U2 and the pharisees

I saw U2 in Norman, Oklahoma a couple of weeks ago, so my ears are attuned to all things Bono of late. With that in mind, I figure this is a good opportunity to introduce you to something you should know about if you don’t — John Wilson’s Books and Culture site at Christianity Today (you can also subscribe to a print version). I’ve long appreciated Wilson’s generous approach to art, culture, and literature, and his ability to spark conversations informed by intelligent faith. My appreciation has only been heightened by seeing the likes of John Piper deride him. (We want to make our choices based on positive attributes, I know, but sometimes a pharisee’s disapproval can be a sturdy commendation.)

Oh yes, U2. I mention Books and Culture because you might be interested in Scott Calhoun’s recent treatment of “U2 Studies,” in which he discusses the growing attention paid by academics to U2’s lyrics, evangelical style, and mission. Granted, an orthodox Christian must reject some of Bono’s flightier claims (e.g., the notion that Islam should be put on par with the other Abrahamic faiths), but Calhoun is on to something when he asks: “What does U2 do in their concerts which makes many say they have their religious experiences there, but not in churches?”

A close-minded answer would throw all the weight back on the participant. Who hasn’t heard from church leaders that disconnected parishioners are themselves the problem, a claim which — in Protestant churches at least — is supremely arrogant, given that the “service” is almost entirely a man-made lecture? Disconnected parishioners are in many cases a product of uninspired and uninspiring church leaders — and so the question is well worth asking, how four aging Irishmen bring people to repentant tears more easily than masters and doctors of divinity.

And what I like about Books and Culture is that this question can be asked, and creative answers given, and thereby a discussion born. Which is nice to see, in an age where we have so many mouthpieces, and so few fulfilling conversations.


  1. Mrs. Edwards

    It is curious to me that you use the label “Pharisee”–by which you must mean “false teacher”–to describe Pastor Piper. The Pharisees were known for their emphasis on human efforts, rules, etc. Pastor Piper would hardly fall under this category. You may not agree with his emphasis on the sovereignty of God in our lives, but surely you can’t think he is stressing a rule-based, legalistic faith. In fact, your own journey away from post-reformation Protestantism is itself a journey toward a theological understanding that emphasizes the human response and actions. So I find your label ill-fitting and slanderous. Disagree with him on the merits and find a fitting label that advances our understanding of the views in tension.

  2. Post

    Mrs. Edwards,

    The topic is art, and if you read Piper’s attack of Wilson you’ll find that he comes across as a legalistic prig. One doesn’t have to believe in works-based righteousness to rightly be labeled a pharisee, the term extends, at least according to the OED, to those who put legalism and form ahead of genuine understanding (witness, for example, Piper’s efforts to discern some kind of cardinal ordering of God’s ends, with His glory always at the top, as if God can be defined by man in that way).

    The OED does not, on the other hand, define a Pharisee as a false teacher, and that’s certainly not what I had in mind, though I do think much of what Piper teaches, through no fault of his own, is false.

  3. Mrs. Edwards

    I did read the Piper “attack,” which really is an attack on Denis Donaghue’s book On Eloquence more than an attack on Books and Culture, at least it seemed that way to me. It appears it was the friendly and admiring Books and Culture review (I’ve not read it, sorry) that directed Piper to the book, which “aggravated” him. In any case, I don’t see that Piper comes across at all as a “legalistic prig,” but I do see better why you believe that. As a regular reader of your blog, I’m well aware of your (increasing?) animosity toward Calvinist/Reformed theology and it seems that is the driver here. Fair enough. At its heart, it seems Piper objects to seeing style as an end in itself–for that overshadows the cross. You evidently find this ordering to be “man defining God,” but I’m persuaded otherwise by Scriptures, which I believe are God defining and revealing Himself. I think that the supremacy of God’s glory is well supported by Scripture.

    In any event, thank you for clarifying why you chose “pharisee.” One doesn’t pick such loaded words lightly. You no doubt relish the provocation. The Piper comment is tangental to your central point about U2 and worship services, but I was duly provoked. Sorry to let all this overshadow your main point. Thank you again for following up.

  4. Tony

    Mrs. Edwards,

    A problem with Piper is precisely the notion on display in your reasoned response, namely that this or that cannot be true because it will overshadow the cross, or deny God’s sovereignty, or some such thing. Even God becomes bound by this logic; it’s impossible that He would allow man a choice in whether to bow to Him, because doing so somehow transgresses against His sovereignty and glory, and so on. In effect we elevate the Form (Justice, say, or Sovereignty) above the Creator of all things. Piper and others are masters (as was Calvin) at finding the justification for such reasoning in Scriptures, writing off seemingly contradictory Scriptures in the process (or explaining how we need to view these Scriptures through the lens of their doctrine), and concluding that anyone who disagrees with them disagrees with God and the Bible.

    All of which is distinctly, well, Pharisaic.

    With that said, I hope you can see that our disagreement is not about whether God is fully sovereign, or grace solely the means of salvation, but rather about what those truths do and don’t allow in the universe. Does sola gratia necessarily mean that man is afforded no choice by God in his salvation? The answer seems self-evident to Reformers, which ought to give thinking people pause, given that legions of thoughtful theologians over the centuries hewed faithfully to the second chapter of Ephesians without concluding it necessitates Calvinist predestination.

    What irks me about Piper, and so many other modern Reformers, is that they take disagreement over doctrine to mean rejection of a fundamental tenet of the faith. “You don’t believe in predestination? Well, then you reject the sovereignty of God.” There’s not even a hint of trying to see how their logical box might be ill-constructed. Also a Pharasaical trait.

    Frankly, I don’t like the confrontation, especially since it so often comes with people who mean well but who will never, for even a second, consider the possibility that Calvin was flat wrong. Which means everyone just gets frustrated and their feelings hurt. I hope that’s not the case here, and I apologize if I unfairly provoked you. I don’t doubt your faith, or Piper’s faith for that matter. But so long as he persists in making what I think are erroneous or outrageous claims, I’ll probably persist in pointing them out from my tiny corner of the Internet. He can probably take it.

  5. Mrs. Edwards

    I can add nothing new to the debate, if it can be called that, about predestination. Suffice it to say that both sides of this debate err in becoming one-sided. And at the same time characterizing the other side as one-sided which leads to debating a straw man. Scripture is clear that God elects His believers/His sheep/His church/His people. It is equally clear that God holds man accountable for his choices and gives man a will. So a debate that doesn’t start with that acknowledging that difficult tension is useless. But enough of that!

    Re: “He can probably take it.” Yes, I imagine so!

  6. karen

    How refreshing to read the exchange between Tony & Mrs. Edwards, who, though they obviously disagree about Piper, are able to say so in an articulate manner without resorting to name-calling. I commend you both.

  7. Jeri

    I agree with Karen — it’s refreshing to read an exchange like this! Evidence that “this question can be asked, and creative answers given, and thereby a discussion born” isn’t true ONLY of the Books & Culture site. Thank you both!

  8. Tony

    Wife just reminded me why I had such an adverse reaction to Piper’s attack on Wilson. I heard him give a talk on this topic, and when he came to Wilson’s praise of On Eloquence, he said he couldn’t believe a Christian would write such a thing (referring to Wilson’s praise of the book). The word “Christian” sounded filthy in his mouth, the disgust dripped from his every word. It was thoroughly ugly, in a way that doesn’t come across in the Desiring God post I linked. So that certainly inspires some of my animosity, though reading other things Piper has written certainly doesn’t help soften my heart towards the man. For whatever it’s worth.

  9. Jonny

    Mrs Edwards,

    Home run quote: “Suffice it to say that both sides of this debate err in becoming one-sided.” We are so often presented with the false Western choice between Calvinism and Arminianism that it is often forgotten that there is, in fact, a middle way simply called Christianity.

  10. Mrs. Edwards

    Re: “…the disgust dripped from his every word. It was thoroughly ugly…”

    Ironic that I was compelled to comment on your post in the first place not because your criticism of Piper shakes my own faith (I follow Christ, not Piper, or Calvin, or Lewis, or Jonathan Edwards, or Luther, or Augustine, although all these writers are ones that I appreciate), but because your swipe on Piper seemed to have disgust dripping from its every word and seemed thoroughly ugly. Perhaps I just missed the smile on your face as you typed them.

    Your wife’s reminder helps explain a bit of your attitude toward Piper and I’m glad you mentioned it. Otherwise, on the face of it, it seemed absurd to call that Desiring God post on eloquence an “attack.” At most it was an intellectual attack, which is part of healthy rhetoric and debate, not an emotional one, as the talk you mention must have been.

    Anyway, I’ve enjoyed this exchange and appreciate you engaging this humble reader in a bit of internet conversation. I better get back to my true calling, which is homeschooling our children. We’re deep into Greek mythology this week, so this has been quite a diversion.

    You’re right. May we all pray for the mind of Christ and keep His word hidden in our hearts. May we not allow our faith and pursuit of His will in our lives to be reduced to an intellectual exercise or debate that hinges more on the words of His flawed followers than His words, which are flawless (Prov. 30:5).

  11. Post

    Mrs. Edwards,

    I’ve certainly been disgusted with Piper on more than one occasion, but I thought this time I was being clever. It’s helpful to see how I come across. Thank you for the reminder that I ought to give as much grace as I expect from others.

  12. JD Stuart

    In response to Mrs. Edwards’ second comment, it certainly does *appear* to be increasing.

    I, too, have enjoyed the thoughtful exchange in these comments. Certainly more than I did, the “sideswipe” featured in the original post.

  13. Cris

    “What does U2 do in their concerts which makes many say they have their religious experiences there, but not in churches?”

    Wrong question.
    “What do their audiences do at U2 concerts…?


  14. Robert


    More of the same.

    Upon the recommendation of a friend, I have browsed through your blog postings. You are very articulate and your website is very polished; however, I am very disappointed by your point-of-view.

    Insinuating that Piper is a pharisee is quite pharisiacal. And the undercurrent of your complaints about God’s sovereignty are very troubling. I suppose you can chalk up my complaint to ignorance or my “Calvinist” leanings; I fully expect my view to be summarily dismissed in this environment.

    I am disappointed because the type of intellectual environment that I have detected so far, so closely resembles a “high church” experience. For those in the know (i.e., Christian “thinkers” or “intellectuals”), it is a place of affirmation for the “high church” mentality. But to be honest, your rants regarding God’s sovereignty bristle with defiance.

    I don’t claim to know your heart; I just think that you are wrong in this area. Perhaps, the Lord is using Piper to address hardness in your heart regarding the problem of evil. I don’t know. But you should be reminded that God’s sovereignty is largely unknown in this day. Even within Christian circles, humans like to be comforted with the idea that they can understand God’s ways – hence the attraction to systematized theological systems. Oh well. All the best with your website.

    I pray that you and your family will be blessed and that Christ Jesus be magnified through your life.

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