U2’s NLOTH spiritual resonances (part 4)
I had a fascinating conversation with some friends last week about the Celtic concept of ‘Thin Places‘. These are places around the world where the gulf between heaven and earth is smaller than in other spots. This was the sort of thinking that led to places like the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland or the island of Lindisfarne off the north English coast being regarded as holy and spiritual in some sense. There was even a tradition that heaven and earth are only 3 feet apart, but in the thin places, the distance is even shorter. There are a kind of portal, I suppose.
Now, whatever one makes of that, I wonder if this is the sort of metaphor that lies behind the album’s title and ethos – as well as obviously the opening track. Bono has spoken of the view over the Irish sea from his Dublin home – and anyone who knows anything about the Irish weather will know that there are days that are so grey, it’s impossible to tell where the sea stops and the sky begins. And what this seems to allude to is the fusion between the temporal and eternal, the secular and sacred, and even the intervention of the divine in the mundane. On this, actually, hangs the Christian’s hope because it points us towards the incarnation as well as the now and the not yet. But the imagery seems to evoke (to my mind) the sense in which trusting the Christ means eternal life starts NOW: I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me HAS eternal life and will not be judged but HAS crossed over from death to life (John 5:24). The eternal has invaded the temporal.
But isn’t that the way that God always seems to work? Isn’t he as much the God of the mundane, pedestrian and commonplace as he is of the spectacular and miraculous? So often, you can’t immediately spot where he’s rolled up his sleeves to get involved – it’s only clearer in retrospect. As if there’s no line on the horizon, until you’ve passed through it.
There’s cathedrals and the alleyways in our music. I think the alleyway is usually on the way to the cathedral, where you can hear your own footsteps and you’re slightly nervous and looking over your shoulder, and wondering if there’s somebody following you. And then you get there and realize there was somebody following you: it’s God.
More on Unknown Caller
Incidentally, as I was leafing through Bono on Bono by Michka Assayas again, I found this bit on the very last page. Surely, here is the spine-tingling chorus of Unknown Caller in embryonic form (cf. previous post)?
Assayas.: You said about your father: “He would disappear into silence and wit.” I think that in your case, you do disappear into volubility and wit. [Bono bursts out laughing] What do you make of that?
Bono: Guilty, your honour.
No further comment?
‘Be silent and know that I am God’ That’s a favourite line from the Scriptures. ‘Shut up and Let Me Love You’ would be the pop song. [laughs] It’s really what it means. If ever I needed to hear a comment, it might be that.
Ultimate question, then you’re rid of me. What leaves you speechless?
[sighs… 20 second pause, continuous sound of cicadas] Does singing count?
I’m afraid not. Songs have words.
But not when I start. Usually, it’s just a melody and nonsense words. Hmm… Songs are about as succinct as I get. I’m just sparing you. [laughs then ponders for a moment] ‘Forgiveness’ is my answer.
You mean ‘being forgiven’?
This song a great opening to the album. Musically pulsating, driving, teeth-gritting as well as uplifting; it shouts, “we’re back”. The question is – what with? Well, bizarrely enough, it’s a French policeman who’s got claustrophobic in his routine life. And like Get on your boots, it’s essentially a non-sentimental love song.
I’m a traffic cop, Rue du Marais, The sirens are wailing, But it’s me that wants to get away – this is what fired Anton Corbijn’s creative juices for his ‘silent’ companion film of the album, Linear (a word quoting this song). His heart’s elsewhere – a girl for whom he’s desperate to escape. She’s the dreamworld beyond the mundane and banal.
The interesting thing is that she is one who gives the narrator the stepping stone into a larger world. I know a girl who’s like the sea // I watch her changing every day for me… One day she’s still, the next she swells // You can hear the universe in her sea shells. … She said infinity is a great place to start… She said “Time is irrelevant, it’s not linear”. She’s vibrant; she’s truly alive, like the ocean – in apparent contrast to his life.
I just wonder, therefore, if this love affair is a sort of relational thin place. Of course, I’ve already mentioned in this little series of posts what the apostle Paul said about marriage in Eph 5? But could this also be touching on what John was on about in his somewhat elusive discussion of love (cf. 1 John 4:7-12). There’s certainly an elusiveness to this cop’s yearning: The songs in your head are now on my mind // You put me on pause I’m trying to rewind and replay… Every night I have the same dream // I’m hatching some plot, scheming some scheme. He’s spellbound – and has to ‘get out’.
But could it be that actually what he needs is not so much to escape his life (in contrast to Corbijn’s take in his movie, which opens with the cop burning his motorbike and heading off into the sunset) as to get it together with the girl? For she is his key to the eternal; in her there is no line on the horizon. Relationships are what matter – especially eternal ones… If that’s on to something, it would rescue the song from being gnostic anti-materiality/reality – and actually the antithesis of an incarnational thin place. And so, like every great love song, it is an intimation of the love song of the Christ.
I gave this song the benefit of the doubt when it was released as a single. But i have to say that it feels a bit silly. And IMHO it’s the weakest on the album. Nevertheless, it has a real energy and humour – which is why I don’t ‘mind’ it very much. Bono, (in what’s quite a fun interview with the band for New Zealand TV) has said that it’s basically a pretty simple song – a love song without the sentimentality. Well, it certainly isn’t sentimental!
I suppose it’s a Make-Love-Not-War appeal – the closest this album gets to U2’s well-established pacifist anthems – but it’s more a case here of let’s put the grimness of it all out of our minds for the moment. Night is falling everywhere // Rockets at the fun fair // Satan loves a bomb scare // But he won’t scare you… I don’t want to talk about wars between nations // Not right now… Still, in a bomb-scared world, the only hope is Here’s where we gotta be // Love and community // Laughter is eternity // If joy is real. Love… community… others. For love is the only thing that can overcome hatred – Luther King again.
But the main question is who’s the ‘you’ who has to put on her sexy boots, the ‘you’ in the bridge passage: You don’t know how beautiful // You don’t know how beautiful you are // You don’t know, and you don’t get it, do you?. Well, it’s obvious it’s a girl – but could it not be more than a girl? Couldn’t it be THE bride? For there is a theory around that Bono’s ‘you’ is very often God’s people – they too often are the ones who don’t get it. Is that too far-fetched? Well not if the sound is the sound of Amazing Grace – cf. earlier post on the album. Let me in the sound becomes a shared experience: Meet me in the sound. He then gets more desperate: God, I’m going down // I don’t wanna drown now // Meet me in the sound. Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come…
Now of course, it might be much more straight-forward than all of that. For as Neil McCormick discovered, ‘Get on your boots’ is East African Slang for use a condom. Well, i suppose that’s topical, in Africa at least, after the pope’s recent utterances. Make love not war.
But perhaps the song does a rocking shimmy between both spheres – in true Bono style.
Is this the same guy as the Paris traffic cop? Corbijn certainly seems to think so. But whoever it is, (and he feels to me more like the soldier in White as Snow, longing for home and love) this is a lost soul in the Middle East. It’s a beautiful song – beguiling and troubling. There are some profound reflections on what it is to live in a war-ravaged reality:
This shitty world sometimes produces a rose // The scent of it lingers and then it just goes – there are occasional intimations of life and love – this side of the horizon. This is a darker side of the experience in the first song No Line – this is back to reality. This is a world where a child has to drink dirty water from the river bank.
The worst of us are a long drawn out confession // The best of us are geniuses of compression. NONE of us (not even the best of us) is what we could and should be. Now I’ve got a head like a lit cigarette // Unholy clouds reflecting in a minaret // You’re so high above me, higher than everyone // Where are you in the Cedars of Lebanon?. Cedars of Lebanon clearly have biblical resonances – both from descriptions of the geography of the ancient near east and more specially as illustrations of the Lord’s blessing: e.g. Psalm 92:12 and 104:16. He’s looking for ‘you’ here. Is this God?
Choose your enemies carefully cos they will define you // Make them interesting cos in some ways they will mind you // They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends // Gonna last with you longer than your friend – this echoes a line in Heaven on Earth (from All You Can’t Leave Behind) which goes: Where there [were many trees] we’d tear them down // And use them on our enemies // They say that what you mock // Will surely overtake you. For all their pacifism, there is still a war to be fought in this world it seems.
But the appeal, all the way through, is to return the call to home. This is a homesick exile, trapped and lost. And yet the person he seems to be talking to says ‘you say you’re not going to leave the truth alone // I’m here cos I don’t want to go home‘. Is that just what ‘you’ think? Or does he genuinely want to keep searching for the truth?
But if there is a hope to it all, it is beyond the horizon. That to my mind is the message of the whole album. Thank God there is no line on the horizon, because he brings the beyond-horizon world to bear on this-side-world; and without that, we’d be left with a shitty world of despair.