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A few [months] ago a wonderful little film showed up online. It featured one of my favorite authors, Eugene Peterson, having a conversation about the Psalms with Bono, one of my favorite songwriters. It actually brought tears to my eyes, not just because of the good content but because the video was so well done. I even texted the filmmaker Nathan Clarke to tell him so.
But Bono said something that prompted a Twitter response from me, and that response stirred up a good discussion on the internet—a discussion that I hope will bear some good fruit.
At one point Bono says, “I’m talking about dishonesty that I find a lot of in Christian art. A lot of dishonesty. And I think it’s a shame because these are people who are vulnerable to God—in a good way—vulnerable. I mean porous, open. I would love if this conversation would inspire people who are writing [with] these beautiful voices, these beautiful gospel songs [to] write a song about their bad marriage. Write a song about how they’re pissed off at the government. Because that’s what God wants from you. The truth…and that truthfulness…will blow things apart. Why I’m suspicious of Christians is because of this lack of realism. And I’d like to see more of that in life, and in art, and in music.”
It’s clear that Bono, for whom I have a lot of respect, is shooting from the hip, and while it’s tempting to criticize and parse every word he’s saying, it would do us all good to remember how many conversations we’ve had over coffee that we’re thankful weren’t being recorded, and aren’t being listened to hundreds of thousands of times. (As of this writing, the video has almost 350,000 views.) It’s important to keep the context in mind, and to recognize the spirit of what he’s saying.
My Twitter response was this: “I get where Bono is coming from, but the fact is, there’s TONS of honest Christian art. It just isn’t mainstream.” Allow me to expound, now that I’m not constrained to 140 characters.
First, there’s no shortage of honesty in art created by Christians. (For the sake of this argument I’m going to assume we mean honest and excellent. There are plenty of bad songs that are honest, and we certainly don’t need more of those.) I think Bono was speaking broadly, about the whole of popular Christian music, and like I said, I get where he’s coming from. There’s no Psalm-like anger or vengeance or confession there—though there’s plenty of Psalm-like joy and praise, much of it lifted straight from the Bible. But I bristle whenever I hear people complain about the state of Christian music because there’s so much good music, good writing, good visual art being made by followers of Jesus. When they say, “Christian music is so bad,” I answer, “What are you listening to? Because I can name scores of songwriters who are Christians whose music is excellent, honest, beautiful and true, not to mention well-produced.” Jill Phillips? Andy Gullahorn? Josh Garrels? Jon Foreman? Sandra McCracken? Thad Cockrell? Colony House? U2?
You could say the same thing about books. “Christian books are so cheesy,” says the guy holding the Amish romance. But what about Walt Wangerin? Marilynne Robinson? Frederick Buechner? Eugene Peterson? Leif Enger? Wendell Berry?
The problem, you see, isn’t that Christian artists lack honesty. It’s that the masses seem to prefer something else, and that something else casts a long shadow. There have always been, and will always be, followers of Jesus working away in the shadow of what’s popular, using their gifts to season their communities with honest and beautiful art. And I will always harbor a crazy hope that some of it will break into the mainstream so that even the most cynical listener might encounter the honesty that Bono’s talking about. If nothing else, I hope that this conversation prompts some people to seek out the artists that aren’t played on the radio every five minutes. Part of the reason I started the Rabbit Room years ago was to draw attention to good, true, and beautiful works of art that were more or less ignored by the mainstream.
So in one sense, Bono’s exactly right. I hope that his conversation leads those with influence in popular Christian music to consider the Psalms, to acknowledge the responsibility that comes with their massive cultural impact. That means putting songs into the world that the audience might need to hear, songs that might reflect not what’s hip and safe but what’s beautiful and true and honest.
And on the other hand, I want Bono to listen to some of my friends. I’d love to see him draw attention to the many who are too explicitly Christian in content for the mainstream yet don’t stand a chance on Christian radio because they don’t reflect the sonic homogeny of the decade. Let’s talk about the artists who are baring their souls, troubadours and prophets with beautifully imperfect voices and stunning rhymes, songs about divorce and heartbreak and doubt, just like the Psalms—but also like the Psalms, songs about God’s steadfast kindness, his tender mercy, our desperate need for rescue.
They’re out there, Bono, doing exactly what you and Eugene described. How can we draw more attention to what’s working than to what’s broken?
This piece originally appeared in CCM Magazine. David Taylor, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, was the producer of the video with Bono and Eugene. He’s a brilliant guy and has compiled a wonderful page of resources for a deeper encounter with the Psalms. Check it out here.
As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.