Monday, March 23, 2009

Human Nature in China

Times have changed. Just last year I was in China lecturing on the metaphysics of human nature. Then I was unable to access my blog, inferring that the Chinese government blocked access. But here I am one year later, and for whatever reason, with full access!

So, if time permits I figured I blog a little about my experience and my lectures. Today I am scheduled to lecture on dualist views of human nature. I'll cover a couple of Descrartes' arguments for dualism and the compound dualism of St. Thomas Aquinas.

My son Rowan and I spent a few days in Hangzhou before settling in Beijing. We spent some time with our friend Jing and her husband Chenhui. The highlight was traveling the streets of Hangzhou on bicycle with six million of our closest Chinese friends. It was the most harrowing of experiences!!! The streets are jam-packed with bicycles, mopeds, cars and buses and there are no discernible traffic rules. Absoulte mayhem. The same holds for boarding and deborading buses and trains. It is a free for all. People push and shove and no one is phased by it. I was happy to see that the taking off and landing of aircrafts do not obey the same cultural norms!!!

My favorite experience was flying from Beijing to Hangzhou aboard China Eastern Airlines. As the plane was landing and was all of several hundred feet off the ground people in the back of the plane began getting out of their seats and reaching for their things in the overhead compartments. The flight staff yelled at the people, raced to the back of the plane, closed the over head compartments, yelled some more and then ran back to her seat before the plane touched down. It was amazing to behold!!!

And the food. Ahhhh, the food! Flavor abounds and we are in culinary heaven.

Reflections on my first lecture will follow.

Friday, March 13, 2009

They Still Haven't Found What They're Looking For: More U2 NLOTH

Over at U2 Sermons there has been lots of discussion of the new U2 album, NLOTH. Beth, whose site it is, has been offering up really interesting and provocative musings on the album. Here’s one line from a recent post:

U2 don't want to show us the certainties we humans make of religious experience after the fact; they want to show us actual religious experience in all its imperious, weird, transformative power.”

I think she’s right about that. I think this album (especially) provides more of a phenomenology of religious experience than an interpretation of it. The lyrics are written from the on-the-ground perspective of lived experience. They are not written in what we might call the theoretic mode, which comes after the experience has been filtered through a particular hermeneutic grid.

Life, it is often said, is always lived forward but only understood backward. This U2 album is very much written in the forward direction, not the backward. But if that’s so, then I don’t think we can say that the face looking back at the guy at the ATM machine in Moment of Surender is the face of Jesus, as one commenter at U2 Sermons does. From inside the story I think it’s ambiguous just whose face is staring back at the character. I think even the identity of the unknown caller in the song by the same name is, from inside the story, also ambiguous. Is it God? Is it a wrong number? Who is it? The ambiguity of the identity of the caller is supported by Bono himself who says exactly that in the book that accompanies the deluxe editions. He himself asks, “Who is it that’s calling? Is it God? Who?”

I think we’ve got to be careful about saying what lyrics mean or to whom the characters in them mean to be referring. As a piece of art the lyrics are open to myriad interpretations which, though they may be radically different, can all be faithful to the lyrics. From within the narrative of the album or the songs themselves, however, I think the source of transformation in MoS and UKC is shrouded in mystery.

One more thought. Also over at U2 Sermons Beth has a beautiful post titled Dhikr in which she talks about the Sufi influences on NLOTH. One of the things she suggests in her discussion is that there’s not as much ache in NLOTH as there is in previous U2 albums. She says,

“U2 often used to give us quite a lot of lament alternating with dazzled foretastes, or the two married into a kind of ache. But there is not much aching on NLOTH. The album is more settled and assured on both ends; its quest is to dwell in reality, not drum up drama, and yet it seems more confident than ever that there is a realm of very palpable connection with God available now as well.”

Well, I dunno. I think the very title of the album, together with the future orientation of many of the album’s moments, suggests otherwise. I think this album no less than previous ones drips with what the Germans call sensucht, a perpetually unsatisfied longing and yearning, an ache, at the center of the human condition. Indeed, I was just talking with students last night about this in connection with C.S. Lewis. Lewis claims in Surprised by Joy that sensucht, more than anything, was the central story of his life. I believe this to be the central message of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. The band members may have in fact been found by God, but they still hadn't found what they were looking for. That's sensucht. And it’s there in White as Snow. It’s there too in Cedars of Lebanon

This shitty world sometimes produces a rose
The scent of it lingers and then it just goes

That just about says it all, doesn’t it? That just about summarizes all U2 albums: it’s a shitty world. But sometimes it produces roses. Enjoy the roses, because soon enough their fragrance will be gone. And the longing will return. The ache, in fact, is never fully massaged away, ever; at least not on this side of the Silence.

So NLOTH, no less than U2’s other albums, is radically this-worldly. But insofar as it is I don’t think it’s any more settled or assured than previous albums. Life in the sound is intrinsically unsettled. It’s characterized by darkness and punctuated now and again by real but fleeting glimpses of the Divine. Love may have the last word and a few beautiful penultimate words. And joy no doubt gets in its two-cents worth, too, between the already and the not-yet. But the scent of them both lingers and then it just goes. And so we find ourselves always longing, always yearning, never settled.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

U2: No Line on The Horizon

Conversation in the media and around the blogosphere surrounding U2’s 12th studio album, NLOTH, is both ubiquitous and animated, much like the front man of U2 himself, the ever present Bono. Some of the faithful love the album and tout it as their best yet. Others….not so much. Despite the fact that I, like ever so many, have been suffering from a severe case of “Bono Fatigue,” (as my friend Matt likes to call it), I was eager to get my hands on the new record. Indeed, I had been listening to it for weeks before I bought it from my local record store Vertigo Music the day it was released.

Some Christians are hailing the album as U2’s most explicitly Christian since October. Indeed, Christians have been finding everything from the album’s cover to the lyrics thick with Christian content and symbolism.

Music is art and just as good works of art help us to see new worlds or to sometimes see the same world with new eyes, so the work of art itself is open to a plurality of interpretations, depending on the hermeneutic of the viewer-listener-reader.

Let’s start with the album cover, pictured above. It features a black and white Hiroshi Sugimoto photograph of sky meeting sea. Some interpret the cover as a testament to U2’s eschatological vision of that day when God’s kingdom has come to earth in fullness. I like that interpretation and think the cover is certainly open to it. Viewed from the perspective of the Christian story, what I really like about the photograph is the bottom half. The top half is very light and the bottom half much darker. It’s easy to view the image as a bold contrast between light (heaven) and darkness (earth). And yet. And yet one can’t help but be struck by the circle of reflected light amidst the darkness in the bottom half, pushing the darkness outward; a beautiful image I think. The Christian sees in this God’s goodness pushing back the darkness, all that drags us down. That’s grace. Gravity (darkness and sin) pulls us downward, but grace (light and love) push back against gravity and lift us up.

How does Bono himself describe the album cover? Well, not with the language and imagery I just used. He describes it in terms that are woven throughout the lyrics of the album and which, though not at odds in any way with Christian thought, are certainly not explicitly Christian either. He sees the photograph as symbolizing infinity, an image of a future open to infinite possibility. His focus is neither on the light nor the darkness, but on the vanishing point in the infinite distance, the point beyond our vision. The upcoming tour, by the way, will be called Kiss the Future.

The notion of infinity is, as I say, woven throughout the album. From the title track, No Line On the Horizon, where Bono croons

I know a girl with a hole in her heart
She said infinity’s a great place to start

to the hymn-like confession Magnificent

I was born
I was born to be with you
In this space and time
After that and ever after
I haven't had a clue

to the equally confessional Breathe, where Bono speaks of the “roar that lies on the other side of silence.” I hear in all these lines an openness to the future, a denial that things must be the way they in fact are, a kind of joy in infinite possibility, and a yearning for what lies beyond. Christian? Explicitly Christian? If one is a Christian one will no doubt resonate with the themes of uncertainty in the face of infinity and that things are not now as they should be and will be in the shalomic future.

While many moments of autobiography can be detected on this album—gotta stand up to rock stars; Napoleon is in high heels; Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas, many of the songs are written, Bono tells us in the book that accompanies the deluxe editions, from the perspectives of characters he has created. The last two U2 albums—ATYCLB and HTDAB were straightforward autobiography, personal accounts of Bono wrestling with his own demons. This one less so; at least less so in terms of being written from the first-person perspective. But, as Bono himself reminds us, the mask reveals the man. And that’s no doubt true on this album.

Though not written from the first-person perspective there’s still a lot of Bono that shines through the characters he concocts for this album. What manages to shine through is humility, uncertainty in the presence of transcendence, doubt in the presence of unvarnished evil, longing, rebirth, and sheer joy, gratitude and love. If you're a Christian, all of those ideas are bound to resonate, and resonate deeply. Are they Christian? Explicitly Christian? Whatever they are they are certainly not exclusively Christian.

While Bono can be a little too full of himself for his own good, somehow he manages, I think, to convey a laudable sort of humility. This comes through brilliantly on Magnificent.

I was born
I was born to sing for you

I didn’t have a choice
But to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
From the womb my first cry
It was a joyful noise
Oh, oh…

This is not braggodocio. It’s Bono realizing that he’s been given a gift, a voice, something which, like unusually good looks, is not something one deserves credit for. It’s dumb luck or sheer blessing. And Bono, in full confessional mode, offers back to its Giver what he regards as a gift, and he does so with an obvious sense of gratitude. He even acknowledges that when he wrote the song he had in mind the Magnificat, the song that Mary sings upon her visitation to Elizabeth. Although the song as a whole is, he says, "about two lovers trying to hold on to each other and trying to turn their life into worship. Not of each other, but of being alive, of God...of spirit."

There’s another confession of humility in the full-on gaze of ego in Stand Up Comedy. There Bono sings,

I gotta stand up to ego but my ego’s not really the enemy
It’s like a small child crossing an eight lane highway
On a voyage of discovery

Bono knows his ego needs taming, but I think he’s here revealing a charming childlikeness, the smallness he feels in the face of it all and the glee we all used to take in the dare to “cross an eight-lane highway” just for the thrill of it. Bono has not lost that sense of childlike glee and adventure. The world, bent and broken though it may be, still presents itself to Bono as a vast playground or carnival, an adventure inviting him on its many rides and attractions. And he’s (sometimes) downright giddy about being in the midst of it all.

There are several places on the album that strike notes of yearning and rebirth. First, in Moment of Surrender, a song about a character Bono has manufactured, a war veteran who hasn’t been able to reinsert himself into civilian life or into his own skin or psyche for that matter. As Bono puts it, “he has dragged his wife into drugs and booze, [and] he can’t live with what he’s done to her and so he breaks down beside an ATM machine and begs God to deliver them.” The song is, I believe, the highpoint of the album. In any case, we get these chilling lyrics sung in Bono's brooding voice:

I’ve been in every black hole
At the altar of the dark star
My body’s now a begging bowl
That’s begging to get back
Begging to get back to my heart
To the rhythm of my soul
To the rhythm of my unconsciousness
To the rhythm that yearns
To be released from control

The way Bono envisions it, it’s this same troubled soul in Unknown Caller, who ends up in some motel trying to make a call on his cell phone. Who’s he calling? A drug dealer to score more drugs? Someone for help? We don’t know. But he doesn’t get a signal. Instead, someone (or is it Someone) is reaching out to him with a stunning and completely unexpected (text) message. The message tells him to,

Go, shout it out, rise up
Oh, oh
Escape yourself and gravity
Hear me, cease to speak that I may speak
Shush now….

Restart and re-boot yourself
You’re free to go
Oh, oh
Shout for joy if you get the chance…

I can’t help but be reminded in these lyrics of Jesus in the Gospels telling those he’s healed or forgiven, “Go; you’re free. You’re healed.” One can only imagine or perhaps not imagine at all, if you yourself take yourself to have been forgiven or healed, then you know perfectly well that feeling of unbridled joy that comes with forgiveness and healing. And there are times either in private or public you "shout it out!"

And then, these lyrics from Breathe,

Every day I die again, and again I’m reborn

The ideas of yearning and rebirth permeate the album and, I think, Bono’s way of being in the world. It’s just like Bob Dylan said “That he not busy being born is busy dying.” Anyone who is not open to being born again (and again and again and again) is already dying and is in danger of turning to stone. U2 have always been open to the new, to the unexpected, to the surprising and transcendent, open to being reborn, again and again and again. That’s what make them perpetually fresh, still attractive to fans young enough to be their teen children.

My favorite feature of the album, btw, and no doubt an element owing to the genius of Brian Eno, comes at the beginning of Fez-Being Born. If you’ve heard the chorus to the first single off the album, Get on Your Boots, you’ll recognize these lyrics

Let me in the sound
Let me in the sound
Let me in the sound, sound
Let me in the sound, sound
Meet me in the sound

At the beginning of Fez-Being Born, just behind the music, a barely audible Bono can be heard to sing, begging and pleading-like,

let me in the sound let me in the sound
let me in the sound, sound
let me in the sound, sound
let me in the sound.

That is brilliant! This is what Bono has been born to do. It’s the place he meets us, his fans, the place he is no doubt most himself, and the place he finds grace,

I found grace inside of sound; I found grace it’s all that I found.

Those beautiful lyrics are from the song, Breathe.

Is this U2's most explicitly Christian album? I'm not sure I even understand the question. Some of the lyrics will no doubt send chills up the spines of those of us who fit our own stories into The (Christian) Story. And Bono may no doubt have penned them from within The Story. But the lyrics and the album as a whole have broader appeal. You don't have to be a Christian to resonate with the realities about which Bono sings. I guess I get a little annoyed when Christians say things like "this is U2's most explicitly Christian album." While I'm not sure what that actually means, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Reading some of the theologically oriented reviews around the blogosphere leads me to believe that some are trying too hard to mine these songs of explicitly Chrisitan content. Sometimes a telephone pole in a movie is just a telephoe pole, with no deeper meaning. So, for example, when Bono sings "the sweetest melody is the one we haven't heard" in I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight, I've got a hunch he hasn't got Revelations 4 in mind, as someone has actually suggested. Just a hunch.

As to the question whether this is U2’s best album, I'm agnostic about that, too. It may be a best since album. Their best since Achtung Baby or their best since The Unforgettable Fire. Is it better than Joshua Tree? I think Joshua Tree is in a class by itself. And I think we have to wait to see how NLOTH ages before we can say where it should rank in the U2 canon.

NLOTH is a GREAT album; I LOVE it and can't stop listening to it. And I’m pretty doggone certain an awful lot of people are going to meet me in the sound when they kiss the future in Chicago on September 12. How about you? Meet me in the sound?