Artist Focus

The U2 Factor: Justice, Creativity, and an Integrated Faith

Above image from Grantland.com

1987… not a golden year for me personally when it comes to music. A year or two earlier, I had fallen in love with Jesus. In my youthful enthusiasm and stupidity, I really had no idea how to follow his lead and, in that moment, I implemented a few immediate changes, one of which was curtailing/eliminating cuss words from my personal lexicon. That lasted a few years. Another short-lived change was my determination to only listen to music I could purchase from my local Christian bookstore. By the time 1987 came around, my ears, mind, and heart were being filled with Petra, Michael W. Smith, Stryper, and the like… exclusively.

Sometime that year, one of my church friends tried to tell me U2 was a Christian band. Of course, if that were so, it would be okay for me to listen to them. But I doubted. To try to convince me, my friend made me a cassette copy of some of U2’s music. Side A was War and Side B was The Unforgettable Fire. That tape sat in my room for months before I ever listened to it. I just wasn’t convinced their lyrics would bring me closer to Jesus (and I couldn’t buy their music from the Christian bookstore), so I wouldn’t give them a chance.

During the summer of that year (I believe), on a road trip somewhere in Virginia or North Carolina, I happened to hear With Or Without You for the first time. Good thing that radio station didn’t have the same bias against U2 I had. I was intrigued by what I heard. I couldn’t have put it into words then, but I’m sure it had to do with the desperate, passionate, emotional tone of the song. Sometime later, one of our local radio stations in Virginia played The Joshua True from beginning to end. When I listened to it, I was hooked.

I could write about the emotive or nostalgic connections I have with virtually every song on that album. I could also write much about how the lyrics challenged me and made me think. Where the Streets Have No Name made me think of a time when God’s shalom will reign. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For made me explore the shallowness of my faith. Bullet the Blue Sky not only made me move and got my heart pounding, but it led me to start thinking about social and political issues I’d never considered before. I could go on and on, but I won’t, at least not now.

Of course, once I was captivated by The Joshua Tree, I finally listened to that tape my friend made me. It wasn’t long before I was hearing about the revolution in Ireland, refugees, and other heavy subjects U2 covers in War. Eventually, The Unforgettable Fire would become one of my favorite albums of all time. As time went on, Boy, October, and Under a Blood Red Sky all joined the fray as well. Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen were soon depicted on a poster on my wall. I was all in.

Those early albums impacted me deeply, in some ways I’m only beginning to see. However, the two most significant ways this music influenced me have to do with social justice and the nature of creative expression. Truly, without U2’s influence on me as a teenager and young man, I’m not sure I would care about music and justice like I do now. To a significant extent, God used U2’s music to mold me into the man I have become.

When it comes to issues of social justice… well, that’s kind of their thing. I think one would have to be completely unaware of U2 for that person to not recognize how deeply justice and activism runs in them. It is truly one of their defining characteristics. They call out the folly of war and the grief it brings. They cry out on behalf of the poor. They confront racism and bigotry. And for me, they challenged the gap between my experience of Christianity and efforts toward social justice.

You see, in my spiritual context, issues of war, race, and justice were divorced from faith. Choosing to become a Christian, evangelism (to an extent), and being baptized in the Holy Spirit were the virtual endgame of Christianity in my experience as a teenager. So, when I heard Bono, a professed Christian, sing about things like social injustice, I was provoked to consider how such things related to my faith.

Growing up in Chesapeake, Virginia, I was only a short drive from the Norfolk Naval Base. The people around me were almost always pro-military, to the point of not questioning the nature of war itself and whether or not Christians should be engaged in such things. U2 challenged me to think about this. And when I began making connections between their lyrics and what I read in the New Testament, I began asking some fairly uncomfortable questions of myself, my parents, and others. It made me question whether or not God was always on America’s side. It made me wonder if our military activities were, dare I say, sinful. I began to see contradiction in being pro-war or pro-military and Jesus’ call to love my enemies and turn the other cheek.

Being from Chesapeake also landed me only a few miles from Pat Robertson’s home-base at CBN in Virginia Beach. Some close to me considered Mr. Robertson a “prophet.” As I grew up, however, he became an emblem of the sick marriage between evangelical Christianity and the GOP. In my church, there wasn’t room for being a Democrat. I don’t even recall there being much room to question such things. U2’s lyrics and very persona led me to question these biases and challenge that sick marriage (I’m still praying for a divorce). And again, what they introduced to my mind and heart resonated with what I understood from the New Testament.

U2 didn’t teach me how to think… they opened my eyes to parts of the New Testament I’d neglected or simply didn’t know yet. I could no longer be satisfied with what I’d been spoon-fed regarding politics, race, economics, or any number of other social issues. Jesus was using U2 to take me deeper.

The other significant impact of U2’s music has to do with creative expression. When I stumbled onto The Joshua Tree, my thoughts about music, what was “good,” and what I should let enter my ears were so, so limited. I had the self-imposed limitations of listening only to contemporary Christian music, but I had a very influential family member who told me I shouldn’t listen to any songs that weren’t love songs (?!) and who thought John Denver was the standard by which all musicians should be measured. And then there are the influential folks in my life who taught me that if they didn’t like something, it wasn’t any good.

All in all, those factors led me to a very small pool of music to choose from, all of which resided at Heaven & Earth Bookstore at Greenbrier Mall. My categories for what I would listen to at that time were so limited… pop rock, some rap, hard rock… that was about it. And they had to be singing about God explicitly or I wasn’t giving them much of a chance. Not only were my categories limited, but my entire view of music and art were severely limited as well. U2 pushed those limits and eventually helped to shatter them.

U2 led me far away from the synthy pop of Michael W. Smith, the driving metal guitar of Bloodgood, and the glossy sound of Stryper (none of which were bad… I just needed to expand my horizons). I had never, personally, heard anything like them. They opened my mind to new sounds, new rhythms, new variables. They led me to listen to less predictable music. Chances are I would never have fallen in love with Bon Iver, Sylvan Esso, Adelyn Rose, JE Sunde, and so many others had it not been for this mental expansion. I would have never cared about attending Eaux Claires in 2016, much less be impacted as deeply by it as I was, had it not been for U2’s influence.

And then there are those lyrics. So, not only did U2 provoke me to think about social justice issues, but, dang it, I rarely heard them mention God or Jesus in their songs, aside from the closing moments of Sunday Bloody Sunday (As a related side note, I still vividly recall listening to King’s X’s then new self-titled album in 1992,doing my best discern whether or not they mentioned God or Jesus in their lyrics. Ugh.). The irony for me, however, was that I actually did hear Jesus in U2’s words. I heard Jesus tell me to love my enemies. I heard the apostle Paul’s words about how, in Jesus, all racial, social, and economic barriers between us are demolished. I heard Paul’s reminder that followers of Jesus are “citizens of heaven.” I heard Jesus’ definition of the kingdom of God… captives going free, the sick being healed, valleys being raised up and mountains being humbled… U2 taught me to go beneath the surface, to let myself be challenged by new ways of expressing important things, to weave my intellect and my emotions together, to go deeper. And I am the better for it.

I will be forever grateful for Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen. God has used those four guys to grow me and challenge me in profound ways. It is no overstatement for me to say that he used their music and what they are about to make me more like Jesus.

Photo by Colm Henry

 

 

 

 

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Gateway Record, Music and Healing

U2’s The Unforgettable Fire: Emotional Impressions

 

There is no question that U2 has been one of the most significant influences in my life… period. In my teens, it was U2 that challenged the ultra-conservative, pro-war status quo that I experienced throughout my childhood. I was born to a white, conservative family and lived in a suburb, five minutes away from Pat Robertson’s CBN and thirty minutes away from a naval base. U2 challenged me to think beyond the prevalent thinking of those around me. They pushed my personal envelope, and I badly needed that.

Beyond their political/social/philosophical provocation, their music challenged me as well. Up until The Joshua Tree became the incredible mainstream success that it was, I didn’t know much about the band. I was 15 when that one was released, and I’m pretty sure I just thought U2 was kind of weird or “out there” to that point. I was trained to be afraid of any music in which the lyrics had a political/social feel to it, so U2 was a little bit out of bounds for me at first.

Around the time that I, along with the rest of the world, fell in love with U2 and The Joshua Tree, a friend made me a cassette with War on one side and The Unforgettable Fire on the other side. I really liked War, but didn’t give The Unforgettable Fire much of a listen for the longest time. Then, in college, I finally listened… and was taken captive.

At the time, I couldn’t have told you why I was so drawn in to this album. It was different than the albums that bookended it, War and The Joshua Tree. It was certainly different than their live recording, Under a Blood Red Sky (which I listened to repeatedly on the way to school during my junior and senior years. Later, I would come to see how The Unforgettable Fire seemed to serve as a bridge between the raw, raucous, punk-influenced early U2 albums and the more polished Joshua Tree/Rattle and Hum era.

What I have come to understand is that The Unforgettable Fire is the most abstract record from U2’s earlier years. The emphasis is not straight-forward clarity. It is more about expressing general feelings, thereby provoking emotional responses in the engaged listener. Now, looking back and understanding these things in hindsight, it would totally make sense that I was captivated by this record. It beckoned toward something that, to that point, had been laying dormant within my soul. Something that would eventually break free and lead to a deeper appreciation for music (and this blog, by the way).

I still love this album to this day. As I have been writing this, I have been taking it in one more time. I still feel like A Sort of Homecoming, the opening track, is an invitation to engage in 40 minutes of emotional brushstrokes. I am still forced to move by the raucous rambling of Wire. I still get caught up in the epic emotion of Bad and its description of the pull and pain of heroine abuse. The Unforgettable Fire still has me captivated, and I’m not really interested in being liberated.

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Music and Healing, Poignant Songs, Uncategorized

Brokenness, Expression, and Healing

 

“The worse childhood you have, the better artist you become.”

The renowned visual artist, Marina Abramovic, made this statement during an interview for CBS Sunday Morning some time ago. It made an immediate mark on me and rang painfully true. I don’t know much about the details of her childhood, but based on this statement and the little bit I do know, it doesn’t seem to have been a very good one. For her, the pain of her childhood is the fuel for her art.

I think she is onto something very important with the above statement. For me, the most compelling music is that which seems to be borne out of pain, struggle, or discontent. When I was younger, I was all about angry and/or rebellious music. It’s what drew me to Rage Against the Machine, Project 86 , and U2. During the past several years, as I have experienced some significant emotional healing, I started listening to sadder stuff. The Civil Wars were the door into sad music for me.

The anger, rebellion, and sorrow that drew me to these artists and those like them came from my own childhood. Like so many of us (I would argue all of us), I was deeply wounded as a child. I experienced deep rejection, abuse, and neglect. In the years leading up to my healing experience, my response to these wounds was anger and rebellion. This anger was not healthy. It was aggressive and controlling. As I began to see with some clarity that I had been wounded, the anger began to melt into sadness and grief. Now that I have experienced some significant healing, I find myself drawn simply to what feels like genuine emotion. That’s what I write about here. And, I write about it because the emotionality of music has helped me fully feel what I have needed to feel as I have been getting well.

The reason I can relate to emotive music is the genuine emotion so many artists pour out in their music. Without that, I would not be able to connect with their songs the way I do. Furthermore, the emotion they share likely comes from similar places as the emotion I feel when listening to them. When I listen to Sanctuary Hum by Project 86, for example, I get amped up and angry. This makes sense, as the song focuses on emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse in a church setting, specifically by a church leader. This resonates deeply with me, as I have experienced spiritual abuse myself. My own wounds have led me to want to protect others from being wounded. The song is an anthem, encouraging the abused person to stand up in the truth and to not let the abuser win. Even writing about that, in this moment, has me a little charged up. The emotion and context of the song beat at the same rhythm as my heart. And, the obvious connection here is that the emotion and context of that song came from the writer’s (Andrew Schwab) own experience.

Here’s the simple truth: we are all broken. We have all, whether or not we see it yet, been abused and/or neglected. We are all “damaged goods.” If we don’t own up to that, we are simply fooling ourselves. We all need healing.

I am convinced that a powerful avenue of that healing is self-expression. We are all built with innate significance. Each one of us was given a voice. Among the different ways you may use your voice, one of the most important ways is taking what is in you, the good, bad, and ugly, and getting it out there for others to see. Sometimes, that simply means you share the story of your wounds with a trusted friend or with a small group committed to your recovery and well-being, like what we experience at Wounded at Valleybrook Church. Sometimes, it means that you create something that expresses the emotional responses to the wounds that live in your soul. For me, that has come out in a variety of ways: writing, creating “identity presentations,” and sharing my story verbally. These expressions have been a central part of my healing process. They have helped me gain clarity about who I am, as well as who I am not. They have helped me create a dividing line between the parts of me that are genuinely me and the parts that I have taken on from my wounds and from my negative responses to those wounds. They have helped me grow closer to wholeness.

If I was wired differently, my self-expression would also come out in music. But, alas, I am not wired that way. So, I am thankful for musicians and songwriters who are wired that way and who share their souls through their music. And, I am thankful for the ones that are honest about their brokenness, their woundedness. For me, they are the ones that create the most meaningful art.

 

 

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Album Releases, Poignant Songs

Captivated by J.E. Sunde’s “Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God”

Ever since I started listening to music as a teenager, there have been those albums that have just grabbed a hold of me, seemingly not wanting to let go. U2‘s Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire were a couple of those. Kalispell’s Westbound was another. Derek Webb‘s Mockingbird was yet another. I immersed myself into these albums, feeling every twist and turn. They sucked me in and I was captivated. I have wandered into another of these traps, J.E. Sunde’s Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God, released recently by Cartouche Records.

One of my favorite albums of the last few years is The Nature of Things by The Daredevil Christopher Wright. It was so delightfully unpredictable and the band tackled really deep philosophical, theological, and relational issues with grace and depth. This work of art stimulated me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. I was really bummed when I heard that the band was on hiatus and that Jonathan Sunde was working on his own solo material. Now, that’s no knock on Sunde. It’s just that there was something special about what The Daredevil had created together. Surely, there would be no way that Sunde would be able to create something comparable in terms of the unpredictability, craftsmanship, philosophical wanderings and simple beauty of The Nature of Things.

Well, I was utterly and completely wrong. Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God, is, in a word, wonderful. I can’t stop listening to it. Earlier today, I was listening to iTunes in “Random” mode. Easy Kid (the second track on the album) came up. Within ten seconds, I turned off the “Random” mode, selected the first track of the album, and was compelled to listen to it in its entirety. Again, it’s like a magnet… it draws me in and I seemingly can’t escape.

Now, don’t get me wrong… this is not another Daredevil album. It is J.E. Sunde. It is his voice, both literally and essentially. Other than his incredible vocals, it doesn’t sound like the Daredevil to me. Sunde has his own thing going here, and it is compelling and deep. The music and instrumentation are eclectic, to say the least. And, the emotional mood moves around throughout the album. There’s playfulness, passion, anger, sorrow… just so much to feel here.

One element that has drawn me in are the deep theological/philosophical themes in the album. It’s one thing to write about deep stuff. It’s another to make such thoughts compelling, both lyrically and musically. Sunde is obviously adept in doing just that. A Blinding Flash of Light describes Sunde’s apparent struggle with believing in God in the midst of people who don’t share that belief. The song seems like a journal entry in which he is weighing the views of the atheistic influences around him. He struggles with feeling “foolish for talking to Jesus.” These are heavy matters, and the melody, instrumentation, and lyrics accurately portray that heaviness.

Another song that grabs a hold of me every time I listen is I’m Gonna Disappoint You. It is a soulful ballad that sounds like part of a conversation between two folks on the verge of a romantic relationship. Sunde’s heart here is to ensure that the other person comes into this relationship with eyes wide open… “What if I don’t kiss you the way you want to be kissed?” “What if you don’t like the books I suggest?” This song is full of nitty-gritty thoughts about ways that Sunde could disappoint this potential partner. The trepidation he feels as he shares these thoughts is palpable. You feel it throughout the song. It’s as if he is saying, “I want to be with you, but I’m a little scared.” For so many, if not all, of us, these are thoughts and feelings that are very familiar, and he paints them clearly and emotively.

And then there’s the pain and anger of You Can’t Unring a Bell. It starts out with the sorrow-filled statement that you can’t, in fact, unring a bell. As the song continues, the listener learns that Sunde’s heart was broken and his trust betrayed by someone special. As the tempo picks up and the song intensifies, it’s almost as if you can feel Sunde himself shifting from sorrow to anger. Again, Sunde is masterful at portraying these emotions and the tensions surrounding them. When I listen to this song, I can’t help but enter the emotional world Sunde invites the listener into. I feel, to the extent possible, what he feels. There is no art that speaks to me as deeply as art that makes me feel like that.

While I once was disappointed that the Daredevil Christopher Wright was on a hiatus, I am now so glad that they took a break. J.E. Sunde has created something beautiful with Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God. The precise craftsmanship, eclectic instrumentation, incredible vocals, and masterful songwriting provide a portal into deep connection and emotion. I cannot recommend this album enough.

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