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God in the arena


By Steve Stockman
Relevant Books, 197 pages, $13.99


The familiar opening notes seemed to rain down from above as the singer lifted his face to the bright white spotlight and asked, “What can I give back to God for all the blessings he has poured out on me?” -- then the band burst into their 1987 song, “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

When I saw Irish rock band U2 in November, that was just one of many moments that felt transcendent. And at some point in the evening it struck me with force: God is present, right here in this arena.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one thinking that. Speaking of U2’s 2001 “Elevation” tour, lead singer Bono told Rolling Stone magazine: “It feels like there’s a blessing on the band right now. People are saying they’re feeling shivers -- well, the band is as well. And I don’t know what it is, but it feels like God walking through the room, and it feels like a blessing, and in the end, music is a kind of sacrament.”

Steve Stockman would agree with that statement, and in his book Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2, he takes the reader through more than 20 years of “God walking through the room” as U2 music plays. Stockman, a Presbyterian minister in Belfast, Northern Ireland, did not interview the band members himself, but instead relies mostly on mining the songs for insights into faith. He necessarily devotes the bulk of the attention to Bono (born Paul Hewson), the band’s chief lyricist, who has long used biblical imagery and language in his songwriting.

U2’s 1981 album “October” would be the last to treat religious faith in an insular, private way. From then on, spiritual matters -- while never losing a deeply personal approach -- would be inextricably tied with social activism.

Stockman quotes Bono in a 1988 interview: “To me, faith in Jesus Christ that is not aligned to social justice, that is not aligned with the poor, it’s nothing.” The author chastises his fellow evangelicals who, he says, took U2’s concern for the poor and politically oppressed as a sign that the band had moved away from the heart of the gospel.

It troubled some Christians, Stockman writes, when U2 sang “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”: If that were true, “they cannot possibly still be believers in Christ, can they?”

As Stockman sees it, though, what the band members are still looking for is the realization of God’s kingdom on earth. As Bono said, “I don’t expect this pie in the sky when you die stuff. My favorite line in the Lord’s Prayer is ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ I want it all, and I want it now. Heaven on earth -- now -- let’s have a bit of that.”

Later, that thought found its way into song. The very first lines of the 2000 song “Peace on Earth,” a cry of rage and mourning at a 1998 bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland, are: “Heaven on earth/We need it now … ”

Stockman sheds new light on U2’s work, drawing out themes of faith that I hadn’t realized were there. In particular, I can credit the author for inspiring me to give U2’s 1997 album “Pop” a second chance. I have always found it rather cold and joyless. But that may be the point, according to Stockman’s interpretation. He writes that “Pop” is the book of Ecclesiastes “being made into song to live among us.”

“Pop” takes on the emptiness behind the flash of a life of consumerism -- in Ecclesiastes’ famous verse, “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” -- and yearns for meaning found with God. In U2’s words: “Looking for the baby Jesus under the trash.”

Walk On has its flaws. When Stockman touts the brilliance of even a vanity project like Bono’s film script “Million Dollar Hotel,” he comes off as a bit fatuous in his uncritical admiration for U2.

More important, there is a gaping hole where an in-depth treatment of U2’s finest album, 1991’s “Achtung Baby” should be. Stockman only touches on a few of its songs, and all but ignores “One” -- a song that for me represents the peak of U2’s career, with its profound spiritual richness.

Back in the November concert, U2 blended “One” into a medley with two newer songs, “Peace on Earth” and “Walk On” -- this book’s namesake -- into a heart-wrenching tribute to the victims of Sept. 11. A band that has long lived with terrorism in its own land gave the songs like a prayer for Americans fresh with grief. “One” was the heart of it, a meditation on how God sees humanity: “One life/But we’re not the same/We get to carry each other/Carry each other/One.”

Teresa Malcolm is NCR news editor. Her e-mail address is tmalcolm@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 15, 2002