"a one-way ticket out of Eden"

The publisher was kind enough to send me a copy of Steven Catanzarite's U2's Achtung Baby 33 1/3 book, and I thought I'd say a few words about it. Essentially, it's a song by song meditation on the album, which takes the unusual step of superimposing a narrative about two characters over the top. I was initially pretty skeptical about that concept, thinking it fixed the songs' situational meaning too much -- but I wouldn't for a minute let it put you off the book. The situations in which he puts the characters are certainly plausible enough, and if you've never thought about the album as a sustained story or rock opera, it throws an interesting light on it -- and at some moments is very succesful indeed (his contextualization of "Love Is Blindness," for example.)

I've been trying to figure out a good way to describe the theological sections. I had first thought to say "popular-level," but my concern with that term is that so much of what passes for popular theology is pablum, and this isn't at all. It's strong enough meat, just dealt with in a non-specialist way.

The book engages a narrow range of conversation partners who say what to theologically-trained readers (only) will be predictable things. The style is a bit old-school homiletical, if the homily were being delivered to people who hadn't done much thinking about basic Christian concepts like the Fall before. This milieu explains the decision not to include asking how other theological conversation partners would frame the same questions: it's more like a confirmation class, a "we believe" rather than a "there are three ways theologians have talked about...." And in fact I think it's quite successful for that audience: presenting with naturalness and clarity in the marketplace how basic concepts of classical Christianity relate to the themes on Achtung Baby.

My favorite thing about the book, however, is neither the specificially theological parts (though they are vital to the work) nor the narrative. It's the insightful writing about the songs themselves as songs, not as disembodied lyrics. If I had to pick one sentence to illustrate what I mean, it would be "'Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses' begins with the din of things falling apart." I also quite like several of the chapter titles, particularly the first: "Straight Outta Eden."

There's a review of this book on Amazon that makes the ridiculous claim that the spirituality of 90s U2 has been "left almost untouched," and that the other books talking about U2's spirituality are "centered around the band's early days and Bono's latter-day humanitarian efforts" -- oh, really? I can't name one such book. In fact, a couple of the previous Christian book-length treatments are notable for their fannish gushing about the 90s. However, the book does fill a new space -- that of a sustained meditation on what many think is U2's greatest album, and one that is alert to its spiritual, relational, and musical depth.

As I write this, it strikes me that the book is devotional-book sized. It (plus an iPod) might make a nice 8-day retreat companion for somebody who wasn't quite sure about the Christian thing, but wanted to go somewhere sacred and try something spiritual. I'm sure several monasteries would be sympathetic.

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