Saturday, April 9, 2011

Love (Doesn't) Win After All. Why Rob? Why?

If you’re anything like me, then you are no doubt suffering from Rob Bell fatigue. It happened to me with Bono a few years ago. I love Bono. But I grew tired of seeing him on every magazine cover and hearing about him everywhere I turned. I doubt I’m alone. I bet even Bono—big as his ego is—suffered Bono fatigue! And I bet Rob Bell is suffering Rob Bell fatigue.

So why another post on Rob Bell? Because I think that in all the malstrom of commentary, in all the defending and allegations and so on, it seems an interesting point has been overlooked. The point is this: if what Rob Bell says in his book is true, and if what Rob Bell has recently said at Mars Hill is true, then it looks like LOVE does not win in the end. And that’s disappointingly bad news, and Love Wins a case of false advertising.

To see why it is plausible to believe that, according to Rob Bell, LOVE really doesn’t win after all, let me begin by providing an argument for what I like to call Christocentric Universalism, the belief that eventually all are reconciled to God and enjoy everlasting union with him in a New Jerusalem. Here it is:

1. God’s intentions ultimately will be realized.

2. Among God’s intentions is that human beings flourish.

3. Human beings cannot flourish if they are suffering the torments of hell forever and ever and ever.

4. Therefore, eventually, all are reconciled to God (since being reconciled to God is the only way for human beings to flourish).

The only way to avoid the conclusion is to deny one of (1) – (3). Yet each has a lot going for it. For instance, to deny that God’s intentions ultimately will be realized seems to suggest that small, finite creatures like us can thwart God’s good purposes and intentions forever. And that doesn’t seem right. We can thwart God’s good purposes, of course—we do it every day. But forever? No! To borrow from Charley Sheen, God is a winner. So says the first premise of this argument anyway.

One way, however, to avoid the universalist conclusion is to deny (2). And this, I would like to suggest, is what Rob Bell does and why if what he says is true it looks like LOVE doesn’t win after all.

One way to deny (2) is to say that while it is true that among God’s intentions is that human beings flourish, God has other intentions or purposes that conflict with this one and, sadly, trump. Enter free will. The idea is that while God desires that all are saved and reconciled God also desires that all are saved or reconciled by their own free choice. And since God values free will so highly, God will not coerce or violate the free will of those who choose to separate themselves from God. The idea is that honoring the free choice of those human beings who choose their own eternal misery is itself a manifestation of God’s love.

Here’s where the problem arises, however. Does that really seem loving? Suppose I learn that one of my children abuses heroine. Suppose I know that if they abuse for one moment longer they will be irretrievably and permanently lost. Which is the loving thing for me to do here: to say “I love you but I value your free will so very much that I am going to honor your choice to continue abusing and to utterly and irretrievably destroy yourself” or “I love you, but I do not value your free will more than you; you’re going to rehab.

As a human parent, while I value my children’s free will I do not value it more than my children themselves. Likewise, one might argue that God values human freedom as a great good. But it is a relative good, however great it is and not an ultimate good. Human beings, one might think, are ultimate goods. And God will not value human freedom over the humans who have it.

Here’s the idea. All things being equal the very best is for human beings to freely embrace God and come to him. And perhaps God will give each human being the very longest leash possible to come freely. But if ever—way, way, way down the future of eternity—one reaches a threshold beyond which if they exercise their freedom one moment longer they would be eternally lost, LOVE will say “NO! I love and value YOU more than your freedom. I will not allow you to be eternally lost.” Isn’t it plausible to believe that this is how LOVE would act?

Now I’m not suggesting that a universalist has to take this path in order to retain her univeralism. She could simply insist that eventually all are reconciled and all are reconciled freely. God has all eternity. Eventually everyone will freely and without coercion be reconciled. All I want to point out is that to suggest that God values free will so much so that God is willing to eternally lose a human creature who has it does not seem especially loving. God, it could be argued, would love and value the human being more than its freedom.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Never Let Me Go

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

--Raymond Carver/Late Fragment

So. It has been a very long time since my last blog post. Between that last post and this one I have been busy, living. There have been a lot of ups, and a few downs to keep me honest, and humble. What is it that has awakened me from my blog-matic slumber? A movie. A story. A true story, I would say. Never Let Me Go.

The movie follows the brief lives of three characters, Ruth (Kierra Knightly), Kathy (Carey Mulligan) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield). It begins when the three are about twelve or thirteen and at Hailsham, a boarding school for “Donors.” Donors come into existence with one purpose, to donate their vital organs. I say come into existence because Donors are neither born nor conceived in the ordinary way. They are medically manufactured or made (cloned, apparently, from the expendables of society, the low-lifes) for the sole purpose of providing organs, presumably to the privileged. Donors are themselves dispensable, mere consumable goods. Literally.

Hailsham exists primarily to educate and shape the Donors’ view of reality, to inculcate in the Donors an acceptance of their “purpose” or “destiny” and to instill in them anticipation of and pride in how many donations they make as young adults before they “complete.” Which is to say, before they die.

This, to my mind, is all back-story. It is not what the film is about. Good films, I think, are like good poetry or a good metaphor. They’re not about some one thing. They don't try to “make a point.” Instead, they birth universes, open up to readers and viewers new ways of seeing or being in the world. They provoke, interrogate, unnerve, inspire, and cause us to reflect and to interpret ourselves to ourselves. Never Let Me Go does all of these things, without being pretentious and without being preachy.. It's a quiet film. It discloses quietly, provokes and interrogates gently, and from the muted gray colors of Hailsham’s school uniforms to the largely colorless, flat affects of the main characters, the film raises questions about what it means to be human.

For instance, artwork is collected from Donors throughout their lives and evaluated by the “guardians” of Hailsham. Why? Kathy, Tommy and Ruth come to believe that the purpose is to peer into the souls of Donors, to see if they love and how genuinely. If their love is deemed genuine, the three believe, then “guardians” will grant the lovers a short reprieve from donating in order to allow the lovers a little time to indulge and enjoy their love. Unfortunately, we find out toward the end of the movie that this a falsehood. There are no reprieves granted. The purpose of collecting their artwork was not to peer into their souls at all, but as one of the guardians puts it, it was “to see if you even have souls.” And by the film’s end, one cannot help but be struck with the realization that Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are actually more human, more soulful, than the guardians themselves. For they know what it is to feel, despite their often flat exteriors, and to love, to forgive and to be forgiven. The fact that the guardians (like the Nazis and all perpetrators of holocausts) must refer to Donors with dehumanizing terms like Donors, that the guardians cannot even bring themselves to say that the Donors die, but say instead that they complete, suggests that it is in fact the guardians who lack souls and are less than human. And again, the film manages to communicate this subtly and without calling attention to itself.

Ostensibly, however, the film is about the relationship(s) between Tommy, Ruth and Kathy. From the earliest parts of the movie it is clear that there is a sweet connection between Kathy and Tommy. Kathy is quiet, and knowing. She seems to have a capacity for pain, her own and that of others, She knows and understands Tommy in a way that others don’t, including Ruth. Ruth, for her part, is the more assertive of the three. And it is she, not Kathy, who gives Tommy his first kiss, his first relationship and to whom Tommy loses his virginity. Tommy, for his part, is also quiet, a bit unsure and weak-willed, his muted affect, like Kathy’s, belied by an interior life full of pathos. He seems to realize that it is Kathy to whom his heart belongs, but he is too weak to break free of Ruth’s emotional clutches. In what I thought was an emotionally painful scene, Tommy is unable even to look at Ruth as she pleasures herself on top of him.

The life of these three, like that of all Donors, will terminate in their twenties. With that knowledge, like the knowledge they have of what they are and where they fit in the scheme of things (which seems only to become apparent to them when they are in their late teens), how shall they live out their days? What kind of meaning can they—mere donors and expendables—carve out of their brief, meager lives? As it turns out, I would suggest that it is a beautiful life that they manage to wring from their brief, broken and painful lives. Indeed, whether one’s life is all of nearly thirty years or eighty, the question is the same for all: how shall we live out our days? What kind of meaning can we carve out of our brief time on this little round planet?

Early on in the film, when the three are only 12 years old or so, we see Tommy rage at having become the brunt of some mean-spirited, schoolyard prank. The depth of his pain spills out in blood-curdling screams. After Ruth’s second “donation,” and the three have been separated for some ten years, and Ruth realizes her end is immanent, Kathy and Ruth meet and decide to pay Tommy a visit. The three take a car trip back to Hailsham, which is now closed. On the trip Ruth confesses to Kathy that she realizes, perhaps realized all along, that it was Tommy and Kathy who belonged together and she seeks Kathy’s forgiveness for keeping them apart. The scene is reminiscent in a way of the sex scene between Tommy and Ruth, where Tommy cannot bring himself to look at Ruth. For here, too, Kathy looks away from Ruth as Ruth confesses, the truth seemingly too painful for Kathy to face.

Two scenes stand out to me as the most central, and important. Both scenes take place toward the end of the film. In the one, Tommy and Kathy are driving back from having met with one of the guardians about getting a reprieve. They have just learned that there are no reprieves. There they are. Their love having only just begun to bloom and flower, and now to be told that the time for flowering will be cut tragically short is simply too much for Tommy. He asks Kathy to pull the car over and he gets out, lets loose the most agonizing, existentially gripping scream, and collapses in painful recognition of the truth of his existence. The scream is that of a creature who knows both that he has been beloved on the earth and knows also that his life is all too brief.

The other scene occurs just before the last one. In this scene, Kathy and Tommy are together for the first time in a decade. The recognition of love is written all over their faces and in their eyes. They kiss. And concentrated in that kiss are all those lost years, years that were filled for both with a longing and yearning.

Apparently, some who see the movie find it utterly depressing. They find it slow and dark. It is dark, I suppose. But I find the movie ultimately uplifting. For I can imagine the question being put to both Tommy and Kathy:

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

And I think I can hear them both answer:

I did.

And what did you want? (What do any of us want?)

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

It is perhaps a truism that the degree to which we ache and grieve over the loss of a beloved is exactly proportional to the degree to which we loved . He or she who loves deeply, grieves the loss of the beloved deeply. That, I think, is what Tommy’s scream communicates: love and loss.

Henry Miller once said, "The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware." This is the message I take away from the film. Our time upon this earth is brief. So live and love well. Be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware. And awareness, as anyone who lives it knows, opens one to both beauty and pain.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

An Amusing Story

Well, I didn't get to blog every day while in China like I had hoped. And since getting back there's been lots of catching up to do. Add to that my son coming coming down with a killer flu this week and things have been a wee-bit hectic.

That said, there is one really amusing story from my time in China. And it's relevant to the nature of this blog. The title of my series of lectures was "Dualism, Materialism and the Prospects of Postmortem Survival." My last lecture was titled simply "The Prospects of Postmortem Survival." It followed on the heels of one lecture on dualism and two lectures on physicalist accounts of human nature. I began the lecture by stating the problem. If we are physical creatures through-and-through (as I believe we are), how could we possibly exist in any sort of after life? After all, following an ordinary death it appears our bodies cease to exist, are laid in the ground, and over time, their constitutent parts scattered to the four winds. So, how can the physical objects we are turn up in a heavenly city? Now if you're a dualist but also a Christian, then you've got the very same problem insofar as you believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come.

In any case, the lecture explored different ways to make sense out of such a belief as life after death on the assumption that such life is bodily life. Here I explored two or three differen ways things could go, assuming a certain account of the persistence conditions of human bodies, i.e., the sorts of changes things like bodies can undergo without ceasing to exist. At the very end of the lecture I concluded that we can make sense out of such a doctrine as life after death, but if there is to be life after death it is going to take a miracle.

Now the amusing part. As I concluded, one of the Chinese professors, who had attended several of the lectures, stood up and stared at me incredulously, and said: "Is THAT your conclusion? Where's the postmodernism?" Apparently, he had been patiently waiting for postmodern survival to show up in my lectures and, as it turned out, it never did. He had, apparently, mistaken "postmortem survival" for "postmodern survival." When I pointed out his mistake he recognized it at once, was somewhat embarassed, but the two of us had a good laugh nonetheless.

As for me, I had a wonderful time. I think the highlight may have been our final night in Beijing. I took Rowan downstairs to the Hotel Lounge for a celebratory drink (non-alcoholic for him, of course!). And I asked him, "what was your favorite part of the trip?" And he said, "Well, it's between the lectures and the bird's nest." The bird's nest, of course, is the Olympic track and field complex. But, hey, I tied with that!!!! In fact, during one lecture I saw my son writing on a piece of paper. I figured he was doodling. I later discovered that he was taking notes!!!! 11 years old. Warms a dad's heart.

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?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Nature of Belief

I have a friend who is a friend of Stanley Hauerwas, the Duke theologian whose reputation for foul mouthed rabble rousing is legendary. Hauerwas has written a memoir, which he’s had my friend read through in manuscript form. Because there are relevant similarities in life experience between Hauerwas and myself, and because my friend thought it might do my soul good to read it, he asked Hauerwas if it would be okay to share the manuscript with me. Hauerwas agreed. So that manuscript has provided my night time reading over this past week.

I have never been much of a fan of Hauerwas. Though I must admit, I’ve only read two of his books. The first was Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church (1986). I was motivated to read this as a student at Yale Divinity School because of my work with people with mental retardation. (As you may or may not know I have an undergraduate degree in social work and was a practicing social worker for about three years.) The book did not make much of an impression. That may say more about me than it does about the book, however, as I was all of 23 or 24 years old when I read it. The other book of his that I read and that resonated deeply was Resident Aliens (1989), a book he coauthored with William Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke. That book I highly recommend to readers of this blog.

Here in Grand Rapids I’m part of a group called In Vino Theologica or in wine there is theology. It’s a motley little group of men and women, young and old, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant, Confused and Skeptical who come together to read and think about what it means to be Christian. I try to find short(ish), thought-provoking articles for us to read beforehand and then discuss over a couple of bottles of wine and fine cheese. Since I’ve been reading Hauerwas’s memoir I thought I would see if he had anything online that might serve the purposes of our little group. And I came across an article he wrote in 1991 that is immediately relevant to the discussion I was having with Mike Wittmer last week on his blog. Mike and I were discussing the nature of Christian belief.

In that discussion I made the following claims:

I would just point out that practices, rituals, sacraments, feasts and fasts, etc. for 1500 years of Christian history served as the primary means for the redirection and reorientation of our desires, our loves and lives, for our spiritual formation as icons of God and followers of Jesus whose end is communion with God and others. It is only since the reformation that the pendulum has swung away from the embodied practices of concrete communities as central to spiritual formation and toward the atomistic, disembodied and cerebral-centered. I suggest it’s time for the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction once again.


When it comes to faith I am, after all these years, still a beginner. I am always ever a beginner. I’m coming to see, I guess, that I am still learning to believe, still learning how to believe. For a long time I was preoccupied with what to believe. As I get older I’m coming to see that how I believe is of equal importance. I am coming to see that belief is something that takes practice and something one learns to do over time.

In the article of Hauerwas’s that I found for use in In Vino, Discipleship as a Craft, Church as a Disciplined Community Hauerwas compares becoming a Christian to learning to lay brick. He says:

To learn to lay brick, it is not sufficient for you to be told how to do it; you must learn to mix the mortar, build scaffolds, joint, and so on. Moreover, it is not enough to be told how to hold a trowel, how to spread mortar, or how to frog the mortar. In order to lay brick you must hour after hour, day after day, lay brick.

Of course, learning to lay brick involves learning not only myriad skills, but also a language that forms, and is formed by those skills. Thus, for example, you have to become familiar with what a trowel is and how it is to be used, as well as mortar, which bricklayers usually call "mud." Thus "frogging mud" means creating a trench in the mortar so that when the brick is placed in the mortar, a vacuum is created that almost makes the brick lay itself. Such language is not just incidental to becoming a bricklayer but is intrinsic to the practice. You cannot learn to lay brick without learning to talk "right."

The language embodies the history of the craft of bricklaying. So when you learn to be a bricklayer you are not learning a craft de novo but rather being initiated into a history. For example, bricks have different names--klinkers, etc.---to denote different qualities that make a difference about how one lays them. These differences are often discovered by apprentices being confronted with new challenges, making mistakes, and then being taught how to do the work by the more experienced.

Now the comparison:

Christianity is not beliefs about God plus behavior. We are Christians not because of what we believe, but because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus. To become a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but rather to become part of a different community with a different set of practices.

For example, I am sometimes confronted by people who are not Christians but who say they want to know about Christianity. This is a particular occupational hazard for theologians around a university, because it is assumed that we are smart or at least have a Ph.D., so we must really know something about Christianity. After many years of vain attempts to "explain" God as trinity, I now say, "Well, to begin with we Christians have been taught to pray, 'Our father, who art in heaven. . .’" I then suggest that a good place to begin to understand what we Christians are about is to join me in that prayer.

For to learn to pray is no easy matter but requires much training, not unlike learning to lay brick. It does no one any good to believe in God, at least the God we find in Jesus of Nazareth, if they have not learned to pray. To learn to pray means we must acquire humility not as something we try to do, but as commensurate with the practice of prayer. In short, we do not believe in God, become humble and then learn to pray, but in learning to pray we humbly discover we cannot do other than believe in God.

This expresses better than my feeble attempts one of the points I was attempting to make in my discussions with Mike concerning the nature of Christian belief; namely, that Christian belief takes practice. It's not that we first become Christians and then as evidence of that engage in certain sorts of behavior. Rather, it is in the very course of engaging in the practices and rituals peculiar to the Christian way of being in the world that we actually become Christian.