Saturday, March 05, 2016
Acceptance Notice Mysterious Ways: U2 And Religion
I was delighted to hear today that my proposed chapter for a book on U2 and Religion has been accepted. The book, titled Mysterious Ways, is to be published by Bloomsbury Press, sometime in 2017. My chapter will pick up on some work I did in 2010, around Sarah Coakley, pneumatology and U2. It is good to have a chance to revisit the work and to be able to position it slightly differently by focusing directly on Mysterious Ways. Here is what the chapter will explore:
She moves in mysterious ways: a theology of “sexy music”
Dr Steve Taylor
This chapter argues that U2’s live performances of “Mysterious ways” offer an ecstatic, sonic and participative theology. The song, described by Bono as “sexy music,” has gained critical and popular acclaim.
Performed live 584 times, “Mysterious ways” has gone through three distinct live phases. The first involved an on-stage belly dancer, moving always out of reach of Bono’s stretching fingertips. The second involved a female member of the audience joining Bono live on stage to dance. The third involved a re-worked conclusion. The lyrics “She moves, We move, s/Spirit teach me” were sung as Bono extended his arms upward and outward. Simultaneously the lighting, until then tightly focused on the band, rolled outward over the audience. Together these three phases – performer on stage, the audience member as performer on stage, the audience as performer – become an incorporative, participative and sonic theology.
This conclusion is reached by bringing the performances of “Mysterious ways” into conversation with British theologian, Sarah Coakley, who calls for an understanding of God’s Holy Spirit as gendered, sexualised and ecstatic. She argues from Romans 8:22-27 that God is experienced only through a profound entanglement with the ecstasies of human sexual desire. For Coakley, feminine metaphors (birth pains) and the mysterious ways of the non-rational realm (wordless groans) describe divine participation. Coakley’s theology gives words to the performative phrases of “Mysterious ways,” making sense of a theology of “sexy music,” in which the audience is invited to “move with” the dancing s/Spirit.
Three points of departure are important. Regarding performance, if Bono is inviting the audience to “move with” it, how does an incorporative, participative pneumatology honour the individual in the concert experience? Coakley helps by calling attention to the Spirit’s ceaseless “moves” irrespective of human participation. This complicates and enriches all three of Bono’s performative modes.
Regarding theology, Coakley commends prayer as silent contemplation. U2 provide a stark contrast, offering rock, specifically the Edges’ chiming bar chords, played through an effects unit. U2’s approach provides another way to understand “wordless groans,” as a sound scape. This reading would complicate and enrich Coakley’s understanding of the ecstatic.
This line of enquiry can be developed using the work of Endrinal (2012) who has analysed the introduction by U2 in Achtung Baby of multiregister vocal layering to provide a rich sonic signature. This can be helpfully set alongside evidence of the growing influence on U2 of North African and African-American musical traditions. “Sexy music” is thus communicated sonically, as well as through performance and theology.
Hence bringing “Mysterious Ways” into conversation with Coakley provides a theology of “sexy music” in U2. The Spirit moves in a soundscape that is ecstatic, sonic and participative. This provides a different place to locate the mystery of religious experience, in the beat and bass of a rock concert.
Dr Steve Taylor,
Senior Lecturer, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia.
This will be my sixth publication in the area of U2 in the last five years:
- Taylor, S. (2015). Transmitting Memories: U2′s Rituals for Creating Communal History. In Scott Calhoun, ed. U2 Above, Across, and Beyond: Interdisciplinary Assessments. Lanham, Maryland, USA: Lexington Books, pp. 105-121.
- Taylor, S. (2013). Baptist Worship and Contemporary Culture: A New Zealand Case Study. In David Bebbington and Martin Sutherland, ed. Interface: Baptists and Others. Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, pp. 292-307.
- Boase, E.C. and Taylor, S. (2013). Public Lament. In MJ Bier and T Bulkeley, ed. Spiritual Complaint: The Theology and Practice of Lament. Eugene, USA: Pickwick Publishers, pp. 205-227.
- Taylor, S. (2012). U2. In RK Johnston, C Detweiler and B Taylor, ed. Don’t Stop Believin’: Pop Culture and Religion from Ben-Hur to Zombies. Louisville, USA: Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 125-126.
- Taylor, S. (2012). “Bullet the Blue Sky” as an Evolving Performance. In Scott Calhoun, ed. Exploring U2: Is This Rock ‘n’ Roll?: Essays on the Music, Work, and Influence of U2 Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, pp. 84-97
Which is a somewhat unexpected (“mysterious” even) move in my writing. However I do enjoy the opportunity to think theologically, particularly through the lens of lament and liturgy, so I’m delighted to participate in this project.
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