catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 1 :: 2005.01.14 — 2005.01.27


Ineffable bawdiness

Surely it?s no shock that How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

, the latest release from the Energizer Bunny of rock groups?also known as U2?has landed atop the heap in 2004?s year-end plethora of top ten lists. More specifically, Christian cultural critics of all denominational stripes are showering the band with praise, as is their custom every time Bono, now the patron saint of hip, worldly Christians everywhere, drops an album or opens his mouth.

Well, almost every time. A few incidents in recent memory, typically involving the dreaded F-word and the FCC, have caused these same Christians to cringe at Bono?s behavior. Usually they spend the morning after such events frantically doing damage control among friends and coworkers, reassuring them that Bono has not, despite appearances, departed the faith.

This is certainly true here at Calvin College, where Bono is the default example of a Christian doing the work of God?s kingdom in the world both onstage and off. Despite a 20-year stint in the business, U2?s popularity and relevance have not waned; in fact, students now have more opportunities than ever to attend lectures (like those by Steve Stockman, author Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2), take classes (IDIS W27 Kicking at the Darkness: Social Justice, Spiritual Longing, and U2), and absorb all things U2 (a campus-wide How to Dismantle listening party the night the album released). Some students, weary of the band?s omnipresence, joke irreverently that Calvin?s idea of the divine trinity has replaced the Son of Man with the man in the wraparound shades.

Believe it or not, there?s a grain of truth to this joke. Understandably, the tendency is to make one?s hero in one?s own image?to make him what we wish he was, neatly conforming to our cultural and moral expectations, championing the causes we champion, citing the Bible chapter and verse as we do. To hear some at Calvin tell it, Bono is the evangelicalest evangelical that ever was. So it?s no wonder U2 fans start to look and act like panicked deer caught in headlights when he deviates from the conventional wisdom of our churches and youth groups.

I witnessed this most recently following one of my personal favorite cultural events of 2004, U2?s electrifying performance on the November 20 episode of Saturday Night Live. In case you didn?t catch it, the band performed two new numbers from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, then encored during the credits with a classic, ?I Will Follow.? That song?s unforgettable hook and energy were a reminder of why U2 skyrocketed to stardom in the first place, and evidently Bono was feeling the old magic, too?he flirted with the SteadyCams, he gestured grandly as he wandered through the stadium seating, he danced and romanced weeping SNL cast members. And, oh yes, he treated a woman in the audience to a vigorous lap dance.

All over the country, evangelical U2 fanatics gasped in horror and began mentally preparing explanations to be delivered uneasily at church the following morning, when fellow parishioners were sure to inquire as to the state of Bono?s eternal salvation. Me? I couldn?t stop grinning. This is the Bono I know and love.

For all the good that has come of renewed interest in the spiritual leanings and consequent social activism of the biggest band in the world, we Christians are generally unwilling to engage the 800-pound gorilla that commandeers the stage whenever Bono does: his huge, lascivious ego. I?m truly perplexed when people are shocked and dismayed over a stray expletive or a lap dance anymore?have they not noticed how Bono conducts himself when he?s not working for AIDS initiatives and writing biblical allusions into his music (and sometimes when he is)? The man is nothing if not a Rock Star, and the man is bawdy. Unapologetically, unabashedly, unavoidably bawdy.

?Bawdy? isn?t a word much in use in modern-day American English, to the detriment of the language?its closest synonyms don?t do its meaning justice. Bawdy, to my understanding, isn?t the same thing as lewd. It?s not exactly vulgar, and it doesn?t have the same base connotations as crass or smutty or slimy. Slimy looks at women and licks its lips and makes dehumanizing catcalls. Bawdy, meanwhile, looks at the world, proclaims that it is good, and celebrates?with gusto, and often with little regard for decorum.

The best synonym for bawdy, I think, is ?earthy.? In this sense, bawdy is low to the ground, slyly salacious and dirty and lived-in in all the best senses of those words. Bawdy is what was going on when Bono invited women to dance with him on stage during the ZOO TV era, cavorting in the spray of a champagne bottle. It?s what was going on when he gyrated exuberantly, pressing himself against the electronically projected silhouettes of belly dancers, during ?Mysterious Ways? on the Elevation tour. And if you ask me, it?s what was going on with that SNL lap dance.

Despite the fact that bawdy behavior has a long, strong legacy in religious, artistic imagery (think Song of Solomon, a narrative about both sex and the Church), we American Christians don?t quite know what to do when confronted with it, particularly by one of our own. Not only are we embarrassed, but we don?t have the theological framework to interpret bawdiness without caving to dogmatic legalism on one hand or anything-goes relativism on the other. So we explain it away, or dismiss it, or simply abide it uncomfortably.

Although a number of traditions (including the Reformed one) have a robust theology of the body, most of us came to faith in an environment with its moral roots in Puritanism and its philosophical moorings in Platonism. Both dichotomize spirit from flesh, soul from body; I?ll let you take a wild guess at which one of those is considered essentially good and which is essentially evil.

Yet the vilification of the earthbound is not what Jesus had in mind when he dwelt among us in the flesh. (This is a theological proposition I don?t have the space to explore in depth here, but about which you can read elsewhere?Holy Worldliness Part 1, and ?Holy Worldliness Part 2.) Although we must resist the lure of sinful (or ?worldly?) temptations, we must also refuse to reject wholesale the world God himself created and loves. Sometimes?because the earthy is not always synonymous with the sinful?this means embracing the earthy.

Two of my favorite writers illuminate this in a way I have found helpful when considering the ineffable bawdiness of Bono Vox. Frederick Buechner, whom I quote at every opportunity, is a novelist and a Christian whose stories are routinely hailed for their unflinching, grace-full embrace of profane saints. His writing and his characters are nothing if not bawdy, and here is why:

?The Word became flesh,? wrote John, ?and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.? That is what incarnation means. All religions and philosophies which deny the reality or the significance of the material, the fleshly, the earthbound, are themselves denied. Incarnation means that all ground is holy ground because God not only made it but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it. If we are saved anywhere, we are saved here. And what is saved is not some diaphanous distillation of our bodies and our earth but our bodies and our earth themselves. ? One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.

Another writer, Andre Dubus, also put it in terms of the incarnation: “I need sacraments I can receive through my senses. I need God manifested as Christ, who ate and drank and shat and suffered, and laughed.”

God manifested as Christ is why I don?t think we need be afraid or ashamed of bawdiness. To be so is neither theologically nor artistically nuanced, and we lack such nuance when we lump Bono?s exuberant dancing in with, say, MTV?s spring break antics (which could rightly be considered lewd, vulgar, and crass). On an artistic level, we fail to remember that for U2, the stage has always been a theater, allowing band members to play roles that speak truth in a creative way. And on a spiritual level, I think we do ourselves?and others?a great disservice when we shrink awkwardly in the face of gritty behavior, because sensuality is not antithetical to faith. It is, in fact, where faith is lived, because we are creatures bound to the earth, and faith cannot be lived anywhere else.

I do not know how to explain Bono?s lascivious fascination with the female form, or why he incorporates her into his showmanship so regularly; the feminist in me bristles. But then, I hope never to be a U2 fan who tries to make Bono in the image of a Super-Christian lest anyone doubt his witness. Do we not know by now that, as Madeleine L?Engle writes, ?God chooses his artists with as calm a disregard for surface moral qualifications as he chooses his saints??

Kate Bowman is the Student Activities Coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

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