Dirty Day: Part Three
It was St. Paul, of course, who first began this chorus of clarity and commitment in his letter to the church in Corinth - "faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love" - which sounds like this in Eugene Peterson's reworking of scripture:
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love doesn't strut, doesn't have a swelled head,
Doesn't force itself on others, isn't always "me first,"
Doesn't fly off the handle, doesn't keep score of the sins of others, Doesn't revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, Never looks back but keeps going to the end. Love never dies... (So) trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.
That is what I hear the more I listen to U2's take on incarnational spirituality: when they are wounded by the ugly cruelty of the world - think: "Peace on Earth," "One" or "Acrobat" - when they are perplexed by how to live authentically in a culture that reduces creativity and humanity to commodities - think: "Vertigo," or "Last Night on Earth" - when they are using "judo" to move the energy of hate, violence or greed into something new and potentially healing - think: "Grace," "The Fly" or "Peace, Love or Else" - there is always a deep commitment to faith, hope and love - with the greatest of these being love. I love how Bono puts it in "God: Part Two" (his reverent reply to John Lennon's primal scream song.)
I... I... believe in love! This commitment to love is how I understand the call of the artist into expressions of beauty in the work of U2. They have made clear choices: to embrace the edge of punk without its nihilism, to flirt with the shadow without becoming addicted to despair, to affirm the ethos of the 60s counterculture without the bullshit and brown rice .
In Christian Scharen's book, One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God, he quotes Bono in a post ZooTV reflection: "We were confirmed about our instincts that the idea of counterculture, the way it used to be in the sixties, is up. And I'm interested in these more Asian ideas, which we playfully call judo, that you use the energy of what's going against you - and by that I just mean popular culture, commerce, science - to defend yourself. Rather than resistance, in the hippie or punk sense of the world, you try to walk through it rather than walk away from it. As opposed to old ideas of dropping out and forming your own Garden of Eden - the brown rice position." (pp. 66-67)
Think the RED Campaign - or One - going through and into the world rather than resisting it - with love and I would add beauty. But because beauty has been the road less travelled in the modern/post-modern era, it needs a few comments for context. (NOTE: for more on the role of Spirit, Beauty and Art please see: Spirit and Beauty by Patrick Sherry, The Substance of Things Seen by Robin Jensen, Art and Soul by Hilary Brand, Theology and the Arts by Richard Viladesau and Spirituality and Contemporary Art at:(http//www.pbs.org/art21/series/seasonone/spirituality.html) To be sure, my summary merely suggests some of the ways that beauty has been treated as the country cousin in the pursuit of truth and goodness in the 20th century; still they are a piece of the portrait.
First, artists in the modern age tend to both reject beauty and embrace what is jarring in their creations as a way of casting off the rigid confines of Romantic high art. When beauty in art had to fit into a mold constrained only by that which is harmonious, pure, noble and serene, it was inevitable that the freedom-seeking non-conformists of the 20th century would reject the "sterilizing dogmatism (of another era. And) this deprecation is found not only amongst critics and philosophers, but also among many artists, who reject or disregard the traditional view that their role is to celebrate the beauty of creation." (Sherry, p. 23) The result can be seen in the obviously caustic creations of Marcel Duchamp as well as the more engaging schools of abstract, surreal and other modern design of Picasso, Rothko and Pollock et al.
Second, because there has been serious ambiguity in the realm of Christian aesthetics, contemporary artists of faith often find themselves having to "reinvent the wheel" when it comes to understanding beauty. From the earliest days, there has been fear and uncertainty about the value of created beauty in the church: some feared that beauty would lure believers into idolatry, others sensed that beauty might become a diversion from acts of faith while still others mistrusted anything but the pursuit of higher and spiritual goals. Nevertheless, a minority report has grown within the Christian realm that believes that a healthy and balanced theology of beauty embraces three ideas: a) The Holy Spirit communicates God's nature to creation through natural beauty; b) Earthly beauty is a reflection of God's essence that inspires created artistic beauty; and c) All beauty points to God's intention of restoring creation to perfection at the end of time as we know it. "...something of great beauty might be both described as sacramental - in the sense that for many people they are signs of God's presence and activity - as the sensible reveals the spiritual - as well as occasions for wonder and awe." (Sherry, p. 3)
And third modern Christian artists have had to negotiate their way through both modernism and faith to find a way of understanding creativity and beauty in their original works. Many have come to identify the presence of beauty as the work of the Holy Spirit who brings order out of chaos and inspires humanity with the inner truth of God's nature. Besides the New England Congregational theologian, Jonathan Edwards, the Roman Catholic thinker, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and contemporary artists/theologians, Lois Huey-Heck and Jim Kalnin as well as Robin Jensen and Steve Turner have done important work in this area. Gregory Wolfe of the IMAGE Journal likes to reference von Balthasar when it comes to the importance of reclaiming beauty:
We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past - whether he admits it or not - can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.
I suspect that it is no coincidence that U2 opened their first album of the 21st century with the song, "Beautiful Day," that is simultaneously hymn/gospel-like in its sound and paradoxically promising in its poetry: Touch me, take me to that other place, teach me, Lord, I know I'm not a hopeless case. See the world in green and blue, see China right in front of you, see the canyons broken by cloud, see the tuna fleets clearing the sea out, see the Bedouin fires at night, see the oil fields at first light and see the bird with a leaf in her mouth: after the flood all the colors came out!
This combination of artistic beauty - the calling by the Spirit to go deeper into truth and goodness - and their pursuit of faith, hope and love empowers U2 to discover light in even the darkest places. Bono says: "One of my definitions of art is the discovery of beauty in unexpected places. Looking for the baby Jesus under the trash as I sing in "Mofo." This was really the theme of POP: big subjects for the basements." (U2 by U2, p. 266)