How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 8 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Friends 4Ever.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
Note from the Editor: On April 26, 2016, Fuller Studio, a new initiative at Fuller Theological Seminary to provide resources for a deeply formed spiritual life, released a short documentary film, Bono & Eugene Peterson: The Psalms. In it, W. David O. Taylor interviews Bono, the lead vocalist for the rock band U2, and Eugene Peterson, author of the popular translation of the Bible, The Message, on two topics: their friendship and their common love for the psalms. In this essay, Taylor reflects on material in the interview that largely remained on the cutting room floor.
The Sacrament of Friendship
In the 2005 book Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas, which collects three years’ worth of conversation between Bono and the French music journalist Assayas, the U2 frontman recalls an observation made by the filmmaker Jean Cocteau.
“[Cocteau] says friendship is higher than love. Sometimes, it’s less glamorous, or less passionate, but it’s deeper and kind of wiser, I think. At the heart of my relationship [with Ali, his wife of 34 years] is a great friendship. That’s in fact, in many ways, the key to all the important doors in my life: whether it’s the band, or whether it’s my marriage, or whether it’s the community that I still live in. It’s almost like the two sorts of sacraments are music and friendship.”
Later in the book, Bono asserts: “I don’t let go of [friends] very easily.”
With this sentiment in the back of my head, as I sit across the table from Bono and Eugene Peterson, in Lakeside, Montana, on the afternoon of April 19, 2015, I ask the two of them whether they thought there were such a thing as a vocation to friendship.
Eugene answers first. “I think I felt a vocation to friendship for most of my life.” But that isn’t how things started out for him, he confesses. “I grew up in a sectarian church, and so there was sharp division between the world and the church, or between Christians of our understanding and the others. So I always felt like kind of an alienation.”As I observed Bono and Eugene’s exchanges on that Sunday afternoon in a small town in Montana, I saw the virtue of hospitality at work. In this particular relational context, it meant the habit of paying attention and the habit of generosity of spirit.
When he reached university, Eugene says, he discovered a different world, a world where he was free to cultivate all sorts of friendships. “When I became president of the student body my last year there,” he recounts, “there were seven hundred students at the university and I thought, ‘I’m going to learn every student’s name before I get out of here.’ And I did.”
Years later, when he became a pastor, he felt surprised at how difficult it was for pastors to make friends. “There’s such a competitive kind of streak” in pastors, which combined with an impossibly demanding pace of work, results, for many, in a widespread absence of deep friendship.
Bono chimes in at this point, with Friedrich Nietzsche on his mind. A marriage breaks up, Bono tells us, not because of a lack of love. It breaks up because of a lack of friendship, which, according to the nineteenth-century German philosopher, is the highest form of love. For Bono, friendship is quite possibly everything. “He’s a guy that values friendship probably above anything else,” says Edge, his bandmate of 40 years.
Recently, however, Bono feels that it’s been harder for him to be a good friend.
Under the aegis of ONE, an international campaigning organization, Bono has engaged in an indefatigable activism, partnering with figures like Pope John Paul II and Apple CEO Steve Jobs to fight against extreme poverty and global diseases. He has guest-edited special issues of Vanity Fair (US), Libération (France), Asashi Shimbum (Japan), and La Stampa (Italy). A month ago, he testified before Congress on behalf of refugees in the Middle East and Africa. April 29, Bono joined Jimmy Carter and Nile Rogers for a charity fundraiser at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. May 2, he joined actress Lupita Nyong’o onstage to raise awareness of the 276 missing schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria two years prior.
Life, it seems, has gotten rather busy. And busyness is the surest way to kill a friendship.
The Art of Laziness
Through the windows behind Bono, I can see Hughes Bay opening out onto Flathead Lake, and beyond it, the snow-tipped Mission Mountains. Bono leans forward at the table, hands gesticulating. What he admires about Eugene, he says, is Eugene’s capacity for stillness. It reminds him of U2’s former chaplain, Jack Heaslip, who, it seems, had perfected the art of laziness. But it wasn’t “lazy to do nothing,” Bono insists.
It was laziness in the sense of an unworried carelessness. For Heaslip, this translated into an ability to be present. This presence had an expansive quality about it. To be present in this way meant that you had “all the time in the world” and the future neither threatened nor demanded that you leave the present moment for the sake of a “better option” or a more “useful employment of time.”
As I have observed Eugene over the past 20 years, I cannot quite remember a single time that he was in a hurry. He moves slowly. He speaks slowly. He preaches slowly. One might dismiss this observation by pointing out that Eugene is 84 years old. Old people are rarely in a hurry. But that’s not quite true. A 70-year-old J. I. Packer was often seen bounding up stairs two at a time at Regent College. Former president George H. W. Bush marked his 90th birthday by jumping out of a plane.
As a competitive runner in his early years, Eugene could still be a man “in a hurry” in his latter years. But he isn’t. And his non-hurried way of being, part by nature, part by choice, means that he has time to pay attention—to people, to place, to creation. As he tells me later in the day:
“I guess what I would like to convey through my writings, mostly, and through relationships, is that creation is a huge thing, and that our faith has to reflect the basicness of creation to what we’re doing. The minute you leave the place, the contingency of place, you lose the story. You’re thinking about mystical things, or dogmatic things, or religious things, but this is where it all happens. I think we’ve been pretty deliberate about making sure that we’re staying in touch with the things, with the stuff, with the rocks and the birds, whatever. That doesn’t come just at the end of your life. You have to start pretty early.”
When the pastor welcomes the rockstar into his Montana home, then, Eugene is able to treat Bono as an equal—not as an equally famous person, but as a human person. Such a person, to Eugene’s mind, deserves attentive care and time that can be wasted, while eating Jan’s home-baked cookies.
As I watch them “off camera,” I see that Eugene takes obvious pleasure in Bono’s infectious enthusiasm. Without needing to be elsewhere any time soon, and not being a particularly needy person, Eugene seems genuinely interested in the Irishman’s accomplishments and in his thoughts on God, without feeling any need to correct those thoughts, not here, not now.
The Habit of Gift-giving
When Bono first walks into the Peterson home, he carries under his arm a copy of Seamus Heaney’s book of poetry, Human Chain. Bono hands the book to Eugene, only to be told by Jan they already own it. Bono laughs when he hears this. And he doesn’t appear embarrassed the redundancy of his gift. Bono tells me that Eugene reads the way he listens to music, so it’s to be expected that he’d already own the book by the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet.
In speaking to Bono’s assistants earlier in the day, I learn that gift-giving is one of Bono’s “love languages.” It is one of the peculiar ways he tries to communicate care to people. One could be excused for thinking that this behavior is a form of showmanship. “It’s simply what famous musicians can afford to do, because they’re wealthy and surrounded by an army of ingratiating assistants.” That’s possible, sure, but it’s a rather cynical way to read a sincere gesture.
At the beginning of our time together, I see Bono greet each member of the small film crew by name. Three hours later, at the end of the visit, Bono thanks them each personally, again by name. The “by name” part does not escape my notice. The larger-than-life personality that I’ve witnessed on television is here, in the Peterson’s home, replaced by a generous, somewhat-awkward, often deferential person.
My New Testament colleague at work, whose office is next door to mine, can testify that I do not possess a capacity for easy interruptibility. When he knocks on my door, it usually takes me a long moment to adjust to his cheerful greeting. It’s a weakness that goes back to my years as a pastor, in Austin, Texas, and even further back, to my years in college, where I’d become irritable if my younger sister interrupted me while I sat at the kitchen table, eating and reading at the same time.
As my extended family can attest, I am rather awful at giving gifts and writing thank-you cards and dropping what I’m doing to go out to coffee with friends and being willing to watch 1950s musicals with my wife, which, to me, always feel like wasting my time, when I could be watching a more “serious” movie or, at the very least, a sci-fi movie. As I’ve written elsewhere:
“I spent my entire twenties living with a loneliness that I was afraid publicly to admit. It was partly my own fault. I suffered the embarrassingly pathological need to find elite, Inkling-like friendships and I would settle for nothing else. Since my search involved the quest for the impossibly ideal friend, I ended up with no close friends and a hardened, fearful heart.”
I struggle, regrettably, with many of the small, but far from insignificant, things that add up to a deep friendship.
The Debt of Friendship
People have asked me what the best thing was about this project. Getting to hear Bono sing in person? Praying with him? Eating Jan’s cookies? Chewing the fat with Eugene on his dock? What was it? My answer: friendship. This project simply couldn’t have happened apart from friendship.
On October 15, 2014, two days after my dream about Bono and Eugene Peterson, I received a last-minute invitation by Steven Purcell, the director of the Laity Lodge, to attend a retreat that was to begin that Thursday, on October 16. Eugene Peterson was to be the featured speaker, with Charlie Peacock as the guest musician. It was at this retreat that Eugene agreed to meet with Bono to talk about their common love of the psalms.
My friendship with Steven goes back to my first year of seminary, in the fall of 1995. My friendship with Eugene began in the spring of 1996, when I took his course on Biblical Spirituality, which first inspired in me a love for the psalms. My friendship with Charlie, without whom I would never have been introduced to U2’s management, started in 2003, when I’d invited him to be a guest artist at an arts festival that my church, Hope Chapel, in Austin, sponsored annually.
The only reason that this project happened was because Bono himself wanted it to happen. The last thing U2’s management wanted, I gathered early on, was to partner with an evangelical seminary. The risk of embarrassment to U2’s public image was too great. The original answer to my query was apparently a blunt no. But Bono, I’d heard, had insisted that it go forward—on account of his friendship with Eugene.
Knowing that I would be getting an opportunity to interview Bono a second time, in New York City, in late July 2015, I called my friend Makoto Fujimura, whom I had first met in 2006, and asked for his advice on a good location. He offered me the use of the International Arts Movement space. Friendship here opened up to me a beautiful space, available all the day long, at no cost to us, located a mere handful of blocks from Bono’s hotel. Yet another gift.
The project’s filmmaker, Nate Clarke, was someone I had met through our common friend, Steven. We’ve endured a good deal over the past 15 months of collaboration, and here at the end, the gift to me is not only a beautiful short documentary film but also another friend.
Beyond these individuals, this project would not have succeeded, I’m certain, apart from a community of praying friends. Scattered around the country, they’ve prayed for me (and my family), for the film crew, for Bono, for the Petersons, for Fuller Seminary, and for audiences who would view the film. Their names appear in the closing credits as a way to honor the consequential role that they’ve played in the success of this project.
Lastly: my wife. Phaedra has been exceedingly patient with me over the past 18 months. All large-scale projects involve things that disappoint or frustrate or tempt you to turn into the worst version of yourself. And the worst version of yourself is usually the least pleasant version for your wife to experience. Phaedra has made sacrifices so that I could finish this project well. I don’t take those sacrifices lightly.
My debt of friendship is far from small.
The Calling to Friendship
Halfway through my on-camera conversation with Bono and Eugene, before transitioning to our discussion of the psalms, I ask them if there is anything else they wanted to say about the calling to friendship.
His eyes drifting over to his writing desk, Eugene says, “You know, as you ask this question, I hadn’t thought of this before, but I think my friendships now are carried on mostly in correspondence. I write a lot of letters, and they’re people I liked but I didn’t really know, and then through correspondence, I feel like I know them. And they know me.”
Bono wonders whether Eugene types or writes his letters by hand.
Eugene chuckles to himself. “I used to handwrite my letters,” he says, “because I thought it was more personal, but I got a letter from a guy in South Africa, 10 years ago or so, and he said, ‘If you reply to this letter, please use a typewriter. I spent two weeks deciphering your last letter.’ So I felt that writing letters by hand was just a matter of pride. It didn’t work.”
I turn to Bono to see if he has anything else to add. Not surprisingly, he does. The trick, he tells us, is to hold on to your friendships through difficult times. Especially in America, he thinks, people move around a lot. The U.S. Census Bureau figures that a typical American will move 11 times in their lifetime. Under these circumstances, Bono suspects, it’s very hard to hold onto friendships. But “it’s really important,” he says. “So I don’t take it lightly.”
As I observed Bono and Eugene’s exchanges on that Sunday afternoon in a small town in Montana, I saw the virtue of hospitality at work. In this particular relational context, it meant the habit of paying attention and the habit of generosity of spirit. It is a gift to me to have witnessed this exchange, for many reasons, yes, but not least because it rebuked my own poor relational habits and it inspired me to want, yet again, to be a better friend.
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