Transgressing Theology: Locating Jesus in a “F—ed-Up World”
June 25, 2013 · Print This Article
For many fans, POP marks the moment when U2 went too far. The word “excess” is often associated with the album and the tour that promoted it. The auricular experimentation amounts to a sonic assault, a breaking of the sound barrier, a soniferous boom and bust. The album offers too much glitz and glitter; it’s an immersion in the momentary; it seems a celebration—or it is a seamy celebration—of the transient. As the authorized lore goes, U2 regrouped after POP, returned to their roots, and started writing recognizable songs again. In short, they came to their senses.
I see it differently. For me, POP is that extra push over the cliff, as Nigel Tuffnel once remarked. On this album, U2 “go up to 11.”
While I think this album challenges and breaks all sorts of musical boundaries for the band (supersonic guitar expeditions, funkified percussion, techno dance rhythms, drum loops, bits of sampled and synthesized esoterica, the short wave distortion fading in and out of “Wake Up Dead Man” to intimate Araby, etc.), I find most endearing (and enduring) the theological leap, the “leap of faith,” as it were, that U2 take on POP.
In the tradition of Ronald Reagan and Pink Floyd (in very different contexts), U2′s songs amount to the plea: “tear down the wall.” Within the framework of Christian doctrine, U2 put forward a “transgressive theology.” In these POP tunes, U2 transgress the borders between spirit and flesh, sacred and profane, high and low. On this album, the “Popmart” as medium of pop culture in the context of commercial exchange becomes hallowed ground. To be extreme about it: God is Pop. This is the revelation U2 disclose and pursue through the 12 songs that constitute their 1997 album.
The POP album opens in the tradition of David—the songwriter who danced suggestively before the ark of the covenant—with an invitation to dance. Over an entrancing beat and the relentless assault of electric guitars, Bono implores: “Let go! Let’s go: Discotheque!” This impulse to dance, to surrender to the moment, permeates the album. And as in the biblical tales of David, God is not far removed from the scene. Out there on the dance floor, the dancer is engaged in a search for “the One.” Who precisely this one might be remains an open question here at the beginning of the album. It could be the search for self; it could be the search for romance with an Other; it could even be the search for a savior—a messiah of some sort or other—who can effect the mystical union in which the seeker becomes the song.
Take for another example the dance tune “Mofo.” At first listen, the song sounds like a paean to “mother sucking rock and roll” or something even more profane as the slang of the title suggests. Still, the song is also driven by the same kind of quest enunciated in “Discotheque”—and articulated in the opening stanza:
Looking for to save my save my soul
Looking in the places where no flowers grow
Looking for to fill that God-shaped hole….
In “Mofo,” this pursuit includes the search for “baby Jesus under the trash”—that is, in the midst of the muck and mire of human existence, once again challenging the dividing line between sacred realm and the earth-bound. Locating Jesus under the trash is not the same thing as positioning him “at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” to quote a doctrinal formulation. Indeed (as Bono will sing in a different but related context in the song “If God Will Send His Angels”): “the High Street never looked so low.” Still, there’s something hauntingly familiar about this dislocation to “the places where no flowers grow,” to the realm of the discarded, to the barn out back after permission to enter the inn has been withheld.
While “Mofo” is about the yearning to draw near to God or mother, or both, “The Playboy Mansion” concerns itself with the desire to pass through the “Narrow Gate” which, in the religious imagination, in any case, leads to “mystical ecstasy, absolute knowledge, or faith.” Mention of the gate brings to mind the passage in the Gospel of Matthew (7. 13-14) that warns:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide
and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and
there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow
and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are
few who find it.
Mention of the mansion, meanwhile, recalls Jesus’ saying from the Gospel of John: “In my father’s house, there are many mansions.” These suggestions of the New Testament are brought into contact with what might be called a survey of contemporary values—or at least, a catalogue of product trademarks.
“If coke (rather than or in addition to bread and wine?) is a mystery…” begins the theoretical givens upon which contemporary culture appears to be established. If Michael Jackson’s 1997 album can be declared “history” (and only “book 1″ at that); “if talk shows [are] confession,” then what symbol represents “the good,” or the noble, or the “true,” in a culture such as this? Where does one find eternal bliss? U2′s answer, though given away in the song’s title, is held in suspension until almost the end of the song: “the Playboy mansion.”
But then the judgments one must endure to secure passage into the mansion are finally thrown into eschatological relief. The song fades into the distance with a heavenly choir repeating words from the Book of Revelation:
Then will there be no time of sorrow
Then will there be no time for pain
Then will there be no time of sorrow
Then will there be no time for shame
U2′s listeners are thus left to judge this ambiguous song. Is it a satire on contemporary values? Or is it an anthem for the dawning of the millennial age?
After many references to Jesus throughout the album, POP concludes with a direct address to Jesus, a prayer in the form of the song “Wake Up Dead Man.” The person praying calls upon Jesus for help in sorting out his sense of being caught between two worlds: the fallen world (the song uses the somewhat less theological “F-word”) and the world suggested in stories about eternity. Here we return to a familiar theme that figured prominently in the song “The Playboy Mansion.”
The refrain employed in this song, “Wake up, dead man,” has been pointed to by some reviewers as evidence that U2 was flirting with blasphemy and entering into a post-Christian phase with POP. But the demand that God “Wake up” and come to the troubled one’s rescue has pious precedents in the Psalms. Not only that, but in the New Testament the command “Wake up” is an invitation to return to life from the dead; it is the call to healed; to be fully alive.
The middle section of this song advances the perspective that has been presented throughout the POP album: it is in the common, the profane, the mundane that the uncommon breaks through, becomes recognizable. I interpret this section to be a sort of response to the despair of the pious one who is caught in categories like “fallen” and eternal.
“Listen over the rhythm that’s confusing you” for the antidote to death, comes the reply—from within? From without? The distinction does not seem to matter. Creation itself is meant to be engaged. This reply is not the last word of the song, however. The despairing voice reasserts itself as the song and the album come to the end. Thus in the tradition of the Psalms, “Wake up Dead Man” invokes God’s presence by denouncing God’s absence.
A casual confession is uttered in POP‘s first song:
You know you’re chewing bubble gum
You know what that is but you still want some
You just can’t get enough of that lovey-dovey stuff
U2 may be creating bubblegum music on POP. But POP can also be read in forward and reverse: a palindromic testimony. Perhaps in the midst of pop music, that “lovey dovey stuff,” the grand transgression occurs. To recall a line from the Rattle and Hum era: “I’ve seen love conquer the great divide.” Bono asks his Jesus in “Wake Up, Dead Man”:
Is there an order in all of this disorder
Is it like a tape recorder
Can you rewind it just once more?
Read backwards and forwards, POP becomes a theological assertion. It claims the commercial realm as God’s realm. At the risk and the resort to profanity, it names the commercial realm “Abba, father,” that is to say: “POP.” –Ted Trost
Ted Trost teaches religious studies at the University of Alabama. During the 2013-14 academic year, he will be Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. The Interference webzine staff met up with Professor Trost at the recent U2 Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, where he presented a version of this essay. http://u2conference.com/