What Bono Doesn’t Get About Christian Art

What Bono Doesn’t Get About Christian Art May 17, 2016

Last month, The Message author Eugene Peterson filmed a short conversation with Irish rocker Bono to discuss the Psalms. I know, it sounds like a Christian satire headline, but yes, this really happened. For younger readers who may be drawing a blank on “The Message,” it’s a Bible paraphrase that uses self-consciously casual language/colloquialisms. To give a sample of what this sounds like, here’s Peterson’s paraphrase of a repeated refrain of David’s from the Psalms: “Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul? Why are you crying the blues?”

The Message also softens and subtly re-glosses some Bible passages that are harsher on sexual sin, which is not a coincidence given Peterson’s leftist leanings. Similarly, while Bono often talks about his Christian faith and has made Christian news as a result, he’s planted his flag very firmly with the left on issues such as gay “marriage.”

All of this is to say that neither Bono nor Peterson is exactly the most authoritative voice when it comes to sound exegesis, which makes me kind of amused that this video created such a stir in Christian circles. I simply fail to see what special insight they’re supposed to be offering that makes their conversation newsworthy.

But, newsworthy it apparently was, and one comment of Bono’s in particular prompted a number of responses. Reflecting on the range of passions and emotions that the Psalms express, Bono criticized Christian music, by contrast, for its “dishonesty.” Instead of settling for worship tunes, he wished Christians would write songs about their bad marriages or social injustice (as Bono put it, “being p**sed off at the government” — somehow I doubt an anti-Obama song would count).

In response, a number of people, including singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson (no relation to Eugene), protested that there’s plenty of honest Christian art out there, it’s just not on the radio. This could be called push-back, but it’s not the kind of push-back I would give. I would be much more blunt. I would tell Bono that he doesn’t understand what makes great Christian art. And I say that as someone who is almost invariably bored by CCM Top 40 and finds my attention wandering during most worship songs.

The problem with Bono’s approach can be traced back to the remark by Eugene Peterson that sparks his comments in the video. Peterson refers to his paraphrase of the Psalms, which he claims is closer to the original Hebrew (giggle-snort), as “not smooth, not nice, not pretty, but it’s honest.” This prompted Bono’s remarks about “dishonest” Christian art.

To begin with, people like me don’t dislike The Message because the language is intense, raw and/or emotional. We dislike it because it’s cheesy. The King James translation of the Psalms is still plenty intense and raw. The difference is that it was put together by people who actually had an ear for language. If anything, deliberately inserting a colloquialism like “down in the dumps” trivializes and takes the viewer out of David’s grief. Yet, patronizingly, Peterson insists on attributing our dismissal of his so-called “translation” to some kind of prudish squeamishness.

Furthermore, if we take Bono’s contrast between “honest” and “dishonest” art seriously, where “honest” is defined as “messy/dark/emotional,” then how do we describe Psalms that are none of these things? Is Psalm 100 less honest for being a lyrical praise anthem instead of an outpouring of grief or frustration? In context, Bono does attempt to praise current worship writers by saying that their voices and songs are “beautiful,” but in that case, what does he mean by saying he “sees a lot of dishonesty” in Christian music?

I suspect that if you tried to pin Bono down, there would be nothing specific he could point to that gives him this sense of “dishonesty.” I suspect he’s reacting more against an impression or a cultural atmosphere than a particular song or song lyric. It’s the old complaint that Christian music (or Christian film, or other culturally evangelical artifacts) present a falsely “squeaky-clean” picture of our world, and that the church would be better off if we were allowed to share all our sins and “junk” out in the open. Yadda-yadda-yadda. Blah-blah-blah. This is nothing new.

But let’s consider Bono’s alternative proposal: Write a song about your bad marriage. To which I answer, why? What if a writer is hesitant to air his personal dirty laundry in a song? Does that make him a dishonest person? For someone who goes on about how judgmental the church is, Bono is taking a pretty judgmental attitude himself here.

There have been great songs written about broken marriages. There have been great songs written about happy marriages. There are great paintings of suffering. There are great paintings of beauty and nature. There are Psalms of grief and Psalms of praise. It is not a necessary condition for great or “honest” Christian art that it be unhappy. And it is certainly not a necessary condition that such art should announce every hidden thought or sin to the entire world. This is what Bono doesn’t get. Sadness and pain may be sufficient conditions for great art, but they are not necessary.

The fact is, Bono wasn’t thinking clearly about what he meant to say. That’s because he’s not a thinker. He’s a rock singer who sometimes says Christian-y stuff, so for reasons unknown, people seem to think we should pay attention to him when he says more Christian-y stuff. Moreover, he’s considered to be an Artist with a capital “A,” therefore we are supposed to take him seriously whenever he says something about Art.

This is the culture of celebrity, to which the church is unfortunately not immune. People who are famous for being famous are given a platform they didn’t earn, to speak about topics on which their contributions are shallow at best and pernicious at worst. Fortunately, Christians don’t have to take Bono’s word or Eugene Peterson’s word for anything. You can go explore language and music and art for yourselves. You can make our own judgments about what makes it beautiful or terrible, cringe-worthy or great.

And if you need some spiritual guidance along the way… well, your local pastor that nobody’s ever heard of is probably more reliable than some guy on YouTube. 

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  • Art which focuses on positive things is not dishonest, but when all the art you make is about positive things, then it isn’t an accurate representation of reality. Bono wasn’t complaining about positive songs – just that by purposefully painting a picture of an all-perfect reality we are being untruthful. Lord knows I have my issues with both Bono and Eugene Peterson, but I think you’re reading too much into Bono’s statement.

    I agree with Andrew Peterson that Bono’s ignorant of the better stuff, but I also think mainstream Christian art could use a good reminder that lament is worship too.

  • But not every artist is called to portray every possible facet of reality. Each piece of art just reflects it differently. The sun-kissed picnic on the grass is as real as the silent scream. The log cabin cradled in sunset is as real as the stillborn infant cradled in his mother’s arms.

  • Sure, and Bono didn’t imply that an accurate picture wouldn’t reflect all those things – he just said that, currently, Christian art as a whole paints a world in which screams don’t even exist. He didn’t say an “honest” world is *only* pain and suffering, but he said a world or genre (speaking more broadly than the calling of an individual artist) without suffering is dishonest. And that’s true. There should be music about suffering and joy – upbeat fun songs and heartbreaking ballads. In fact, there is Christian music of that type – Bono just doesn’t know about it.

    I speak somewhat personally here – because I’m so often depressed, music which engages brokenness and loss is usually a more effective salve to my soul. Not saying that happy not-a-cloud-in-the-sky music doesn’t have its place, but I honestly need sad music.

    Our art should reflect the Bible – and the Bible includes plenty of darkness – and plenty of light. We should reflect both of those qualities. I know certain individuals are called to focus on one of the other – but the industry currently seems to only want one of them. And that’s dishonest.

  • I sure would like to know where this honest Christian music is. Who is doing it? Can anyone name me some artists that I can check out?

  • Someone actually did a long response piece collecting some music he personally thought was “honest.” I’ve lost the link, but to me a lot of it just looked weird if not borderline blasphemous.

    There are a few under the radar artists I really like, including Andrew Peterson and Audrey Assad. In his own response piece, Andrew points folks to his site The Rabbit Room, which hosts music from a lot of indie artists he works with.

  • And I too, as I mentioned in the original piece, find it almost impossible to connect with current CCM or worship music. But my reasons are stylistic and artistic—the melodies are frequently bland, the lyrics repetitive and uninspired. To me, it would seem forced and odd to say that I don’t like it because the landscape of worship music is “dishonest.” If anything, worship songwriters who try to be more emotional or “broken” more often than not wind up being saccharine and off-putting.

    Also, the question of what gets the heaviest radio rotation is probably more tied to sonic fads and the shortening attention spans of the millennial generation than anything else. Unless there’s a big grassroots effort that allows something to break out, songs have to sound a certain way and be over in a certain amount of time to get any traction. The artists who are flying under the radar tend to be either highly stripped down or experimental. They don’t need or want the “Nashville polish.” But that’s the mold everything has to fit into. Now, one artist who I think has done a nice job walking that balance is Jason Gray. He’s got Steven Curtis Chapman’s go-down-easy sonic sensibilities, but he tries to put thought into his lyrics.

  • I think much of that shallowness goes hand in hand with an inability to face the harshness and offensiveness of the Christian message, though – a song called I Do Not Come to Bring Peace, But a Sword probably wouldn’t sell as well. But that’s a good distinction – to be better the art doesn’t have to be more dark (or more light, for that matter), but merely excellent. At the same time, I think there’s a deficit of darkness (that is to say, reality – we’re living in a cursed world and death is still around) in our art *currently*, which is unhealthy. Lament is a needed outlet for us to deal with the world.

    As to saccharine “honest” songs, well, abusus non tollit usum (my new Latin phrase which I’m proud of myself for remembering and plan to use at every opportunity). There are plenty of good counterexamples:

    Some of those might not exactly be what I’m looking for (it’s late – having a hard time thinking straight after a long day arguing with Trumpkins) – but all deal with suffering or darkness in some way. The Michael Card and Rich Mullins stuff is a bit more conservative (on Job and Gomer in Card’s case; a Christian break-up song by Mullins) but Josh Garrels and Matthew Perryman Jones are both pushing the envelope in an artistic and compelling way. Jones’s song is about Vincent van Gogh’s madness. Randall Goodgame’s song is just…a crazy but interesting thing about Charlie Brown and death. The first U2 song might be dismissed as just another peacenik ballad (it shouldn’t be), but while it’s not at all my favorite of their tunes, I’ve always liked the lyrics a lot – it’s a really sad song lamenting the awful state of our world. Plus, there had to be at least one Johnny Cash song on the list.

    Of course, you know Andrew Peterson, Andy Gullahorn, and Eric Peters. I could come up with more but I’m going into brain melt now. Was fun trolling through all my Christian music albums and Youtube listening haunts to come up with this stuff, though.

  • Looks like some of the videos didn’t pop up – you’ll have to click on the links to find them. Not that you have to listen to all or any of them – this is an unsolicited music dump because I was bored tonight.

  • Thanks! Civil people who want to leave extra comments on my blog won’t get an argument from me. 😉

  • Also, Hannah has posted a number of interesting links above for your browsing pleasure.