God in the arena
REVIEWED By TERESA MALCOLM
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 wasnt the only one thinking that. Speaking of U2s 2001 Elevation tour, lead singer Bono told Rolling Stone magazine: It feels like theres a blessing on the band right now. People are saying theyre feeling shivers -- well, the band is as well. And I dont 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 bands chief lyricist, who has long used biblical imagery and language in his songwriting.
U2s 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, its nothing. The author chastises his fellow evangelicals who, he says, took U2s 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 Havent Found What Im 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 Gods kingdom on earth. As Bono said, I dont expect this pie in the sky when you die stuff. My favorite line in the Lords 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 -- lets 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 U2s work, drawing out themes of faith that I hadnt realized were there. In particular, I can credit the author for inspiring me to give U2s 1997 album Pop a second chance. I have always found it rather cold and joyless. But that may be the point, according to Stockmans 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 U2s 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 Bonos 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 U2s finest album, 1991s 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 U2s 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 books 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 were not the same/We get to carry each other/Carry each other/One.
Teresa Malcolm is NCR news editor. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, February 15, 2002