Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog

U2 GetUp.jpg
When Jesus spoke in parables and the Apostle Paul quoted pagan poets at Mars Hill, they followed a long line of communicators that has continued to this day; communicators who start with culture to bridge to gospel. U2 has been writing provocative and prophetic lyrics for years¢â‚¬¦so it is no surprise that they have worked their way into sermons. For a wonderful series of expositions turn to a new book Get Up Off Your Knees (Cowley)edited by Raewynne Whiteley and Beth Maynard. Here’s the audio and transcript of our exclusive interview.

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Interview of Beth Maynard by Dick Staub

Well welcome everybody. You know, when Jesus spoke in parables and the Apostle Paul quoted pagan poets at Mars Hill, they followed a long line of communicators that is continued to this day. Communicators who start with culture to bridge to belief. U2 has been writing provocative and prophetic lyrics for years, so it’s no surprise that they have worked their way into sermons. And for a wonderful series of expositions I want you to turn to a new book titled Get Up Off Your Knees, published by Cowley, edited by Raewynne Whiteley and Beth Maynard. Beth is the pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. And she joins us today.

Q. Beth, thanks for joining us.
A. Thanks for having me, Dick. Glad to be here.

Q. I want to start with your own spiritual journey because in the introduction to the book you say, “My spiritual life would have been a much less interesting soundtrack without U2. And without Jesus I’d probably be either intolerable or dead.” Sounds interesting. Tell me briefly how you got interested in U2 and a little bit about your own spiritual journey.
A. Sure. I’m someone who was, I was brought up in Nashville, Tennessee, which they call “the buckle on the Bible belt,” and I sometimes thought I was the only unchurched, non-Christian child in Nashville, Tennessee. I think I was the Sunday school prayer partner of a lot of my evangelical schoolmates and eventually their prayers were answered. And when I was about 17, just before going to college, I became a Christian and was baptized. So that’s sort of the beginning of how I came to faith. And pretty early on I began to wonder about the appropriate way of combining my faith with my career choices and just my life in general. And that led me into, oh, all sorts of different places, but a social justice ministry. I used to run a homeless shelter. And it was about that time, I guess, in the late ¢â‚¬Ëœ80s, that a friend that I was in a home prayer group with introduced me to U2.

Q. And what was your first impression of U2? Do you remember?
A. Yeah. I remember the evening at that prayer group quite vividly. “Joshua Tree” had just come out and U2 were on the cover of Time that week, being heralded as rock’s hottest ticket. And after the prayer meeting broke up we sat around and listened to the album. And the two things I remember the most vividly were just being amazed at the subtlety of the biblical references that they made, myself. And I also vividly remember someone else saying, Boy, this is so much better than all that Christian rock stuff.

Q. Now, you have in the introduction your co-author, Raewynne Whiteley, has a little piece on pop culture and preaching ¢€œ
A. Yes.

Q. ¢€œ you’re already making connections between listening to pop culture, hearing biblical references ¢€œ which of course in U2 are very, very pronounced ¢€œ
A. Right.

Q. ¢€œ but really beyond U2, whether the lyrics of a song are kind of explaining our common human condition of lostness or loneliness ¢€œ or more explicit such as the lyrics of U2 ¢€œ talk a bit about what Raewynne is saying about the connection between pop culture and preaching.
A. Well I think preachers are always looking for effective cultural connections that help people grasp the meaning of biblical text. And one of the points that Raewynne makes that I find really fascinating is that not only do we take the biblical text out into the world, we bring our life experience and our experience of the world with us when we read biblical text. She makes the point that we come to the stories of Christmas with Christmas carols already in our heads. And if you’re a fan of U2, when you come to, oh, let’s say a situation of discouragement, when you need to be encouraged to persevere, you may come to that situation with “Walk On” in your head. There’s just a natural connection that you make of these different texts and these different ways of telling the story of the world that we’re in.

Q. For people that aren’t that familiar with U2 ¢€œ maybe because you do it in the book ¢€œ maybe you could just give a real brief history of U2 and why it is that their lyrics so consistently convey biblical themes.
A. Sure. Your nickel history of U2 follows. U2 are an Irish band, formed in the late ¢â‚¬Ëœ70s, sort of out of the punk/new wave movement in Dublin. And very early on in their formation as a band, three of the members of the band became heavily involved in a Christian community called Shalom, which was non-denominational, and one can tell from their later comments was just a very intense, influential experience. They ended up breaking with that community, it seemed, largely over the question of whether you could pursue a “secular career,” such as rock music, and continue having a profession as a Christian. U2 concluded that you could do that and went forth into the world shaped by that Christian message but not feeling called to write exclusively about Christianity, per se, rather to write about the world through the lens of Christian faith. In the ¢â‚¬Ëœ80s, U2 were known as sort of being very straight ahead, social justice, change the world, get out there and wave your white flag, and by the end of the ¢â‚¬Ëœ80s they were much critiqued for that perceived kind of self-righteousness. They completely re-invented themselves in the ¢â‚¬Ëœ90s, borrowing a page from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, and became kind of the band of irony. And then at the end of the ¢â‚¬Ëœ90s, as the millennium came, they went back, in a sense, to wearing their heart on their sleeves with their most recent album, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” which retains some of that subtlety and nuance that we came to associate with U2 in the ¢â‚¬Ëœ90s, but is also much more straight ahead about basic human values.

Q. For people that don’t know, I mean, Bono is in the news all the time ¢€œ
A. Right.

Q. ¢€œ but what insight do we have into kind of the nature of his own spiritual quest and journey?
A. You know, in a sense that’s a question that really only Bono can answer. And it’s a question that we have sort of bracketed a little bit for the book, Get Up Off Your Knees. We’ve worked very much with U2’s art, with their lyrics, with their music, and we’ve kind of tried to say the games of are they or aren’t they, the kind of, you know, “Where’s Waldo,” of trying to talk about their personal faith is something we’re bracketing. I’m someone who admires very much the way that Bono seems to bring his Christian faith to bear on his activism and on his art and on his worldview. But for nuances and statements of faith, really only the individual themselves can make that.

We’re going to pick up there when we come back. We’re talking about U2, about preaching through the U2 liturgy. The book is Get Up Off Your Knees, published by Cowley. Our guest is Beth Maynard. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

The heart is a bloom
Shoots up through the stony ground
There’s no room
No space to rent in this town

You’re out of luck
And the reason that you had to care
The traffic is stuck
And you’re not moving anywhere

You thought you’d found a friend
To take you out of this place
Someone you could lend a hand
In return for grace

It’s a beautiful day

Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re talking about a wonderful new book, Get Off Your Knees, published by Cowley, edited by Raewynne Whiteley and Beth Maynard. Beth is joining us this afternoon.

Q. And Beth, it’s interesting ¢€œ and I agree with completely with the way you responded to my question about Bono, but I knew I had to ask it because people always want to know.
A. Sure. You know, it’s a celebrity culture and people want to know what kind of socks he wears, too.

Q. But you know, more interesting to me is the fact there’s a connection with Eugene Peterson, of course, because Bono has spoken very favorably about The Message, which Eugene Peterson has brought a great sense of art to the scriptural text. And Peterson does not seem to be afraid in the introduction ¢€œ he talks about an evening of Jesus and Bono ¢€œ
A. That’s right.

Q. ¢€œ but then he also talks about the tendency of religiosity to domesticate God, the nature of the prophet to disturb that domesticity, and the use of metaphors. And that really is a fairly useful way to look at U2, isn’t it?
A. I really think it is. I was thrilled that Eugene Peterson agreed to be part of the book. And we asked him, you know, could he just write us a few paragraphs, possibly, of endorsement of the book as a foreword. And lo and behold, he had been engaging with the work of U2 enough over the past year or so that this entire chapter arrived. And talking about the use of metaphor as a kind of prophecy, a kind of way in which God wakes us up from our religious slumber is very powerful.

Q. How was the book actually born? You talk about Raewynne speaking at an event, you talk about your own encounter with God Part II, and you include a meditation you did for Lent on that.
A. Right.

Q. How did the idea get born? And how did you find these wonderful contributors?
A. Well, the idea was born simply with three of us, actually, Raewynne and me and one of the contributors, talking to each other about how frequently U2 lyrics came to mind when we were preparing sermons and how natural it was to draw on that as something people would know in the culture to help illustrate a biblical point. And we just began to think, you know, we can’t be the only three people. There must be a lot of clergy out there who are working with this material. And in a sense we were just curious, we wanted to see what was out there. And we began to float the idea of a book proposal and put out a call for papers. And that call for papers went out to all sorts of places. I know it was in a Catholic writers’ guide, it was sent around by the Presbyterian church, we had a little web site up. Many of the U2 fan networks, particularly the site at U2, was very helpful in promoting it, and stuff just started arriving in the email.

Q. Now, for people that haven’t had a chance to see the book, it’s basically a collection of meditations and sermons in which people have referenced and used U2. And in almost every case there is a biblical cross-reference. So it’s kind of a combination of U2 text in one hand, biblical text in the other, and then the context is usually something very contemporary.
A. Yes, exactly. There’s that line from Karl Barth about, you know, we should preach with the Bible in one hand and The New York Times in another.

Q. Yeah.
A. And these folks are just preaching with the Bible in one hand and a U2 CD in the other.

Q. So give us an example. Now, “Beautiful Day,” we just played a little bit of it to start this segment. And your co-author, Raewynne, does a meditation on “Beautiful Day” from the book of Genesis.
A. Yes, that’s right. She picks up¢â‚¬¦ There’s a reference in the bridge of that song to the Noah story, “See the bird with the leaf in her mouth, after the flood, all the colors came out.”

Q. Yeah.
A. And if I remember correctly, she was preaching in the context immediately before the Iraq war began to happen explicitly.

Q. Yeah.
A. And she was talking about that feeling of heaviness in the air, of being kind of in the middle of a floor and not knowing what was going to happen ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and yet the presence of God’s promise as testified to by Noah ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ but also as testified to by U2.

Q. You know, any of us that have done biblical studies know the phrase sitzenbleiben, the situation in life that was the context of the gospels. And almost all of these sermons are wonderful reflections on situation in life, which is essentially what Bono does. But to me it was exciting to see the rootedness in a biblical and Christian tradition that was kind of the integrating point.
A. Right, right. And people who have not seen the book often say to me, Well, aren’t you supposed to preach on the Bible? How can you be preaching on U2? And in fact these sermons, I think, are very biblical. And anybody who is preaching on the Bible is going to be looking for ways to bring that scripture home into, you know, as you say, our contemporary sitzenbleiben.

Q. Yeah. When Steven Garber, one of the pieces he writes, “To See What You See: On Liturgy & Learning & Life,” and again he looks at when I look at the world in Psalm 123. And this is a meeting in Washington, D.C. actually, he talks about the meeting in Washington, D.C., where Bono was going to come and talk about AIDS in Africa.
A. Right.

Q. Talk about that exposition a bit.
A. Well, he’s talking¢â‚¬¦ It’s interesting, the actual context that he’s in, he’s a scholar and resident at Calvin College, and he was talking to the congregation of students there about building a Christian worldview, learning how to do what Bono says he wishes he could do in that song, to see the world the way Jesus sees, to understand how our world looks to Jesus Christ. And so Steven tells this story of his encounter with Bono at a meeting about AIDS in Africa in Washington, D.C., and then talks about a few other contemporary examples of people that he knows who also have worked at trying to build a Christian worldview. And then wraps that all up by exhorting his students to learn to see the world as Jesus sees it.

Q. Yeah. It’s a wonderful piece. And anybody that reads these pieces is going to see that there’s a clear sense of the social justice issues that U2 dealt with in the ¢â‚¬Ëœ90s in the Christian faith and expression of these expositions as we head into the 21st century.
A. Absolutely.

Well, we’re going to pick up with some more of our guest coming up right after this. We’re talking about their new book, Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog. We’re visiting with Beth Maynard. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

Grace, it’s a name for a girl
It’s also a thought that changed the world

Well, anybody that questions whether exposition of the U2 catalog can lead to productive discussions about gospel, “Grace” forever removes that question for even the newcomer to the lyrics of U2. And as a matter of fact, we’re visiting with Beth Maynard, who is the co-editor of Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog.

Q. And Beth, this particular song, “Grace,” has not one, not two, but three expositions ¢€œ
A. Yes, indeed.

Q. ¢€œ in this book. And they’re all on different¢â‚¬¦ Two of them are on Romans 5 and the other one is John 14 and wedding sermon. Talk about this song, “Grace,” and the different ways that Clint and Steven and Wade picked up on the importance of these lyrics for understanding today and gospel.
A. Sure. Let me just talk about the three of those sermons first, and they are totally different. You know, we tried in this book to bring together preachers who were very diverse theologically, very diverse denominationally, to sort of bear witness to the broadness of U2’s appeal. And the sermons on “Grace” are a great way to illustrate that, as are the sermons on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” I mean, we have Clint McCann, who really talks about social justice, social justice in Latin America particularly. We have Wade Hodges who preaches really a very classic Romans 5 sermon about how, you know, to quote the lyric, “Grace removes the stain of sin.” And then another one from Steve Garber which addresses a very particular situation of a couple who are stepping into a risk of trusting each other and opening themselves to each other’s love in a wedding. So it couldn’t be more different, all of them great readings of scripture, all of them great readings of the song, but very diverse. The song itself, “Grace,” it’s one of those U2 songs that’s an absolute natural to preach on. Sometimes you have to work harder at making a bridge from a song to scripture than other times. This is one which you could practically open up your Bible ¢€œ I think probably particularly if you were reading The Message ¢€œ and get a text very similar to this. It’s just a straight-ahead exposition of amazing grace, of grace making beauty out of ugly things.

Q. Yeah. And you know, this is where the appeal of art, as a bypasser of reason and yet a connector to reason, that song works that way. I mean, it is such a gorgeous, wonderful exposition of truth, but done artistically, that just is so emotive.
A. Yes. I used to serve as a college chaplain ¢€œ and this is on my mind because it’s Holy Week ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ but we did a Holy Week service in which we interwove a number of images of the passion with some contemporary songs. And the final song after we had seen it all and faded to black was that song, “Grace,” just wafting through the congregation. And it was an incredibly powerful moment.

Q. You mentioned ¢€œ and so we might as well talk about it for a moment ¢€œ “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which was way back from the earliest work of U2 that most of us are familiar with anyway, and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” ended up an exposition of Philippians 3, Luke 15, Mark 14. Again, very different from Steve, Darleen, and Anna. Talk about how those lyrics, again, were engaged textually and in very different ways.
A. Well, I think a great example there particularly is Steve and Darleen. Darleen is a professor at a Roman Catholic seminary. And Steve is, of course, the author of Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of “U2,” from Relevant Books. And he looks at “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” in the context of Philippians 3 and the sort of, you know, vow to keep pressing forward, to go on for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ. Darleen has a very charming, down-to-earth image of wandering sheep. And she talks about sort of the spiritual nature of Generation X and the constant questioning of life and how that song is used at X-er weddings and X-er funerals. And then Anna Carter Florence, who is a professor of preaching, has a sermon, “The Voice You Find May Be Your Own.” And she talks about how the song enabled her to connect with some people who were sort of outside of her experience and she was able to connect with them because they both loved the song. And it talks about the importance of having people find their own voice and their own experience.

Q. Yeah. Talk about your own treatment of “Tomorrow” in using John 20 and 1 Peter.
A. Sure. The “Tomorrow” I have always thought reads very interestingly together with the story of doubting Thomas. That’s a scripture that comes up in the lectionary, which my particular denomination happens to use every Sunday, every second Sunday of Easter. It comes up the Sunday after Easter every year. And so one has to think about this story every single year. And “Tomorrow” is one of U2’s earliest songs from their second album, “October.” And it sort of puts us in a very similar situation, I think, to where Thomas is in a room after a death, waiting to see what’s going to happen and afraid that nothing will ever be the same again. And what I do in the sermon is I kind of read the Thomas story right alongside the song “Tomorrow.” And at the end of “Tomorrow,” just as at the end of that chapter in John, there is a great epiphany of Christ, an epiphany that some people think is even a little too over the top for U2. And it just illustrates how that determination to encounter truth, whatever it costs ¢€œ the line that I pick up on in the song is the vow, “I’m going out there, I’m going to open the door and go out and see what’s there” ¢€œ and lo and behold, when the narrator opens that door, it’s the door that Jesus has been standing at and knocking. And just like Thomas, he has an encounter with Christ.

Amazing stuff. We’re going to be back in just a minute with more of our guest. The book is Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog. Don’t go away.

When you look at the world
What is it that you see?
People find all kinds of things
That bring them to their knees

I see an expression
So clear and so true
That changes the atmosphere
When you walk into the room

So, I try to be like you
Try to feel it like you do
But without you, it’s no use

(Break)

And love is not the easy thing¢â‚¬¦
The only baggage you can bring
Is all that you can’t leave behind

This is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Beth Maynard who, with Raewynne Whiteley, is the author of Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog. It is published by Crowley, available at your local bookstore and on line. And there is a web site, a blog site, where you can kind of engage in the material of this book.

Q. Beth, could you real quickly tell us what that is?
A. Sure. I’ve been keeping a blog for the project at U2sermons.blogspot.com. And that U2 sermons is all run together into one word. U2sermons.blogspot.com.

Q. And what kind of on-going input are you getting from people? I mean, what are you striking? What nerve are you striking when you start talking about preaching from the U2 catalog?
A. Well, it strikes different nerves with different folks. There are a lot of U2 fans out there ¢€œ U2 have sold, what, 200 million records or something like that ¢€œ so there are people who come to the book and the project wanting to know more about U2. There are people who come to the book, perhaps, wanting to get their feet wet for the first time in the notion of preaching from pop culture or doing theological reflection from pop culture. And there are also people for whom social justice is a concern. You know, particularly the issue of AIDS in Africa, the book is a charity project for TASO, the AIDS service organization in Uganda, and I think there are people who come with an interest in that as well.

Q. One of the pieces in here, I think it’s on the song, “Gone,” makes reference to Jim Elliott who was martyred by the Alka Indians when he went down to do missionary work. And he had a phrase, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which you cannot lose.”
A. Right.

Q. And the exposition of “Gone,” is very reflective of an intensity and an authenticity that you pick up in a lot of your contributors. In other words, these are people who have decided the faith is either real or now, or it’s nothing. And that’s one of the most exciting kind of dynamics to me of hearing how, for the most part younger, or at least the younger mindset ¢€œ many would say post-modern followers of Jesus ¢€œ are doing their theology.
A. Yes. There is an intensity and a freshness, I think, to a lot of these voices that is really exciting to me. You know, as someone who, particularly who comes from an unchurched background, as I think a growing number of people do ¢€œ if Jesus Christ is not the truth, and if faith is not real on the ground, and if it does not make a difference in the world, why would I pursue it? And that energy and that intensity that’s there is something that, I think you see that in U2, and perhaps that made it self-selecting as to who wanted to preach on them. But I agree with you.

Q. So when you look at the contributors to this book ¢€œ and there’s a wide range theologically, occupationally, and so forth ¢€œ
A. Absolutely.

Q. ¢€œ what do they have in common? You just mentioned kind of an intensity, and it’s got to be real. I mean, what do you see about how they do theology? You know, you said some of the people are coming and saying, you know, I’m interested in preaching from popular cultural text. I mean, what does this group in common kind of learn? And what are they exercising as a gift when they do what they’re doing with the U2 catalog?
A. Well in a sense, you know, you can answer that question several ways. In one way, you know, the only thing ¢€œ there are 23 of us, I guess ¢€œ and in one way the only thing that we have in common is U2 and Jesus. We’re different ages, we’re different denominations, and theology is done in a very different way by different folks in this book. We have people who are clearly working from an evangelical framework, we have people who are more from a mainline framework, more from a Catholic framework, but we’re united by our commitment to the gospel. We’re united in finding U2 a very fruitful source for proclaiming the gospel. And perhaps also in simply feeling it’s important to learn how to exercise the gift of discernment on the culture around us.

Q. Yeah. There’s a real interesting piece just recently about one of the impacts of The Passion. And it’s an art historian who was saying that what has happened with the movie, The Passion, it has totally demolished denominational lines, and it did it through a piece of art. And I think that’s what U2 has done, too. I mean, when you look at ¢€œ like you just said ¢€œ evangelicals, Catholics, mainline, Episcopalian, a lot of different traditions come together in having in common we love Jesus and we love U2, and we particularly love the way U2 gives voice to the issues of belief that matter to us. I think that’s an interesting dynamic as post-modern culture emerges, the importance of art and theology.
A. Right, right. U2, I think, are very post-denominational. They simply don’t major on any of those classical differences that have divided groups of Christians one from another. They don’t bring those to light. But what they do do is, you know, they’re incredibly skilled at creating a space that invites people into the presence of God, that invites people into the presence of the Holy Spirit, but that never sort of makes it seem like it’s about membership in a club. You know, you can go to a U2 concert and you will never feel, oh, this isn’t for you, this is only for the Christians. What U2 offer is an entrée for everybody, and I really admire that.

Q. You know, my friend Tom Beaudoin, wrote a book called Virtual Faith¢â‚¬¦
A. I know Tom.

Q. Yeah, I know Tom, too. And in it he does this wonderful piece of work about the sacred and the profane and the juxtaposition. And one of the more interesting dynamics with Bono recently ¢€œ and this is kind of outside the bounds of your book ¢€œ is for goodness sakes, other than George Carlin, nobody has gotten the FCC more mobilized than Bono and his use of the “F-word” in an award ceremony.
A. Right.

Q. And people, more traditional types, look at that and raise all the, you know ¢€œ like you said ¢€œ in or out kinds of questions.
A. Uh-huh.

Q. But this is a mindset and a generation, I think, that can see the sacred in the journey and the prophetic word of a Bono and live with it in juxtaposition with what some people would see as “the profanity.”
A. Well, it’s the great U2 quest that’s talked about in the song, “Mofo,” Looking for baby Jesus under the trash.” And I think if you try and proclaim Jesus without admitting that there’s a lot of trash in the world, you’re going to lose credibility. But if you just talk about the trash, you know, what good is that?

Folks, you can spend more time with out guest and her co-author, and all of the contributors to this piece, by picking up your own copy of Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog.

Q. What was the web site again, Beth, real quick?
A. The web log is U2sermons.blogspot.com.

Well this is Dick Staub. We’ll be back with more. The book is Get Up Off Your Knees, published by Cowley.

In New York freedom looks like too many choices
In New York I found a friend to drown out the other voices

And visit the blog! Get Up off Your Knees Blog

Posted in DS Interview, Staublog in July 4, 2006 by | 1 Comment »

One Response to Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog

  1. Liz Gray on August 2, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    WOW!! I’m so excited…I wish I would have searched for U2 bloggers months ago. I am a huge u2 fan, and Christian, and trying to connect with other people that feel the same way. Did you ever get the book finished? I am soooo interested in this project. I always tell folks U2 is not my faith or religion, and I love them bunches, their music, and their concerts. But their songs and their influence in what the do w/ONE campaign etc, Bono, sure compliment my faith very nicely!! Would love to talk more w/you if you are interested!! Sincerely, Liz Gray PS – Read Walk On and the Bono biography about Bono’s faith and his struggles by Mitch Assaryas (spelling?). Really good. Love the idea of the bible study! Great post!!!

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