Sites to take a look at

Some readers may already have seen Tim Neufeld's post on his talk "Social Justice and Pop Culture: U2 as a non-traditional Christian voice," from the meeting North American Association of Christians in Social Work (California chapter). If not you can check it out here, along with a video captured from a Periscope stream (Tim having become a major host for post-concert Periscope chats!)

Another recent innovation is the U2 Studies Network, where scholars working on U2 can post information about events and research. I'm delighted to see this get going. I used to do a lot of googling trying to find similar things, and having a one-stop clearinghouse is excellent.  St Mary's College in California, for example, did a January term course on U2 and activism with a service learning component. I'm sure there'll be many more posts to come!


commentary on the tour so far

Pieces from Andrew William Smith, Stocki, and Tim Neufeld are among several reflecting on the opening couple shows of the current U2 tour.


Small Vancouver comments

I wasn't in Vancouver, didn't follow the tweeting or stream, and am just catching up now, so am totally unqualified to comment. But: thrilled at what looks like a much more cohesive, intentional process to the show. Obligated to make the usual trite comment about how astounding Willie Williams is and being unable to wait to witness his brilliance live. Also: Psalms confetti and Dante confetti during UTEOTW? Is someone in the entourage reading Rod Dreher?

It's harder for me to discern, just looking at a setlist, the logic in the second half versus the seamless-looking progression of the first half, but I do have to say I am struck by the first three songs after the intermission...
Invisible, Even Better than the Real Thing, Mysterious Ways: Father, Son, Holy Spirit?


Sacralizing the profane and profaning the sacred

I noted some time ago on this blog the publication of Deane Galbraith's essay "Meeting God in the Sound" in The Counter -Narratives of Radical Theology and Popular Music. I happened today to discover that portions of that interesting essay, which includes extended readings of "Unknown Caller" and "White as Snow" as well as some useful thought about hymn allusions, are readable on Google books. You might want to give the pages that are available a look.


Flight to Now and Then

This post will contain some spoilers from an article on the upcoming tour. If you don't want to see them, stop reading now.

The New York Times has a track record of revealing pertinent insights into U2's thinking in its profiles of the band, and this most recent article by Jon Pareles is no exception. It's a must-read to get a glimpse of how planning for the tour is progressing.

One point I found heartening and wanted to comment on was about the overall design of the flow of the show. As some may remember, I was a very big fan of No Line on the Horizon but not at all a fan of the live shows of the 360 tour. (Well, OK: The Claw! Montreal! But still.) I felt that for the first time the show was not a deliberate process through which we were led, but more of a series of songs; I also felt that the setlist did not feature the NLOTH songs enough to allow that album to find its voice and work out into the public whatever experience was latent within it.

So I was quite pleased to read this:
The band calls the walkway the divider stage because that’s what it does midway through the concert — turning into a barrier that separates the audience completely. The division is part of the concert’s underlying narrative, a passage from innocence to experience inflected by Irish memories....
The concert’s bleak midpoint — “the end of the innocence,” Bono calls it — is “Raised by Wolves,” a song from the album about a terrorist car bombing in Dublin that killed 33 people on May 17, 1974....
At the intermission, Bono said, half-seriously, “people will walk out into the aisles not buying T-shirts but having counseling, and wondering, ‘Where did the fun go?’ ” The second half of the concert breaks down the divide and, true to U2’s past, promises healing and love. 

Part of what U2 do best, in my mind, is design and preside at extended multisensory group experiences that mimic (or we might say give wider expression to) the kind of corporate spiritual process that happens in (good) liturgy. I missed being escorted through that process by them on the last tour, and am looking forward more to the concerts I'll be at in Chicago in June after reading this article. Lots of other interesting stuff in there too, if you don't mind the spoilers.


Finding God

I discovered from a book review that Bono is included in the anthology Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories. The material included will be thoroughly familiar to fans, but in the text he joins luminaries such as C.S. Lewis, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Merton, and Mother Teresa.


For your prayers

This article shares the sad news that Church of Ireland priest the Rev. Jack Heaslip, who has long been spiritual advisor to U2 and traveled with them, passed away over the weekend. Many of our readers will have noted references to Heaslip on liner notes ("our North Star" on Songs of Innocence, for example) and in interviews over the years.  The atu2 blog recently featured a piece of his writing, and Cathleen Falsani posted a few years back this writeup of a visit to her church by Heaslip. People who have been around the fandom awhile may also remember the audio of Heaslip, introduced by Bono, giving the Elevation Tour blessing.

Thank you to those who passed along this news. Please keep all affected in your prayers. May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon them.


It starts with the words

This post is from some time ago, but it was drawn to my attention on Twitter today: a conversation between Aaron Belz and the brilliant musician, lyricist, and satirist Steve Taylor (who has recently issued a new album, Goliath [here's a review], which I recommend.) Their wide-ranging and casual discussion about the making of art touches a few times on U2's compositional methods, which might make it of interest to readers of this blog.


Above Across and Beyond

A collection of essays from the 2013 U2 conference, U2 Trans-, has just been published. If you look here to purchase from the publisher, you can get a discount. I heard two of the chapters in their live presentation form, "Transgressive Theology: The Sacred and the Profane at U2’s PopMart" and "Transmitting Memories: U2’s Rituals for Creating Communal History," and I can recommend both of them. The title of the collection is U2 Above, Across, And Beyond: Interdisciplinary Assessments; it's the first book in a new series on rock and pop music from Lexington Books. The series, called For The Record, is co-edited by Scott Calhoun and Christopher Endrinal, who will be familiar to readers of @U2.


They said nothing to anyone.....

An interesting reflection by Tim Gombis (HT Tim Neufeld, who has some nice contributions in the comment thread) on the endings of both the Gospel of Mark and "The First Time."  "If a writer wants to agitate readers, provoking them to reflect on what they’ve heard and what it means for them, then a satisfying resolution may hinder his aims." A nice piece of analysis (though, nitpicking: surely the first verse of the song is about the Holy Spirit, making for a traditional kind of trinitarian structure, just in reverse order?)


Exploring U2 for less money

Exploring U2: Is This Rock 'n' Roll?: Essays on the Music, Work, and Influence of U2
the collection of papers from the first U2 academic conference, is out in paperback now. When the hardback came out there were lots of understandable comments about the pricing, which was typical for an academic book but high for the U2 market. If you haven't bought it already, you can now get a copy for only $30 (list price), and about $16 for the eBook. Several friends and commenters here have  material in the book, and it also contains my paper "Where Leitourgia Has No Name."



We're hearing from Episcopal folk that at Sewanee's DuBose lectures today, David Brown, professor of theology, aesthetics and culture at the University of St Andrews, drew on U2 as he taught on “Deepening our Experience of God through the Arts.” Springsteen, Al Green, Nick Cave, Led Zeppelin and others apparently also made it in.


interviews continue

I'm quoted in Terry Mattingly's "On Religion" column of Sept 21, which speaks about the fact that U2's listeners, as with previous albums, are debating what kind of Christian content is found in Songs of Innocence. I enjoyed being interviewed by tmatt, and anybody who remembers to put a "the" before "Reverend" is OK by me.

Readers also might be interested in audio of another interview, this one with theologian Steve Harmon, who talks about his own history with the band as well as about Songs of Innocence.


New Yorker: "The Church of U2"

The New Yorker weighs in with a think piece on U2's history of writing about faith in their work, ending with some reflections on Songs of Innocence, treating a couple of the tracks as more directly about faith than about Dublin. There's not too much brand new here, although I was struck by the material on "Ultraviolet" and in general by this line of thought:
U2 have continued to write songs of doubt (“Wake Up Dead Man,” off “Pop,” is especially good). But they are no longer wild, ludic, and unhinged in the way they talk about God. There used to be something improvisational and risky about their spirituality—it seemed as though it might go off the rails, veering into anger or despair. Now, for the most part, they focus on a positive message, expressed directly and without ambiguity. The band’s live shows have a liturgical feel: Bono, who regularly interpolates hymns and bits of Scripture into his live performances, leads the congregation with confidence.
I think the author has a point there. It reminds me a bit of that famous Annie Dillard line about crash helmets.


Songs of Innocence theological roundup

Readers may already have seen many of these articles, but just to get them in one place, here are comments from several writers who regularly treat the topic of U2 from a theological perspective. I'm on record, below, as saying that I find Songs of Innocence to have a different kind of focus than much of U2's work; some of these folks note the same thing in one way or another, others don't agree and see the same set of Christian preoccupations here that we've had in other albums.

Greg Clarke, for example, reads the opening track as about Christian conversion and only tangentially related to Joey Ramone.  Steve Harmon offers a typically thoughtful and subtle piece with some interesting comments on "Sleep Like A Baby Tonight." The folks at Mockingbird artfully take the album's delivery method as a metaphor for their laser focus, one-way love (grace). After that earlier Wordle, Mark Meynell looks to be planning on blogging on some individual songs; here's "Song for Someone," memorably called "opaquely specific."

There may be others I have missed. Do chime in in the comments if so.


A few comments on U2's Songs of Innocence

I expect anyone who reads this blog has seen a few other pieces dealing with U2's newest release by Christian reviewers already, and I'll try just to say a few words about my own reaction without rehashing what's already out there. I've been struck how many of the comments on Songs of Innocence by theologically-minded reviewers could have been written about any U2 album. And I suppose it is a truism that yes, of course, there are layers to any U2 song; YOU is often God juts as much as a woman; the eschatological horizon is ever-present. Who can argue?

But I have to say that my first impressions - and that's all these are - after a few listens to Songs of Innocence is of how specific and rooted and local this material is. I think on this album, far more than on any other I could name, a song about Joey Ramone is about Joey Ramone, and a song about meeting Ali Stewart is about meeting Ali Stewart. Is there a background, an overall outlook and vocabulary, shaped by the Christian narrative? Of course there is. But these songs strike me as being fairly far from vehicles for U2's traditional longing for the ultimate (or lament over its absence.) Sure, there are some stadium hooks that will provide wonderful group singalongs -- but is there anything with which 30,000 people can (consciously or unconsciously) cry out primal desire for God? I'm not hearing it.

It seems to me that before, U2's style has been to craft a specific shape that has its own style and message, but behind which we primarily read their general thirst for God and justice -- words and sounds that, whatever else they may mean, make the most sense when addressed to Jesus. That is not so with Songs of Innocence, to my mind. The words and sounds here make the most sense when addressed to the specific circumstances of 1970s Dublin on which they explicitly claim to reflect. They are shaped by a familiarity with the Biblical narrative, yes, and people will point that out endlessly as if it were news (which, honestly, it isn't by now, is it?)

So as one would expect, there are moments, phrases, that probably could not have been written other than by a mature Christian: "where there's no daylight there's no healing," "complete surrender: the only weapon we know," "crushed under the weight of a cross in a passion where the passion is hate" along with the persistent theodicy questions in "Raised by Wolves,"  and so on.  And there are the usual Biblical turns of phrase: "I'm naked and I'm not afraid,"  "I've got your life inside of me," "a long long way from your Hill of Calvary." But my strongest impression is that more than ever before these moments are not at all the main point; these are just the kind of phrases that are in U2's collective brain as they really write about something else entirely, something very personal and very specific. {Edit: I strongly suggest reading Camassia's comment below, which expands interestingly on this line of thought.}

I think the poetry is wonderful and the sounds are wonderful. I am very intrigued by the idea that there may be another album, or even two, on the way as part of this project. There is a part of me that still wishes they'd stopped with No Line, which far more encapsulates what I personally am looking for with U2. But does Songs of Innocence have integrity and beauty? Sure it does.