Paul, U2, & Collapsing Historical Horizons

I’ve been considering competing hermeneutical postures recently.

A few weeks ago I finished The Whites of Their Eyes, Jill Lepore’s brilliant analysis of the uses of the American Revolution.  Among other things, she describes the phenomenon of “historical fundamentalism.”  She has in mind the failure to recognize the historical distance between the 18th century and our own day.  Contemporary Tea Partiers are historical fundamentalists in that they assume that their concerns are exactly the same as those of “the founding fathers.”  This assumption fails to grasp the differences between their age and ours.  To be fair, Lepore’s work is a chronicle of this error as it is repeated by various groups throughout American history.  But this is definitely a negative view of collapsing historical horizons.

I’ve also been listening to loads of U2 lately, though that’s not too unusual.  I’m taking my daughter to see them in East Lansing next week.  Their seriously underrated last album, No Line On The Horizon, makes explicit reference to their intentional collapse of historical distance.  In the album’s title song, Bono situates himself with reference to rock music, or perhaps music in general.

He sees music as a sort of timeless continuum of history that is traversable backward and forward, and from which one can regard all of life.  He takes his place as an agent or servant of music as it rebukes, celebrates, ponders, agitates, and laments.  With music, time is irrelevant and isn’t linear.  The past bears in on the present, and present performances don’t really have meaning without reference to the past.  “The songs in your head are now on my mind, you pull me up close, I’m trying to rewind, reload, and replay.”

U2 has been rehearsing this reality throughout their latest tour.  They typically weave into their own songs bits from rock’s history, concluding songs with lines from the Ramones and the Everly Brothers.  Bono even sings Amazing Grace, just before leading into Where The Streets Have No Name.

I could go on, but my point is just to note these competing hermeneutical postures.  Whereas Lepore exposes the deleterious effects of collapsing historical distance, U2 trumpets this as its mission.

It seems to me that Christian readings of Scripture are fruitful when done from both of these postures.  On one hand, we do not live in the past.  Times have changed.  We must understand how the Word of God entered that time back then and did its work of devastation and renewal.

On the other hand, Scripture is a living voice that shakes loose from its historical moorings and invades our present reality to radically reconfigure and redeem it. 

Further, this is how Paul reads the Scriptures of Israel.  Paul recognizes the historical distance between Israel’s history and the lives of his churches (Gal. 3).  But then he intentionally collapses history and Sarah and Hagar and Sinai and Jerusalem become dynamics that are up and running in the present (Gal. 4).  Abraham is a figure from Israel’s history, but he’s right there in Rome (Rom. 4).  Further, while he can point to events in Israel’s wilderness experience back then (1 Cor. 10:1-11), he can note that the rock in the desert was Christ himself (1 Cor. 10:4).

Barth gets at this two-fold approach in the preface to the second edition of his Romans commentary.  We must respect the historical distance as we do our preliminary critical work in the text.  Proper Christian reading, however, presses beyond this to a collapse of the horizons so that Scripture gathers, comprehends, reconfigures, and renews our lives.  “The Word ought to be exposed in the words” (p. 8). 

Both hermeneutical approaches to Scripture are necessary for this to take place.

11 thoughts on “Paul, U2, & Collapsing Historical Horizons

  1. Matt Dowling

    Nice connection between U2 and competing hermeneutical postures of the Bible. I’m looking forward to reading your “perplexed guide” on Paul. Thought I’d read it along with Jimmy Dunn’s new synthesis of his work on Paul.

  2. Brian LePort


    Nice connection, and I applaud you for making mention of both the benefits and dangers of collapsing horizons. Often it seems that like the first analogy we smash Scripture into proof-texts for dealing with something we dislike. Yet we cannot read Scripture as being just for “then” and not “now”. Balance is key.

  3. Pingback: Elsewhere (06.23.2011) « Near Emmaus

  4. dave wainscott

    Great U2 connection, and insights into “No Line.” On the direction of time, I have wondered more than once of Bono has been influenced by George Eldon Ladd et al teaching on the Kingdom as future invading present.

    Loved your Ephesians book, BTW


  5. David

    By Sol O. Mann

    Drawing Their Fish in the Sand

    52,000 faithful gather on Sunday night
    Posted: Mon, 30 May 2011 21:16:26 -0500

    [audio src="" /]

    Bono’s Prophetic Vox

    U2; Creation, Fall, Redemption & Return – John Van Sloten
    June 05, 2011



    U2 by U2 by Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Jr., with Neil McCormick

    U2 Touch the Flame: An Illustrated Documentary by Geoff Parkyn

    We Get to Carry Each Other: The Gospel According to U2 by Greg Garrett

    One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God by Christian Scharen

    Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas


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