“God is in the room—even more than Elvis,” quipped the lead singer Bono in reference to U2’s concert performances last summer. The third and final leg of their world tour, called “Elevation,” opened on Oct. 10 in Notre Dame’s Joyce Athletic Convocation Center to a sold-out crowd of approximately 10,000 fans. It was loud, ridiculously fun and the closest thing to a tent revival this Catholic boy has ever experienced.
To begin to understand the mystique of the Irish rock band U2, one needs only to experience the presence of Bono: the leather-clad, Scripture-quoting, wraparound-sunglasses-wearing lobbyist for third world debt relief whose larger than life personality effortlessly lights up a room. Or a stadium. A tireless performer on the concert stage, Bono pursues an assortment of social causes around the world as well. A rock star who hangs out with Senator Jesse Helms and Pope John Paul II, Bono also gave the commencement speech at Harvard University’s graduation in 2000.
As the band struck the opening chords of “Beautiful Day,” the J.A.C.C. erupted with screams. Bono’s first words were, “This is holy ground.” Unlike Moses in Exodus, however, the singer elected to keep his shoes on. On the very next song, “Until the End of the World,” the lead guitarist, known as The Edge, and Bono walked out to the tip of the giant, heart-shaped stage for a slightly bizarre piece of performance art, acting out the tension between Jesus and Judas at the Last Supper. I quickly realized this was not your ordinary rock concert.
But then again, this band has always puzzled me. The idealism of their early rock records gave way to mid-1990’s experiments of electronica with dark lyrics that were barely accessible to many fans. For some concerts, Bono would actually parade around onstage wearing a pair of devil horns. But I guess it is the privilege of great artists to lose their minds eventually.
The Judeo-Christian story reminds us of the cyclic pattern of sin-grace-redemption, and great art has always reflected those themes. The songs of U2’s first public performance in a post-Sept. 11 world tended to concentrate on the later elements of that pattern. During the gradually building introduction to “Where the Streets Have No Name,” Bono quoted a few verses from Psalm 116 before tearing around the perimeter of the stage at breakneck speed. By the time he started singing, the valley of the J.A.C.C. was shaking like a small earthquake. No longer a mere witness to a performance, I had been transported to that mythical place in “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” where Neil Diamond captures perfectly the feeling of a Southern Gospel tent revival in his famous song.
Ah, but Brother Love never had the level of technical support at his tent show that U2 has. Nitrogen smoke rose like incense from the stage prior to the band’s arrival. Dazzling lights, video screens and visuals were projected around the arena’s walls. Images of star charts, candles entwined in barbed wire, symbolic doves of peace, suitcases decorated with a heart and other signs that point to spiritual realities flashed everywhere. While much of U2’s stage show may be evangelical, the special effects were evidence of their sacramental imagination.
At one point in the gospel-flavored “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Bono, leading the singalong, said “Take it to church; that’s right, you’re in church.” People never seem to tire of singing about the search for grace. And what tent revival would be complete without a sermon? During the encore song “One,” Bono spoke for several minutes about the Sept. 11 disaster and creative ways to respond. He mentioned that his friend, the president of the World Bank, believes the roots of terrorism lie in the abject poverty of much of the Middle East and how dealing with it will take bravery—bravery much like what was shown by the New York City Fire and Police Departments on that fateful day in September. And so for the altar call and final song, “Walk On,” U2 brought onstage about a dozen members from the N.Y.P.D. and N.Y.F.D., who had flown in just for the concert, to take a bow and receive some appreciation from Notre Dame’s audience.
Grace, she takes the blame,
She covers the shame
Removes the stain.
Grace, it’s the name for a girl, it’s also a thought
that changed the world.
Grace finds goodness in everything,
Grace finds beauty in everything
Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.
—from “Grace,” on U2’s album “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”
Although the band never returned for a second encore, the arena sound system played the CD version of the final song, “Grace,” as the crowd filed out into the autumn breeze.
The theology of the piece appears to mix together Augustinian and Thomistic concepts. Bono can’t seem to decide if the depravity of the fallen world is too deep to clean, or if we live in the graced universe defined by St. Thomas Aquinas, where all of creation is redeemed. But then again, on some days, neither can I.
Just as pilgrims in medieval Europe would travel great distances to experience something transcendent, I felt a sense of solidarity among the fans milling about in the parking lot before and after the show. Some had traveled from other schools in Indiana; some were visiting from halfway across the country, no doubt staying with current Notre Dame students in their dorm rooms. Several mentioned that the concert was a religious experience that would keep them aglow for days. U2’s performance at Notre Dame was the only college stop on their tour and in their smallest arena to date since the mid-1980’s. Perhaps the band was intrigued by the chance to see the “Catholic Disneyland” outpost that Irish-Americans have helped build. Bono admitted during the show that he was impressed with the beautiful campus, which he had toured on a borrowed bike that afternoon. He also commended Notre Dame’s ethos of service, mentioning how our teacher-volunteer program was a way of changing the world.
In this postmodern world, there are fewer events that bring people together. For much of history, the church was the only show in town. It provided surreal cathedral architecture, dazzling stained-glass light shows, the clergy in elaborate costumes and stories of sinners who became heroic saints depicted in art. Yet with the dwindling numbers of young people who identify with “organized religion,” I must admit there is something we could learn from a band whose fans wait in line for several hours to buy tickets for $46 or $86 apiece. Days before the show, tickets were being bid up to $400 a pair on E-bay. But hey, nobody ever said salvation was cheap.
Even though part of me tries to deny it, I believe that contemporary cultural attitudes are influenced more by the people who write popular songs, movies and television programs than all the classrooms and pulpits in this country put together. But even this most thoughtful band has a fair amount of contradictions. In a global environment, where most people live day to day, this group enjoys the high life in penthouse suites at the finest hotels around the country while it is on tour. Maybe there is still room for God in the decadent world of rock-and-roll, as U2’s song lyrics are among the most socially aware, compassionate and hope-filled on the radio today. The realms of the sacred and the profane have never been so blurred.