U2’s NLOTH spiritual resonances (pt 1)
Am prepping for an updated talk on U2 at the ELF in Hungary this year – so obviously paying close attention to the new album, No Line on the Horizon. Here are a few biblical & spiritual resonances that I’ve picked up. There are probably gazillion others. Various bods out there are saying that it is one of their most Christian albums to date – and various obsessives are doing this sort of thing. So for what it’s worth, here’s my stab at a contribution. If I’m onto something with even half of these references, it is pretty exciting. And I have a bit a of a theory to do with the hymn Amazing Grace…
This song has got a lot of people’s attention – and it’s certainly grabbed mine. A powerful, slow burn – it starts with a muffled rhythm section before opening out into something a bit more straightforward, accompanied by the humming of a Hammond organ, giving it a gentle gospel sonic landscape (well i don’t normally talk like that, but because Brian Eno is involved, i feel justified). Like so many, it can be understood on various levels. It indulges in the trad. U2 blurring of human relationships with our relationship with Christ (just as Paul did in Ephesians 5 – and perhaps Song of Songs) – two souls too smart to be in the realm of certainty even on our wedding day. Weddings of course are about BOTH – but perhaps it’s a bit more edgy than a neat fit, because presumably after the wedding supper of the lamb there will be some degree of certainty…
On the human level: in an exclusive human relationship, one has no eyes for anyone else (I did not notice the passers-by and they did not notice me), one doesn’t have absolute certainty in the decision one is making (we’re too smart for that), but there is a passion and fire in love (we set ourselves on fire).
Then comes the magical lyrical turning point: It’s not if I believe in love But if love believes in me, Oh believe in me. Fabulous. This is the invasion of grace – or rather the yearning for it. There is a sense of wonder in a great human relationship that love has come – but surely it is even more applicable to Christ’s call (and he’s just cried Oh God in the previous line). There is a shrinking back, a doubt that love might not come cf. George Herbert’s LOVE BADE ME WELCOME.
But the key change comes at the moment of surrender, I folded to my knees. This is echoed earlier in the song by another role reversal – playing with the fire till the fire played with me. But that’s what happens when we start getting involved with God – he is so much bigger, so much greater. We put him in the dock only to find ourselves in the dock; we think we’re doing him a favour by loving him, but find that his is the greater favour. Such surrender could sound like a subjugation, a resignation. But the music lifts it up to a moment of joy – with the Edge’s backing vocal giving it a sense of shared joy.
And that is done without any concern about passers-by. Who cares what they think? [For that matter, who cares what music critics might think if they whinge or cringe at the spiritual dimensions of U2 songs, eh?!] What matters is what LOVE thinks… Hence the last 2 versions of the chorus: at the moment of surrender of vision over visibility I did not notice the passers-by. It is about having the courage to sing because the importance of what is happening eclipses everything else (cf. singing in Breathe below)
The clincher of course for arguing the Christian significance is the fact that I was speeding on the subway through the stations of the cross. What is that if not a clear meditation on the passion of Christ, the events of the last few hours of his life. Every eye is looking the other way – but he still surrenders. A little echo perhaps of Joseph & Nicodemus?? They were prepared to get involved in the passion, at great personal cost, when everyone else had turned their backs (John 19:38-42).
That is what makes his staring reflection in the ATM screen bearable – he had been in ‘every black hole at the altar of the dark star‘ and was reduced to beg … to be released from control – what is that if not a pleading for rescue? ≈ Romans 7:24-8:1 Who will rescue me from this body of death…? The only hope for the apostle Paul, and for the subject of this song, is the moment of surrender.
This opens with a weird sustained whining noise, and the echoes of birdsong – it feels like the long lonely hours of the early hours – lost between the midnight and the dawning in a place of no consequence or company. It actually gives sound to those times of lying awake and longing for the dawn (sunshine, sunshine) – a very Psalmic thing to be doing. (e.g. Psalm 63:6; Psalm 119:147). But what do you do with that time? Often you pray. This is a song about prayer – and about God speaking. For he is presumably the eponymous Unknown Caller. But when it gets going, it is anthemic – I can see it getting the stadiums going. Can’t wait.
3.33 when the numbers fell off the clock face ≈ It’s that number again! Jeremiah 33:3 is the almost the U2 motto verse – remember the airport gate sign on the cover of All you can’t leave behind? It is particularly appropriate for this song, for there God says, “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know“. And this is immediately followed by the chorus, sung (or rather, almost said) by both Bono & Edge together. This is GOD, in his triune plurality, talking:
Go, shout it out, rise up ≈ God calls on people to get out there with ‘shouts of joy’ Psalm 105:43
Hear me, cease to speak, Shush now ≈ we have domesticated Psalm 46:10 with soppy christian choruses about being quiet and meditative. But actually, this Psalm is telling people to Shut Up! and stop their gabbling and mumbling – he is the exalted God! So shush now…
That I may speak ≈ he is a speaking God! And our gassing drowns out what he says.
Force quit and move to trash // restart and re-boot yourself ≈ you can tell Bono is a Mac user! And so, by the sound of things is God. It is about stopping in your tracks – going back to the scene of the accident; I sat there waiting for me. Repentance, in other words, isn’t it? Is this waiting for the new/real me/rebooted and therefore reborn me? Is this not an appeal to go back to the moments before the moment of surrender? But when you get to that point,
you’re free to go.. shout for joy if you get the chance, password, enter here, right now ≈ passwords have biblical precedence: e.g. shibboleth (Judges 12:6) But who is our Shibboleth if not Jesus himself. He is the one who gets us in and who makes us truly free. John 8:32-36; Rom 8:2
you know your name so punch it in ≈ is this the new name that Jesus has revealed to those who are his? Revelation 2:17 Or is it Jesus’ name again, the name that he has revealed (cf. Philippians 2:11)
Simply beautiful rearrangement of the melody from the old advent carol, O Come, O Come Emmanuel – which is itself all about living in, and longing for the end of, the Last days. The title imagery is explicit – Isaiah speaks of the sins that are scarlet becoming white as snow (Isaiah 1:18). But the song is not as simple as a declaration of the wonders of forgiveness. Is it more of a reflection of the reality of sin in the believer’s life? It is apparently a soldier’s tale, lying dying by a road (hence poppies and passing wolves), perhaps in Afghanistan or Iraq – under a crescent moon.
If only a heart could be as white as snow ≈ this is the central yearning of the song. It is both a yearning for his own heart to be white (he and his brother have faces that are as pale as the dirty snow), and a recognition that it is only possible with someone who is the lamb white as snow.
Now the wolves are passing by, every face we cannot know ≈ could this be religious charlatans (wolves in sheep’s clothing) – Matt 7:15
This is one of my absolute winners. My first impression is that it’s a reflection on how in Christ we have the fullness of life, despite whatever the world has to offer us, even if that means there is suffering and cost. It takes courage, it takes a determination to serve sacrificially – but I’ve found grace and so i can breathe now… In other words, i can TRULY live. It is set in the real world of news reports (e.g. Chinese stocks and Avian flu). There is nothing more fundamental than breathing – nor pleasurable when you think about it: think of taking a deep and long breath on a cold crisp blue-skied winter’s morning in the countryside.
Invite a complete stranger into my home – would you ≈ Matt 25: 35, 38, 43 – would you invite Jesus in…? Even (in context here) someone who is selling things on the doorstep? But isn’t that what Jesus expects us to do with him – which is why, after he’s come, ‘these days are better than that‘
Every day I die again, and again I’m reborn ≈ Titus 3:5 (on rebirth and grace); but mainly 1 Cor 15:31 – Paul speaks of the way he pours out his life for the Corinthians at great personal cost, which is preciesly the point that seems to flow from the next line…
Courage to walk… with arms out ≈ Rom 12:1-2 – because of his mercy, offer yourselves…
Got a Love you can’t defeat ≈ Rom 8:35, 38-39 – NOTHING can separate us…
The key is in the choruses I think:
Nothing you have that i need, i can breath, breath now ≈ is this an echo of the temptation in the wilderness? The devil offers all kinds of things that will alleviate suffering – but Jesus refuses of course – for he has true life. Rom 5:17 – how much more abundant grace through one man…? cf. John 10:10 life in all its fullness…
walk out into the street, sing your heart out ≈ in some ways this is classic psalmic theology – praise and singing in the Psalms is nearly always has 2 axes: vertically, in praising God for all that he is and does; horizontally, in simply telling people how great he is. e.g. Ps 9:11, 18:49
I found grace inside a sound… all that i found… i can breathe now ≈ I still haven’t found what I’m looking for (heaven) but I HAVE found this – grace and so i can truly live and breathe in the meantime. Is the sound (cf. Get on your boots) therefore song of the gospel? So without being too reductionistic, at least one of the songs be that totemic hymn Amazing Grace [nb it’s first line:] how sweet the sound(cf. Bono’s conversations with Steve Turner mentioned at the start of Steve’s history of the hymn)? – cf. John 1:16 fullness of grace…
More to follow…