My dear friend and Scriptorium Daily’s own Paul Spears is at the U2 concert tonight with his lovely wife Lisa. Tomorrow night, my old buddy Mike French gets to go. They will bask in the glow of 30 years of the best rock-and-roll ever right here in the middle of Orange County. In only mildly jealous solidarity, I put on Rattle and Hum on the way to the gym. It was empty (thanks be to God), and I air-drummed like you wouldn’t believe—more in the style of Animal from the Muppets than the always cool Larry Mullen, Jr.
Typically, I only hear scattered phrases in a song. I am a music guy, not a lyrics guy. I have inherited my dad’s capacity to mishear (and then mis-sing) lyrics. I catch on to the vibe, the ambience, the groove of a song. It’s why I love Lenny Kravitz—tonight’s opening act, by the way—one of the funkiest musicians ever, and probably the worst lyricist. (Witness: ‘I’m weak and I’ve gone hazy / I’m crazy for that lady / She’s chic but she’s not shady / Sophisticated lady…’)
Take ‘God Part II’ for example, which you may know by its signature—‘I believe in love.’ When it’s come to ‘God Part II’, I’ve heard bits like ‘don’t believe in excess’ or ‘don’t believe in cocaine’ and the exultant ‘I…I believe in love’. Today, though, I heard a bit more:
Don’t believe in excess
Success is to give
Don’t believe in riches
But you should see where I live
I…I believe in love
The first three verses follow this pattern: confident rejection of societal ills and vices, the qualifying ‘but’ that casts a cloud over the initial confidence and serves as a hinge, and the final—now ambiguous—‘I…I believe in love.’ Here’s the second half of the third verse:
I don’t believe in death row
Skid row or the gangs
Don’t believe in the Uzi
It just went off in my hand
I…I believe in love
How, then, to read this final line? Is he serious? Is Bono, or whatever narrator to whom he gives voice, telling the truth? Does he believe in love? And are we to believe him? This guy is, after all, a hypocrite, his confidence unseemly in the midst of his compromise. He may not believe in an Uzi, but he somehow finds it going off right there in his own hand.
There are two viable ways to read this. It could be that the final line is laughable. It’s a joke, and we’re in on it, even if the narrator isn’t. In this case, Bono would be lampooning the treacly mix of self-righteous zeal and naïve sentiment that accompanies wanna-be peaceniks who just want us to give love and peace a chance. Believing in ‘love’ (whatever that is) would be a communally sanctified form of BS, in which love is conscripted into the service of self-deception as I am exonerated from the hard work of peace-making. I believe in love. Isn’t that enough?
Another reading is possible. Luther spoke of the dramatic tension of the Christian life as one in which believers are simul iustus et peccator—at once fully righteous and fully sinful. This makes no sense, but it sure does explain a lot. On this second reading, Bono’s ‘I’ is sincere throughout, even if he is a hapless, sorry mystery to himself and us. How could he be like this, hating Uzis and shooting Uzis at the same time? Karl Barth called sin an ‘impossible possibility’—impossible because Jesus has died and risen, robbing sin of its necessity and revealing that sin is not just the way things are, but possible (and actual) nevertheless.
So maybe Bono’s narrator is this Christian, the one who believes the right things—despite himself. He is one whose best intentions are buffeted and bordered by counter-intentions, whose holiness is hounded by hate and miserliness. And he is one who really does believe in love. After all, on an album (still my favorite, despite the glory of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby) devoted to love, an album that has plenty of room for prophetic critique and self-criticism but none of the adolescent irony of today’s indie rock (for that, try this album), on this kind of album love is what it’s all about. ‘Love, rescue me’, Bono sings. And, of course, love has, and love will. That is the witness of that glorious duet with B. B. King:
I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that train
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town.