Last year, The New Yorker featured an interesting piece on U2 called “The Church of U2.” It came on the heels of their new album (Songs of Innocence) and is a must read for any fan. It examines U2’s deep but conflicted relationship with Christian faith, suggesting it’s the prime source of their artistic genius.
The article gets particularly interesting toward the end as the writer begins to not so subtly make the case that the quality of U2’s music began to dip when the band matured in their faith:
“U2’s best songs were written during these years—roughly from 1986, when they began recording “The Joshua Tree,” to 1997, the year “Pop” (which is actually very good) was released. But there was a problem: the songs depended for their power on the dramatization of Bono’s ambivalence about God…
U2 have continued to write songs of doubt (“Wake Up Dead Man,” off “Pop,” is especially good). But they are no longer wild, ludic, and unhinged in the way they talk about God. There used to be something improvisational and risky about their spirituality—it seemed as though it might go off the rails, veering into anger or despair. Now, for the most part, they focus on a positive message, expressed directly and without ambiguity…
The story of U2 might be this: having begun as a band that was uncertain about the idea of pursuing a life of faith through music, they have resolved that uncertainty. Their thin ecclesiology has become thick. Today, they are their own faith community; they even have a philanthropic arm, which has improved the lives of millions of people. They know they made the right choice, and they seem happy. Possibly, their growing comfort is bad for their art…”
I gather the author of this piece thinks it novel and even provocative to suggest a “maturing” faith is bad for art, but it strikes me as a terribly predictable proposal. That the best art is born from the cauldron of damnation, despair, and doubt has become a virtual truism in many circles. Great artists live on the edge of death and insanity. The truly great ones kill themselves, or at least try. Such is the price of artistic genius. If you don’t attempt suicide, you need to try harder.
And of course, damnation, despair, and doubt can produce great art, but so can faith, hope, and love. In fact, I’m inclined to say bliss, by its very nature, is teeming with much more creative power than the avant-garde nihilism that animates (or dis-animates) much current art. I, for one, find hopelessness (even assertive hopelessness) numbingly lazy and boring. You can have Deleuze and de Sade. I’ll take Bach and Tolkien. All of which leads me to a song by one of my favorite modern songwriters.
David Ramirez has a deep but conflicted relationship with faith, at least to the degree his lyrics are autobiographical. For my money, his best song is “The Forgiven”, a song that explores the relationship between musician and audience.
They love me for being honest, they love me for being myself
But the minute I mention Jesus, they want me to go to hell
It’s hard to find a balance, when I don’t believe in one
When you mix art with business, you’re just shooting an empty gun
You’re just a songwriter, you ain’t a preacher
We came to mourn you, not to look in the mirror
Sing about those hard times, sing about those women
We love the broken, not the forgiven
These words not only strike me as true, but far truer than truisms about the feral creative powers of doubt and anger. Mature art is not always teetering on the edge of violence and depression, pulsing with the dithyrambic rhythms of despair. Mature art tells the truth, plumbs the depths of hell, descends into the squalor, but it also inspires goodness and beauty. I’m not talking about the saccharine strokes of Thomas Kinkaid. I’m talking about the harrowing of Hades.
None of which is to deny that many prefer brokenness to forgiveness (I would venture that most certainly do), but this is a poor way to evaluate whether or not something is good art. Perhaps our fascination with terminal brokenness is indicative of an impoverished imagination, not the artistic fecundity of despair.
Personally, I think Songs of Innocence is one of U2’s best albums, precisely because they have ventured into the abyss of doubt and come out the other side with faith—not a childish faith, but a childlike faith. Wisdom, says David Bentley Hart, is the recovery of innocence at the end of experience. And by this measure, wisdom dictates good art will not only plunge into brokenness but also push through it into the wild, ludic, and unhinged realm of forgiveness. By this measure, art can have no greater aspiration than faith.
 David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, 331.