Where Could We Go from Here?
While Greg Garrett was driving to work at Baylor University one morning in the fall of 2001, U2's song "Beautiful Day" popped up on the radio. "It was so precisely the thing I needed to hear at the moment that I actually had to pull the car over because my eyes were filled with tears I couldn't see the road," Garrett recalled in a recent interview. The tragic events of September 11, 2001, the catalyst for personal transformations and new beginnings around the world, brought about Garrett's moment of surrender. He had liked U2's music since the early 1980s, but had listened on a low-fi soul system for two decades. Now he heard with heart and mind: stereo for the spirit.
"I could not stop resisting it anymore when I observed the effects their songs had all over the world, but particularly for us here in America," Garrett said. His awakening prepared him to write a book's worth of insights into the spiritual themes in U2's music. "Hey, they were doing a whole lot of things all along that I really wasn't aware of."
A "whole lot of things": exactly, enough to fuel a steadily growing shelf of books, from introductions like Garrett's We Get to Carry Each Other: The Gospel According to U2 to more ambitious studies where the questions we ask of great works of art are being asked of the music and mission of U2. The investigation is just getting off the ground, but the future of studying the how, why, and "what for" of these Dublin-based artists looks bright.
Many of the iPod generation might miss this fact: U2's songbook began thirty years ago and has nary an entry that fails to inquire about some aspect of life on earth as it is in heaven. Even the occasional clunkers bleed with passion, making it hard to turn a deaf ear to the earnest men asking eternal questions. Fueled by a punk music spirit from its beginning, the band forwent confrontational antics in shows but wrote songs that prevented their audience from sitting back, enjoying a good show, then returning home to their lives as previously scheduled.
Here's a fact I am sure the iPod generation sees quite clearly: U2 has been touring for thirty years. Though they still stage world tours with the imagination and reach of much younger men, they no longer look like the band Time magazine put on a 1987 cover and called "Rock's Hottest Ticket." No matter: U2 will say they have never looked the part of rock stars anyway, and this irony has given them a freedom to sing about the destructiveness of individual ego, pride, and greed, and the need for personal surrender to an all-powerful, loving God—not your standard rock and roll topics.
U2 has aged well, actually, with each band member becoming extraordinarily proficient on his instrument. Edge is already in the history books as a guitar hero, and never before Bono has a frontman used his loud mouth so effectively and influentially off the stage as well as on. U2's current 360¡ Tour is the realization of a vision for a stadium-sized rock concert the band had long ago, before the engineering and technology existed to create it. In a towering, vaulted canopy over an in-the-round stage, the effects of scale, lights, and sound focus the crowd both on the band and toward the sky.
Lately, Bono has been making the case for affording aging artists working in the medium of popular music the same expectations given, historically, to poets, writers, painters, and even other musicians in the classical, jazz, and blues genres. That is, we expect them to improve at their craft over time. Aging should supply a deeper well of experiences, knowledge, skill, and insight, from which artists can draw.
With characteristic humility, Bono does not ask the genre to change its form one bit, but he questions the prevailing wisdom about "pop music." Catchy song hooks have their appeal not with regard to the age of the listener, and lyrics get their greatest temporal power from the timelessness of their truth. If a song can both delight and instruct, that's not a bad day's work for the musical artist. If there is a chance to get millions humming a tune about sin, grace, redemption, or the rewards of relationships maintained by fidelity and trust, then why not try? This is what U2 set out to do as a band of teenagers, continued to do when they found fame, and looks intent upon doing past the age of 50.
U2's next album, slated for release in early 2010, is titled Songs of Ascent. With the band's history of three members spending several intense years as young men in a Dublin-based charismatic Christian community, daily immersing themselves in Scripture and prayer, and with Bono, to this day, writing lyrics with both metaphoric and literal biblical allusions, U2 likely has Psalms 120—134 in mind. Bono has said about this next album, "We're making a kind of heartbreaker, a meditative, reflective piece of work, but not indulgent. It will all have a clear mood, like [Miles Davis'] Kind of Blue. Or [John Coltrane's] A Love Supreme would be a point of reference, for the space it occupies in people's lives, which is to say, with that album, I almost take my shoes off to listen to it." Not exactly what you'd expect from popular music artists, but look for their 2010 summer tour to have stadiums full of so-called "post-Christian" Westerners belting out the laments and pleas of pilgrims.
U2's years of innovative work in the studio and on the stage, combined with their remarkable consistency of purpose and message, has produced a bewildering amount of commercial success when you stop and think about it. Their signature sound is in every new blend of sounds they produce; they have sung the same short-list of themes on every new album since Boy, their first, released in 1980. Yet they have avoided becoming a "greatest hits" band touring their way into the sunset, and even manage to gain new, young listeners with each new album. While they set the bar high for live rock performances with each tour, they have also become a political force to be reckoned with, able to muster legions of passionate fans to put non-violent pressure upon world leaders for the most laudable of causes: providing relief to the poor, the sick, the abused, and the prisoners of conscience.
When surveying the state of U2 studies, we would do well to remember that the spirit moves in mysterious ways. Surely all the stagehands rejoice when someone discovers the gospel of U2, and reading an account of their journey could rekindle your fan-fire—for both the gospel and for U2—if you have let it grow cold. Listeners who noticed long ago that Christianity profoundly informs the music of U2 understandably are hungry for books that will carry them to the next level, but patience is a virtue. And it hasn't been so long, really, since the conversation started.
Henry VanderSpek's pamphlet Faith, Hope & U2 broke the ground in 2000 by providing a much-needed, though brief, theological assessment of U2. Steve Stockman's Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2, first published in 2001 and updated in 2005, is widely considered as the best-sourced book that looks mainly at the spiritual aspects of the band members' lives and the music they have created. Christian Scharen helped us understand, with One Step Closer in 2006, "why U2 matters to those seeking God."
On my timeline of U2 studies, Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog, a collection of 25 sermons edited by Beth Maynard and Raewynne Whiteley, came surprisingly early. Yet upon closer examination, its publication in 2003 signifies that U2's work had already generated amongst fans a wealth of ideas and implications for the religious life. Since Maynard began her "U2 Sermons" blog in 2003, it has remained the best source I know of for theological insights inspired by the band and for tracking the theological reflections of others on U2 (U2sermons.blogspot.com).
Get Up Off Your Knees, along with two other more recent books, points the way toward where our conversations about U2's art might go. Robert Vagacs' Religious Nuts, Political Fanatics: U2 in Theological Perspective, is an insightful study of U2 as poets and prophets, amply informed by Vagacs' reading of Walter Brueggemann. Vagacs treats U2's songs as texts that increase in meaning and significance when read for their intertexts, poetics, and cultural rhetoric, and he studies U2 as a group of artists shaped by the art in their lives as well as by the times they live in. Stephen Catanzarite's Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall, is a rich assessment of the human condition writ large. Working his way through U2's masterpiece album from 1991, Catanzarite explores how echoes of a lost divinity frustrate the acts of men and women searching for hope, love, and life in a world of broken promises and discarded sacraments.
Those who know personally and objectively that U2 matters are finding more ways to bring U2 into the academy. Mark Wrathall edited the 2006 volume U2 and Philosophy for the Popular Culture and Philosophy series, and I've read recently completed graduate dissertations and theses on the compositional structure of U2's music; Bono's role in defining our present understanding of the celebrity-activist; and U2's creative process in general; add to those an unpublished book on the business model of U2. A recent call for papers for the first academic conference on U2 brought in nearly 100 submissions from around the world on topics both predictable and unexpected.
New directions? How has U2 instructed and delighted millions of fans from all walks and faiths with the basic biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption without being thought of as a "Christian" band. What does U2 do in their concerts which makes many say they have their religious experiences there, but not in churches? What tensions are present and necessary in U2's work to produce spiritually instructive works of art? Which songs best constitute a U2 psalter for postmodernity? Why does U2 employ the best talents in the live entertainment industry and devote so much time, energy, and material resources to filling stadiums—in order to lead audiences in singing songs of sacrifice and surrender?
Perhaps most intriguing and underappreciated right now is U2's knack in these politically charged times for getting Christians and Muslims to realize what they have in common. On their last tour, during "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," their well-known song about the tragedies in Irish history, Bono would wear a headband saying "Coexist" while chanting "Jesus, Jew, Mohammed, it's true: all sons of Abraham," imploring adherents of each monotheistic religion to honor their family bond. For their album No Line on the Horizon, U2 went to Fez for the annual World Festival of Sacred Music for inspiration on early recording sessions. Bono remarked that they had talked about writing hymns for the future, and after a day's work in the studio they would take in the Sufi singers on the evening festival stage. Some of those singers were invited into the studio and seem to have influenced elements of the band's approach on this album. As a part of their current tour, lines from the Sufi poet Rumi's "The Song of the Reed Flute" scroll across the largest video wall ever seen in a rock and roll show. What is U2 up to?
These are just a few suggestions for further study; I suspect the best questions will take us all by surprise. But we are ready for more and different conversations about U2. We sense this is art for the body and the soul, for both our temporal and eternal lives. We are ready for what's next.
Scott Calhoun is associate professor of English at Cedarville University, and is the director of U2: The Hype and The Feedback, the first academic conference on the music, work, and influence of U2 (U2conference.com).
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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