To Claim The Victory Jesus Won

Mention Irish rock megastars U2 to people, and the reactions you get will span the gamut.

To kids today, a generation after they first came out, it’s probably all about Bono – the peripatetic, bombastic lead singer who’s parlayed a magnificent singing voice and a global pop following into a second career as a global charity leader (and, it needs to be said, arch-capitalist).

To someone who came of age in the nineties?  I’d imagine U2 was to them what the Rolling Stones were to me growing up in the late seventies and early eighties; dissipated celebrities noodling with making sense of their megastardom, albeit with less drugs and model-banging, but with a lot more artistic pretension ladled on top.

To hipsters of all eras?  Once they left Dublin, they were trayf.

And U2 has been all of that to me, too (except maybe the hipster bit).

But mostly, U2 is the band that tied together two big strands in my own life.  And the main catalyst for this, their breakthrough album War, was released thirty years ago today.

And the strands it tied together for me, and with style, were faith and rock and roll.

For me as a teenager – the gawky, greasy-haired, acne-ridden clumsy non-team-sports-inclined geek – music, especially playing guitar, was one of the few parts of my life that actually seemed to work.

And my faith – not exactly “fundamentalist” Christianity, so let’s call it “orthodox” Presbyterianism – was, and is, a vital part of my life.

The conflict arose when I started college.  Not a few of my “musician of faith” classmates had the opinion that a Christian should be doing “Christian” music.

And I tried.  Oh, Lord, I tried.  I got dragged through the local Christian music and book shop (inevitably named “The Mustard Seed”), I listened and listened hard to what passed for “contemporary Christian” music.

And it left me completely cold.

Bear in mind, I’m a guy who feels overwhelming ecstasy during the Halleluiah chorus of Händel’s Messiah.  Who loves Bach’s paeons to faith.  Who marvels at Russian orthodox monastic music.  Who loves great black gospel, and who has Mahalia Jackson on the IPod that he needs to resurrect long enough to re-download.  Who finds meaning in Christmas music – at least, the faith-based stuff.  These days, I make a point of only going to churches that use no hymns less than 100 years old.

The stuff at the “Mustard Seed?”  To me – then as now – it failed on both counts; as music, it was mostly dull, formulaic, played competently but without passion, larded down with sanitized pop-music cliches, devoid of any spark that would make it catch any imagination that wasn’t being compelled to accept it as “good enough”, pale and wan compared even to mediocre gospel music; as expressions of faith, they preached to the choir.

But most of the world was not “the choir”.  And that bugged me, too; was there not room for a Christian to converse musically with the non-believer?

And then came War.

———-

Beyond matters of faith and philosophy?  War was a just plain amazing record.

It was produced by the legendary Steve Lillywhite, near the beginning of a string of albums that would mark him as one of the greatest record producers of all time, much less the eighties.  And for the first time – and one of the greatest times in his own career, he brought the best out of U2.

Lillywhite made Dave “The Edge” Evans’ guitar parts tighter, less-processed, less-atmospheric, more up-front in the mix, and much more aggressive musically, than on Boy and October; the album sounded more “raw” than the previous albums.  Where Boy and October had featured individual bits of whiz-bangery – a passage of guitar atmosphere, a bass part, a bit of Bono’s vocal histrionics – over competent but pedestrian backgrounds, U2 on War was a fearsomely tight group, with Adam Clayton’s more-confident bass playing locking in with Larry Mullen’s drumming into a rhythm section that was finally ready to come out of the garage.

———-

Spiritually?

War was a key missing link in my life; the album that proved that music could be passionate and engaging and rock and roll, and still preach to the unconverted, and do it both unapologetically and with style.

“New Years Day”, features Edge’s dexterity if not raw chops at holding down both the guitar and piano parts, and a lyric that sums up the Gospel – “I will be with you again” – as succinctly and capably as any I’ve read.

And Sunday Bloody Sunday…

…with all its bombast and martial intensity, is gospel revival music for twenty-something white guys carefully disguised as a protest song. It’s pretentions and over-the-top and theatrical. And so am I. And it waves the world’s ills like a bloody shirt that challenges the non-believer to think about it…

And it’s true we are immune

When fact is fiction and TV reality

And today the millions cry

We eat and drink while tomorrow they die

…and the believer to try to keep up:

The real battle just begun

To claim the victory Jesus won

On…

Back in U2′s early days, a rock critic wrote “church should be like a U2 concert”.

I wouldn’t go that far; church can be a respite from the world around us, too.

But there’s a time for quiet prayer, and there’s a time when praising Him calls for Mahalia Jackson to blow the windows off the place.

But church – and prayer, and U2 – could be more introspective, as on the band’s traditional final encore, “40″…

…a simple song about simple faith that carries out the ultimate leap of faith for a band, Evans and bassist Adam Clayton switching instruments.

U2 led a small surgence of Brit post-punk bands that wore some form of faith or another on their sleeves; Simple Minds left trails of Christian mysticism through their catalog; The Alarm daubed on a layer of over-the-top ecumenical Liberation theology; Big Country had a less-specific but overt spirituality.

The rock-crit world – largely painstakingly agnostic or spitefully atheistic – had a hard time swallowing the presence of frank faith on a rock and roll record.  Some ignored it.  Some rationalized it.  Some turned on  it.  Some treated it with “Gorillas in the Mist”-style curiosity.  The Christian world had its own problems; “Is U2 Christian” was a favorite debate topic at many a church youth group gathering in the mid-eighties.

And for all the sturm und drang – of the music, and of the reaction to it – after all that, for a young Christian and unreconstructed rock and roll pinhead, it was a blinding flash of epiphany; “I’m not alone out here”.

And 30 years later, I still remember how that feels.

———-

The notion that War was closing in on 30 years old was one of the original impetuses for this series.  In a sense, it’s a whack upside the head.  In another, it’s affirming; unlike some of the albums in this series, War doesn’t feel like it’s at all dated these days.

Chalk it up to eternal messages, to Lillywhite’s foresight, or to the portability of a power trio and a great bunch of songs, but I’ll stick by that.

10 thoughts on “To Claim The Victory Jesus Won

  1. I saw U2 at the Minneapolis Auditorium on the Unforgettable Fire tour. The Minneapolis Auditorium used to stand were the Mpls Convention Center is now located.

    Awesome show.

    Today, Bono’s head is a large as the Minneapolis Convention Center.

  2. I’m ambivalent about U2., but the commentary on CCM is spot on. I would rather chew afterbirth than listen to most of it. No connection to Scripture, no poetry to the lyrics, and a pervasive wimpiness to the music that makes one sigh for the masculinity of Tiffany.

  3. Amen, brother. Speaking as one who is also deeply moved by Russian orthodox music, with a couple of exceptions I never found 80s Christian music to be particularly edifying. I used to joke to my sister about that music with the “Christian drums,” the formulaic cheesewiz music that, while I believe it was and is sincere, didn’t seem to spring from the same inspirational font that produced Hayden and Bach.

    I confess I had my own “Is U2 Christian” questions. Not knowing them or their hearts, I wasn’t sure if it was an affectation, or genuine. I was content to leave that question unanswered. If someone comes to God, that is what is ultimately important, not if they got there by a different route than I did.

  4. I’ve enjoyed the artistic and theological influence and dynamic tension of U2′s music; hard to believe it’s 30 years now. Allow me, however, to say a word on behalf of CCM, even if that may be a bit trayf for the musical Sanhedrin.

    Certainly CCM can be shallow, but it isn’t necessarily the equivalent of CheeseWhiz on a Sacramental cracker. At my church anyway, the songs most often have lyrics drawn directly from scripture and have been a useful way for me to get the Word down deep; when facing a stressful or dispiriting time the Word then comes to me in music, and it gives me songs to sing under my breath to deal with the situation. The verses may be repetitive, but are more bearable for me than the congregation earnestly plodding with square chins and quavering voices through four verses of “The Old Rugged Cross” while Sister Berniece keeps the reverb pedal to the metal. The old hymns are pulled from scripture too, of course, but when I was younger I’d be comatose by the fourth bar. Later, after becoming more inspired in my faith life I could appreciate the words and themes, especially as I saw the resonance with the newer songs. Each to his dagnab, blue-eyed own, of course, but those extolling the virtues and edification of the old music always sound the same to me as those trying to tell me that rice-cakes are really good for me.

  5. I never associated U2 with much more than decent music and Bono’s bumping Sting out of his popular savior/ collective conscience/ political pop master position. In fairness I must be a few years older than Mr. Berg.

    However, I was a young listener when the “Jesus Freak” movement moved into the mainstream market. “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Godspell”, “Joseph … Dreamcoat”, “Spirit in the Sky”, “Jesus is just Alright”, “Put Your Hand in the Hand” were all late-60′s pop which used music to promote religiousity while making a few bucks (probably the main intention). Billy Preston was among many who made the genre work both way.

    That, to me, sure beat the heck out of today’s CCM for its entertainmant value as well as message.

    Mr. Berg and others who can be inspired through music might also check out Sister Rosetta Tharpe (of recent PBS American Masters Series). Her Gospel based singing and guitar playing from the 30′s through 60′s is claimed by some to be a main co-founder of R&R. Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

  6. Or the “Sacred Steel” style of music used in Pentecostal Black churches which used the steel guitar as their primary instrument of worship. Robert Randolph embodies this style and mainstreamed it. I can’t belive that the faith component isn’t crucial to mastering it.

    Rolling Stone; Is still around? I dropped my longstanding subscription after the issue which featured Ben Affleck on the cover along with the tragic story of his break-up with Jennifer Anniston or someone. It pretty much became a duplication of my wife’s People Magazine except it used the “F” word a lot. Too bad. It used to be good.

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