Here is the truth. In my middle age, I don’t want the angst of teenage rock and roll. The unholy trio of sex, drugs, and rock and roll hold little appeal. I have felt this way for a long while, even though I am only now hitting midlife. My own spirituality and politics have grown up too. While in my college years, I railed against the injustices of the world, I now am as likely to weep as shout, to seek coalitions and compromise as push my version of utopia. When I first met the Irish rock band U2, I was in my youthful idealism, shouting prophetic judgment at the government, the Church, anyone in charge of what I was coming to see as a world full of troubles. I met U2 when they were in the same phase: angry about war, about the church’s hypocrisy, about government exploitation of the poor, vulnerable, and powerless.
And while it is not much commented upon, one of the most compelling reasons to stick with the much-maligned, now over fifty-year-old lads from Dublin is the fact that they have perfected grownup rock and roll, with grownup spirituality and politics integrated into their pop art. This is, of course, a subjective judgment, but what I have in mind has something to do with a trajectory of vocational formation in the life of faith. It starts in youthful play, and through play, finds a passion to pursue. This is where many rock bands stall; the joke about endlessly prolonged adolescence seems appropriate, but beyond the passion, usually with a wise elder to help with discernment, the passion can turn to a purpose, meeting God where God is already at work for mercy and justice in the world.
Channeling this grownup wisdom, U2’s most recent work is a rock-and-roll show pitched—as is their latest album—to tell the story of a journey from innocence to experience. The album and show return to their post-punk musical roots in Ireland and to the social context of The Troubles, a veiled reference to the long-violent clashes between the Irish and the British. At the heart of the album and the show is a song, “Raised by Wolves,” which recalls a on the streets of Dublin when Bono was just fourteen. Yet the loss of innocence does not lead to loss of hope. On the contrary, by their accounting, it gives birth to a steely-eyed insistence on peace and justice, and learning that compromise is a friend, not an enemy.
When U2’s November 14 “iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live from Paris” HBO concert special was canceled because of the Paris terrorist attacks the day prior, Bono said the most important thing they could do in response was to return as soon as possible to play the show. Less than a month later, they did. Having seen U2’s tour on a summer night at Madison Square Garden, I knew the rescheduled December 6 and 7 post-terrorist attack show in Paris would be powerful. about the concert abound, and many from the tour are on YouTube. Rather than simply repeat that here, I want to reflect on U2’s calling as grownup artists, artists with a vocation to put on a meaningful and ultimately healing liturgy in the heart of cities worldwide. In doing this, I will touch on three aspects of the band’s maturity at this stage in their career: their art, their faith, and their politics, and how this opened the door to a powerfully cathartic night for Paris and a watching world.
The album and tour derives its frame from Songs of Innocence and Experience, an illustrated collection of poems by William Blake published in 1789. The poems draw on Romanticism’s ideals of an innocent childhood impinged upon by a fallen world and its corrupt institutions. Their current album, Songs of Innocence, revisits the band members’ childhood influences, whereas an as yet unreleased follow-up album, Songs of Experience, presumably will engage their world now. With a creative team who have worked with U2 for decades (old friends ) along with new partners , what amounts to a performance art piece about their youth and the experiences that shaped them. The performance art is a stunning mix of vision, wisdom, and cutting-edge technical abilities that pull off the narrative thread of the show. U2 does not see their art as music as much as ideas engaging audiences through an experience that is healing and transformative. The imaginative use of the LED wall running down the middle of the space is key, helping visually tell the story as they go along.
Of course, all the technology only helps to showcase their new music. They don’t merely rest on their “greatest hits” but keep trying to explore new ground with their music, as this ambitious album and tour demonstrate. They drew the most songs in the setlist from their new album (in Paris, six from their new album, and the rest of the songs scattered across eight prior albums). Compare this to your run-of-the-mill over fifties rockers who haven’t had a hit song in decades and just keep doing “jukebox tours,” playing crowd favorites. That doesn’t mean U2 won’t play the crowd favorites, however. In with their smash hit “One” on their last night in Paris, Bono only sang the first phrase, “Is it getting better,” and held the microphone out to the audience, who joined in tentatively, but warmed to the task by the chorus. With a slight bow, and a gesture of his hand to continue, the audience belted out the second verse as well. Then the band joined in with a particularly funky groove and Bono sang the song, but he regularly stepped back again to let the sing-a-long of thousands have its moment.
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song, the faces of those who were killed show up on the screen, and as Bono walks out toward the “experience” stage, he recites Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadows, I fear no evil, thy rod and thy staff will comfort me.” And then, with increasing desperation, he cries, “Comfort me! Comfort me!” It is the classic pattern of biblical lament, claiming how God acts, and then crying out to God to do just that. While the four members of the band are not in the same place with regards to faith, they are all very influenced by and engaged in the Christian faith. Early on in their life together, it was more of a struggle (how hidden, how explicit, should our faith be? what will people say?) but now they seem at home with it and let it inform their show in so many ways. Here is an example. Near the end of the first set, the “innocence” section of the show which looks back on the band’s youth, drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. marches out into the middle of the arena with just a marching snare drum, tapping out the somber rhythm to begin their classic lament “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” The song recalls Bloody Sunday, a 1972 massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland, when British soldiers shot twenty-six unarmed civilians during a protest march. As the song fades, a blue car appears on the huge overhead screen while a news report comes on the PA and a loud sound of a bomb goes off followed by breaking glass and the whole arena going dark. In the dark, they play the chords of a new song, “Raised By Wolves,” about a bombing on Bono’s street when he was fourteen. In the song, Bono laments the people who died, and the way terrorists put ideas before people, leading to the powerful words of the song’s chorus, “I don’t believe anymore.” It is not a rejection of faith, but a rejection of ideology, and of the hatred of “them” so typical of such violence. Toward the end of the
U2 and Grownup Politics
Earlier in their career, U2 inadvertently fell into the polarizing dynamic of us versus them, pointing fingers at those in power for supporting injustice and oppression. Now their politics grow out of a healthy sense of self-critique and how hard it is to undo the logic of us versus them, a dynamic that can lead to violence no matter which side wields it. One beautiful enactment of this political tension happens when the huge screen becomes the Berlin Wall separating the arena into “Us” and “Them” at the transition from innocence and experience (functionally, between the first set and the second set). The interlude is sometimes accompanied by “The Wanderer,” the final track from their 1993 album Zooropa sung by Johnny Cash. Then, as the pulsing drums and soaring guitar of their single “Invisible” begins, the Berlin Wall starts to dissolve, revealing the band members playing inside the screen. The yellow wall finally turns off completely, leaving clarity and transparency, and as the lights come up, each side of the arena to see not only the band but also each other. Bono sings the chorus of the song: “there is no them, there’s only us.” This took on a remarkable power later in the concert with regard not only to Syrian migrants, but also as a not-so-subtle argument against the temptation to demonize Islam because of the ISIS-inspired attacks in Paris.
The political agenda of the concert deepens as the band plays a simple voice and piano version of the title track from their second album, 1981’s October. As Bono sings “October, and kingdoms rise, and kingdoms fall,” photos of completely bombed out cities in Syria pan across the screen. The quiet of this song crashes into the screaming guitar of “Bullet the Blue Sky” which sees Bono picking up a megaphone to sing through. Pictures of troops with riot gear and guns—presumably a European mobilization to keep out refugees fleeing from Syria—appear on the screen, as he sings the apt lyric, “the face of fear, running scared in the valley below.” Not long after this, in a transition between songs, Bono paces on the stage saying, as if directly to the terrorists who attacked Paris, “What do you want? Do you want us to be afraid? To turn away from our neighbors? You will not have our hatred. You will not have our hatred. We choose love over fear! Love over fear!” and then, to put the “no us and them” argument in other terms, he quotes a favorite aphorism from German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, turning it into a prayer: “My prayer, our prayer, that we refuse to become a monster in order to defeat a monster, that we choose love over fear” (Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146).
As if to push this logic to its limit, as the band turn to their final song, “One,” Bono asks the audience to imagine peacemakers in war-torn places, those people who live with this shocking violence daily, and, he says, “even, it may be hard, but can we even think of the families of the terrorists who have lost their loved ones to an ideology that is a perversion of the beautiful religion of Islam. Islam, which if I’m not mistaken means surrender, surrender to God, which is what I wish to do tonight.”
Finally, then, to wrap up the concert, and to put a jubilant point on his vision of rock and roll as joyful defiance of the forces of violence and terror, Bono says, “Now, there’s nothing left but to introduce you to our brothers, our fellow troubadours, some people who were robbed of their stage three weeks ago, and we’d like to offer them ours. Would you welcome the Eagles of Death Metal.” And together, U2 and the band during whose November 13 Paris concert ninety people were killed rip into Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.” “The people have the power to redeem the work of fools.”
The lyric edges up to the dreaded us and them politics, but in the end, the effervescent moment has the arms-wide-open, caution-to-the-wind air of a politics of inclusion, of, if I may say it, healing and redemption.
Christian Scharen is Vice President for Applied Research at Auburn Seminary, New York.
Scharen, Christian. One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God. Ada, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2006.