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Rock and Roll for the Soul

July 16, 2010

This excerpt originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of the Arts and Sciences magazine.

Rock 'n'Roll for the Soul
By Greg Garrett

Dialogues on the intersection of faith and culture emerge frequently across the Baylor campus, especially in the College of Arts and Sciences. On the sidewalk, in the classroom, in the coffee shop, these conversations are an exploration of our roles as Christians "in the world but not of the world." Some conversations may also be internal, as we find that our heads and our hearts must come together so we may fully grasp the faith-culture landscape.

At times, we may recognize tension and disconnect between the two; at other times, we see similarities and parallels. The faith and culture themes permeate our world through arts, literature, film, theatre and other forms of creative expression. How we reconcile the culture of our everyday world with our own personal faith and value system can be both a personal journey and an academic endeavor.

Our faculty scholars¯especially in our arts and humanities departments¯often delve into this topic as scholarly research and a framework for which we use to guide students on examining faith and culture. We find that this intersection is often a remarkable laboratory for the scholar and the student alike.

Greg Garrett, professor of English, examines this issue of faith and culture through the story of the well-known music group, U2, in his book We Get to Carry Each Other. The story of how a secular music group struggled with their faith identity while offering work with spiritual themes to mainstream audiences exemplifies the faith-culture crossroads. We share this excerpt with you as a glimpse of a multilayered dialogue and hope you find the piece intriguing¯for both your head and your heart.

 

I met U2 very early in their lives together. They were playing a club in Oklahoma City on a cold February night in 1982 when the band was touring behind October, their second album, and I was working for a music magazine as I put myself through college. Like many people, I had discovered U2 on MTV through the music videos for "I Will Follow" from Boy and "Gloria" from October, but since I had also bought and worn out side one of October, I was quick to volunteer when my editor asked for someone to cover their show in a small club.  

The show was a transcendent vision: the band opened with "Gloria," launched into "I Will Follow" and "Out of Control," and not only brought the crowd to their feet but had them dancing and jumping on top of the tables, this supposedly objective journalist among them. The energy with which they played, the vulnerability with which Bono interacted with the audience, and the band's almost-painful sincerity instead of the usual rock poses of irony and superiority transformed that dingy club into something that, if I'd been willing at that time in my life to consider it, I would have recognized: a place of worship. During the time that U2 was playing, we in the audience were also transformed. We sensed our better natures, our connection to one another and to the world, and while they were playing, I honestly believed that--in the right hands--rock 'n' roll could change the world, because for an hour and a half, it had certainly changed us.

After the crowds cleared out, the staff started cleaning up and putting chairs up on tables, and bassist Adam Clayton sat down to talk with me. My conversation was largely with Adam, although Bono and guitarist The Edge stopped by the table at various times. Adam and I were the same age--which was to say, in those days, very young (now, less so). He seemed tired, but I remember his confidence, his clear vision for the band, his willingness to engage my questions, which were almost ridiculously mundane after the transcendent show I had witnessed: How was the tour going? Did he think their youth was a help or a hindrance?

At one point while Adam and I were talking, Bono sat down at the table next to Adam. He leaned on his elbows toward me, and said--as apparently he often said to journalists, even back then-- "You know, someday we're going to be the biggest band in the world."

The skeptical me, never far from the surface in those days, almost told him, "Sure you are," but I dutifully wrote down Bono's comment in my notebook, promptly forgot about it--and did not in fact recall it until 1987, five years later, when I picked up a copy of Time magazine, and saw Adam, Bono, and the rest of the band on the cover captioned "Rock's Hottest Ticket."

Looking back over the three decades in which they've played, Bono recently said that what U2 brought from the very beginning was an emotional and spiritual rawness: "Rock 'n' roll is rarely raw in the emotional sense. It can be sexual; it can be violent and full of bile. Demons can appear to be exorcised, but they're not really, they're usually being exercised. The tenderness, the spirituality, the real questions that are on real people's minds are rarely covered." But that insight about what they were doing was developed through experience; it was not one they had all along. I did not realize it until years later, but during the time I was talking with Adam and Bono, U2 was just concluding a terrible crisis that had almost destroyed the band, a crisis having to do with the spirit. Bono, The Edge and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., had been deeply involved with Shalom, a charismatic Christian community in Dublin. But after some time, the leaders of Shalom had made it clear that as they understood the Bible, Christian belief and pursuit of a career in popular music were antithetical so U2 had two choices: they should either quit the band or leave the Shalom community.

At last, the religious members of U2 reached the conclusion that they could--and should--be a Christian rock band on their own terms, that their music and their faith could have a symbiotic relationship in which each fed the other--and both fed their audience. They left Shalom and organized religion behind. Still, the tensions between the Christian and secular worlds did not go away. Perhaps in a world that always tries to label things in order to understand them, they could not go away. Although U2 contains band members who are deeply religious, Bono, The Edge and Larry turned away from organized religion because of their experiences with Shalom and because of the continuing religious clashes between Protestants and Catholics in their homeland. (As Larry noted, "The IRA would say 'God is with me. I went to Mass every Sunday.' And the Unionists said virtually the same thing. And then they would go out and murder each other.")

And yet, out of this crucible--these tensions--they began creating ever more powerful music. After we talked, they went on to make albums like War and The Unforgettable Fire that engaged the political and the spiritual with insight and sincerity, and then they rose to worldwide acclaim (not to mention the cover of Time) with The Joshua Tree. They had shown the world that--for all intents and purposes--the spiritual life and success in rock music were not opposing values.

And then, in the 1990s, U2 went through a phase where some fans felt the band members had lost their faith, their bearings or their minds. Touring behind the powerfully dark album Achtung Baby and showcasing a character Bono played called "The Fly," U2 embarked on an ironic embrace of the culture and of their rock star status. Many U2 purists blanched at the sight of Bono in sunglasses (in which he remains to this day), at the spectacle and scale of the concerts and at the band's musical embrace of dance and club music, while Christian fans of U2 were concerned about the songs themselves, which talked about sensation and consumption. Was "Miami" on Pop a hymn to mindless shopping, plastic surgery, and fashion? Was "Babyface" on Zooropa just another simplistic song about sex?

What those in panic mode did not understand, of course, was that U2 had not completely lost their minds; they had merely changed their methods. As The Edge pointed out, "We were always suspicious of irony, hiding behind a wink, clever-clever lyrics at the expense of soul. . . . But in retrospect, I think we followed that idea through to the end and actually discovered that irony is not necessarily the enemy of the soul." There was some crisis of faith involved--The Edge says that this period was one of his spiritual low points, and Bono has described Pop as "a lover's row," an argument with God in the sense of the Psalms, honest dialogue with God. But also, after the amazing success of The Joshua Tree and a resulting critical and popular backlash, the band decided that they had to change if they wanted people to go on listening to them. In a world full of excess, a world that celebrated irony, no one seemed to pay attention to sincerity any more. But if you were excessive enough, you could, perhaps, draw people's attention to the fact of excess.

So satire and irony, which U2 had always thought of as the enemies of authentic spiritual experience, became, for awhile, their tools to criticize the culture and point back toward a truth that might last. And then, after Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop, after two of the largest and most extravagant stage shows in rock history, U2 put away the drum machines and satire just in time to become the spiritual guides people needed in a post-9/11 world in which the religious extremism and violence U2 had known and condemned could--and did--strike people just like us. All That You Can't Leave Behind, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and No Line on the Horizon are albums for a world that needs sincerity again, a world prepared to ask the hard questions, especially if it's alongside a group of faithful people who have come to this place through hard questioning of their own.

U2's musical career and spiritual lives have this at their core: both ultimately are about people on a journey together. Many contemporary Christians have begun to recover the idea of the spiritual life as a pilgrimage rather than as a single moment of decision that includes some and excludes everyone else. Diana Butler Bass writes about this pilgrimage throughout her book Christianity for the Rest of Us. Today, she says, many Christians are "contemporary pilgrims on a quest to find home," and in their work, their public lives, and their spiritual lives, they are seeking meaning and understanding in the best ways they know how, with the help of fellow travelers along the way. This could describe U2's journey as well, a journey that has been unlike many other rock bands because they're seeking different things than most of their peers, who flare up, flame out, and fade away. Steve Stockman, who wrote a book about the band's spirituality, said, "U2 didn't go into music for [the usual] reasons. They've never met the reason they got into it for. They're still journeying toward it, and I think that's why they're still making great albums."