The weird thing is, I’ve never liked U2. From the few short clips I’d seen, Bono seemed arrogant and intentionally obtuse. Pictures of U2 concerts felt too big and too flashy to be sincere. I didn’t like how urban U2’s music felt—all that concrete, all those dirty streets, and so much black leather. His world was a foreign planet to a Wendell Berry country girl. Furthermore, the aesthetic of Bono’s music sounded angry, lost, and scratchy. I had trouble finding melodies and coherence.
Lately, however, Bono’s thinking and writing has been used by God to teach me some things about faith that I needed to hear. This began when Mark Meynell challenged me to slow down and actually listen to Bono’s music. I endured a few links at first to be polite—building bridges and all that. But even as I fast forwarded through Bono’s tunes, barbs started to stick.
As a former literature teacher, I felt that first twinge when I landed on the word, “Mephisto.” Here I hit pause, wrote Mark and said, “Wait. This has to be Mephistopheles. Did Bono know Dr. Faustus?” Surely he didn’t understand medieval literary figures. Surely he didn’t read books.
Mark laughed and told me I had a lot more surprises ahead. Spot on. Again and again, similar realizations came to light. I began to see intentionality, artistry, and moreover, courage to express intense spiritual honesty with the Lord.
“He’s a psalmist!” I wrote. “I didn’t realize Bono was a psalmist!”
Mark sent a YouTube interview between Eugene Peterson and Bono, and I was stunned as I watched these two great men discuss components of an honest life of faith. This odd, urban creature I had mocked for years was what I call, “One of us.” I don’t find these people very often.
The whole record—the doubt, the testing, the questions—is encased in a grace that cannot be broken.Rebecca Reynolds
Several years ago, I was fairly irked when U2 released Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. In the immediate months before this news broke, I had been teaching William Blake, daydreaming about releasing my own creation with those titles. When Bono beat me to it, I assumed a vacant pop star had stumbled into a cute angle on old poetry and had wrecked the whole concept. But in the past few weeks, as I have listened to some of U2’s live concerts online, I have realized that Bono not only understood Blake’s tension perfectly—but that he had also hit on the core of why talking about this tension was vital to a postmodern world.
So, I have gone back to the very beginning. I’m reading Bono’s records. Not listening—reading. Some of you will say that’s the wrong way to do U2, but I’m trained to be a literary critic, and this music holds up to that sort of scrutiny.
Oddly, the Lord has used this exercise to help me learn to pray more deeply. As a firstborn doer, I easily slip into a faith driven by head knowledge and willpower—reading restlessly—trying to avoid pain, loneliness, and doubt. Bono’s lyrics are showing me that my hands weren’t made to carry all that alone. I need to make room and time to be with God honestly and emotionally as well—not just believe in him at arm’s length.
Eugene Peterson wrote:
“…prayer is personal language or it is nothing. God is personal, empathetic ally personal: three-personed personal. When we use impersonal language in this most personal of all relations, the language doesn’t work.”
That’s what Bono is helping me attempt.
Below are some of my impressions from U2’s first record, Boy. Before you read them, please know these are not interpretive arguments—just initial, reactive work. I haven’t studied Bono’s life enough to know him well yet, so if you are a hardcore U2 groupie, be gentle. (And literature nerds, this is more of a Reader-Response piece than a New Historical or Formalist response.) That said, I hope showing you how his writing impacts someone else will encourage you to get real with God as well.
“I Will Follow”
Here is the security of a mother-type love that chases after us relentlessly, even as we try things, and fail, and learn about our humanity. (This is a perfect theological image to begin a record that delves into devastatingly hard questions.)
“If you walk away, walk away, I will follow.”
What a promise.
The transition from boy to man. Here is that liminal space of not being sure how to be. There seems to be a subtle Hamlet reference in one line and an influence throughout. (The late night play is everything. “The play is the thing.”—remember how the play was used to “out” Claudius?) Singer is afraid of being outed as a guilty imposter while trying to grow into this world where even the old aren’t sure how it works. (But the fascinating thing is—Hamlet is actually the rightful heir. I feel that undercurrent in this song, through he never writes it in.)
“An Cat Dubh”
Clearly, this is about a seductress. But it’s more than that. It’s about being hunted by people who want to use us without healing us. I think in Celtic culture, the blackbird is a symbol of impending war. (Which is why, I’m assuming, he used the Gaelic here.)
It’s so interesting that he says, “She waits to break my will.” How does a seductress do this? By pretty, vulnerable, flattering allure. By promise of physical pleasure. A game of cat and mouse.
“Into the Heart”
Then, here is a post-bad-love affair struggle—a longing for innocence regained. Can we go back into childlikeness after being in such darkness? (This theme comes again later in his records, we know. But I see it starting here.)
“Out of Control”
Wrestling with the very first existentialist questions we hit. We had nothing to do with landing here alive, and we can’t determine when we are going to die. It’s this weird span of existence that seems irrational and undirectable.
Meanwhile, looking back through human history, there’s blood at Eden’s gate—the gate that was supposed to keep us from paradise has been opened by blood if we will be childlike. (I wonder if “I fought fate, there’s blood at the garden gate” is sung by Christ.) It seems like this ties back to “Into The Heart.” The feeling that childlikeness is some sort of key, but we are often afraid to really go there.
“Stories for Boys”
Seems to be about escapism. But this song reads two different ways, depending on how you look at it. I think it relates back to “Into The Heart”-–but I can’t tell if it’s describing a healthy, redemptive, imaginative experience or if it’s showing how imaginative distraction can prevent us from achieving real childlikeness. Because of where it sits in the album, I lean toward the latter. Especially because of what’s in “The Ocean.”
Another landmark song in the record like “Into The Heart.” The drug-like imaginative distractions of “Stories For Boys” have been stripped away. The writer stands vulnerable and honest before the sea. It’s confessional, as he identifies with Dorian Gray, seeing himself in reality, with all of his inner workings. Weirdly, beautifully—this raw knowledge of his own fallenness seems to be the context for a potential future ministry (in our weakness, we are strong). Note that odd transition from identity as Dorian Gray to feeling like a star. And then, there’s almost a baptism.
“A Day Without Me”
After a strong realization that he could be significant as a healer on the planet, he goes into what reminds me of one of Hamlet’s suicidal soliloquies. The landslide into doubt—do I even actually matter? What would happen if I weren’t here? So fascinating that he put “The Ocean” and “A Day Without Me” together. It’s so much how this always works in a real soul.
“Another Time, Another Place”
I know this is set up like a song about a woman, but I just don’t buy it entirely. I think it’s about sehnsucht. It also works as the antithesis of “An Cat Dubh,” which fits if the album works a bit like a chiasmus.
“The Electric Co.”
So, electric shock therapy. A legalistic, materialistic, graceless jolt after catching a glimpse of Sehnseucht. And this is the worst possible thing that could happen to the kid in “Twilight” (chiasmus again). Brilliant placement here. Because we always just barely catch a glimpse of grace and then somehow land in the midst of a damning, condemning, unhelpful external modification plan.
“Shadows and Tall Trees”
This is the title of a chapter in Lord of the Flies. Why is this significant? Because on Golding’s island, all of the boys are without mothers—it’s a pocket of humanity that seems to have nobody chasing it. This chapter is one of the most haunting of all, the one most despair-laden. If this song had been on the record without “I Will Follow”-–if this album didn’t work like a chiasmus—it would end in hopelessness. But we already know that there’s a mother chasing no matter what.
After several verses/choruses of existentialist doubt, there’s this brilliant bridge, “Do you feel in me anything redeeming, any worthwhile feeling? Is love like a tightrope hanging on my ceiling?”
But he’s already given us the answer to this question in the very first song. “If you walk away, walk away, I walk away, walk away. I will follow.” It can’t be a tightrope because love is utterly secure. The whole record—the doubt, the testing, the questions—is encased in a grace that cannot be broken. Such security.
Rebecca Reynolds teaches Classical Rhetoric and Philosophy of Faith in eastern Tennessee, and is a contributor to the Story Warren website. She’s the author and illustrator of the pediatric series From the Medical Files of Dr. Phineas C. Bones and collaborated with Ron Block as the lyricist for his critcally-acclaimed album, Walking Song. She lives in Kingsport, Tennessee, with her husband and three children.