Music is powerful. There can be no denying this statement. Music is not simply something we enjoy, but is also a window into our very souls. The music we listen to and dwell on has the power to shape who we are and who we become in ways that few other cultural and artistic media can. In short, the music that we listen to the music that artists produce holds significant bearing on our human lives and our human soul.
That being said, I want to give you all an idea of what exactly I am going to talk about. As a Christian who is also a musician, I am deeply interested and invested in the effects that music has on our culture at large, more specifically from a moral and theological standpoint. How does the music we listen to shape who we are as people? What kind of people are we becoming in light of the music we listen to? Do our listening choices point us toward the truth, or cause us to sink deeper into the lies which culture so incessantly feeds us?
Enter the rock band U2 (which, you must know, is one of my favorite bands of all time, and a huge influence for the music I write and record myself). I imagine that if you asked ten people if they knew of the band, or had listened to their music, nine or maybe even ten out of ten people would answer in the affirmative. To get such a response would not be surprising either, since U2 has two albums in the top 100 list of all-time best selling records: their 1987 album The Joshua Tree, and their 1991 release Achtung Baby. The Joshua Tree earned 10-time Platinum status with an estimated 25.3 million copies sold worldwide, and Achtung Baby achieved 8-time Platinum, with and estimated 20.4 million copies sold worldwide. It need not be argued that U2 has produced music that has seen incredible international success.
But, the beauty of U2’s music lies not in the amount of records they have sold, nor in the Platinum statuses which they have achieved. The true beauty of U2’s music lies in the what their songs proclaim. Written into many of U2’s songs are clear and coherent presentations of Christianity: humbly, yet boldly, written presentations of the freely-offered love and grace of Christ, the redeeming work of Christ for the whole world, and the promise of eternity spent with him in Heaven. Not only that: U2 have continued over the entirety of their stint as a band to write such songs in the midst of a pop culture that has proclaimed a message that stands, as a whole, antithetical to the Christian moral ethic (one only need look at the motto “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘N’ Roll” that became so prevalent in the late 60s and has lasted even to today).
I imagine I should briefly preface this proceeding discussion I want to engage in. My inspiration for writing this article came while watching this live performance U2 gave of their well-known hit “Where The Streets Have No Name”. I’ll post the link to that video right here: “Where The Streets Have No Name” If you care to, please take five minutes of your time and watch it. It will help you know what I’m talking about. (In truth, you should listen to an extensive amount of U2’s music across each of their albums, because deeply profound Christian truth seeps through the notes, guitar riffs, drum beats, and melody lines.)
As I watched this performance, I couldn’t hold back tears that started streaming down my face. The lyrics of this song are, unmistakably, a description of what Heaven could be like. Just listen:
The city’s a flood, our love turn to rust
We’re beaten and blown by the wind, we’re trampled in dust
But I’ll show you a place with no sorrow or pain
(or, in the original version “I’ll show you a place high on a desert plain”)
Where the streets have no name
I can only conclude that this is a description of Heaven, where, in Christ, we are given a newly resurrected body and are given the immeasurable blessing of worshipping Jesus before his face for the rest of eternity (despite our utter unworthiness as people whose love quite frequently “[turns] to rust,” as it were), where there no longer exist sorrow nor pain, which came as a result of our own fallen nature as human beings. We are made completely whole and pure as a result of a life lived with and for Christ Jesus through faith in him. The love we expressed to each other and even to Christ on earth, a love that is itself beaten and blown by the hot, humid, sulfurous winds of the Fall, cannot compare to the fullness of Love in Christ experienced in Heaven.
Yes, this is something beautiful that I garner from listening to this song. But, in viewing this video, I also saw something just as beautiful: over 100,000 people jumping for joy with hands raised in response to Bono’s crying “Shema!” (In the Hebrew, “Hear!” or “Listen up!”) and to music that proclaims ultimate reality: life with and for Christ, life in complete enjoyment of his glory forever, that which the Westminster Catechism proclaims to be “the chief end of man”. Statistically, 15 out of 100 people at that concert at Slane Castle in Ireland (U2’s homeland) would have not been exposed to the Gospel before attending that concert, according to religious data collected in the Irish Census of 2011. Almost without knowing it, folks who did not know that Gospel at that concert, were proclaiming its message through simple participation. Is that not a telling and beautiful thing?
And this brings me to my second point: every story tells the Story. This is an idea that authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien understood very, very well, which is one of the reasons why he refused to overtly “Christianize” his Lord of the Rings trilogy, unlike his counterpart C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia series. Tolkien rightly proclaimed that he could still write truly fantastical literature for its own sake while still conveying theological truth through its pages, even if not in an overt manner. This does not in the slightest bit discredit the brilliant works Lewis wrote, but only helps to convey the truth that what we write, whether full of overtly stated Christian theology or subtle hints of it, or even completely devoid of it, tells the grand Story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation that is the story of Scripture and salvation history in one way or another (See Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle Earth).
It seems clear that the same is true for songwriters. Using our example, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” we can see that Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr, and Adam Clayton (the members of U2) had in mind a song that quite clearly and coherently told the greater Story. However, it is clear that not all songs tell the Story the same way, for there are too many songs in the world to count. This also means that different songs tell the Story in different ways, and even proclaim different endings to the Story that are not the true ending, which comes with the renewal of all things in Christ and true salvation for those who believe.
In fact, it seems that the majority of songs written even in the past five years have proclaimed an utterly different ending to the Story. On the whole, the radio waves are flooded with songs about money, power, sex, drugs, living for selfish desires and selfish desires alone, and novelty without any inkling of intimacy. Pop culture’s primary message might be summed up thus: “Love yourself, be yourself, for you can do no wrong. But, in the meantime, here are all the things you must chase after.” The Story ends with selfish desire in this case. This is not how the Story is supposed to end. Nor is this state of affairs only confined to pop culture. The self-fulfillment credo rears its head in the American political climate and the political climate worldwide, it shows itself in the world of sports where athletes are often treated as gods who can do no wrong, it shows itself to be present in nearly every corner of society… and we are all, in a very real way, practitioners of this mentality.
However, if bands like U2 show us anything at all, they show us that songwriters, authors, filmmakers, producers, journalists, can also be powerful Storytellers (emphasis on the capital S). If every story does, indeed, tell the Story, these creators have immense and precious influence and witness on and to the wider culture. How we tell the Story matters immensely! As a songwriter, I often try to remind myself of this, and each and every time it proves not only humbling, but frightening… but it also proves to be a source of hope. This is a hope in the fact that even in some small way, I have been given by God (and, indeed, we have all been given by God) a platform to tell this grand Story, which is the Story of human history: Life, Death, Resurrection. This is the Story that meets us where we actually are, in our “true colors, [which] lie in blue and black, through silken sky and burning flak,” in our own utterly lost and sinful state (U2, “Bad”, The Unforgettable Fire, 1985). This is the Story that brings dead people to life. This is OUR Story. All we must do is have the courage to tell it in its entirety, and with no alternate ending. And, who knows? Even those Storytellers who don’t recognize they are telling the Story might recognize that they really are, and will also recognize who they truly are: loved, cherished, wanted, redeemable. That is the Story we all must tell.