to tell the simple story of Jesus in pop music is indeed a radical departure from the theological forms of a Karl Barth, Baur, Feuerbach, and Strauss. Yet their writing remains profoundly centred on questions germane and foundational to much of what these theologians sought for: the nature of the subject, the figuring of the sacred, and the point of nexus between the two.
The U2 canon has provided a means and exercise in framing a figura of the subject and the sacred which “assures the unity of the kerygmatic and the event-like by giving the figure another kind of depth.”8 With regard to framing, I refer back to Jonathan Culler’s understanding of framing as “determining, setting off the object or event” in such a way that alludes the positivism of context. To focus on the “real” essentially fixed into an essential frame (the claim of Totten that “Communion should be real” denotes that this standard is out there somewhere akin to Greenwich Mean Time) will not sustain what the biblical intention of the Eucharist is to be after Luke 19 nor will it provide an adequate foundation for figuring the sacred.
In this embrace of the poetic and evocative, U2 gets it “right” by making the sacred “unreal.” By utilising the poetic space to show how the subject and sacred are framed rather than grounded, showing “discursive practices, institutional arrangements, systems of value, semiotic mechanisms”9 that we as communicants employ in the figuring of the subject and sacred. In the framing of sacred in the pop medium, perhaps we are allowed as followers of Christ to see ‘who’ approaches and what is offered in this approach as something truly surreal. In this way, U2’s poetics resembles the Christ which is figured in the Gospel of St. John in the post-Easter encounter of Thomas and the risen Christ:
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you”. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe”. Thomas answered him, “My Lord and My God!”10
Sonically dense and yet thoroughly unsutured in its woundedness, U2 asks the listener to enter into the narrative wounds re-imagined and refigured through encountering the various characters lifted into song and is encouraged ultimately to allow this ‘body’ figured in the poetics to come forward and ‘not to doubt but believe.’ This act is the essence of artistic remembering that in turn is the truest essence of Gospel as ‘true fiction.’
When reflecting upon the culminating theme of his life’s work, Heidegger remarked that his project was “an on-the-way in the field of paths for the changing questioning of the manifold question of Being.”11 This metaphor of “the field of paths” is an apt one. As seen in his idea of die Lichtung des Seins or the clearing of Being mentioned in The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,12 Heidegger draws from colloquial German, eine Lichtung, which is the sense of a forest “clearing” made manifest to allow light to shine upon the Being (Sein ). Paths to these clearings exist yet are not charted on any maps—they are “where the streets have no names.” Yet, when one undertakes the task of walking through the woods, these woodpaths are evident—there is a way through although not defined or mapped.
U2 has sought to create music that allows light to shine as an “on-the-way in the field of paths” of the formation of subjectivity and the figuring of the sacred. As Heidegger saw that only by walking amidst the woods would a woodpath be made evident, so it is that artists such as U2 see form arise only after being on-the-way of employing music aloud. In this way, the ‘paths’ formed in their journey toward a poetics exhibit a ‘poetic cartography of grace’ where one can orient oneself and be invited to search for the nexus of the subject and the sacred—to touch the wounds and truly to believe.
Where the traditional understanding of cartography is that of mapping space on a two-dimensional field of north/east/west/south, a ‘poetic cartography of grace,’ I argue, is the mapping not merely of space within poetics, but of the very fullness of space and time itself—in short, a mapping of meaning. In the poetic cartography of U2’s music, the poetics are embodied both in the poetics and the reader—you are in Christ as Christ is in you. This mapping has no boundary or edge that would announce the end of the world or a limit to the universe that creates a sense of beginning and end, but is fully enclosed and three-dimensional, moving itself in the fullest breath, depth, and height of time and space,13 as one who comes unannounced and bearing gospel— good news.
Derrida states in This Strange Institution Called Literature, that the power within the space of literature is a, “fictive institution which in principle allows one to say everything,” that is seen in its ability to, “break out of prohibitions in every field where law can lay down the law. The law of literature tends, in principle, to defy or lift the law. . . . It [literature] is an institution which tends to overflow the institution.”14
I see in U2 a desire for a poetics of Jesus as an act which overflows the institution of what has been traditionally understood as “real worship” so that how the story of Jesus is told is as important as the story itself. While most of the so-called Historical Quest for Jesus concerned itself with the content and facts concerning this one who “comes to us as one unknown”, it was the form of Jesus and what this person represents that intrigued and gave noticeable shape to the arising poetics of U2’s music and that gives a face to this one unknown. As Paul writes in the second letter to the Corinthians, it is deep within the Christian story to figure this face where:
We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another. . . . For it is the God who said, ‘Light will shine out of the darkness’, who has shown in our hearts to the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.15
Theologian Günther Bornkamm’s statement that “no one is any longer in the position to write a life of Jesus”16 remains before many scholars as we come into the new millennium. While the writing of various ‘lives of Jesus’ such as D.F. Strauss’ Das Leben Jesu may be seen as a dead end, writing which recalls a poetics of Jesus continues to bring new forms and new life to the person of Jesus. This is a poetics that takes its form through a retrieval of Jesus’ words at the institution of the Eucharist.
This one who comes as one unknown— does indeed arise in the act of remembrance through a poetics of Jesus. In the same way, as readers of such poetics we are invited to come, as St. Paul wrote, “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord… being transformed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” Such is the invitation to ‘do this’—poiesis—in remembrance of him.
1. Luke 22: 14 – 19. NRSV.
2. Mieke Bal, Narratology. 2nd edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997) p. 59.
3. Jeffrey F. Keuss, A Poetics of Jesus (London: Ashgate, 2002).
4. John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate (London: SCM Press, 1993) p. 101.
5. Gotthold Müller, Identitat und Immanenz: Zur Genese der Theologie von David Friedrich Strauss (Zurich: EVZ-Verlag, 1968) pp. 252-59. Trans. and cited by Peter C. Hodgson, “Editor’s Introduction to Strauss’ Theological Development from 1825 to 1840” in The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (Ramsey: Sigler Press, 1994) p. xv.
6. Matthew Arnold ‘God and the Bible’ Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. Cited by Rosemary Ashton The German Idea: Four English Writers and the Reception of German Thought 1800-1860. (London: Libris, 1980, 1994) p. 150.
7. This loss of the extravagant exaggeration of a language of love and the reinforcement of a employment of mere systems of belief is noted by Martin Heidegger to Engelbert Krebs, the priest who married Heidegger and performed the baptism of his first child. He wrote that his reason for leaving the Catholic Church was due to “epistemological insights, extending as far as the theory of historical knowledge, that have made the system of Catholicism problematic and unacceptable to me—but not Christianity and metaphysics.” Cited by John Caputo, “Heidegger and Theology” in The Cambridge Companion to Heideggered. Charles Guignon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) p. 272.
8. Paul Ricoeur in “The Bible and Genre,” Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) p. 189.
9. Jonathan Culler, Framing the Sign: Criticism and its Institutions, p. ix.
10. John 20: 26-28 NRSV.
11. Heidegger’s last reflections on his lifework from the unfinished notes to preface Frühe Schriften as a review of his collected writings (Gesamtausgabe letzter Hand). Cited by Dorothea Frede in “The Question of being: Heidegger’s project” from The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, ibid. p. 42.
12. Martin Heidegger, “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” 1964 in Basic Writings of Martin Heidegger ed. David Farrell Krell (London: Routledge, 1996): “We call this openness that grants a possible letting appear show ‘clearing’. .. The forest clearing (lichtung) is experienced in contrast to dense forest, called Dicktung in our older language. The substantive Lichtung goes back to the verb lichten. The adjective licht is the same word as ‘light’. To lighten something means to make it light, free and open, e.g. to make the forest free of trees in one place. The free space thus originating the clearing. What is light is the sense of being free and open has nothing in common with the adjective ‘light’ which means ‘bright,’ neither linguistically nor materially. This is to be observed for the difference between clearing and light… Light can stream into the clearing, into its openness, and let brightness play with darkness in it. But light never first creates clearing. Rather, light presupposes it… The clearing is the open region for everything that becomes present and absent.” pp. 441, 442.
13. I am seeing this notion of ‘poetic cartography’ as akin to the attempts put forward by women mystics such as Theresa of Avila. See E. Ann Matter “Internal Maps of an Eternal External” and Laurie Finke “Mystical Bodies and the Dialogics of Vision” in Maps of Flesh and Light ed. Ulrike Wiethaus (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1993) pp. 28ff.
14. Jacques Derrida, “This Strange Institution Called Literature”, p. 36.
15. 2 Corinthians 3:18, 4:6 NRSV. David Ford in his recent book. Self and Salvation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) has an extended reflection on this notion of ‘facing’ in relation to the figuring of Christ.
16. Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 13.
Jeff Keuss is professor of Christian ministry, theology, and culture at Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of A Poetics of Jesus, The Sacred and Profane: Current Demands in Hermeneutics, and Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity, and Mission at the Crossroads. Keuss is the co-chair of the Paul Ricoeur Consultation for the American Academy of Religion and serves on the editorial board for the journal Literature and Theology (Oxford University Press). When he is not blogging at Theology Kung Fu (http://senseijfk.wordpress.com/), he is often playing Scrabble with his wife and losing horribly.