This guest post to the Congregational Resource Guide was written by Peter Kline, a Ph.D. student in theological studies at Vanderbilt University.
I’ve been to two big-budget pop concerts so far this year: U2’s 360° Tour and Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball Tour. They invite comparison with each other on a number of levels: the sheer size and audacity of the productions, the charisma of both of the front-persons (Bono and Gaga), and the utilization of music to deliver and embody a “message.” Both tours provide material to reflect on an issue that every congregational leader confronts: the relationship between form and content, medium and message.
Bono’s message is a fairly straightforward call for social awareness and justice. U2’s show was littered with short sermonettes about the beauty of freedom, its tragic absence in so much of the world, and our responsibility to do something about this. There were video interludes featuring Archbishop Desmond Tutu and astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of Senator Giffords, supposedly reporting from the International Space Station. The former ordained all U2 fans into the cause of justice; the latter urged us to join U2’s One Campaign. (From his orbital point of view, he can see that we’re all “one” on this tiny planet we inhabit.) Bono’s take-home one-liner was: “America, it’s a great idea.”
Lady Gaga, while also concerned with social justice, takes a much more angular, in-your-face approach than Bono’s family-friendly, social-justice-as-cool message. Most popularly known for her outspoken support of the LGBT community, Gaga preaches self-acceptance and self-empowerment. Her show was also littered with sermonettes and videos, except that her videos featured only her and were never preachy; they were simply art pieces. Even her sermonettes were not hiatuses from her art. They were integrated into the dramatic narrative of the show: our journey to the Monster Ball. Gaga’s take-home one-liner was: “Jesus loves every [expletive deleted] one of you!”
In terms of the overall production, I certainly enjoyed U2’s show, but in my view, Lady Gaga takes the cake for seamless, masterful theatrics. Catholic Gaga has a much deeper liturgical sensibility than Protestant Bono, who struggles to give form to his spiritual tropes. At times, it felt like U2 forced their music to prop up a social message that didn’t really have anything to do with their music as such (I know, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is the exception). Form and content seemed to fall apart as Bono awkwardly stumbled between music and message. I found myself impatiently enduring the political and spiritual rambling while waiting for the music I came to hear.
By contrast, Lady Gaga, whatever you think of her message, unflinchingly embodied that message at every point in her production. At no point did the momentum and trajectory of the show slow down or weaken. For Gaga, the medium just is the message. Her version of self-empowerment is ultimately about the freedom to style yourself anyway you choose, no matter how objectionable or bizarre. Gaga’s production just is an enactment of that freedom with and for her fans, which is why it more nearly approached an authentic liturgy—the work of a people—than did U2’s production, which was largely a spectacle.
I’m not necessarily recommending either U2 or Lady Gaga as liturgical models for congregations, but I am suggesting that their respective productions raise a number of issues that any community with a public message will have to deal with. How do we communicate our message clearly and compellingly? How do we hold form and content together? How do we embody our message with and for those we are given to serve?
For those asking such questions, here are a few resources worth consulting:
The Congregational Resource Guide (CRG) is a project of the Alban Institute. The abundance of resources available for congregations and their leaders can be overwhelming. The CRG is constantly sifting and mining these materials for those that demonstrate a high likelihood for usefulness in congregational life. With the assistance of our affiliate organization, the Indianapolis Center for Congregations in Indiana, the staff of the Alban Institute, and our board of advisors, we strive to point leaders to those materials that can assist them in aiding their congregation's efforts to become healthy bodies of worship and agents of transformation in the communities they exist.