Entering Zoo Station: A Christian U2 Critic Talks to the Media
August 27, 2009 · Print This Article
“I’m readyâ€¨/Ready for what’s nextâ€¨/Ready to duckâ€¨/Ready to dive”
“Zoo Station,” U2
When my new book–We Get to Carry Each Other: The Gospel According to U2–came out, I knew that it entailed engaging the Christian and secular media-and what that might mean. I’ve done enough writing about religion and culture, been on enough local, national, and international shows, to know that first, there’s so much interest in the intersection of religion and culture from both the sacred and the secular media that I’d be spending a lot of time talking to reporters, producers, and radio hosts.
But second, I also knew that whether I was talking to mainstream or Christian media, I’d encounter some real curiosity and even some animosity about my approach, whether because it makes for a better story, or because (as I suspect) even those who intuit that something transcendent and beautiful lies at the heart of great art can’t always quite get their heads around the spiritual meaning of that.
I was telling people in a workshop in Anaheim at the Episcopal General Convention last week that one of our most important tasks when we approach a work of art or a popular culture text is to try to listen, watch, or read it with as few of our preconceptions and prejudices as possible. That is hard work, though: we “read” everything through filters based on who we are, what we have previously liked, what we believe. And where U2 and religion are concerned, I can tell you that one of the most active interpretive filters is simply this: faith or lack of faith make a huge difference in how people react to the proposition that U2 might be Christian in some shape or form.
Peewee Herman once sagely observed that everyone has a big but. In the Christian media-which is almost always conservative Catholic or evangelical, although some sources now can be considered culturally or theologically progressive-the big but has often been getting their heads around U2′s Christian practice (or perceived lack of it).
Christians, especially conservative Christians, are often nervous about certain aspects of popular culture that have had a tendency to demonize Christians. The big but of secular folks, especially rock music folks, also has to do with U2′s Christian practice. Secular folks are often suspicious of Christianity, which has had a tendency to demonize rock ‘n’ roll, those who play it, and those who love it. So, those are two big buts. But how do they play out in conversation?
In an interview about my U2 book on a British Christian radio network earlier this year, I heard the representative objections from the Christian side. Okay, my questioner said, I’ve heard members of U2 are Christian but: How can U2 be considered Christian when they live like rock stars? Say the “f” word? Are played on secular radio? Don’t belong to a church?
In an interview for San Francisco’s KFOG two weeks ago, the representative objections of secular listeners emerged. One host told me flat out, “I’m not religious. Why should I read your book?”
Here the big but comes down, essentially, to these questions: I’ve heard members of U2 are Christian but I’m not, so why should it matter? Does it have any effect on their music? Can’t I enjoy their music without sharing their faith? Why do we have to talk about that? Haven’t rock ‘n’ roll and religion always been at odds?
These are all good questions-I know, because I have lived decades in both worlds, the non-religious and the very religious-but I think all, ultimately, are answerable. To my Christian friends, I say that music and beauty are important to an understanding of Christian faith. Like Bono, who loves the Psalms, I talk about how secular and sacred music were both a part of my spiritual journey, and how U2 has been a part of the journeys of millions of people, Christian and otherwise. I talk about how their songs are about peace, love, community, and justice, and how they have modeled for the world a faithful Christian practice that is more about saving the world then it is about saving themselves. And I talk about how-in terms familiar from the Gospels-the fruits of a life are the ultimate test of that life: if U2′s fruits seem to be peace, justice, and compassion, then that is who they are.
For my secular friends, I remind them that art emerges from the artist’s deepest center, that it is made from their desires, needs, hopes-and that for at least three members of the band, including the chief lyricist and chief music writer, those artistic identities are faithful identities. That’s why their faith is worth noting. I tell them that knowing about U2′s faith will help them better understand the band’s intentions for the music; while intention is not the only thing, it certainly matters in a song like “Gloria” or “Magnificent.” I tell them that great art should not be-and is not-restricted by whether or not an artist and audience share the same beliefs, so if they love U2′s music and feel themselves transported by it, even though they are Muslim or Buddhist or nothing definable, that is as it should be. And I tell them that U2, in their music and their lives, is modeling a way of being that means something, a way of helping, loving, and being in community that all of us can emulate, even if we don’t ultimately share their faith.
I still sometimes get talked over by Christian media people who disagree with me; I still sometimes get hung up on by shock jocks who really hate Christians. And as a shy and quiet person, I find this like walking into Zoo Station, and it is my least favorite part of the job. I’m not always ready for the gridlock, for the push, for the crush.
But then there was last night, when I stood in a great Louisville bookstore in front of 60 people-some of whom were U2 insiders, some of whom were not, some of whom were Christians, some of whom were not-and got to tell very human stories about how U2 has affected my life and the lives of others, stories about the band that illustrate how very much there is to learn from them and their music. And people listened. –Greg Garrett
Greg Garrett is Professor of English at Baylor University and the author of a dozen critically-acclaimed books of fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and translation. His We Get to Carry Each Other: The Gospel according to U2 is now in stores. Other books on faith and culture include Stories from the Edge: A Theology of Grief; Holy Superheroes!; The Gospel according to Hollywood; and (with Chris Seay) The Gospel Reloaded.
Photo from the Interference forums.