In the week of U2’s Australian tour, I’ll explore some of the songs that are likely to be on the playlist and what they say about the Christian faith. I’ll add songs daily to the bottom of this post, to keep them all in the same place. Add your comments!
It never really works to talk about lyrics. They have to be sung. So I’ll do my best to turn my writing into singing, relax the grammar a little, try to lean on the notes and let it ring, repeat, and rest. The assumption: that you know the songs and the lyrics, or can find them online at somewhere like macphisto.net. I’m not being exclusivist; it’s just that printed lyrics aren’t going to sing, either.
This is a song about my wife. It’s also about eschatology. Two of my enduring subjects of interest and delight. It’s a hard song to listen to if you have a family member threatened by chronic illness (MS in our case). Amelia is doing fine (‘not visibly disabled’, as they say), but the song forces me to imagine a future I don’t want. Bono has contextualised the song, saying his inspiration was a severely disabled boy he met at school . I had wondered whether he also had in mind John Goldingay and his very disabled wife —he wrote Walk On about his life with his wife (who also has MS) and how U2 had sustained him.
This song has been one click away for years now. I always have in mind Amelia, and wanting to “trip inside her head” if, God forbid, she should ever not be able to tell me what she’s thinking, what she’s feeling. To be able to see “the songs” in her eyes, but not to hear her or know what is going on inside her head. Outrageous and unthinkable.
The production of this song is beautiful, the microphone halfway down Bono’s throat, picking up every catch and croak, the lament and the call to hope. He isn’t giving up on a miracle drug—there’s hope that things could change, there’s still the chance for freedom, there’s still a better future to imagine (and the Dublin boy did get a drug, and he could write the songs that his mother could see in his eyes).
There is amazing strength here, and optimism: “Of science and the human heart, there is no limit”. It could almost seem like hubristic humanism, but it’s grounded in a great reality. Bono prays breathlessly, nearly subsonically, “God I need your help tonight” before preaching his vision of the kingdom coming:
Beneath the noise/ Below the din/ I hear a voice/ It’s whispering
In science and in medicine/ “I was a stranger/ You took me in”
This is resurrection theology, the idea that the kingdom is not only coming, but has already come and the curse is reversing, and we see glimpses here and there, whispers of the time of no pain and no suffering. Just whispers—in science and in medicine, especially when it lifts up the least and the lowest. That’s what seems to drive U2. It’s only part of my eschatology, but its very moving.
I’m also driven to tears by the lines that follow. They are not the sort of thing you expect to find in a rock song. Isn’t rock about chaos, passion and dropping out? So why does Bono sing:
Love makes nonsense of space
And time will disappear
Love and logic keep us clear
Reason is on our side, love….
He sings it because he’s a resurrectionist, a God-truster, a believer in the Great Beyond, on the side of meaning and purpose and plans and the coming age of peace. And he sees signs, here and there, that this age is but upon us, if only we can hang on and hold the faith, and live out the curse-reversal. Reason and love—and even logic—tell us that this world is a poor shadow of the one to come. He’s “had enough of romantic love” and would give it up for the drug that makes everything good again. Science as more redemptive than romance—what a message!
I’m enough of a fan to know that the drug is a cipher for Christ himself. Jesus as a drug. Great apologetics. He’s the fix, except that you score him through love, and reason, and welcoming the stranger. I might want to focus the eschatology a bit more on the One who is to Come, to balance out Bono’s emphasis on the One Who Is (in other words, I think my eschatology is a bit more futurist than Bono’s), but I’m with the song. I just hope I never have to sing it for my wife.
The sheer bravery of it. Naming God in a song title. Not Allah, not just God, but Yahweh, the God of Moses. Lest we just take this for granted, remember that this song was released in the context of war in the Middle East. If you want evidence of U2’s spiritual convictions, turn it up.
It didn’t grab me on first listen. Now it’s my daily prayer. Bono’s vocals are so laid back, so barely in tune, barely melodic that this last song on the album passed me by until on one listen I heard the line, “take this shirt, polyester white trash made nowhere, take this shirt and make it clean”. Then all of the world’s lost souls were before me—all the suburb dwellers, factory workers, fear-faced students, garbage mountain prospectors, street walkers, no-name children of no-future space-fillers, dross of humanity, the people no one but God would miss.
Take these people, and love them so much that you wash them whiter than pure.
I suddenly got it—this was the prayer of the disciple who looks at himself and all those around him, and throws himself on the provision of God for he can do nothing less.
Bono sings this prayer, and in the Vertigo concert footage I’ve seen, the band is often standing in a line, literally praying it over the audience: take us, Lord, take our mouths (“so quick to criticise”), take our hands (“don’t make a fist”), take these shoes and fit them to the good deeds you have prepared in advance for us to do.
And he prays that God would take our souls, “stranded in some skin and bones”, and make them sing. There are clues in a few songs to Bono’s view of human identity and our future status where souls merge together (“all the colours bleed into one”) and people are deeply connected (on another song, he speaks of his father as “the same soul”). I’d love to know more about this…it’s a vision of human unity that we don’t hear often. Get me that backstage pass and an hour or two to talk mind-body philosophy…
But, yes, take this soul and make it sing. And take this city, he sings, in a splendid, marvellous eschatological statement. “A city should be shining on a hill”. It’s the words of Jesus, its Augustine, its Calvin’s Geneva, it’s the New Jerusalem. It’s people together, a society God would be proud of, a place God could dwell. But it belongs to God, not us. The title ‘Yahweh’ was brave, but this line is even braver: “Take this city, if it be your will/What no man can own, no man can take”. This, into a political climate of battles over Jerusalem, is nothing less than prophecy. It’s a call to humility, and to an end to zealous violence. The city belongs to no one but God, no group can claim it, not even any religion. It is God’s to take, and God’s to abandon. Pray, with Bono, that God would take it.
And throughout the song, the chorus returns us to the human situation—suffering and hope. We are waiting for the birth of a child, always painful, always anticipating joy, always anxious. Switch images to sunlight for another eschatological claim: the sun is coming up, the sun is rising, the new day is upon us. Any love we experience now is just a tiny drop in the ocean compared to what remains to come.
And any suffering is just the same drop. But for us polyester white trash, the question will always be there: why Yahweh, why the darkness before the dawn, why the pain and the terror and the injustice and unfairness? How long, O Lord? How long to sing this song?
All Because of You
This is what they do best: spiritual and Irish romance all at once. “All because of you — I am”. It’s an obvious lyric to anyone who has spent time in the Hebrew Bible, thinking about the name of God, “I am who I am”. The Great I Am. We are everything we are because of I am. It’s mystical grammar that makes sense of the great Personality at the heart of everything.
Then Bono turns the spotlight on himself. He becomes the ‘I’: an intellectual tortoise, enjoying the sound of his own voice, full of himself and hard to love, really. He’s not broke but you can see the cracks (I love that line). This combination of hubris and humility always works for him, because he gives so much. We know he knows that we know he’s a hustler. He’s telling us he’s not perfect, but he’s still taking centre stage. He knows he’s full of himself, but he knows he can’t fool us into thinking he isn’t.
Nor can he fool the I Am. So he doesn’t try. Instead he begs and prays: “You can make me perfect again”. It’s King David calling out to the one who made him. It’s the Apostle Paul asking for unthinkable forgiveness for the Chief Persecutor. It’s Luther sinning boldly and repenting just as boldly. It’s every honest son and daughter not pretending they are anything other than children of grace, ugly, confused, carrying ‘high rise’ burdens on their backs.
And then the song acknowledges that the beginning and the end are all in I am. I am is where we are born, and who we return to. It’s when we set out, and what we want to get back to, back inside the womb, in every way born again.
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