In a recent Rolling Stone magazine interview, U2 frontman and global celebrity Bono talked at length about his faith, referring to the Apostle Paul as a tough [expletive] and comparing King David to Elvis and calling him “the first bluesman.” Because of Bono’s occasionally profane language and the perception that he represents the “trendifying” of the Christian faith, it’s easy to dismiss his message as irrelevant. However, specifically, in his thoughts on the Psalms, Bono’s interview has a point that’s worth consideration for leaders in the church.
When asked how his faith informs his music, Bono gives a lengthy (and accurate!) summation of the early days of David, culminating with him being invited to play for King Saul, then being chased out into the desert and hiding in a cave.
In a Cave of Despair
“And in the darkness of that cave,” Bono says, “in the silence and the fear and probably the stink, he writes the first psalm. And I wish that weren’t true. I wish I didn’t know enough about art to know that that is true. That sometimes you just have to be in that cave of despair.”
Later Bono would say that cave was “the birthplace of blues,” referencing the psalms David wrote in those moments crying out in despair, anger, sadness and hope for God to intervene. Bono’s reflection on the psalms echo a 20-minute video of Bono and Eugene Peterson discussing the same topic over a year ago. In the video—which is worth watching in its entirety—Bono claims this full scope of human emotions are largely absent in the American Christianity he sees.
“I find a lot of dishonesty in Christian art,” Bono said. “[Christians] are vulnerable to God – porous, open – and I would love if the people who write Christian songs would write about their bad marriage, why they’re p***ed off at the government, because that’s what God wants from you. Honesty. Why I’m suspicious of Christians is the lack of realism and I’d like to see more of that in art, life, and music.”
While Bono’s language can be grating to some, it’s worth considering whether he has a point. In the same video conversation, The Message Bible paraphrase author, Eugene Peterson, says “Praying isn’t being nice before God. The psalms aren’t pretty. They’re not nice. Faith often isn’t smooth, nice, or pretty, but it’s honest, and I think we’re trying for honesty in our faith, which is very hard in our culture.”
Lament in modern-day songs
A look at the most popular songs sung in evangelical churches give basis to this point. The two most popular worship songs on Billboard’s Top Christian Songs list—What a Beautiful Name It Is and O Come to the Altar—are songs that readily reference pain or suffering, but quickly move to hope. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s worth considering that many of the imprecatory psalms linger at length on the author blaming God, calling for violence against his enemies, or mourning for the evil in the world.
One could argue that a song like the ever-present (to the point of cliche) song Hallelujah could belong in the tradition of the psalms. The original version of the song by Leonard Cohen graphically references sexual immorality and the pain it caused in the author’s life, but then concludes with one of the all-time great stanzas:
but even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/
with nothing on my tongue, but hallelujah
Artists like Leonard Cohen or Bono may seem problematic to many in the evangelical church; however, it’s worth considering the book of Psalms in its entirety and ask whether our church cultures create space for the same range of emotions.
Or to put it another way: Have we made it okay for people to be angry, sad or lonely in our church services?