Thursday, February 23, 2006

from anality to freedom indeed..via loud creativity

It is either among his most cringeworthy/corny lines or among his most profound/prophetic.

Likely both.

When Bono sings "Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby's head;" his passion borders on the embarassingly exhibitionistic; he means it. One can almost watch him pushing past the cringe factor; knowing it will morph into, and unloose the prophetic...if only enough veins pop in his neck. He is giving birth himself, perhaps. At the very least, he is shamelessly singing for his life; maybe even to maintain his wobbly freedom.

Almost as if keeping his day job and eternal salvation secure was proportionate to his (and our)abandonment to the truth of the maxim at hand.

Freedom has long been one of Bono's keynotes for lyrics and philosophizing. In a stimulating 1990s speech to German artists on the futility of fascism, he (who else would give such a speech? ) claims:

Laughter is the evidence of freedom…. It was from a Mel Brooks movie called “The Producers” that U2 took the name of their latest {“Achtung Baby”} album . In the bizarre musical, an S.S. officer is met with the greeting “Achtung Baby!” to which he replies, “Zie furher would never say ‘baby’!” Quite right. The furher would never say ‘baby.’ We are writers, artists, actors and scientists. I wish we were comedians. We would probably have more effect…Anyway, for all this: imagination!..To tell our stories, to paint pictures…but above all to glimpse another way of being. Because as much as we need to describe the world we live in, we need to dream up the kind of world we want to live in. In the case of a rock and roll band that’s to dream out loud, at high volume, to turn it up to eleven. Because we have fallen asleep in the comfort of our freedom. David Dark, in "Everyday Apocalypse"(p. 142) , citing "U2 at the End of the World"

Perhaps it is only when this intrinsic two-edgedness of freedom is can siren-song us to sleep and death; or engender life and visionary art; depending on how it is wielded...that we can begin to actualize its wild and wide blessing. Berdyaev, the Russian philosopher so enamored with the concept of freedom, and its shocking status as "even more fundamental than being." (which of course raises its own logical and ontological questions), also explicitly connects freedom with its daughter:creativity. For

The creative act of a man requires matter, it cannot be without the material reality, it does not occur in an emptiness, in a vacuum. But the creative act of a man cannot be completely determined by the material which is given by the world; in it there is newness that is not determined by the outside world. This is the element of freedom that comes into any real creative act. This is the mystery of creativity. In this sense, creativity is creation from nothing." -Berdayev, Self-cognition, p. 213

What then do we fear in freedom? Creation; creativity. We are terrified and terrorized by the tabula rasa nothingness that is our only and proper starting point. We dread creativity; are allergic to the baptismal waters of tohu bohu, and the resultant non linear (Consider the thesis:"There are no straight lines in creation.") new creation life-mileu of unfettered freedom. The only rub is that we desperately require all these more than breath and manna. Even more than the "sex and love and faith and fear" that keep us tethered.

If only we could bask and trust in the glorious gospel that "Freedom is just chaos, with better lighting," as Alan Dean Foster would have it (in "To the Vanishing Point"). Foster may have intended that thesis as a sarcasticism, but interpreted in the right context and light(literally), it's a bingo. Yet we fear "better lighting" itself. Or better said by Jesus ( John 3:19), we "prefer darkess to light."

That is, we are anal retentive.


David Dark, resonding to the Bono quote at the top of the page laments the unfree and “anal retentiveness that can’t say ‘baby’.” So maybe it is simply our banal anality that hinders the reckless outbreak of El Shaddai-freedom that was always supposed to be the norm in church
life. It shouldn't take an Einstein to grasp this, but it might take the literal Einstein to wisen us up to its centrality: "Everything really great and inspiring," Einstein suggested, " is created by the individual who can labor in freedom. "

We need light for this labor, as John 9:4 argues well.

If nothing less than everything hinges on fenlightened freedom/creativity in no-one-less-than-Einstein's book; and if laughter is indeed freedom's litmus-test; and if an anal retentive option towards darkness/straight lines is freedom's nemesis....there is untold value in asking what shape this laughter takes. Who better to inquire of on matters of shape and obedience than a rabbi? A charming rabbi-businessman, in a swirling postmodern midrash revolving around defining the colorful Hebrew term,"TZaCHok" (traditionally, but reductionistically, translated "laughter", or as the rabbi more aptly reckons it, "an outrageous rupturing of fundamantal norms"), posits (note another appearance of a newborn head):

Virtually all forms of laughter spring from this violation of norms....To understand why a baby 's laugh is so precious, we must make one further observation:... human beings are the only creatures on this planet who laugh....How could (animals) laugh? Laughter is a defining mark of humanity beacuse only humans understand that there are norms in the universe.

For that reason, we humans are the source of all laughter in the world.

When a baby is born, everyone coos and oohs and ahhs...but to be honest I must consider most brand-new babies to be pretty funny looking..For the most part all they do is eat, sleep and defecate. If you are a new mother, you will resent me for saying this...(But) when a baby laughs for the first time, long before he ever speaks, we are overjoyed, for the child has expressed a profoundly human uniquness. -
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, "Buried Treasure", p. 46-47

Ah, so freedom does indeed smell like a newborn baby's....uh, head (The particular baby smell the good rabbi has namechecked is decidedly less pleasant)...but freedom newborn also is hallmarked by a sound (and neurological research is suggesting that sound/voice is more foundational than sight or smell..thus a "hermeneutic of acoustemology" is emerging): laughter; "hilarious freedom" (My professor Leslie "Twinkle Toes" Mark's term, I believe) even.

And that an appropriate working definition and application of freedom is crucial not just in our current church atmosphere, but in the world political climate should go without saying.

Well-meaning folks, including President Bush are partly right and partly wrong in couching motivation for ongoing presence in Iraq in the "obvious" call of America to spread its brand of democracy, knowing intuitively that all nations long for the Western definition of freedom. This assumption is based on an incomplete picture of Islam and Middle Eastern culture, particularly.

Perhaps the most thoughtful proponent of this view is Michael Novak's "The Universal
Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations is Not Inevitable.
" This signature work of a respected scholar is landmark enough to be required reading, but still misses the mark in its too-sweeping claim. A more nuanced; necessarily multiplex and metanarratived read on the times is Fared Zakaria's "The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad," which helpfully unpacks the ways various factors, including the "Californication of conservative Protestantism "(Mark Shibley's term), blind and bind us to the possibility of spreading a too-narrow democracy/freedom (214). And this is not necessarily to say ongoing American military presence is misguided: "We can leave fast or we can nurture democracy, but we cannot do both." (258).

All this to say whether reflecting on the praxis of freedom politically, personally, spiritually, or even economically..discern the angles well.

"Why do you Christians produce such dirty films?," a sincere Middle Eastern Muslim asked my Protestant pastor friend as they made friends in the passport line. We Westerners scratch our heads at the apparent huge leaps in logic and non-sequiturs. But it all makes sense to a Muslim mindset: Since church=state for us, it must be the same in the West. America is a Christian nation, therefore all Americans are Christian. Dirty films come out of America. Therefore, Christians in America make dirty films." Of course the faulty and fallacious syllogisms are obvious from their starting point (and our often flatly stated heresies: "America is a Christian nation," etc).For more on this unintentional ethnocentricism and framejacking , which thwarts a creative and sensitive application of freedom, see Maik Pearce's articulate and artful "Why the Rest Hates the West," to my pleasant surprise publised by an evangelical publishing house (kudos to Inter Varsity) .

All this to say, whether reflecting on the praxis of freedom politically, culturally, personally, spiritually, or even economically..discern the angles well.

Especially when thinking theologically.

So let's summarize the argument so far, and then call in two astute theologians to frame it.
Freedom sounds (Rabbi Lappin)/smells (Bono) like, and is in fact evidenced by, a recognition of norm-violation(Lappin) , which issues in laughter (Bono). And its upshot is boundless creativity and art (Berdayev, Einstein, Foster)...all Christ-contoured kenosis which is free of ethnocentricism and ego (Zakaria, Pearce). On to the interweaving of two (more) theologians germane and adept to the tricky task at hand (doublechecking the semantic and culture domains as we define "freedom") :Jurgenn Moltmann and Martin Luther King (This was such an obvious juxtaposition of bedfellows to me; but because I am a bit eclectic, I bundled and googled the two names , finding to my relief/disappointment that they had been listed together some six hundred times).

From Moltmann's seminal chapter on "The Passion of God" in "The Trinity and the Kingdom" :

"Which (particular) freedom corresponds to God's freedom? The triune God reveals himself as love in the fellowhip of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. His freedom therfore lies in the friendship he offers men and women..His fredom is vulnerable love, his openness, the encountering kindness through which he suffers with the human beings he loves and becomes their advocate, thereby throwing open their future to them" (56)

That the essence of our freedom, if it is pattened in the imago dei, then, is the vulenerable friendship of a trinitarian community. That is plently to chew on. But that it all dovetails with
an eschatological "throwing open of the future" is a connector to Martin Luther King's witness (emphases mine):

In the Black church, King knew that the people had a hope that stretched back to beginnings of the Black Christian community in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. All he had to do was to restore that hope for freedom in the songs and language of the people, and the people would respond to the content of the message. That was why King used the language of the so called negro spirituals’ in his sermons in black churches. King’s sermons always contained the hope for freedom and he always related it to his current struggles to attain freedom in this world. But when it seemed that freedom was difficult to realize in this world, Martin King did not despair but moved its meaning to an eschatological realm as defined by the Black church’s claim that ‘The world will make a way somehow’. The night before he was assassinated (3 April 1968), King, in a Black church worship service, restated that hope with the passion and certainty so typical of the Black preacher. "I don’t know what will happen now. We have got difficult days ahead but it is divine matter with me, because I’ve been on the mountain top. Like anyone else, I would like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned with that. I just want to do God’s will and he has allowed me to go up the mountain."

King’s emphasis on the eschatological hope for freedom, as defined by "the mountain top", was not derived from White theologians and philosophers, but rather from his own religious traditions. These words of faith and hope were derived from the Black people’s struggle to overcome their pain and suffering. People who have lived in the context of nearly 400 years of slavery and suffering are not likely to express an eschatological freedom. Hope in God’s coming eschatological freedom is always derived from the suffering people who are seeking to establish freedom on earth but have failed to achieve it to their perception of their humanity. In Martin King’s failure to establish freedom in his existing present, he prevented despair from becoming the defining characteristic of his life by looking forward to God’s coming, eschatological freedom. Although he had to face the threat of death daily, King denied that it had the last word, for he said in the previously quoted sermon: "I see the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. I am happy tonight that I am not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord". It was with this accomplishment that he courageously fell to an assassin’s bullet.

Franklyn J. Balasundaram, "Martyrs in the History of Christianity"

Denying death had the last the way, precisely Bono and U2's mission in the CD/book "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" (read Beth Maynard's blog on the book here)...ensuring that the Kingdom is at least proleptically come NOW. “I don’t expect this pie in the sky when you die stuff, "Bono preaches. "My favourite line in the Lord’s Prayer is, ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven. I want it all, and I want it now. Heaven on earth – now – let’s have a bit of that.'"
(p 267, Steve Stockman's 2005 edition of "Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2." )

Freedom is eschatological hope; which seizes the future today by a fearless, laughing, norm-violating creative art-based trust and participation in God's vulnerable freedom and heart for the oppressed.

Finally, full circle to singing. We began with Bono's vein-popping, volume 11 lyric about freedom's baby-scent. And remember that "all MLK had to do was to restore that hope for freedom in the songs and language of the people."

Ultimately, freedom can only be won if sung.

Thus, Eugene Peterson (who elsewhere has boldly placed U2's music squarely within prophetic lineage: "Amos crafted poems, Jeremiah wept sermons, Isaiah alternatively rebuked and comforted, Ezekiel did street theatre. U2 writes songs and goes on tour, singing them."), offers in a chapter titled "Free to Create":

"In Christ we are set free to create...Free creativeness is in the creature; an anwer to the great call of its Creator....(thus) dreams are creative...(and the fruit of the Spirit is ) provocative jabs toward creativity....and singing the free life."

Freedom may only materialize and matter if we are proactively postured in such a way as to be "provactively jabbed" into singing Martin Luther Kingish songs of freedom in a strange land.

Jab us, Yahweh. There's too much pain as this child is being born. But we will not be afraid of the creative act; Thou art the Midwife.

Turn on the lights. Turn up the volume and art up to eleven. Laugh as the baby arrives: giggles, defecation, and scent and image of Godhead. Risk vulnerability. Tohu! Don't be so anal retentive you can't say "baby"..or muster a holy laugh. "For all this: imagination." And big loud dreams. For such are not only signs of freedom, but signposts of the Kingdom come.... on earth; as freely, naturally, and creatively as it has come in heaven.

Smells good.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed this piece. I came to similar conclusions via other means, most notably Peter Berger's "The Prcarious Vision" where he argues that Gospel is more comedy than tragedy. In fact he says that given resurrection nothing "is ultimately tragic" and he points to laughter as evidence of hope, humility, repentance...we see the discrepancy between what we pretend to be and what we really are and we laugh. It's a healthy and real laugh.

    I have to agree with Peterson on u2's calling as prophetic. It's amazing they have been able to stay in relationship as "family" for so long and through so much.

    Good job. Thanks Dave.


Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!