The rock star, the pastor and the Psalms

The rock star, the pastor and the Psalms May 1, 2016

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The following video has been making the rounds this week, but I just had the time to watch it this weekend. It’s Bono, the world-famous front man of U2, and Eugene Peterson, the translator of “The Message,” talking about the Psalms. It’s one of the most fascinating things I’ve seen all week, and well worth 20 minutes of your time.

I find it interesting that Bono and Peterson are two of the most widely known Christians in the world, and yet at some churches I’ve attended, many refuse to even recognize them as brethren. I’ve seen many Christians roll their eyes when Bono’s faith is mentioned, because they’ve never heard him give a specific declaration of his faith (meaning they’ve never heard him break down his doctrine into church phrases they recognize and agree with). And Peterson’s “The Message” — a modern-day translation of the Bible — was seen as borderline heresy in some of the circles I used to run with, an irreverent attempt to change God’s Word.

Truth be told, there were times I found myself on that side of the debate. In recent years, however, my tune has changed. While I’m not as high on U2 as some people, I enjoy their music. I find that the group is able to turn faith and spirituality into poetry in a way many can’t. Sure, I find Bono’s rock star posing a bit annoying, but I find his openness about his faith and his commitment to changing the world refreshing in a culture where most celebrities are only seeking Instagram followers. And while I prefer a more traditional translation when I study scripture, I’ve found Peterson’s poetry helpful at finding the emotion and truth behind many passages.

I love this talk about Psalms, and the way it treats them as works of art. I think we often forget about the poetic nature of much of the Bible. We get so hung up on squabbling about doctrinal minutiae that we forget to examine it as a work composed by several different authors who brought their own styles and voices to their writing. The Psalms are raw, heartfelt pleas to God. Some are hymns of worships. Others are cries of lament. All of them are steeped in the emotion we often try to avoid when we put together our doctrinal thoughts. But if Christianity is, as we believe, a relationship, we can’t lose the emotion or ignore the artistry.

Peterson talks about the metaphorical nature of the Psalms, describing tears held in a vessel or calling God “a rock.” The older I get, I find that using Scripture purely as a way to develop a grid for understanding God (and, really, trying to control him) only leads me to frustration. There are intangibles we’ll never understand, and questions of the soul we’ll spend our lifetimes (maybe longer) asking. I love that The Psalms attempt to put words to those intangibles, as the Psalmists try to wrap their arms around the very concept of finite human beings bearing their hearts to God.  This isn’t a bunch of theologians trying to map out a definition of God or develop a system of belief. These are humans in the middle of life — and sometimes in the middle of life-threatening circumstances — responding to their situation by crying out to God. There’s beauty that makes the Psalms so compelling and so resonant, even thousands of years later.

Bono talks about an inherent “dishonesty” in most Christian art that isn’t found in the Psalms, and he puts into words something I’ve been wrestling with for years. Christian art often feels plastic and fake; it’s very obviously the result of people not crying out to God truthfully or addressing the hard, sometimes soul-rending facts of life. It’s too often people trying to create a picture that paints Christians as blissfully happy, well-behaved and free from doubt or struggle, with every problem solved by a simple prayer or act of faith. I think people often cling to it because they see it as an ideal, the way that life should be.

Which is immensely dangerous. Because the Christian life has never been about avoiding pain, hardship or doubt. It’s always been about faith that endures through those things and keeps hoping even when the foundations appear to be crumbling. Why can’t we hear Christians sing about the prayers that aren’t answered, or make movies about the marriages that don’t work out and the miracles that never arrive? Where are the  stories about football teams that pray for a victory, lose and still praise God? Where are the songs about doubt and dark nights that don’t seem like they’ll ever lift?

That’s what we see in the Psalms; unshakable faith, even as the world quakes. They’re works that still give peace, still provide hope and still serve as a balm for the soul. They’re vital and beautiful.

I’m thankful these two came together, even if it was for a short talk. Truthfully, I wish this was three times as long. But I hope it’s a nudge into a deeper conversation about Christianity, art and honesty, and I hope other voices chime in.

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