Steve Stockman is a chaplain at Queens University in Belfast. He’s noted in North America for his work on U2 entitled, “Walk On.” He taught at Regent College in the summer of 2006, where we found him for this interview. He also does social justice work, leading Irish student teams to Capetown, South Africa into the townships (i) building with Habitat for humanity, (ii) AIDS work, (iii) fair trade, and (iv) reconciliation work.
CLARION: As someone who has researched and written on U2, what do you make of the way Bono is modeling spirituality and justice?
STOCKMAN: On their recent tour, Bono at one point addressed the crowd, “Did you come here to play Jesus, because I did.” I don’t want to simply say, “He’s a Christian.” I want to know, what is he saying that we’re missing? What is it that we could learn from them? What agenda are they setting?
Regent is interesting, but there's a lack of pop-culture post-CS Lewis. He died between “She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah” and “I want to hold your hand.” A lot has happened in pop culture since then, but who has held the flag of Christ higher at that level than U2?
CLARION: Some say Bono will be to the 21st century what Billy Graham was to the 20th century … showing us the way to a more holistic presentation of the gospel and a new way to distribute it to post-moderns.
STOCKMAN: Modernist and post-modern labels are becoming lazy labels like capitalism versus communism. It’s not about that. Whatever you call the worldview, Graham spoke into a propositional world and that worked at the time. That’s no longer the case. What works now can be seen in U2’s line, “Feelings are more important than thoughts.” In Graham’s day, thoughts were more important than feelings. If we’re going to get the masses to reconsider Christianity, it’ll more likely be on a U2 tour than in a tent revival meeting on the outskirts of Abbotsford.
You’re not going for the objective jugular. You’re going after how people live and co-exist (a major theme of the Vertigo tour) and how they respond to situations like Africa. U2 brings their beliefs to a new world, believing they have something that can make a difference. They also believe in the goodness of people. Modernist Christianity tended to simply see them as damned. U2 believes that if you can channel the goodness of people, there are doorways to change.
Bono talks about Martin Luther King Jr., who is the channel from Graham to U2 in taking his Christian theological perspectives into the realm of social justice. Bono quotes a story about MLK where King is in a meeting where everyone is bad-mouthing Robert Kennedy. MLK says, “Stop. Does anyone have anything good to say about Robert Kennedy?” They reply, “There’s nothing good to say.” King says, “The meeting is adjourned and we won’t meet again until someone has something good to say about him. It’s through the good that door opens for change.” Eventually Kennedy became a champion of some of their causes.
Bono picks up on this and you can see it when he speaks about Paul Martin. He gives him a go at the Vancouver gig, but he says, “He’s a good man, and you’ll have to touch the good in him to open a door to change.” Bono does that with his crowds as well. If He can touch the good in us, perhaps he can open a door in our hearts to transformation. He no doubt believes in a foundation of the gospel of the Grace found only in the Cross of Christ. "I believe in the kingdom come, Then all the colors will bleed into one... You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains, carried the cross of my shame, you know I believed it." But it comes more subtly in behind than Graham’s work--that came out right out front.
Brian McLaren, in his books on the “emerging church,” says that evangelism and the new post-modern worldview will be much more oriented towards social action and will draw people primarily through how we relate to others. That’s a much better approach than shouting the gospel from a street corner and living a vacuumous, pietistic life.
In the enlightenment project, words were more important than acts, but that was just a blip in history. Before that, it was “the word made flesh.” In this generation, it’s vital to get back to the principle of John 1: the Word must become flesh and move into our neighbourhood. That's the best revelation of what God’s love is and who God is.
CLARION: Based on your observations of the Canadian church scene, what prophetic word would you deliver to this culture?
STOCKMAN: The word needs to become flesh. This is the secret to the universe, to world evangelism as the experiences of life. The Baby in the straw is the secret. When I preach this, I ask, “Who remembers the first TV coming into the house and who doesn’t?” Neil Postman says that if linear words on a page were how you learned, then you will absorb information with the objective side of your brain. But if you are image dominated, then the subjective side will absorb information.
When I took this John 1 message into the world of my students, it was Eureka! They learn by what words are acted out and experienced. But the problem was that their elders lived in a world that was mainly objective, so they believed that if they would just propose that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him would have eternal life,” then students would objectively respond to that. But the students will say, “Interesting. I wonder if it’s true.” And they will find out IF it’s true by going into churches that love them as they are. Your church (Fresh Wind in Abbotsford, BC) is a visual message of that truth. Your church is the word made flesh and moved into the neighbourhood of those people who come. In many other churches, that is not what’s happening at all. The opposite has happened. Instead of being welcoming, we’ve pushed away.
This is where Bono has challenged me. He will befriend those I would not befriend. He welcomes those that I would want to push out. The other side to evangelicalism's relationship to U2 is that so many are dieing to prove they aren’t Christians. Why?What is it in us that is so anxious to exclude.
CS Lewis said that the truth of God can make people worse if it’s done wrong. If you have an image of God as angry and judgemental, you will become angry and judgmental. But if you have a God who is gracious and loving, you become gracious and loving. As a result, many who embrace a wrong image of God become "pushers-away" rather than gracious, merciful, patient "welcomers-in." The best way to overcome this is to watch how Jesus, the image of God made flesh, treated those around Him—the prostitutes, the dealers, the sinners—welcoming them rather than pushing them away.
CLARION: So now back to Canada…
STOCKMAN: I’ve wrestled a lot with this Canadian thing. How do you evangelise the West End of Vancouver? It’s a wealthy area. They have everything they need. Why would they need God? It’s the antithesis of my time meditating on “Blessed are the poor” because they need God. The poor think, and not selfishly, "If I cry to this God, what will He do for me? Moving towards this God can only help me." Whereas the rich look at God and ask, “What will it cost me? Why would I need that?” If you are rich and something goes wrong in the day, you can go to the Oak Street Mall and buy a blouse and feel better. But if you live in a South African township and something goes wrong… you’ve got to cry to God and hope for a response.
Interestingly, Canada is a more tolerant country than the US or Ireland, who are more religious. But it's spirituality: it’s apathetic, blunt, or bland at best. I go to Seattle and attend church there and say, “Wait a minute. The rich here flock to church. What is the difference between these cultures just 100 miles apart? If I were to stay in Canada for any length of time, where would I start in trying to reach the culture?” I’ve concluded that it's only a living embodiment of the radical kingdom of God that will stir people up. As people on Sundays head to the yacht club, what is radically and tangibly different about us? We’ve been more conformed to this world culture than transformed by this kingdom kind of thing.
People have got to start living it.
CLARION: Is there a particular Canadian voice in pop culture that speaks to this?
STOCKMAN: The author, Douglas Coupland, from North Van, said in an interview this summer that he grew up as a secularist, and he differentiates it from an atheist. There have always been atheists in the framework of religion, rejecting the God of a religion they hate. But Coupland calls his parents the children of the children of the pioneers. They chose to bring him up as a secularist, not even attending church on Easter or Christmas. He had no God-framework in his life at all. When he got to thirty, there were certain parts of being human that had nowhere to go. He had to construct the transcendent, which is why he concludes Life After God with “I need God.” He’s the guy in Canada who has done the social study on where Canadians think in a secular society. And he says, “I need God.” And how do you get that message out as well as he has? God has to have inspired him to come to that conclusion. Without spiritual underpinnings, he has come to this? Someone has given him an underpinning—the Holy Spirit’s working away here.
In his book, Hey Nostrodamus, one character says “We are judged by our deeds, not our wishes. We are the sum of our decisions.” He’s not talking about eternal judgement where grace, I believe, and I think he believes, is where we will sit. He’s talking about how the world perceives our beliefs. They aren’t going to judge us by our wishes about Christianity--we believe God is God and He’s going to redeem us—that’s the wishes we have. But they’ll judge this building, this church, and this people by the sum of our deeds. They are going to look at this church and ask, “Does Christianity work? What do they have that the yacht club doesn’t have? Nice wishes, but is it making any effect?" But if they see communities like yours, then they are going to see us by the sum of our deeds and have to look at us. Whether or not they get it, they’ll be provoked to ask, “What is going on?”
Brad Jersak interviewed Steve Stockman in June, 2005 at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. A good time was had by all.