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Grace is a Thought That Can Change the World But It is Also an Imaginative Engine to Propel the Change

Without art there can be no grace! It is a bold statement but one that I am hoping to untangle over the next period of time; a statement that
I believe has a great deal of truth. My theory comes from a new perspective on art as a result of studies I am taking added to a new perspective on the energy and enormity of grace. I guess Bono has had a part to play in all of this thinking though I have to add that it has been Bono the theologian more than Bono the artist that has had the most input. For some twenty years I have always apologized for quoting U2 and indeed some of my sermons have been criticized for quoting more rock stars than theologians. However, this Christmas I suddenly became aware that most of what I quote Bono saying is actually not pop interview soundbites but deep theology. Among his many personas he is also a theologian. He is well thought through and thinking it through from an artist's context adds to the energy and impact of his theological utterances.

So let us start with some Bono theology. In his song "Grace" from the All That You Can't Leave Behind album come the words, "A name for
a girl and a thought that can change the world." I agreed on both counts and so convinced was I on the latter that we used the former for the name of my daughter, Jasmine Grace Stockman. It was when Bono then said that this was the song on the album that most reflected his work on the Jubilee 2000's campaign to rid the world of Third World debt that I began to doubt the man's utterances. This was a straight song of the doctrine of grace. It had nothing to do with debt or justice issues. Or so I thought. I have since come to realize that Bono was working on a whole bigger conception and impact of this thought that can change the world; he literally believes "change the world."

In Michka Assayas's book Bono on Bono, Bono elaborates on all kinds of theological positions and influences and where he is most effective is his theology of grace. As in the song he speaks about grace as an alternative to karma. With karma, he goes on, you reap what you sow but with grace there is an interruption to the "sow ­ reap" cycle where we no longer receive what we deserve. He also speaks about the cross of Christ and how it is intrinsically linked to this forgiveness process.

The challenge then is whether we live by karma or grace. Bono often uses the phrase "interruption of grace." This is the poet and the theologian coming up with a phrase that has so much power. Bono speaks about how grace interrupts South African apartheid with a new start in  democracy. Karma would have escalated the situation but grace makes a clean sheet and allows a rebirth. Suddenly I was getting his drift
about that grace that can change the world. If we in Northern Ireland go to our next election and ask ourselves whether we are voting for those who base their policies on the interruption of grace or karma how would that change our vote. If we start to live by grace we interrupt the cycle of karma and so change the world.

Opening grace up to its full potential is vital. For many from my evangelical tradition grace has been limited to a ticket to heaven. It is a doctrinal definition that once recited gets you "saved." There it is often left languishing around the foot of Christ's cross, making no impact in the life of the individual or society. Grace is so much more than a ticket to heaven. Indeed it is hard to see it as the dynamic of grace that the Bible speaks about at all if it is confined to this selfish goal. Grace is not a cold creedal confession but the energy that interrupts our lives with an alternative way to live. From living for our own selfish ends we follow Christ into a self denial that serves society instead of expecting society to serve us. Grace is an energy driven by the Holy Spirit to turn our lives around in a lifelong repentance. It is living and powerfully transformative. As the hymn about how amazing it is says, "Grace has brought me safe this far and grace will lead me home." It has an impact on our past, on our present on our future.

We therefore come to realize that this grace is not only the ticket in, and the energy when we get in, but the very life of the Kingdom itself. It is not the help we need to live the principles of the Kingdom; it is the Kingdom. When we look in the mirror in the morning we should see grace staring back at us in how we see ourselves, not in the karma of being affirmed for how beautiful we are, but in the eyes of a God who loves us as we are. As we relate to friends or strangers we do not treat them according to what they give to us or what they have achieved in themselves that makes them deserving of our attention but by grace. When we find ourselves in conflict scenarios we don't continue a karma driven dominated stand off but seek grace to interrupt. When it comes to social justice issues like Bono's debt relief campaign or in HIV/AIDS advocacy or encouraging Fair Trade or environmental action we do it not because those we will struggle or deserve it but because grace is our driving force to serve rather than
be served.

Which brings us back to the importance of art in the scheme of things; for grace to interrupt we need imagination and creativity. We need to
conjure that alternative way to do things. It is why, I believe, God promised that we would dream dreams and see visions. It is why we believe that without a vision the people perish. Walter Brueggeman put it succinctly in his book Prophetic Imagination when he wrote, "The task of the prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us."  The prophets were indeed artists who imagined. The danger is that when we relegate the arts to the fringes we limit the possibility of prophets rising up to save us from the way things are.

From this hypothesis there are a few things to consider. One of my recurrent thoughts has been that the Catholic community in Northern Ireland is more artistic than the Protestant community. I confess that this is a generalization, but the theological ideas of the Reformation emptied Churches of art and the theology married to modernity squeezed out mystery. Taking our students on a trip up the Shankill Road (Protestant) and down the Falls Road (Catholic) one of the contrasts they articulated was the memorial gardens for those murdered in the troubles. On the Shankill these were very stark with only names and Bible verses. On the Falls they were ornate and lavish. Neither of the paramilitary groups erecting such memorials to their volunteers would be Church going or theologically astute but the theology drips down through history.

With this in mind could this be why the Catholic community seems more able to deal with the new dispensation of power sharing. Their souls
are more artistic and therefore they have a fitter imagination to conjure new ideas and the alternative of how it can be as opposed to how it was. Theology still dominates the Protestant psyche and, with its scientific roots, this leaves little room to dream but a strong tendency for the status quo. My photographer friend Gordon challenged me on this, stating that not everyone goes to art galleries or concerts like we do. Yet, my theory is not limited to those who engage on the coal face of art whether artists or aficionados. If art is held in high esteem in a community then the consensus of the community will be affected.

Of course something else is at play in the Northern Ireland situation. Could it not be that Catholics are able to dream and readjust because they are the ones who are gaining rather than losing? Is it not easier to imagine an alternative if you are the beneficiary? Yes, is the simple answer and that leads to another observation on art and transformation. Is there is a tendency that artists are looked on suspiciously by those who have a vested interest in the status quo? We can see this having happened with Gospel and blues coming out of the civil rights movement where the black slaves empowered their liberation with songs. Art in South Africa was energized by black artists needing to overthrow the injustices of apartheid. In Northern Ireland the oppressed nationalist community spoke through artists like Christy Moore. The Wolftones or even, the punk pop stars The Undertones, sang about their struggle and the dominant unionist community's musicians like Van Morrison, Stiff Little Fingers or Ash
never stood up for the union with Britain. Where artists did engage on the Protestant side they were usually haranguing their side and ended
up outlawed and maybe even in physical danger. O course, I understand that there are some generalizations here but I think there is a robust
enough argument too.

When we are locked into the malaise of our culture whether it is materialism, racism, sectarianism, environmental catastrophe or war then grace comes alive in alternative possibilities. Grace is more valued with those who need its interruption. But when grace interrupts those who receive its benefits, it should cause those who are turned upside down to start using it, not for their own selfish ends but for the good of others; it is the fruit of grace's interruption. For followers of Christ who aim to bring God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, the respect that they give art in their community will deem whether they make any impression in interpreting how it is on earth to conjure how it is going to be in heaven. Grace is a thought that can change the world but it is also an imaginative engine to propel the change. Demean the artist at the cost of the Kingdom.

Steve Stockman

Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He has
written two books Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 which he is currently updating and The Rock Cries Out; Discovering Eternal Truth
in Unlikely Music. He dabbles in poetry and songwriting and he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster (listen anytime of day or night
@ www.bbc.co.uk/ni/religion/rhythmandsoul). He has his own web page--Rhythms of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org . He also tries to
spend some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine.
 
 
 
 

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