The Earthy Transcendence of U2’s Lyrics

Lately my music rotation has leaned heavily on U2. (Shocking, I know, that a Christian white male in his mid-30’s likes U2. It just proves some stereotypes are true.) While I love the music, I find myself in this season drawn specifically to Bono’s lyrics. His words evoke an earthy transcendence that is at the same time grounded in the beauty and muck of this world and open to a greater reality out there.

This is not an easy feat. Writers are stuck between two poles. At the one end is the claim the stuff we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste is all there is. Existence is nothing more than a bunch of atoms thrown together at random. Your atoms are animated for a few decades and then you die and that’s it. That’s not to say art that espouses this materialist view cannot be beautiful or wonderful. It’s just that this view will never reach real transcendence.

At the other pole writers deny the value of the physical world and claim only the spiritual or more ephemeral ultimately matters. This kind of writing hopes for transcendence, but really it is gnostic and escapist. It resonates with our longing for a better world. It cannot give a true account of our experiences of pain and goodness in the physical world we inhabit. If writing at the first pole cannot lift off the ground, the writing at the second pole cannot connect with the real dirt between our toes.

Bono’s lyrics don’t merely vacillate between the two poles. Rather, his words wake us up to the wonder of the everyday stuff like father-son relationships and medical breakthroughs and shoes walking down the street. Like other great poets, Bono can see ocean waves breaking on the shore as massive forces of H2O and as metaphors for a couple in a relationship stuck in a cycle of doom and rebirth.

For however lofty Bono’s lyrics can be in imagining a world shaped by compassion, I love how unsentimental and unromantic they are. Take the great song, “One,” from Achtung Baby. In it he sings, “We’re one, but we’re not the same.” In this one lyric he turns on its head every flimsy free-love song from the 1960’s that claimed people are all the same. Bono acknowledges our essential differences that are not easily reconciled, but reminds us we are all in this together. The result is, “We get to carry each other.” Notice carrying each other is not considered a natural reflex. We have to choose to care for one another. Whether it’s the father we have fought with for decades, the spouse who has raised children with us, or our enemy, we must make conscious decisions for love, oneness, and unity. True love doesn’t eliminate our differences. True love simply doesn’t allow those differences to keep us apart, it embraces the differences of the other.

Consider, “Love and Peace or Else.” The title alone shocks us as Bono mingles a Summer of Love image with a threat. As we listen to the song, we see Bono further grounding the ideas from “One” in the realities of generational religious and ethnic conflict. “All you daughters of Zion” and “All you Abraham’s sons,” the seemingly eternally warring adherents of the Abrahamic religions, are all called to “lay down your guns.” Again, Bono makes no claim that love and peace are our natural states. Love and peace are hard choices requiring work on our part. We have to decide, we have to act to, “Break the monster’s back.” This anti-war song continues the tradition of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” in which Bono claims “Tonight we can be as one,” which requires the disciplines of seeing the truth, rejecting being immune to others’ suffering, and “To claim the victory Jesus won.”

In rejecting a sentimental view of life while also acknowledging a transcendent reality, Bono evokes the biblical language of the psalmists. A pie-in-the-sky view of reality cannot help us stand against evil and injustice. The best we can hope for is escape. Plenty of pop music offers us escapist denial. A view of reality completely lacking transcendence can only see the mire. It can name injustice without real hope of a better world. At most we can hope that enough random atoms will move in a random way in enough random people that they accidentally commit to peace and unity. Ultimately we despair.

Because Bono does not deny the reality of suffering nor the reality of a better world, he can truly hope, he can lament like the psalmists. So he can sing to Jesus, “Wake up dead man,” as he deplores being alone in this world. He can also recognize goodness breaking through the cracks. First hearing the Ramones is for him a miraculous experience that gives him his vocation—he recognizes music will allow him to “exaggerate my pain and give it a name.” The physical world points us to a greater good. “Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby’s head.”

I am attracted to Bono’s lyrics during this season because they remind me of two important realities: the stuff around me is not all there is and there is wonder and mystery infused in that same stuff. Bedouin fires, the Chinese landscape, even oilfields at sunrise wake us up to a beautiful day in which we can once again be shocked out of our stupor and ask for help to have eyes open to transcendence.

Touch me

Take me to that other place

Teach me

I know I’m not a hopeless case