Why Bono Isn’t My Musical Messiah

I have a confession to make:

I’m not into Bono.
I find U2 a bit so so.
And I don’t find The Edge all that edgy. 

I know that may qualify me for excommunication within some circles of the Emerging Church but hey, I’ve been called a heretic before and life goes on. What prompts this outburst? I recently entered into a discussion on John Smulo’s blog about Bono on Christian Music and I though I should reproduce my comments here, outing myself as a hymnological heretic:

Guys, I agree with much of the criticisms and calls expressed here, the yearings for greater lyrical depth and genre engagement, but personally, I am so over Christian music that I couldn’t care less about hearing another worship song of any genre for the rest of my life.

I say this as a musician who loves music.

I feel that music has become so overemphasized in the Christian scene that I personally need a breather. I am more and more finding greater joy and closeness to God in reading and writing poetry. Lyrics without the try hard trendiness or dirgy dinginess.

I am finding more and more within the emerging church scene who share my sentiments about being over the music, particularly musicians.

Philip, you talk about correlations between hymnology and missiology, but I wonder whether the path ahead involves lyrics without music: in spoken word, in poetic rhyme and rhythm, in prayerful chant, in blogged poetry that inspires meditative wonder? Consider the part of poetry in alt spiritualities like Wicca. More than a little influence.

I for one find U2 a bit ho hum. All cred to them but they’re not me. Not my genre. Not my joy. Too light and easy. Isn’t Christians trying to incarnate into every musical genre not unlike Christians trying to incarnate into every emphemeral NRM (eg Matrixism) that comes along? I feel we’re just trying too hard. If lyrical depth is more essential than musical genre, missional wise, what’s wrong with going for lyrics pure and simple?

Well, people can do what they like. For those who still want music, fair enough. But I just find comfort amongst those who are over the music thing.

Had an interesting conversation with Glenn Powell the other week. Former lead singer for 90s Christian Band Quick and the Dead, Uniting Church missional leader and founding member of Cafe church. He shared much of my sentiments when I expressed them and noted how music was a rarity at Cafe church, full as it was of musicians. I am far from alone. Silence can be golden too.

6 thoughts on “Why Bono Isn’t My Musical Messiah

  1. I recall a few years back hearing someone argue against the over-use of music in church, at the time I thought it was nutty, after a few years in minstry, now it is far from nutty.
    My intial feeling on replying to John’s blog was to make some comments not a million miles from yours. I went down a different tack.
    However, I agree that a number of the musicians I know are “post-church-music.” to a large extent I am too. I’ve been church shopping and the sleek, hip music thing seems a little tragic to me.
    I’m not over church music, but I am over cool church music. That said, I do dig U2, have done since their second album came out.


  2. Oh yeah, preach it brother. I too am a musician and I love music but I have never ever liked congregational singing and when I’ve been part of a church have often joined the music team just to avoid singing. Secondly although I like U2 (they’re certainly not in my top 10 favourite bands) I too don’t see Bono as a musical messiah and have often felt like some kind of heretic for thinking so.
    “He’s not the messiah he’s just a good guy”


  3. Matt
    I don’t regard Bono or the U2 band as the essence of what I mentioned about Christian music on John Smulo’s blog, nor do I see the band as some sort of musical messianic answer to insipid music. John after all started the discussion by alluding to some remarks made by Bono in the early 1980s
    The ennui that some Christians feel about today’s music is understandable but the heart-felt tedium can also translate into actions where the baby is dumped with the dirty bath water.
    The role of singing and of music itself is embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures with the Psalter being a very obvious example but by no means the only example (Moses’ song and Miriam’s song in Exodus 15; David the harp-player, the heavenly hosts sing and so forth). There are quite a few references to various musical instruments throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
    In the case of the Psalter you have a both/and (both poetry and simultaneously lyric), and the Psalter formed an integral part of the early church’s hymnology.
    I think that we need to “reset” the button on the discussion and reframe the problem in the wider context of worship, of aesthetics and gifts of creativity. The minute focus on music itself can blind us to seeing the problem in its widest extent.
    It would be a shame to see music abandoned, devalued or marginalised simply due to the current crop of insipid songs and puerile melodies. In one sense to do so is to leave the field in a vacuum (hence creating another unpaid bill of the church) and allow the field to be swamped by mediocrity.
    For what one does about music (like de-emphasizing or marginalising or terminating) can then be paralleled with other forms of creative expression: art, poem, story, ritual, liturgy and even “monastic” silence.
    As for contextualising in genres, that is something that Christians the world over have done since Acts 2. African, Asian, Oceanic and Latin American genres of music have their respective corpus of Christian compositions; and from Luther’s time to the present a wide range of genres have been employed. While one can be diverted by an overemphasis on form or style, the abuse or misuse of something does not correlate to “taste not touch not”. Surely those who are musically gifted have a holy responsibility to make worthwhile contributions today and there are many genres in which one can work or be inspired by.
    Not all believers are musically gifted, anymore than all believers are gifted in writing books or poems or painting. However those who have the gifts have a responsibility to the community of faith.
    God is the giver of the gift of music and all creative energies we have are gifts. We can use those gifts in wonderful ways, or we can opt for bad taste and ultimately in settling for mediocrity we effectively insult the original giver of the gift who bids us to create and celebrate.


  4. A slight addendum:
    It is also worth noting that for many Christians they learn whatever “theology” they do often through hymns/music. And that is the point that relates to what I remarked on at John’s blog about depth of lyric and the link to missions. It is worth recalling that St Patrick and those who followed in his wake taught pre-literate disciples through pictures, symbols and songs, with the songs being a primary vehicle for conveying theology.


  5. i dont think im sick of music in church, instead i think im sick of directed, directive, lyrics in worship.
    less hillsong more sigur ros
    less hymns more dub
    less pipe organs more jazz


  6. I was musing about the music issue some more on the train this morning and see that the commentary has rushed ahead in advance of me having a chance to blog my clarifications.
    So, for what it’s worth Philip, I realised soon after that you might get confused over my U2 comments. That aspect of the post wasn’t intended for you at all. You’ll be pleased to know I do have a softer spot for the Oils, but yes, I know you were focussed on the theological issues more than specific bands or genres.
    On babies and bathwater. Yes I am conscious that I stray close to baby dumping and risk much, and you don’t know how much I’ve agonised over that very thing, but I just see no other way out for myself. For me the music has ceased to be an aid to worship and has become a hinderance. I have taken the breather for my own spiritual health. Donna didn’t like what she was seeing whilst I was still trying to persist last year.
    In my defence against the charge of baby dumping I draw attention to two things. Firstly, I’ve already acknowledged I have no problem with those who still find it meaningful to keep worshipping with music, I am not proposing unplugging as a one-size-fits-all panacea. Secondly, reframing this from a wider perspective of aesthetics and gifts of creativity is very much at the core of my thinking and practice.
    I have probably also overstated my case in making my point. I am not against all Christian music. In fact, I really enjoyed hearing Glen play after all these years at the Brian McLaren gig earlier this year. But the difference there was it was a once off, totally unpretencious, and from the heart. It was beautiful, but all the more so for its rarity. It’s the expectation that people do this every week which drives the mediocrity.
    If we talk about contextualisation, I have to ask myself, just how do I engage with music in my everyday life? For me it is highly personalised thing. For starters I listen to my iPod. It gives me access to hundreds of songs from dozens of genres, customed to my personalised tastes, instantaneously. I also like to listen to the occasional band, see the occasional performance. But never with all my friends. Just those who share my tastes. Am I so unique?
    Can I think of any contexts where I’d invite others to enjoy some music with me irrespective of their personal tastes? In the way we think church should be? Well, all I can think of are music festivals. At a festival we can rock up, be presented with a smorgasboard of bands and genres and even go our own way if necessary, meeting up with others, doing whatever. I note at this point that I am in fact intending to attend the Black Stump music and arts festival with some of the youth later this year. I don’t expect to be with all the same people, all the same time, but that’s ok.
    See, the clincher for me is, music has awesome power to inspire me, but virtually no power to unite me with others from different demographics. Not so much of a drama in monolithic societies where the demographics are simple, but in hetrogenous societies, well, it’s each to their own.
    What we ask church bands to do is an impossible task. To be all things to all people in a society that celebrates ideosyncracy. When it comes to incarnation musicians are inevitably pressured to pick a winning genre, one which will offend the fewest amount of people, often ones which they personally are not inspired by.
    And whenever your goal is to offend the least amount of people the end result is always mediocrity.
    So, I throw my hands up in the air and say, “I’d just prefer to do communion thanks, hold all the razzamataz”, and go to the occasional music festival. I sometimes play some music for my kids, when we do house church and family time, but not all the time and for myself I engage in poetry and other forms of worship. I engage in aids to worship that actually aids in worship, leaving aside the expectations of others.
    I see music as a bit like sex. We’ve cheapened it so much. Maybe some of us musicians feel this more acutely than most. I’d like to just take a step back from our orgies of musical mediocrity and start respecting the music again. Give it space to flower…in its own time without a weekly expectation.


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