Sunday, November 25, 2007

Bono theology: Waves of sorrow

I had wondered about preaching this on Sunday, but just could not make it cohere with the life of our faith community, which was celebrating the end of the church year with an Open Home, Open year celebration. So I offer it here!

The latest U2 release, Waves of Sorrow, gives us a fascinating insight into Bono the poet and Bono the theologian.

(I love the way that this video offers not just lyrics, but an explanation of what was shaping his lyrics. Thus we get a unique window into the author).

As I am listening to Waves of Sorrow, I am also reading Zephaniah. Some interesting parallels emerge.

The song Waves of Sorrow is written, according to Bono, in a hard place, Ethiopian foodcamp.
You wake up this morning
It took an act of will
You walk through the night
To get here today

This then leads into the chorus,
On a wave of sorrow, Wave
A wave of sorrow, Wave.

This is Bono’s response to the pain he is seeing in the world around him

The lyrics have a number of other interesting echoes. Zephaniah 1 starts with a similar theme, of God sweeping away the world, which has interesting echoes to the great flood in Noah. This sense of waves of sorrow also has a number of contemporary echoes. The song was released the week that a cyclone scoured the coast of Bangladesh. The song was released in the same week, the UN released a report on global warming.

So where to turn in a world pondering waves of sorrow? Bono makes a leap from Ethiopia to the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon seeking wisdom.
Son, of shepherd boy, now king
What wisdom can you bring?
What lyric would you sing?
Where is the music of the Seraphim?

This does two things. Firstly, it serves to place Ethiopia within a history and thus offers a sense of dignity, for there is more to Ethiopia than famine. There is also a history of royalty and wealthy and diplomacy. Secondly, this is a theological move, for Bono invites Solomon to provide wisdom. There is a sense of Bono seeking help from an ancient source, from a King who was given wisdom by God.

A similar search for ancient wisdom is present in Zephaniah 2:3
Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land,
You who do what he commands.
Seek righteousness, seek humility.

Having looked waves of sorrow in the face, both Bono and Zephaniah turn to ancient wisdom.

Bono’s song finishes by referencing the Beautitudes, both with the repetition of “Blessed” and with the theology expressed, giving dignity to the poor and the marginalised.
Blessed are the meek who scratch in the dirt
For they shall inherit what’s left of the earth

What is fascinating is that the Church lectionary suggest that Zephaniah 2:3 be preached alongside readings from Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount.

We live in a world engulfed by waves of sorrow. Bono finds hope in seeking the ancient wisdom of Solomon and in living the Beautitudes.

A similar refrain is at work in Zephaniah. In the face of global devastation, both human and environmental, that will be wrought by the rise of Babylon, Israel are instructed to place their confidence in God.

A colleague of mine went with friends through a museum display showcasing an environmental history. The final display offered all sort of recent technological developments that might head off environmental catastrophe. The friends, over coffee, pronounced themselves hopeful.

To which my colleague replied, “Oh, but I believe the Lords Prayer.” This was not a naïve fundamentalism, but a deeply placed sign of faith. In the midst of global warming, in what will be our confidence? Human technology? Our God’s will done on earth?

This is not to offer a simple dualism of either technology or God, for God might well work through human science. Rather it is to admit that our human sin is a chief agent in global catastrophe. And that a confidence in human achievements is surely another form of idolatory.

Posted by steve at 10:21 PM


  1. Amen! well said.

    Comment by jill — November 26, 2007 @ 6:03 am

  2. One of the things that I think sets U2 above many of their contempories is their ability to write and play songs that deals with the gritiness of humanity. In a pop world that is obsessed with s*x and image. U2 continue to treat music as an art form (they are not the only ones but probably the best known). They are never afraid to use their art to speak out on politics, injustice, love ect. Yet they not only sing it they actually act as well. The trip Bono refers to (Ethiopia) took place after Live Aid. Other than Bob Geldof, Bono (and Ali) were the only performers to actually visit Africa!

    Their is a sprituality about the music of U2. It connects with both God and humanity in a very unique way. It is almost as if they are writting modern day psalms.

    Having said all of that this may surprise you Steve, given our conversation over coffee here in Adelaide, I really struggle when people use U2 music in sermons! Especially when people try to use a song as the main point of reference in the sermon. There is a grave danger that the song could be misrepresented or even misunderstood. If someone wants to use it to illustrate a point then that is fine however, in my expereince people have often misrepresented the main point of the song. In essence their exegesis of the lyric has failed to really understand the message. I think it is important to accept their music for what it is and as good post moderns it will mean something different to every person who hears it. However, that must always remain personal and any attempt to use the song must be guided by a true understanding of what the song really means. I also think the band would be somewhat embarresed that their music is being used in churches in such away. I wonder how much they are perplexed by the Christian worlds sudden embrace of them given its earlier rejection of the band!

    Now having said all of that my thoughts are not final. Having lectured in U2ology my thoughts have asked these questions a number of times. I am not having a go at you for wanting to use the music. It is a great song and I hope it is released as a single soon (although I doubt it will be. It is a track on an upcoming bonus album that forms part of the remastered Joshua Tree album). I think his use of scripture to question the then current climate in Ethiopia is truly prophetic. I wonder how much we in the church need to hear the same call to action ourselves!


    Comment by mark — November 26, 2007 @ 2:45 pm

  3. Mark,

    i’m not sure about the rationale of not engaging with a piece of art cos of the risk of misinterpreting it or of previous bad interpretations.

    there are a variety of methodologies by which to read art. in this case, i am using a video in which bono explains the lyrics as part of my intepretation ie authorial intent.

    every sunday you are willing to speak of that great artpiece the Bible no? willing to risk misinterpreting author no? nor am i willing to stop interpreting the bible cos i am surrounded by poor interpretations.

    i am happy to engage in a vigourous discussion as to the authenticity of my interpretation both to Bono and to Zephaniah. But i am not convinced i should not be allowed to offer an interpretation.

    pushing back

    Comment by steve — November 26, 2007 @ 3:19 pm

  4. I think you misunderstood me (or I didn’t do a very good job explaining myself). I don’t have a problem engaging with the art. I think thats what we should do. However, I question the appropriateness of such a practice on Sunday morning when it comes to U2. I think it is very easy to misuse U2 in the name of Christianity and I don’t think it is what the band would want (I have arrived at this conclusion through my reading of the band). I think your piece here on the net is fine. I have difficulty when people elevate (excuse the pun) the band’s songs as the basis or authority of a sermon. I have heard both good and bad sermons using U2 so my thoughts do not come directly from exerience but rather through my reflection on the band, their history, their own reflections ect. There is no doubt that Bono’s own song writing raises some vey interesting theological issues but lets treat it as art and not an authority on Christianity or the text!

    returning serve,


    Comment by mark — November 26, 2007 @ 3:36 pm

  5. so is it just U2 we shouldn’t talk about on Sunday morning? or is it any music/art?

    for me, preaching is about engaging the biblical text with the voices of our day. those voices include within my community, newspapers, movies and poets (like Bono). often the poets provide the best articulations of the questions worth exploring.

    just to give some context, in terms of U2, in the 4 year I’ve been at Opawa and over 2 services/sunday I have quoted him probably 3 times in a sermon, we have done a u2-eucharist and we have done a 3 week series on “practising discernment in popular music” and invited 3 people to share their favourite u2 song and why, as an eg of discernment.


    Comment by steve — November 27, 2007 @ 4:27 pm

  6. I’ve often come across U2 being held up as Christian band (I see it is on Lynne Taylor’s blog for today too!) I think the modern church sometimes appears insecure the way it grasps at anything vaguely ‘cool’ to link into. I guess its a matter of finding the balance because there other extreme is the churches who make no effort to relate to modern culture.
    There is also a risk people will inadvertently take the step to worshipping U2. Is it any less idolatory than putting ones faith in human achievements to stop global catastrophe? And is it OK to sit by in the face of global warming and say we trust that Gods will be done when there is a parable about using our God given talents?

    Comment by Jack — November 27, 2007 @ 8:20 pm

  7. jack,
    i am not saying that U2 are Christian. in this post i am simply saying that there are some interesting linkages between one song and the book of Zephaniah.

    yes, idolatory of u2 is a danger. so is idolotatory of a hymn book, an organ, a preacher, a chorus, even the bible.

    parable of talents is interesting thought. thanks.

    not sure if this i made this clear, but by suggesting “God’s will” i am not saying to nothing. sermon on the mount wont’ let us do that. i am simply wondering about an “idolatory” (to use your word) of science,


    Comment by — November 28, 2007 @ 8:52 am

  8. jack, in my post i was merely trying to 1. express how a piece of music (in this case, based on a psalm) moved me to prayer for someone(s) i love, and 2. ask others to pray with me… (Personally i would argue that a band need NOT be christian to achieve that response in me.)
    For me it was NOT a linking into something “cool”, rather a utilisation of something that is already part of who i am, in helping me to communicate with God. If i suddenly started using a form of music/art that i don’t engage with in my everyday then perhaps that would be a grasping at something vaguely cool to link into.

    Comment by lynne — November 28, 2007 @ 10:07 am

  9. Lynne, surely as a pastors wife you should be listening to christian music in your everday life, like the grand old hymns, rather than such secular music. you run the risk that your mind will be unable to focus on what is true, holy and pure.


    Comment by jack(ass) — November 28, 2007 @ 10:21 am

  10. 🙂
    off to play some u2 real LOUD 🙂

    Comment by lynne — November 28, 2007 @ 10:27 am

  11. Hey there

    Well first of all thanks for the response. I’m not sure quite why Jack(ass) feels the need to be so smart (ass), I certainly didn’t mean to offend with my observations/experiences of U2 in churches. I didn’t know Lynne was Steve’s wife either, I’ve only just discovered this blog. I didn’t mean to criticise your post Lynne, and my reference to U2 being held up was referring to other services I’ve been to and people I’ve met, it was just a general observation – sorry for not making that clear. I like the idea of finding truths in music because in writing poetry people, in my opinion, explore that inner space where God perhaps can be found.
    Steve, I don’t know much about the bible – just bits and pieces. So please forgive my ignorance (including not using idolatory strictly as a noun, lol)in asking if you could explain a bit more about Gods will and where the sermon on the Mount fits in. I’ve always found the whole concept of “Gods will’ confusing. Does God’s will prevail in the end no matter what, is even the bad stuff that happens all part of God’s plan? I’ve heard Christians say, well the bible said the earth would end and global warming is just the start, its all part of how God said it would be …
    As for idolising science, my dictionary defines idolatory as ‘blind devotion’ but the essence of science is that it has to prove itself…maybe those who look to global warming as proof of Gods plan are looking for proof too?

    Comment by Jack — November 28, 2007 @ 5:42 pm

  12. hey jack,

    i’m jack (ass) twin. his flippant comment was not aimed at you, but simply a reflection on the things people say to pastor’s wives. inhouse joke. his bad. apologies,

    jack (ass)2

    Comment by jack(ass) — November 28, 2007 @ 9:13 pm

  13. Thats OK – apology accepted, but must add that in my experience churches are notoriously ‘in-house’, makes a newcomer feel kinda ‘out-house’ – sorry Steve, there I go inventing words again 🙂

    Comment by Jack — November 29, 2007 @ 6:32 am

  14. “so we shouldn’t talk about U2 on a Sunday morning” – this is what I mean. I don’t think we should talk about U2 – If people want to somehow use some of U2’s music to illustrate a point then that is fine (as long as they don’t bend it’s meaning like Beckham).

    I just think we should enjoy U2 for U2 (and very loudly as Lynne put it). I don’t see people engaging with Pink Floyd, Sneaky Sound System, or Green Day on a Sunday. Yet when it comes to U2 christians feel they can create entire services around their music!

    It concerns me that we seem to be moving away from the text as the foundation of the sermon (including good historical and theological exegesis). I know this makes me sound like an ol’fogey however, I worry that people are losing their knowledge and experience of the grand narrative of scripture because we as teachers fail to engage the text on it terms. Instead we want to use it to preach what we want people to hear. I do not have a problem with art, music, movies serving the text as illustrations or doorways to people experiencing the God of the text. I really hope I don’t sound like a fundo!!!

    Comment by mark — November 29, 2007 @ 10:14 am

  15. It seems to me that using any kind of art that might allow us to reflect on our communal life, our shared faith, our ministry as we join with God in his mission in the world or indeed any of the mysteries we’ve yet to grasp is helpful and to be encouraged.

    I would be as worried as any beleiver if in our gatherings we substituted the scriptures for U2 lyrics, but that’s not what Steve is doing.

    If a preacher had read a really good book that shared insights into faith, and included references to that in a sermon, would we be worried? If a discussion group facilitator shared some thoughts from a sermon they had heard, would that be a cause for concern?

    Just as the written word is useful to us in refelcting on life and faith, so too the sung word, the painted word, the filmed word, the signed word.

    So, more please. More interaction between the world we inhabit and the one to come; more art to act as a mirror to our faith and our community; more music to be the campfire by which we tell our stories.

    Comment by Jonathan Somerville — November 30, 2007 @ 12:10 am

  16. Mark, you don’t sound like a”fundo” you sound very sound. 🙂 I am a little concerned too when it seems the church is straying from teaching God’s Word.
    And just a comment to Steve’s response to you, as much as I love art of all types, I do not consider the Bible an “art piece” since art by definition refers to human creativity.


    Comment by jill — December 3, 2007 @ 3:24 pm

  17. Jill (2),
    when I use the word art in relation to the Bible, I am not wanting to downplay my belief in the Bible as God-breathed.

    i am simply pointing out that there are songs in the Bible, which we interpret today when we read and preach them. (Eg. Churches don’t use rams horns or burnt sacrifices, yet the Bible songs ask us to praise God using those. So we are interpeting these songs, deciding what they mean today).

    Equally, there are short pithy proverbs and narratives. So wondering if Mark is wanting to suggest that we should use different strategies to interpret the Bible songs, than say the Bono songs.


    Comment by steve — December 3, 2007 @ 7:14 pm

  18. Thanks for clarifying that ! 🙂

    Comment by jill — December 4, 2007 @ 1:08 am

  19. Sorry I haven’t responded in a while I have been unwell!

    I think when we engage art, music, tv shows we can learn a lot about humanity. When we engage the biblical text we see the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. So engaging U2 helps may help us understand the world we live in!

    Thanks for you kind words Jill.

    Steve what do you mean “Equally, there are short pithy proverbs and narratives. So wondering if Mark is wanting to suggest that we should use different strategies to interpret the Bible songs, than say the Bono songs” On the surface of this comment i would say “yes’ we should have different methods of interpretation. However, i may misunderstand the statement.

    Comment by mark — December 4, 2007 @ 10:27 am

  20. All I can say is that U2 helped me get my faith back. Sure a lot of their songs are secular, but most have some kind of spirtual meaning to them. A lot of the spirituality comes from the anlogies that Bono uses in his lyrics. I believe that he is a man driven by a strong faith, and that he believes in Grace, and not works(karma),puts him on the level of a true believer.

    Comment by Robyn — December 7, 2007 @ 6:04 pm

  21. All I can say is that U2 helped me get my faith back. Sure a lot of their songs are secular, but most have some kind of spirtual meaning to them. A lot of the spirituality comes from the anlogies that Bono uses in his lyrics. I believe that he is a man driven by a strong faith, and that he believes in Grace, and not works(karma),puts him on the level of a true believer.

    Comment by Robyn — December 7, 2007 @ 6:04 pm

  22. Robyn, thanks so much for your comment. are you able to tell us a little more about why and how U2 helped you get your faith back?


    Comment by steve — December 8, 2007 @ 11:20 pm

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