Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bono-fied Christianity (Sunday Reflections for August 15, 2010)

 (I mentioned to another pastor this week that we would be playing a U2 song in worship on Sunday. As a fan of theirs he said he has always been impressed how they could perform music with clearly Christian lyrics but not be pigeon-holed as a Christian band. “And yet they ARE a Christian band,” he added. As I thought about our conversation later, however, I wondered: “Are they?”

What does it mean today to be labeled “Christian”? In this country, that term now most often refers to something affiliated with evangelical Christianity. This is almost always true for Christian schools, books, radio, TV, music, businesses, organizations, values, and politics.

Recent surveys have shown that this equation of “Christian” with conservative evangelicalism is starting to take hold in the public mind, especially with young adults. Since many of them disagree with evangelical ideology and politics, there is a growing trend to avoid being identified as Christian even if they accept a more moderate or liberal interpretation of Christianity. This is giving mainline Protestants one more reason to be frustrated and confused about their identity.

Bono and Oprah launch RED charity brand
The Christian leanings of the members of U2, especially its front man Bono, are well known. Bono says the band has resisted the Christian label because it lays too high a standard on them. Perhaps. Yet it also seems that U2’s non-sectarian identity over the past 25+ years is part of a naturally emerging change in the nature of religion, and Christianity in particular, in the Western world.

I have been writing recently about music and the arts, and their relation with contemporary Christianity, in part because they are often the leading edge of cultural change. In that regard what I think is striking is how much Christian influence can be found in modern art, music, literature, drama, cinema, etc.—yet rarely are these works given the label “Christian.” In fact, like U2 and Bono, most of the creators of these works would avoid or reject such a label, even while acknowledging a Christian influence or inspiration.

So what’s going on? Paradoxically, even as institutional Christianity in the form of the church has been fading, over the past two centuries a Christian worldview has been gradually getting absorbed by Western culture and ridden along with it literally around the globe. Christian stories, myths, symbols, and values now pervade our common culture. They are recognized by people who have never set foot in a church or read a page of the Bible. They are recognized by people who don’t know their Christian origin.

This is not to say, of course, that society has been transformed into a Christian paradise. Far from it—but the church never achieved that status either! From its inception, the church was plagued by the whole range of human foibles. The gospel functioned within it, however, as the inspiration for its communal life as well as for the life of its individual members. It served as a constant critique of the church’s failures and guide for its reform.

Today the Christian story, ethic and world vision serve that same function for culture at large. At the broadest social and political level, it’s hard to think of a movement for justice or reform that hasn’t had its principle inspiration in the Bible’s vision of equality and compassion. The rise of democracy, the abolition of slavery and child labor, welfare for the poor, universal suffrage, promotion of health care and literacy, international disaster relief, the end of colonialism, and the various movements for civil rights have all explicitly or implicitly traced their inspiration and authority to the biblical tradition, especially Jesus and the prophets. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 seeks to hold the entire world to these standards.

It can be hard to recognize the presence of Christian symbols and values in our common culture simply because they have become so universally accepted. Literature, for example, routinely explores the full range of weakness and failure in human character and relationships in conjunction with themes of sacrifice, forgiveness and redemption. Again like U2, many authors are critically recognized for their use of Christian themes and images yet are never classified as Christian writers. And as I indicated a couple weeks ago, the same can be said for many contemporary artists.

So, I think I would disagree with my pastor friend. U2 is not a Christian band for one reason: while they are promoting a Christian-based message they are not promoting Christianity as a religion. For this is what the word Christian has come to designate: a person or organization which advocates belonging to the church and/or believing in Christian doctrine. For musicians and artists like U2, while they accept and use much of the Christian story in their approach to life, and even advocate for Christian ethical principles in public, they are generally indifferent, if not hostile, to church membership.

Anne Rice
Recently best-selling author Anne Rice created a stir by very publicly repudiating her membership in the Catholic Church. “I quit being a Christian,” she declared on her Facebook page, but “I remain committed to Christ as always.” Without going into her reasons for this, what is so telling is how easily she separates being “committed to Christ” from belonging to the church or even being identified as a Christian. In her view, in fact, the latter had become an obstacle to the former.

And such is the experience of countless millions of people today. I encounter few people who have explicitly rejected Christianity. I meet many people, however, who left the church after some bad experience (ala Anne Rice) or just drifted away because it was no longer serving any real purpose in their life. Naturally, churches have responded to this by trying to make church life “better,” but I think this misses the point. For the real message here is that Christianity is changing from a group identity to a personal commitment and approach to life.

Implicit in this is the fading away of what once was thought to be the church’s primary role: saving people’s souls. To most Western people, including many in the church, that notion is as antiquated as it sounds. Nothing epitomizes modern life better than our concern for life here and now. This is in sharp contrast with the ancient and medieval belief (just as much taken for granted at the time) that one’s primary concern was with a life after this one. Today we literally live in a different world.

Contemporary musicians, artists, and writers seek to connect with the questions and issues that people struggle with in their personal and corporate lives. They respond to the perceived needs of their audience and in doing so many have found the Christian tradition an important or even primary resource.

We all know those concerns: love, family, friendship, work, meaning and purpose, fairness, suffering, social justice, violence and war, peace and prosperity, aging and death. If Christianity survives in an institutional form it will be because it too discovers how to provide real support to people in their struggle with such questions.

Music and the arts have been free to naturally evolve in response to cultures’ needs and concerns. Institutional Christianity, however, has become stuck, tethered to the past, longing again to be able hold the fate of people’s lives in its hands. In its stubborn nostalgia, however, for most people it becomes more irrelevant by the day. In the meantime, real Christianity is leaking out of the church and into the culture at large becoming, as Jesus once said, the leaven in the lump.

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