(On September 25th 2016 we will celebrate 40 years to the day that U2 met in Larry Mullen’s kitchen for the very first time. In the 40 days leading up to U2@40 I will blog one of their spiritual songs...)
Those of us who are believers in the Christian faith and, as a result, are deeply engaged with the writings of the Old and New Testament are many many times caught in the horns of dilemma. Believing these ancient manuscripts of Scripture to be the inspired word of God we are often caught out by the reality of the news on our televisions clashing with such revelation. No better an example comes every Christmas time when those angels glide above the astonished shepherds and tell them:
Glory to God in the highest
And on earth peace to men
On whom his favour rests
This peace on earth usually clashes, literally violently, with the end of year reviews of the previous twelve months which are usually jam packed with tragedy, disaster, violent crime, terrorist atrocities and war. Where is the peace? What were those angels talking about?
Of course as with this and other such contradictions we who have followed an evangelical seamless view of Scripture have a habit of hermeneutical gymnastics to wish it away. Either that or we ignore it or palm it off to another time, when a star hung over some stable or to the culmination of time itself.
Often I feel like a fraud. My apologetics are left in tatters as I ignore the anomalies. How can I convince a waiting world of the authenticity of a belief when I won’t stare the difficulties of my faith square in the eye? Few preachers have helped me. Few theologians either.
So what a breath of fresh air there is when U2 constantly eyeball the dilemmas with an honesty and vulnerability that seems to me to be a courage and bravery of faith rather than the cowardly cop out.
What we hear on U2’s Peace On Earth from their All That You Can’t Leave Behind album is Bono wrestling with end of year reviews on his television. Bono has spoken about his Christmas rituals. He shared with Mishka Assayas how he had a spiritual moment at a carol service in Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. He has talked about the whole family going to midnight carol services on Christmas Eve.
So in the midst of the warm winter glow of Christmas nativities how do you respond when, in the 1998 End of Year Television reviews, you are watching tragic events from just across the border from your home in Dublin. How do you reconcile the violence of a terrorist bomb that wiped out twenty-nine lives on a lovely August afternoon in the market town of Omagh.
The Omagh bomb effected Bono deeply. On the video of their concert at Slane Castle in 2001 you can hear his emotion and anguish as he names all the victims at the end of Sunday Bloody Sunday.
When Bono was reflecting on that Omagh bomb at the end of 1998 and juxtaposed it with the aforementioned Carol about angels singing “peace on earth” his honest wrestling led him to write:
"Jesus could you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line
Peace on earth"
On Peace On Earth, Bono takes it all on. He longs for heaven on earth and yearns for the time when that might be some kind of reality and tells God that indeed he is tired of the waiting. He asks God to answer the cries of those who have lost their children now silent in the ground. He concludes by telling Jesus that the words of that Christmas nativity sticks in his throat and he asks Him what it is worth - this peace on earth.
This is why the Church needs Bono. This is why I need Bono. He is willing to take that which he believes and the world that he sees around him and wrestle with them and not let any of them go.
Peace On Earth is up front and without apologies. It’s a Psalmlike rant at God. Indeed as a song it could have got very slushy and sentimental when Bono names some of the victims of the bomb and links them with Christmas peace words. As on many other occasions U2 go for reality over sentimentality and get close to the truth.