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Listening to the Whole Album – Reflections on the U2 Concert

Let me begin by saying that this was not my idea.

I was asked by someone you may know who is a huge U2 fan and who runs a blog to write a review of the concert last week. She probably thinks that you have heard enough from her and her love of the band, so why not let somebody else sing the praises of the band? Well, I was hesitant, because I am not convinced that a concert review is the best subject material for the RCC blog. Shouldn’t we be discussing theological topics or more pressing current events? Yes, but I have to say that this concert certainly stirred in me a host of theological thoughts circling around the events that are weighing on our culture, especially in light of our most recent RCC University discussion on current events.

So this will not be a review of the concert; rather, it will be me wrestling with the thoughts that are confronting me. I’ll be honest, I am not a big fan of concerts, particularly stadium shows. Sure, they usually are a visual spectacle—as was this one—and I am always in awe of 50,000+ united in spirit(s) and song. Rarely, do you see anything like it. Sporting events always have opposing fans in the crowd. I don’t think anybody was there to root against U2. Everybody was there to listen to and sing the songs that have resonated with them at some point.

I come from an era before the digital download, YouTube, or whatever medium we use now to listen to our favorite songs. Rarely, did we buy singles. Sure, we heard the hits on the radio, but if we wanted to own the music, we bought the album, which always included at least nine other songs. I, being the obstinate guy who I am, always hated when the DJs or labels told me what songs were the best off of the album. I was drawn in by a song or an artist, but then would immerse myself in a particular album, knowing every song and very often finding a song or two that I would gravitate toward other than the popular hits. Plus, by knowing the whole album, I began to understand the songs I liked in a broader context. An album is a snapshot of the thinking of an artist at a particular time in his or her (or their) career. Whether connections between songs can be detected or are deliberately intended or even unintended, the listener can see what is impacting their thinking through the themes of the songs (assuming they are writing their own music).

Why am I explaining this? Because this is another reason I don’t like concerts.

People come for different reasons, but almost all of them come to hear the songs that they like, the ones that transport them back to another time. They don’t want to hear the new stuff or the songs that accompanied the classics. I will go so far as to say that it is not about the artist or even the content of the music that so impacted them at one point. It’s about me and what I want.

I paid for the ticket and you better play what I want.

Make me happy.

This concert was different. The purpose wasn’t to introduce a new album. It was a celebration of another album, The Joshua Tree, which came out thirty years ago and is arguably their most influential album. They actually kicked off the tour of it here in Arizona. They kicked off this show with four of their most well-known songs, and then proceeded to play straight through the entire Joshua Tree album. While the album has some great songs, they still played those tracks that may not be considered concert-worthy some thirty years later—and I loved it.

After seven songs we all knew, we heard the opening to “Bullet the Blue Sky,” a good but lesser known song by the masses. As we got into the song, I turned to my brother and said that this was one of my favorite songs off of the album. To my surprise, he replied that it is one of his least favorite songs that U2 has ever written and then left to get a beer.

Really, one of his least favorite?

This coming from a die-hard fan of almost forty years. Why?

Well, this song is a critique of the power and influence of America, and my brother has a deep love for this country. I, too, have a great love for our country and am quick to defend her but I like being challenged, and I like seeing things from different perspectives. I can sing “God Bless the USA” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.”

It was in that moment that I was reminded that blind patriotism is just as flawed as a jaded view of a country with a troubled past and present. This was rather enlightening for me, a guy who—for many years—saw everything as black and white, dismissing those who championed a grey world as relativists. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that everything is black and white in the eyes of the Lord but, through His humbling grace, He has shown me that I am not Him. While everything is black and white, it is me and my understanding that is far too often grey. This is why it is so important for us to search, know, and live the Scriptures through the power of the Spirit to find the will of God. That is a lifelong task. Some truths will be as clear as day, while other truths in circumstance will be found in precepts applied through wisdom.

One of those precepts is found in Proverbs 18:17. The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. Far too often, as we wrestle with the issues of our times, we put one song on repeat over and over because we think it is right and we grow to love it until we won’t even listen to another song that has a different beat. We will just sing it louder. If that song is so good and true, we shouldn’t be afraid to listen to others and engage them. We are wired, I think, in our culture to seek first to teach rather than be taught. Teaching is a great way to become sure of what you already know, but if that is all you do, then you are ceasing your duty to grow.

This is the value of Art, not Art as entertainment to numb our minds and escape, but Art that engages us in the issues of the day. Sure, we can close our eyes or turn it off, but once we have seen it, we are forced to wrestle with it in our hearts and minds.

That is something I respect about U2. They are not just entertaining, but engaging. Their words don’t shy away from the pains and sins of the world; they meet them head-on with captivating music that demands we listen—all done with the obvious influence of a Christian worldview. It is not done purely out of anger and rage, but rooted in love. They have a love for people around the world, and a proclaimed love of America, but that love is not a silly affirming love, but one that calls us back to our ideals like a pastor calls a couple back to their vows. It is painful, but in our hearts, we know it is right even if we don’t agree with how they would approach it.

Many were confronted with this a few songs later. As we awaited for the bass to open “Exit,” the next song on the album, our eyes were drawn to the massive screen where a clip of an old Western with a man is promising deliverance through the building of a wall. The name Trump was dubbed into the dialogue.

Of course, President Trump is an easy target right now and many in the crowd cheered and laughed, but I couldn’t help but think of those who related to “Red Hill Mining Town,” which was sung just fifteen minutes earlier. That song recognizes the fear people felt as they voted for their town because that’s all that’s left to hold on to.

We are so quick to dismiss people claiming to live in God’s country and claim their crosses are crooked, because they were duped into voting for this charlatan who claims to be the one way out.

And there are those who are terrified, and there are those who quake because of the real and prospective division that this man can bring, and many long for those who voted for him to understand their fears too.

I would also ask if we’re seeking to understand the fears that drove them to submit this vote?

Sadly, I think we stopped caring about our neighbors’ fears and have drowned out their cares by putting on our headphones with our anthems blaring.

We have come to the point where we say, “I can’t live with you” and you are “burning down love.” What, if instead of trying to condemn one another as an angel or devil, setting traps to trip through our wires, we came with a heart that proclaimed that we can’t live without all of us pursuing a desire to understand one another and bear each other’s burdens? What would happen if, in the wind, we heard the laughter of our erected enemy and, in the rain, we saw their tears? Maybe, as we saw our neighbor as fellow Image-Bearer of God, we could start tearing down walls instead of building them.

I know that is what started happening in my heart as I listened to the whole album and was now ready to hear the message from other songs. The challenge came during the second to last song of the encore with “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” in which they dedicated it to the women of the world who have fought for equality and justice—in the words of Bono—to those who have insisted, resisted, and persisted. It opened with the word History transformed in to Herstory, and then proceeded to three or four images of women from around the world who have fought for various right from both sides of the political spectrum. To be honest, many of them were from the far left and their fight was for LGBT rights.

It was at this point that I could have tuned it all out and left to get a drink.

I’m glad I didn’t.

I watched and thought, sometimes angry and confused, but other times agreeing. The impact of that moment didn’t hit me for a couple of days. It wasn’t until I read a comment about that moment of the concert that I was really forced to wrestle with it. The commentator loved the concert, but took issue with the band putting Rosa Parks and Ellen Degeneres on the same screen—as though to equate their struggles.

My first instinct was to agree with him 100%, but I wrestled with it.

Let me say wholeheartedly, with as much conviction as I can muster, their struggles are not the same. I will never equate behavior with biology. One fought for justice, and the other fights to justify sin. One brought light to our nation, and the other brings a dark cloud that will hang over us for the foreseeable future. I could have stopped there and felt righteous in my thinking, but I kept wrestling. Rosa Parks is a portrait of a people who, at one time, was considered less than human by most. In her, a nation was confronted with a fellow human made in the image of God. Not an image “less than” the rest but equal—if not better—than most. No longer could she or any other be sent to the back of the bus. Yet we still keep doing this to all sorts of people groups.

Growing up, I had a cousin who identified as gay—long before it was culturally cool. I watched as my family of Christians, except for a couple, quickly treated him as the pinnacle of depravity. It wasn’t just my family; the whole culture, with the church leading the charge, did the same. But a decade later, Ellen and others were invited or forced into our living rooms and something happened. She made us laugh and was likable against all of our resistance. She didn’t ride in on a chariot of flamboyance, but on a cloud of laughter and similarity. Though we didn’t want to, we started to see ourselves in her. She too was an Image-Bearer. No longer is she and those like her a people to be ostracized, but a people to be evangelized in the love of Christ.

Oh, how long it takes us love like He does.

So as I have wrestled with these thoughts, here is what I found. As a conservative Christian who deeply loves this country, its potential and ideals, I also recognize that we have missed the mark far too often as my less conservative friends know and love to point out.

But don’t let that stop us from joining together, not to build something new, but to strive for those ideals that we missed. Because maybe we all have to be honest and say we still haven’t found what we are looking for.

My hope and prayer is that the church will lead the way as we kneel at that One Tree Hill where our savior gave His life to redeem us and this broken world. Let us run like a river to the sea, growing stronger and watering all that will come with Gospel of Christ and His love. I am not trying to preach.

This is just my song in a playlist of millions.

What is your song?

It might not be my favorite, but I would love to listen and, in listening to one another, we just might find an anthem that we all can sing and stand to that is accompanied by many amazing tracks.

(Italics often reference song lyrics.)

All People. All of Jesus.
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