"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.


One for the iPod

A blogger whose site has the unusual name of "Holiness Reeducation" offers a podcast (in the "just two guys shooting the breeze" genre) with the long title "The Spirituality of U2 and The Difficulty of Finding Excellent Contemporary Praise Music." It runs about half an hour, and after starting with some random comments about favorite songs/albums, moves on to a discussion of spiritual themes in U2's work, the danger of equating a song's narrator with its composer, and postmodernity. The bulk of the podcast, however, moves on to opinions about CCM and music written for corporate worship, which may be of interest to some of our readers as well.


Remember Lot’s wife

St. Matthew's Unichurch in Perth, Australia offers a relatively recent (but undated) essay called "U2 in the dark: A Christian view of Achtung Baby (1991) and Zooropa (1993)." It essentially goes straight through each album and offers comments on each song.


"Please" acoustic from the end of the Elevation Tour

When we were first promoting our book, I made up a recommended selection of live performances of some of the songs that were used in the sermons we'd selected to publish. The main effort was to help illustrate what was then (2003) the relatively little-acknowledged notion that U2's work had enough substance that it should be of interest to people with theological training and religious leaders. Most of the moments I selected were intended to demonstrate how U2 added spiritual content to their works live, to document the importance of audience participation, and so on. (There were other concerns too, like having performances from different eras...)

I figured "Please" had to be included, since the book was titled from its chorus. The performance I went for was an acoustic version from after 9/11 with a long spoken introduction by Bono. Turns out that performance is now on YouTube, in much better quality than I had seen.

Incidentally, while we're on YouTube, a lot of the performances I chose were not filmed, but here are a couple of others that were, if you're curious:
Walk On from Tribute to Heroes
Streets from Rotterdam Popmart