Blasphemy and U2

A couple of weeks ago — can it really have been that long? that recent? — Seabury celebrated a communion service in a context defined by the music (and politics) of U2. This is, in essence, a great idea — and I say this in large part because I had it, ages ago, but never did anything about it. No, but really, it makes a certain sense for people to worship God with songs with which they actually feel comfortable, which they love, which they understand to express their own deep feelings about God.

After the service, someone stopped me to ask what I thought, and while I hesitated I was told, “I figured that an Anglo-Catholic like you wouldn’t like it.” Errrr — it’s not my churchmanship that was hesitating. I can easily cope with diverse modes of worship, and I can compliment praise music and folky-casual liturgy when they’re offered with integrity and excellence. (That doesn’t mean I understand why anyone would worship that way just that I’m capable of appreciating excellence in casual-praise worship.) I wasn’t hesitating because of my liturgical theology, I was hesitating because I like U2.

The service involved playing songs by U2 over the Garrett Seminary chapel’s amplification system, which for the first few selections involved painful equalization that grossly overemphasized the high end and midrange (Adam might as well have been sitting out those selections). After the EQ hit a more balanced range, the other main problem with this programming choice became clear. It just plain feels weird to sing along to recorded music, especially so when a moderate proportion of the congregation doesn’t know the music as well as you do and are trying to follow the lyrics on the overhead projection screen. I will sing along enthusiastically in the car, or while I’m washing dishes, or walking, or just listening to the stereo — and sometimes I’ll sing along at live performances, though I prefer hearing the actual performers. But a large gathering of people singing along to recorded music just gave me the creeps.

The PowerPoint slides exemplified the un-subtle literal representation school of illustrating music. Love = people holding hands, poverty = starving African child, and so on. Bono doesn’t usually hit the heights of lyrical nuance; he more often falls within the bounds of the excellent-conventional use of language, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when those lyrics are juxtaposed with [attempts at] direct illustration, the combination draws the whole matter closer to cliche. Which again makes it harder to sing along.

The best aspect of the whole evening came when the music button person played a version of the Sursum Corda that seems to have been edited together from instrumental portions of U2 compositions — I couldn’t identify any specific source, because the editing and the match of melody to words worked so well that it conveyed the impression of actually having been composed for the purpose. That I could sing to.

For the rest, I’d rather have sung along to Garrett’s house band performing the music, or have listened (not sung) to recordings of U2. I’d rather have heard the music through a clearer, more well-balanced sound mix. I would have liked to have sung “Gloria” in a eucharistic setting, but maybe Latin is the one language that’s absolutely forbidden. But none of the above criticism derives from my being a fussy Anglo-Catholic. If anything, I’m a fussy U2 admirer, and that particular service did not (I think) make the strongest possible case for their liturgical pertinence.

Dylan (inventor of U2charist) and I had an extensive chat, during which she observed that the first U2charist she arranged had a regular band performing live, in preference to using recordings.

Beth advises me that the Sursum Corda and Benedictus Qui Venit were composed and recorded specifically for the service, for which boatloads of props go out to the gentleman who executed them. Sounded as though it could have been from the U2 catalogue, and was actually singable; three cheers!

Peter adds:

> But a large gathering of people singing along to recorded music just gave me the creeps.

Amen! We had a U2charist at St. James’ Leesburg VA. It was fun,
well attended, and really odd. Odd because this is a congregation
accustomed to singing to live organ music, and also odd for me
because Bono’s voice is in the stratosphere pitch-wise, and even
a fake tenor like me simply cannot match those G’s and A’s. Taking
it down an octave seems artificial; the music is really meant as a
solo. The experience gave me a new appreciation for 4-part harmony,
where anybody who can match pitch can sing *with* the song.


[the music is really meant as a solo — I was meaning to comment on that too; arrangements intended for a single voice simply don’t carry over directly to congregational singing, which adds a further element to the bizarreness of the sing-along-to-this-CD-player ambiance. Good catch, Peter.]

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