Thursday, March 5, 2009

Theology with U2: No Line on the Horizon (2 of 2)

"Get on Your Boots" is the arena rocker of the album. It ranks right up there with "Vertigo" and "Beautiful Day." Catchy. Hooky. And a whole lot of awesome. The song's theme is about the sexiness of taking action to change the world. Nobody has made working for social justice as sexy and cool as U2 have over the years. Somehow they get people excited about fighting AIDs, poverty, injustice, etc. So this song might just be their own theme song. For all those who wish to "put on their boots" in Bono's army, he gives clear marching orders in this song: "Here's where we gotta be / Love and community." That's the ultimate goal. And women have a special place in this army. The lyrics read, "Women of the future / Hold the big revelations." Bono has long argued that women have a special role in transforming the world. As one example of this, Bono told the New York Times: "Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Give a woman microcredit and she, her husband, her children and her extended family will eat for a lifetime." The big mystery in this song is what Bono means by "let me in the sound." One idea is that the "sound" is an analogy for an island. Bono sings: "Let me in the sound, now / God, I'm going down / I don't want to drown now / Meet me in the sound / Let me in the sound." Perhaps, the "sound" is an island of hope, safety, and action in sea of despair, danger, and stagnation. If this is true, let all of us "in the sound"!

"Stand Up Comedy" is a love song. But it's not a sappy, predictable one. It's a hard rock love song about the importance of enacting love in our lives. It's a call to action. It's a wake up call. After opening the song by chanting the word "love," Bono sings: "I got to stand up and take a step / You and I have been asleep for hours / I got to stand up / The wire is stretched in between our two towers." In these lyrics, Bono is saying we need to get off our butts and go live our love. It's not good enough for there to be a "wire" connecting us. We need to share words and deeds of love. Love is a verb. Love is to be enacted. Love is to be lived. Love is to be wild. Lukewarm passivity must be comedically absurd for Bono. In case we miss this point, the chorus says: "Out from under your beds / C’mon ye people / Stand up for your love." So what or who is this love? Bono answers by singing: "God is love / And love is evolution’s very best day." Love is nothing short of the most important thing in the world. Love is the culmination of human development. Love is divine. In fact, I John 4:15 says, "God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them." Obviously love is important for many reasons. But one reason is that love keeps our ideologies in check. In an interview, Bono says, "Zealotry and certainty are worrying for me. Love keeps religion from zealotry." Love reminds us to be patient and kind instead of boastful and arrogant (1 Corinthians 13:4). Love reminds us that people are more important than ideas. Love reminds us that God is love, and we're made in God's image. Love reminds us to honor the dignity of our differences. Love reminds us that our perspectives are just perspectives - not the Truth. Love reminds us we all "see through a glass dimly" and "know only in part" (1 Corinthians 13:12). Love reminds us to embrace paradox over certainty. All of these ideas are summed up by Bono in some of the coolest lyrics on the album: "While I'm getting over certainty / Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady." In these lyrics Bono is suggesting that we stop forcing God to be and think like us. God is God. We are not. God is enigmatic. God's name is "I Am Who I Am" (Exodus 3:14). There is mystery in that name. In fact, the Jewish name for God, "YHWH," even lacks the vowels needed to make the name pronounceable. Mystery is something to be embraced as an act of faith. In the words of Anne Lamott, "The opposite of faith is not doubt: It is certainty. It is madness. You can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." Bono and Lamott invite us to enact love, perhaps, in part, by finding the comedy in certainty.

"Fez - Being Born" is an odd pair of songs, even for this album. It's U2 being experimental. These songs probably won't be a concert favorite, but it's fun to hear U2 try out new sounds. The first song "Fez," combines loops of Bono singing "let me in the sound," unique beats of Joujouka drummers, haunting sounds of Sufi devotional songs, ambient sounds from the street, etc. The influence of producer Brian Eno, the father of ambient music, is very evident in this brief, multi-layered song. The second tune in this duo of songs, "Being Born," continues the experimental flavor and Arabic theory of the previous song but morphs them into an avant-garde rock song. The influence of producer Danny Lanois, who specializes in artsy rock, is most evident in this song. The major difference between these songs is that "Being Born" has lyrics. Bono sings about a journey of birth that takes him around the world. This could be about the birth of this album, which was recorded in various locations around the world. But who knows!? All I can say for sure is that this song is beautiful in all of its alt-rock-Arabic-Moroccan glory.

"White As Snow" is a hauntingly beautiful song. It has a quiet, raw power that has to be experienced. The first time I heard it I was drawn into the emotional spirit of the song and couldn't stop listening. I knew it had to be about a particular event or experience. Thankfully I came across an article that described the context of the song. Bono said it's written "from the point of view of an active soldier in Afghanistan" who is "dying from a roadside bomb." The soldier is reflecting on his life in the moments just before her/his last breath. The lyrics start out with the soldier thinking about his home and family: "Where I come from there were no hills at all / The land was flat, the highway straight and wide / My brother and I would drive for hours / Like we had years instead of days." There seems to be a longing for those simple things we all take for granted. Then the lyrics turn to the soldier's thoughts on the immediacy of her/his death: "Now this dry ground it bears no fruit at all / Only poppies laugh under the crescent moon." The symbolism is powerful. Poppies are symbolic of death and are featured in the World War I poem, "In Flanders Fields." In that poem poppies became the symbol of remembrance of soldiers who had been killed. The first stanza reads: "In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row, / That mark our place; and in the sky / The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scarce heard amid the guns below." Bono is clearly emphasizing the soldier's sense of sadness by saying that poppies are the only thing growing on the ground. All of these rich lyrics are bathed in music that picks up on elements of the tune, "O Come O Come Emmanuel." This 19th century hymn is about God's promise to heal the world through the messiah. Part of that healing is taking away humanity's pain and death. The lyrics read: "O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer / Our spirits by Thine advent here / Disperse the gloomy clouds of night / And death's dark shadows put to flight / Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, O Israel." The move from death to praise in this hymn is mysteriously significant. Perhaps this hymn is Bono's hope for the soldier. Or perhaps it's the hymn that the soldier hears while entering Heaven. In either case, the musical elements of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" overlaid in "White As Snow," makes this meaning-filled U2 song even more arresting. In my opinion, this is one of the best songs of the album.

"Breathe" opens with dueling piano and guitar. It's cool. The song seems to maintain a feisty sense of hope musically and lyrically. According to an interview with Bono, the song is an upbeat ode to the sanctuary of his internal life - and lament about the rush of the external world. Bono begins his lament by singing about a traveling salesman selling "cockatoo" (i.e. crap we don't need). He continues the lament by talking about global stocks and viruses that affect everyone. Something external is always messing with his life. This makes him want to escape the "roar that lies on the other side of silence." It gets so bad that it "takes courage to walk down the street." But then Bono manages to discover the sanctuary of his internal life. For him, this means listening to his own song instead of the "roar" all around him. Again, Bono sounds like a Quaker, discovering the gift of the "inner light." The last part of the song is a testimony to the beauty of listening to one's own song: "We are people born of the sound / the songs are in our eyes / Gonna wear them like a clown / Walk out, into the sunburst street / Sing your heart out, sing my heart out / I've found grace inside a sound / I found grace, it's all that I found / And I can breathe / Breathe now." Salvation in this sing is about being saved from the craziness of the external world and being saved for living one's own life. This isn't about being selfish. It's about being centered.
Being centered means being attentive to one's authentic self and open to the divine inside us. Scripture says that the presence of God (1 John 3:24) and the Kin-dom of God (Luke 17:21) are both found within. Bono has found his center by listening to the sound within.

"Cedars of Lebanon" is spoken word poetry set to a continuously driving song. The poem is an intimate portrayal of the life and struggles of a war journalist. It's amazing how vivid and nuanced the picture is that Bono manages to paint with his lyrics. It's like you're there. Seeing the sights. Smelling the smells. Tasting the tastes. But it's war. It's ugly. It's not something you'd want to experience. And by the end of the song, I'm not sure whether to feel sorrier for the war-torn people themselves or the journalist that has to watch it all happen. Probably the journalist, honestly. He's the one who has to see it all happen and then force it all into some easy-to-read article for people who can't possibly relate to what's happening. Bono captures the scene like this: "Spent the night trying to make a deadline / Squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline." Bono also gets at the gritty differences between the various people affected by the war: "Child drinking dirty water from the river bank / Soldier brings oranges he got out from the tank / I'm waiting on the waiter, he's taking a while to come / Watching the sun go down on Lebanon." These kinds of lyrics magnetically draw listeners into the scene. But we don't just get to peek into the life of the war journalist. We also get to hear the wisdom that he gained from his reflections on the war: "Choose your enemies carefully 'cos they will define you." This is good advice. In our interdependent world, we are as affected by our friends as we are our enemies. Friends give us something to live for. Enemies give us something to live against. They both give shape to our lives. The journalist seems to be warning us not to give so much influential power to the things and people we are against. Jesus gave similar advice when he said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Here Jesus seems to invite us to live graciously toward our enemies so that they might become friends. Apostle Paul calls this a "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:18). The ultimate vision of reconciliation comes from Micah 4:3: "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." This vision is that all people will be reconciled with one other. No more enemies. No more war. No more war journalists. I think that is the deeper message of "Cedars of Lebanon." Peace is cool. And so is this song.

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