U2 and the Unfashionable Cross

It seems like everyone I know has been to, or is going to, hear u2 live in October.  They’re out on the west coast, doing a tour and so Christians between 20 and 40 are making the pilgrimage.  Before I continue, I’ll offer the caveat that I love u2.  I just returned from running stairs and Bono was my companion because, after the 10th set of sprints it’s true:  I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Their music, lyrics, and leverging of fame for social good are all inspiring and exemplery.  Still….

My concern resides in our age old tendency to reshape the gospel so that it matches our own personal ideals and passions, with the result that we create a mythical moral high ground to stand on, and thus stop growing.  Right now social justice is fashionable.  There’s good reason for this, and it’s a welcome swing of the pendulum from the old days, when missionaries would (at least according to missiological legend) handed out tape recorders, the Bible on tape, and tracts, before handing out food, “just in case someone perishes without knowing Christ.”  We’ve come a long way from that, but just as that was fashionable then, wells in Africa are fashionable now.

The risk we run, with any fashionable expression of the gospel, isn’t that it becomes entirely untrue, but that it becomes a distortion.  We might, for example, consider ourselves exemplary Christians because we have joined the One campaign, sponsor a child with World Vision, and skip lattes on Fridays, giving the money to economic development work in Africa instead.  It’s all cool, all popular, and has every risk of being cross-less, both in the sense that Jesus is moved from the center to the margins, AND in the sense that we’ve no practical expressions of self-denial.  I’ll explain both:

1. Jesus moved to the margins simply means that we take St. Francis word literally, to a fault.  He’s the guy who said, “preach always, use words only when necessary”.  I always want to add a third phrase to his timely remarks:  “…and words will usually be necessary”.  This is because everything we do, we do supposedly as a means of heralding the arrival of a soon to come new government, with the new reign of a new king.  How strange would it be to bring the ethics of the new king, and the blessings, but conspicuously, even intentionally ignore the CENTRALITY of that King’s presence as the source of all hope.  And yet this seems to happen all the time in the new and fashionable social gospel.

2. The cross lacking IN us means that we’re running the risk of defining the outworking of the gospel in terms of things we’d do anyway.  “Sure, I’ll sponsor a child, buy fair trade coffee…”  While that’s great, and fits in well with U2’s theology, what’s missing is the reality that Jesus will also ask of each of us, in specific ways, acts of self-denial.  Maybe our sexual ethic will need to change.  Maybe he’ll ask us to not just write a check, but move to Africa, or the inner-city, or South Dakota, and His calling doesn’t align with our passions.  The overwhelming testimony of scripture is that Christ is seen most clearly when we lose something.  Moses leaves the desert to follow God’s calling.  Peter leaves his nets.  Paul subjects his will to God’s and changes his missionary strategy.  People died for this, as I wrote last night, and it’s the self-denial piece that sets this apart from fashionably cool social justice.  Jesus said it pretty clearly:  “unless you deny yourself and take up YOUR cross and follow, you can’t be my disciple”

We like to talk about passion, justice, culture, relevance.  It’s the stuff, not only of Christian magazines and web-sites, but of billion dollar bands.  But the cross?  Other than the one’s hanging around our necks, I fear it’s fallen on hard times, both as a central message, and as an existential necessity for we who claim to be disciples.

That’s all… except to say that Joshua Tree is still my favorite.

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  • The basic problem, as you said, is that we make service or acts of justice things we DO rather than who we ARE. Jesus wasn’t interested in people giving tons of money to the church to boast about it; He wants hearts to change and as a result lives to become transformed. This piece of it becomes unpopular because it’s the part that’s uncomfortable. But we can still do good things and think we’re good people, right?

  • Kevin

    Maybe I’m reading you wrong, here, but it sounds like you are proposing that there simply isn’t enough suffering in the movement of the social gospel; that the gospel somehow becomes distorted if it is enjoyed and not lamented, if it is actually “good news”. Is the decision to join the movement somehow a denial of the cross simply because the movement is popular? Christ did not move to the margins, he was of the margins, and the margins of his time were incredibly wide, even to the point of being the popular majority, since the vast number of people in and around Galilee were the poor, huddles masses. It seems to me that Christ came to bring “good news of great joy which will be for all people,” so why would we lament when there are those who rejoice in giving of themselves? Is it because we think that they are not giving enough or not giving in the right way or not giving from a right spirit? Am I confused or just hearing you wrong, because your opinion here sounds judgmental to the point of elitism. I really hope that I’m hearing you wrong…

  • raincitypastor

    Exactly the opposite of elitism in my opinion. Without judging anyone, I’m simply trying to offer the warning that it’s possible, indeed terribly easy, to customize our understanding of the gospel so that it fits along the lines of our temperament, or what’s popular. When we do this, we harm the gospel.

    That’s why Jesus made it clear that for EVERYONE, there are elements of self denial. Was Jesus life good news for all people? Absolutely. And he died on a cross. And he told us that part of following him would be sharing in his suffering (Matthew 10 – Colossians 1). I’m simply saying that being yoked with Christ, while it will surely bring us great joy in many ways, will also require of us at times, a relinquishing of our rights and desires for the sake of the gospel. If we skip this latter part, we distort the character of Jesus.

  • Kevin

    True, there is a cross involved but–as you have so aptly pointed many times before–it is a cross that we carry on a journey (around our necks, or otherwise) but it is a journey somewhat undefined by its trajectory. Yes it points to death, but the fundamental belief around which we have oriented ourselves is that this death is not definitive, and neither is the suffering. Perhaps we’re missing each other on this one, but it almost sounds as though you are begrudging people attendance at the wedding feast simple because they might receive a different portion of strife and struggle than you and I. Who cares if social justice is fashionable? Every expression of faith that we have is equally ripe with the potential for distortion, so why bother nitpicking?

  • brad davis

    I don’t know Richard- except for in the Seattle area, it still isn’t very popular to reach out for those on the margins or to be involved in social justice. I mean, Glen Beck has practically demonized the the phrase and fundamentalists/evangelicals are still a long ways from being overbalanced towards the social justice side of the equation. However, really good and thought provoking blog- Cross? I thought all we needed to do was “believe”…. just kidding.

  • raincitypastor

    not at all… just declaring that there’s more to the Christian life than the feast – there’s the fast as well. Yin and Yang, Joy and Sorrow, Life and Death

  • Kevin

    I’ll agree with you on that, but I’m still left wondering why the choice to join in the social justice movement is being considered feast and not fast? Maybe it is even both, simultaneously. If fasting becomes popular and people find enjoyment through the meaning that it brings is the act itself compromised, ie. is fasting defined by an uncomfortable nature?

  • lauren

    kevin, while i appreciate your comments, you and i read richard’s thoughts today very differently. it seems to me that what richard is saying is that it’s fabulous that our culture is embracing the call to social justice right now. there’s nothing bad about that. but let’s not kid ourselves and think that this is an entire representation of the christian life – a new and enlightened version of christianity, if you will. justice is part of the dna of Christ’s kingdom that is coming, and as christians we’re called to “do justice” whether it’s popular or not. what i heard from richard today was a lament that many think that just because they sponsor a child, go to a fundraiser, wear their “one” campaign bracelet, etc., that they’ve done their duty as a christian. the reality is that the christian life is much more. and there is no kingdom of God without the King. if we fail to acknowledge Him, then really what we’re kind of claiming, it seems to me, is that we want God’s kingdom to come as long as it fits in with our personal agenda, preferences, comfortability level, etc. and i think we’re all guilty of this at times. The coming of Christ’s kingdom is good news in the deepest of ways, but it’s also, at least immediately at times, hard news. as bonhoeffer says, “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” so i celebrate that it’s popular in our culture right now to embrace social justice. but i also recognize that there is still, in our culture at large, a resistance to seeking Christ the King Himself. our culture wants to build a kingdom ourselves. we don’t think that Christ is necessary in this endeavor, and nothing could be further from the truth.

  • Kevin

    Thanks for your thoughts, Lauren, because you’ve helped me to understand what it is that I don’t like about all of this: we are assuming that we know the hearts of others. Are there really that many people who think that they have somehow absolved themselves because of one falsely-selfless act (child sponsorship, advocacy bracelet, fundraiser, etc.) or are we simply projecting our own insecurities onto an unknowing and well-intended movement? If we answer “yes” to either of these then I think that we have much more pressing issues at hand than a bunch of people’s accidental selflessness.

  • raincitypastor

    one final thought… and I quote from my post: “It’s all cool, all popular, and has every risk of being cross-less” – you’ll note that I didn’t project or presume these acts to be cross-less… merely warning of the possibility.

    thanks Lauren – you clarified better than me.

  • Kevin

    I think you are right to close out this thread and I will also follow suit. I hope that none were offended by my concerns, because this has obviously stirred up something powerful inside me and I’m afraid that I may have stepped on some toes in my haste to express myself. Your mere warning came across as a bit more than idle observation, though, and I have a hard time believing that mere warning was all that you had in mind. It’s like walking up to someone’s father and saying “No offense meant, but your daughter has every potential to be a floozy. I’m just saying…”; no matter how objective a person may be, it’s not an easy thing to divorce the kernel of their message from the smack of judgement that accompanies it, and I’m afraid that smack lingers still.

  • Ingrid

    Thanks Richard for this post. I have been thinking a lot the last few years about the popularity of “wells in Africa” and the way they seem to be “creating a moral high ground” of social action that forgets Jesus and the cross. I hope for the day when the presence of the King and the ethics of the King will merge.

    One area I’ve thought a lot about in merging the presence and the ethics would be in learning to live by the spirit- meaning listen to God’s direction and then acting. His direction can be either something within the “popular” climate or something totally out of the box that demands my “death.” It’s only in continually being transformed in my own life that the ability to hear Him is refined and I can act knowing what he’s asking me to do. It’s both a relationship upward between God and me and then outward to the world. Jesus was one with the father, daily communing with him, doing only what the father told him to. Sometimes Jesus was feeding a hungry crowd or talking with unpopular people (tax-collector, harlot). Still other times He was being a carpenter or praying on a mountain. Ultimately, the Father’s will for Jesus was death on the cross. This was a call fraught with turmoil for Jesus and the call to die to my own desire is difficult in the same way.

    It seems that God often calls us to different tasks, some that may be in the realm of what is “popular” at the time and others in what is unpopular. The bottom line is seeking God’s kingdom come and God’s will to be done, beginning with transformation in my life and moving outward to the world as He leads.

  • john

    Hi Kevin,
    I don’t typically comment on blogs but since Richard listed his final thought I thought I would make this observation. You say in your second to last post that – “you’ve helped me to understand what it is that I don’t like about all of this: we are assuming that we know the hearts of others.” Richard says not but who knows.

    It was a bit ironic though that you follow up with – “I have a hard time believing that mere warning was all that you had in mind.” Seems like an assumption or questioning of his heart (i.e. assuming that we know the hearts of others).

    I actually don’t know how far a part you both are if this were verbally discussed as opposed to posts on a blog. But interesting and entertaining debate nonetheless.

  • Linda

    U2 proclaims a false gospel, a false Christ. Let me re-introduce you to the real Christ…


  • Perhaps the real core of this post isn’t so much about social justice misrepresenting the Gospel (Richard’s concern) or an underlying judgmentalism (as Kevin fears), but about how many Christians idolize U2! 🙂 I mean, they’re a great band and all, but sometimes it seems a bit overindulgent.

  • Hannah

    Don’t mess with U2! People love to demonize or glorify them. False gospel? When was the last time they where preaching? Half the band aren’t even Christians. All I know is there music has led me to run into the arms of christ. I don’t know them personally or pretend to know their hearts at all but I thank god for the talent he gave them.

    As far as the social gospel being “cool,” as long as there are people in this world that starve to death as far as I am concerned we need a he’ll of a lot more “coolness.”

  • lauren

    hi kevin, in response to your last comment i just need to say again that we couldn’t have read richard’s post more differently. your comparison of richard’s (what i deem as) wise and timely warning to our culture (not singling anyone out but including all of us – even me – even himself in the warning) with a random person walking up to a random father to comment that his daughter “has potential to be a floozie” seems…just grossly incomparable to me. really. but anyway, thank you for sharing your thoughts here. i appreciate them, even if i don’t share them.

  • Dude, come on, why not since Richard clarified what he meant and from his heart responded I don’t understand why you don’t drop the thread like you said you were going to, instead you tell him you have a hard time believing what he was saying and throw some lame analogy at him, what, do you think he wasn’t telling you the truth ?Did you feel like you had to get the last word in or what ? I truly hope something powerful happens inside you about your last post and you at least tell him you are sorry for not taking him at his word.

  • Linda

    “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” 1 John 2:15-17

  • We as the body are called to be pillars of truth (1 Tim 3:15). In this sense, it is our responsibility to protect the sanctity and purity of the Gospel. In my opinion, this is what Pastor Richard is getting at here and is quite biblical.

  • Lamont

    I agree! we should all question our motives! Thanks for bringing that to our attention.
    St. Francis missed it, and you caught it!
    Good deeds can be done by the Mormon, atheist,, J.W’s & etc…
    What set’s us apart is what is most important! Doctrine! Yes indeed! Doctrine divides! Speak the Truth in Love!

  • Great passage… but your point is…??

  • Hannah

    Are you trying to say we should not love music?

  • I think she’s saying we can love music but it should never replace our love for God; He should be our greatest passion and desire in life.

  • Richard H

    Great post and absolutely right on the risk of replacing one kind of false gospel with another. Found this really helpful – thanks.

    All that said the right answer to “what is the best U2 album” is Achtung Baby 🙂

  • Linda

    Yes, the motivation behind the good deeds does count, God sees the motives of our heart, if we really love Jesus Christ (the real Jesus of the Bible, not a false Jesus).

    “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing” 1 Corinthians 13:3

  • Lamont

    Rom 10:14How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”