Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Christian Scharen's "One Step Closer"

Writing yesterday's post made me think about another book I read two years ago, One Step Closer by Christian Scharen (Brazos Press, 2006). In this book, Scharen, who has a PhD from Emory University and is an ordained Lutheran pastor, interprets the life and work of the rock group U2 through a theological lens.

I'm always interested in popular culture and the ways that popular culture can lead us to deeper matters. I'm also aware that the term "popular culture" can be used as a dismissive sneer. But I've also spent many years in college classrooms, and I've seen popular culture as a language that many of us share, a language that can serve as a starting point to help a class leap towards accomplishments that wouldn't be available without that starting point.

I like the approach of this book. Instead of a chronological approach, Scharen explores classic types of Biblical writing and shows how U2 echoes that type of writing. It could be something as simple as using a Biblical Psalm as song lyric (like "40" from War). It could be much more complex, like the ways the group has worked with the genres of prophecy, parable, and apocalypse. Through the whole book, Scharen refers to a wide variety of songs and albums/discs, as well as quotes from band members.

He also refers to an impressive number of theologians, like Miroslav Volf, Martin Luther, and Philip Yancey. I first read about this book in a book review in The Christian Century, where Jason Byassee says, "U2 in conversation with a professional theologian is rich fare indeed" (page 35, August 8, 2006). I would add that the presence of all the other theologians make this work even richer.

Some more conservative folks might wonder why bother at all. But Scharen points out, "It is worth doing because many preachers 'preach to the choir,' so to speak, while U2 'preaches' to millions who don't even know the basic songs of faith and have grown up without any connection to the church" (page 10). More than one commentator has noted that for many post-modern folks, a concert is the closest experience that they'll have to something communal, and more than one of my students have commented that a U2 concert reminds them of church--or what they wish church could be.

The quotes in this book undergird Scharen's thesis that U2 is on theologically solid ground and that they are a positive force, a modern (or post-modern, depending on how you use these terms) icon that leads us to the Divine. Here are some quotes from Bono: "The most powerful idea that's entered the world in the last few thousand years--the idea of grace--is the reason I would like to be a Christian" (page 129), "Look: evil encroaches in tiny footsteps on every great idea. And evil can almost outrun most great ideas, but finally, in the end, there is light in the world. I accept God chooses to work with some pretty poor material. But I'm much more amazed by what people are capable of than I am by what they're not capable of . . ." (page 137), and "There's two kinds of people, there's those who are asleep and those that are awake. I've used my music to wake me up and if it wakes other people up on the way that's okay because we get used to the sound of a bomb going off in Belfast and to the roll call of bad news on television, we get used to the fact that a third of the population on earth are starving. We get used to all these things and we eventually fall asleep in the comfort of our freedom" (57).

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