Dirty Day: Part Three

“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love," wrote the late American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Fifty years later, Bruce Springsteen, sang: "Now I believe in the love that you gave me, I believe in the faith that can save me and I believe in the hope and I pray that some day it will raise me above these badlands, you gotta live it every day - let the broken hearts stand as the price you've gotta pay. Well keep pushin' till its understood and these badlands start treating us good." (Bruce also sang of faith, hope and love in the chorus of his tribute to the September 11th fire fighters, "Into the Fire," praying: May your strength give us strength, may your faith give us faith, may your hope give us hope, may your love give us love)

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)

In addition to "Dirty Day" and "Exit," another overlooked dark song - "Last Night on Earth" - juxtaposes what on the surface looks like a young woman's descent into narcissism and decadence with God's calling to the wounded through our pain. The poet, Rumi, put it like this in "Love Dogs." One night a man was crying, "Allah! Allah!" His lips grew sweet with the praising until a cynic said, "So, I have heard you calling out, but have you ever gotten any response?"

The man had no answer to that. He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep. He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls, in a think, green foliage. "Why did you stop praising?" "Because I never heard anything back."

This longing you express IS the return message. The grief you cry out from draws you toward union. Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup. Listen to the moan of a dog for its master. That whining is the connection. There are love-dogs on one knows the names of: give your life to become one of them.

She feels the ground is giving way but she thinks we're better off that way The more you take the less you feel The less you know the more you believe The more you have the more it takes today: You got to give it away Well she don't care what it's worth: she's living like it's the last night on earth. She's not waiting on a saviour to come She's at the bus-stop with News of the World and the Sun, here it comes She's not waiting for anyone: you got to give it away!

This is the via negativa - the road less travelled - the presence of God discovered in the emptiness - the white space surrounding the black letters - the aching for wholeness and hope in the midst of sadness and pain. And what makes this song a blessing is that like the true spirit of Jesus, U2 offers no judgment for the woman's brokenness - just grace. "Are your tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come away with me... and I will show you the unforced rhythm of grace."
Poet Denise Levertov has noted that, "People turn to poems (and I would add music) for some kind of illumination, for revelations that help them to survive, to survive in spirit not only in body." Like U2 she knows how important it is for us all to:
Keep writing in the dark:
a record of the night, or
words that pulled you from depths of unknowing...
or opened as flowers of a tree that blooms
only once in a lifetime:
words that may have the power
to make the sun rise again.


Beth said…
OK, I have managed to get you linked...

I'm wondering if you have seen the version of "Last Night" with the Western-style captions put in. When I first saw the captioned version 3-4 years ago, it was on the website of a church. And I immediately went into high dudgeon at this Christian exploitation of U2 by imposing hit-you-over-the-head evangelistic type verbal explanations on their work.


Then I found out the captioned version was U2's original video.

It gives a completely different take on the role of the girl, and sort of I think compels a particular reading of the trip back into the city at the end. Not that I think this in any way challenges the via negativa reading you do here, since a video and a song can have different and polyvalent meanings. But I thought you might be interested in seeing it just for fun.

The captioned version is not, so far as I know, available other than online. The version with captions removed is what's on DVD, perhaps in part because the captions also play up the (now quite dated) X-files allusions in the video. But Universal, for some reason, put up the original on their official site.

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