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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.

All of which reminds me of something that Bono said in a New York Times interview (quoted in Christian Scharen‘s One Step Closer, p9):

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’?

No Line on the Horizon

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.

Get on your boots

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 albumLet 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.

Cedars of Lebanon

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.


U2’s NLOTH spiritual resonances (part 3)

The 3rd instalment…In my mind, these 2 songs go together – they’re both counter-cultural.

– Stand up for your love which is emphatically NOT RIGHTS (Stand Up Comedy)
– [then what appears to contradict the previous quote, there is one right that does still matter] the right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear. (I’ll Go Crazy) For this is essential if one is prepared to love.

But the important thing is that they counter the culture of both the world and the church (see the little old lady below) – because of LOVE! Which in many ways puts them on a more biblical trajectory than any of us might care to realise. But then, if there is the prophetic and psalmic in the songs on this album, this should not be surprising. And someone who speaks such a message is bound to get brickbats flung at them – from everybody. Just as well there is the personal relationship that supersedes all others – a question of vision taking precedence over visibility… (Moment of Surrender). That’s not to say that Bono takes himself too seriously – fortunately there are hints that he doesn’t… (although sometimes, one might wish he would take himself even less seriously than he does!).

Stand Up Comedy

Well, this is the song that makes ‘love’ come out so big on the wordle (see previous NLOTH post). It’s repeated over and over, despite being chanted almost inaudibly. It’s ramming the point home. But this is no soppy romanticism; it’s a call, not to arms of course, but to action. Or perhaps even better, it is a call to arms opened wide.

The tempo, driving rhythm section, the almost retro 70s feel (you can almost see Steve McQueen accelerating over a San Francisco rise) all serve to galvanise and propel us out … to love. This is the MLK dream. But there is an aspect of comedy to this standing up – because self-sacrificial love gets you into the most surreal, even absurd, situations (like when Bono & Geldof find themselves visiting the former Pope, Bush & Blair).

the wire stretched in between two towers… stand up in this dizzy world where a lovesick eye can steal the view. I’m gonna fall down if I can’t stand up for your love. Presumably the imagery is of Philippe Petit, the guy who did a tightrope walk in 1974 between the twin towers of the New York World Trade Center (and who is the subject of the recent documentary film, Man on Wire). Just thinking about stepping out onto such a rope is enough to make one balk with vertigo. But I’m gonna fall down if i can’t stand up for your love, or rather if i can’t serve in your love. It is risky love – but if we’re not serving ‘your love‘ what alternative is there but falling…? Could this have anything to do with Peter stepping out of the boat onto to the water…? ≈ Matt 14:24-33 

the DNA lotto may have left you smart, but you can stand up to beauty, dictator of the heart it doesn’t matter what makes us who we are (whether our genes or upbringing or circumstances); the obsessions of our culture age (beauty, smarts) are no match for the fruit of the spirit and the Christian’s trinity: I can stand up for hope, faith, love (explicit reference of course to 1 Cor 13:13, Colossians 1:5, 1 Thess 1:3, 5:8). And of course the greatest of these is love.

But then here comes a provocative challenge to the church (and it’s one of the most powerful images of the whole album): But while I’m getting over certainty stop helping God across the road like a little old lady. Ouch. A hugely suggestive image and one that’s lodged firmly in my head (and it keeps reminding me of that youtube classic that did the rounds a couple of years ago, the old lady and the airbag!!). How many of us have presumed to think God owed it to us, looked to us, depended on us? Who do we think we are? Shush now, cease to speak that I may speak (Unknown Caller). This is all reminiscent of Psalm 50 – esp v7-10 – hear, o my people, and I will speak… I am God, your God… I have no need of a bull from your stall… for I have the cattle on a thousand hills). This is a rebuke the church STILL needs to hear, as we invest in our programmes, strategies and schemes – God is bigger than all of that. To suggest that we need to get over our certainty will for some be a red rag to a bull of course – esp those who fear all things postmodern. But then, if it is a matter of thinking we’ve got everything sussed and that our own way of doing God’s business is THE way, then such certainty surely justifies such a rebuke for what is little short of idolatry. God is sovereign – so get out from under your beds, c’mon ye people, and serve… with love…

But there is an absurdity in the fact that it takes a rockstar to rebuke the church (though perhaps not without precedence in that God will use fruit-farmers, revenue-men and even donkeys if he has to). And Bono has the grace in this song to realise that. He’s the first to admit that he has a healthy ego – but my ego’s not really the enemy. He’s a small child embarking across an 8-lane highway on a voyage of discovery (presumably like the proverbial chicken who crossed to find out what was on the other side). He knows that far from giving God a hand across the road, he’s the one who needs all the help he can get. The tongue is delightfully planted in his cheek though – he’s the little Napoleon in high heels… a small man with big ideas‘. Stand up to rockstars like that, if you must. But isn’t the point even if you think they’re absurd, egotistical and presumptuous little men, don’t lose sight of the point: love? Stand up for that. Why? well it’s obvious isn’t it? because God is love! (1 John 4:8-16) C’mon ye people…

I’ll Go Crazy if I don’t go Crazy Tonight

A number of initial reactions have not taken kindly to this song, not least because of the title. It sounds a bit like the sort of improvised lyric that sounded cool at the time, but that doesn’t really say anything. But it is a multi-textured song, musically and lyrically. And like Stand Up, it’s about an almost desperate yearning to love – and without such love, I’ll go crazy. But in order to love like that, could it be that a little craziness will be involved? That’s the need to cry or spit, a sweet tooth‘s need for sugar – and this, my favourite – the need for every beauty to go out with an idiot? There is a madness to love, after all – hence the sadly archaic word, lovesick (cf. The Madness of Love by one Hadewijch of Antwerp). It’s even worse when unrequited – for a girl who’s a rainbow who loves the peaceful life. For how can you stand next to the truth and not see it – oh, a change of heart comes slow.

But there is surely/inevitably a spiritual element to this as well? As one reader, Jason Primuth, nicely observed in an email to me this week with his comparison with Jesus speaking to the pair on the Road to Emmaus – Lk 24:25-27. The chorus is resonant of the pilgrimage psalms – presumably no accident, if rumours of the follow up album later this year are to be believed (apparently to be called Songs of Ascent). Just as a human (marriage) relationship is a lifelong journey, so is that of the disciple – a journey all the way to the light. Do you believe me or are you doubting?

Every generation gets a chance to change the world – remember Bono at the G8 summit – “this is our moonshot“. Any confidence we can have is because the sweetest melody is one we haven’t heard. Is that just the-crock-of-gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow pipedream? Or something more tangible? Well, if there is a real perfect, love that drives out all fear. We’re back in the realms of that 1 John 4 passage again, (here quoting v18). And if this is precisely what love does, then it is no surprise that the right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear. Because, let’s face it, that’s exactly how a billionaire rockstar tackling global poverty looks! But so what! Who cares what the passersby think? 

Love is a tough call, though. It is a mountain not a hill to climb. It takes time – a change of heart comes slow. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is shout – and go crazy and look ridiculous. And notice the shift in the final chorus: listen for me, I’ll be shouting, shouting to the darkness squeeze out sparks of light. cf. 1 John 5:5-9. But fortunately, yet again, this is no solitary journey – halfway, the song acknowledges Baby baby i know i’m not alone. She’s joined him. And the climb at the end is one where she is no longer doubting but they’re starting out together. And WE’RE going to go crazy if WE don’t go crazy tonight.


U2’s NLOTH spiritual resonances (part 2)

Here are some more random thoughts.


In tone, this is the most explicitly biblical song on the album. It is a psalm, nothing less. Beth has a nice observation on how Bono sings this, contra those who are perceive it as really arrogant. But taken in its biblical context, it is clear that when Bono sings I was born to sing for you, he can’t be referring to the U2 fanclub. He is singing primarily for an audience of one: God. It’s a song of throbbing praise, driven mainly by an insistent rhythm section (Adam seems to be working really hard on this album!). But despite the stadium feel of the song (which was evident when they sang it on the BBC roof last week), it remains intensely personal. That’s not to say it is exclusive though: it draws those close by to join in the magnifying at the end (the ‘you’ in the final choruses seems to be different from the object of praise – it is a fellow worshipper being drawn in to join the praise of ‘the Magnificent’).

I was born to be with you;… to sing for you… this is the heart of existence and purpose. How can this be anything other than God? ≈ (amongst many) Psalm 139 (esp vv13-16); Psalm 61:8: I will sing praise to your name and fulfil my vows day after day.
in this space and time, after that and ever after I haven’t had a clue it’s about life in the here and now – and beyond. But there are limits to how much we know about that ≈ Ps 61:8 again; note that in John 17:2-3 eternal life starts now…
Only love can leave such a mark But only love can heal such a scar living a life of love for God IS costly – it leaves a heart black and blue (and looks & feels like foolishness at times) – but God’s love can heal that – which reminds me of one of my favourite books on ministry by our dear friend Marjorie Foyle: Honourably Wounded. ≈ Proverbs 10:12; 1 Peter 4:8.
i didn’t have a choice but to lift you up and sing whatever song youw anted me to  now that is clearly psalmic – ≈ Psalm 63:4 & Psalm 134:2. and then there’s the first bit – is that what it looks like? Surely not? Election perhaps?!
I give you back my voice – the archetypal response of the one who knows from where we have everything in the first place ≈ King David’s response to God in 1 Chronicles 29:14.
From the womb my first cry it was a joyful noise – it’s that birth theme again – Bono gets born a lot on this album. But the cry of a new life is wonderfully, one of joy! ≈ the King James version of Psalm 66:1; 98:4, 100:1 (etc).
Justified till we die, you and I will magnify oh, the magnificent – justification! it’s everywhere in Paul – but it’s also everywhere in Psalms (i.e. righteousness language) ≈ so how about Psalm 35:27 (in KJV); cf. Psalm 64:10, 97:12, 140:13 etc etc

There is something reminiscent of the good old days of October in this song – Gloria anyone?

FEZ – Being Born

This is a suggestive song but seems quite opaque and nebulous. Being in Fez, the ancient pre-colonial capital of Morocco, of course rebooted the album writing process.  It seems that the band went there after Bono was invited to be involved in a world festival of sacred music that takes place there. That in itself is intriguing – and there is a sense of slightly (Sufi?) trancelike meandering as the song opens – which gets interrupted a couple of times by a couple of abrupt reboots. But somehow, these interruptions never allow the building pace to be derailed. (I couldn’t help be reminded of a faux-James Bond mission soundtrack in the introduction – a bit derivative perhaps – but that is wiped away once the song proper gets under way).

During the intro, we hear echoes of a north african market square, mixed in with the final refrain from Get on your boots (let me in the sound). If i’m right about this being a resonance of the sound of amazing, divine grace, then it is interesting to find that even in Fez.

Bono’s singing is drawn out and even – almost a trance in itself – each word getting equal weight, as he makes the journey home across the Straights of Gibraltar and the Atlantic until reaching Africa’s shores. As far as I can tell, this is the only Africa moment on the album. Is it about setting sail leaving cars and engines behind, reaching Africa which is the true home of the heart. Having lived in East Africa, i can relate to that a bit – there is something elemental about the continent.

But as you can tell, i’m groping in the dark on this one – but gripped by the song.


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 GraceRead more »



I posted a number of spots soon after the U2’s recent album, NO LINE ON THE HORIZON, came out. Then the opportunity to do a more formal review for Damaris’ CultureWatch came up, but it has taken a while – both a combination of time pressures and the fact that i needed to live with it for a bit longer to get more of a sense of it. It’s definitely a less accessible album than some – and like it’s awesome predecessor Achtung Baby, it takes a bit more effort and careful listening to get into it. But it is all the more spirited and ultimately overwhelming for that.

So here is the result – just out today: GRACE BREAKS INTO A SOUND. I know lots of bods have done this, and it feels rather late in the day (esp since things are evolving all the time with the songs on tour) – but that’s life. What particularly struck me was the album’s structure, which is not something people often think about. But the most profound thing about the album is the theological oxygen that it breathes (and breathing is wonderful central metaphor of the album). There are lots of things about it that i wondered about saying on the musical side – but this is primarily but not exclusively an engagement with it lyrically.



Oh and while we’re on matters cultural, Ally Gordon has done a fine piece for EA’s Slipstream on ART FOR THE GLORY OF GOD – he even manages to find an excuse to give a nod to Bono’s intro to the Psalms!


U2’s Songs of Innocence (2): Enigmatic Personal Variations and Iris

So I’ve been pondering a lot on the fact that Bono has called Songs of Innocence a personal album. Here he is in Rolling Stone last week:

“We wanted to make a very personal album,” Bono told Rolling Stone‘s Gus Wenner the day before the press conference in an exclusive interview. “Let’s try to figure out why we wanted to be in a band, the relationships around the band, our friendships, our lovers, our family. The whole album is first journeys — first journeys geographically, spiritually, sexually. And that’s hard. But we went there.”

Read more »


U2’s Songs of Innocence (1): Opaquely Specific: SONG FOR SOMEONE…

To be opaque is to be beguiling, provocative. You need to be hooked, of course. But once I’m hooked, I never want everything on a plate. I want to be made to work a little. It is one of the most compelling things about U2’s songs. Read more »


Francis Spufford on Childhood books 4: Why Narnia matters

For me, though, the standout of Francis Spufford’s reading memoir The Child That Books Built is the chapter entitled The Island. For it is here that he waxes lyrical about Narnia. It is not just because he chimes with the countless numbers who loved C S Lewis’ books (despite the likes of Philip Pullman and Polly Toynbee). It is the fact that he grasps something of their theological wonder (which will come as no surprise perhaps to those who have enjoyed his Unapologetic). Read more »


Force Quit & Move to Trash

Thanks to the tip off from Beth, here is a fab little image from the Holy Heteroclite. To see why this is significant, go here for the context and here for some previous thoughts.

But I’m afraid I couldn’t resist this (and of course, imitation is the highest form of flattery) because it seems to me that the natural habitat of such a phrase is not the Windows platform but on a Mac OS X (after all, Bono does use a mac). So here is my version, restoring it to its rightful home. All credit for the original idea, though, goes to Fresno Dave.