Last month, The Message author Eugene Peterson filmed a short conversation with Irish rocker Bono to discuss the Psalms. I know, it sounds like a Christian satire headline, but yes, this really happened. For younger readers who may be drawing a blank on “The Message,” it’s a Bible paraphrase that uses self-consciously casual language/colloquialisms. To give a sample of what this sounds like, here’s Peterson’s paraphrase of a repeated refrain of David’s from the Psalms: “Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul? Why are you crying the blues?”
The Message also softens and subtly re-glosses some Bible passages that are harsher on sexual sin, which is not a coincidence given Peterson’s leftist leanings. Similarly, while Bono often talks about his Christian faith and has made Christian news as a result, he’s planted his flag very firmly with the left on issues such as gay “marriage.”
All of this is to say that neither Bono nor Peterson is exactly the most authoritative voice when it comes to sound exegesis, which makes me kind of amused that this video created such a stir in Christian circles. I simply fail to see what special insight they’re supposed to be offering that makes their conversation newsworthy.
But, newsworthy it apparently was, and one comment of Bono’s in particular prompted a number of responses. Reflecting on the range of passions and emotions that the Psalms express, Bono criticized Christian music, by contrast, for its “dishonesty.” Instead of settling for worship tunes, he wished Christians would write songs about their bad marriages or social injustice (as Bono put it, “being p**sed off at the government” — somehow I doubt an anti-Obama song would count).
In response, a number of people, including singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson (no relation to Eugene), protested that there’s plenty of honest Christian art out there, it’s just not on the radio. This could be called push-back, but it’s not the kind of push-back I would give. I would be much more blunt. I would tell Bono that he doesn’t understand what makes great Christian art. And I say that as someone who is almost invariably bored by CCM Top 40 and finds my attention wandering during most worship songs.
The problem with Bono’s approach can be traced back to the remark by Eugene Peterson that sparks his comments in the video. Peterson refers to his paraphrase of the Psalms, which he claims is closer to the original Hebrew (giggle-snort), as “not smooth, not nice, not pretty, but it’s honest.” This prompted Bono’s remarks about “dishonest” Christian art.
To begin with, people like me don’t dislike The Message because the language is intense, raw and/or emotional. We dislike it because it’s cheesy. The King James translation of the Psalms is still plenty intense and raw. The difference is that it was put together by people who actually had an ear for language. If anything, deliberately inserting a colloquialism like “down in the dumps” trivializes and takes the viewer out of David’s grief. Yet, patronizingly, Peterson insists on attributing our dismissal of his so-called “translation” to some kind of prudish squeamishness.
Furthermore, if we take Bono’s contrast between “honest” and “dishonest” art seriously, where “honest” is defined as “messy/dark/emotional,” then how do we describe Psalms that are none of these things? Is Psalm 100 less honest for being a lyrical praise anthem instead of an outpouring of grief or frustration? In context, Bono does attempt to praise current worship writers by saying that their voices and songs are “beautiful,” but in that case, what does he mean by saying he “sees a lot of dishonesty” in Christian music?
I suspect that if you tried to pin Bono down, there would be nothing specific he could point to that gives him this sense of “dishonesty.” I suspect he’s reacting more against an impression or a cultural atmosphere than a particular song or song lyric. It’s the old complaint that Christian music (or Christian film, or other culturally evangelical artifacts) present a falsely “squeaky-clean” picture of our world, and that the church would be better off if we were allowed to share all our sins and “junk” out in the open. Yadda-yadda-yadda. Blah-blah-blah. This is nothing new.
But let’s consider Bono’s alternative proposal: Write a song about your bad marriage. To which I answer, why? What if a writer is hesitant to air his personal dirty laundry in a song? Does that make him a dishonest person? For someone who goes on about how judgmental the church is, Bono is taking a pretty judgmental attitude himself here.
There have been great songs written about broken marriages. There have been great songs written about happy marriages. There are great paintings of suffering. There are great paintings of beauty and nature. There are Psalms of grief and Psalms of praise. It is not a necessary condition for great or “honest” Christian art that it be unhappy. And it is certainly not a necessary condition that such art should announce every hidden thought or sin to the entire world. This is what Bono doesn’t get. Sadness and pain may be sufficient conditions for great art, but they are not necessary.
The fact is, Bono wasn’t thinking clearly about what he meant to say. That’s because he’s not a thinker. He’s a rock singer who sometimes says Christian-y stuff, so for reasons unknown, people seem to think we should pay attention to him when he says more Christian-y stuff. Moreover, he’s considered to be an Artist with a capital “A,” therefore we are supposed to take him seriously whenever he says something about Art.
This is the culture of celebrity, to which the church is unfortunately not immune. People who are famous for being famous are given a platform they didn’t earn, to speak about topics on which their contributions are shallow at best and pernicious at worst. Fortunately, Christians don’t have to take Bono’s word or Eugene Peterson’s word for anything. You can go explore language and music and art for yourselves. You can make our own judgments about what makes it beautiful or terrible, cringe-worthy or great.
And if you need some spiritual guidance along the way… well, your local pastor that nobody’s ever heard of is probably more reliable than some guy on YouTube.