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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Bible under the Joshua Tree: Biblical Imagery in the Music of U2

Andrew Davies
I first encountered the music of U2 as an 18-year-old in my first few weeks at theological college. “Try this,” said one of my new-found friends, thrusting a cassette tape into my hand, “you'll love it. And they're Christians too they get all their song ideas from the Bible.” And I have to admit I was impressed  in The Joshua Tree I encountered what was to me a whole new world of sound: music that was raw, passionate, and engaged and lyrics that were edgy and earthly, but with real depth and more than a hint of spirituality. However, I did wonder how my friend got the idea that the songs were biblically inspired. To me, that would have required rather more than the name of a biblical character being used in the album title and the occasional theological word like “sin” or “angel” sneaking into the lyrics from time to time, but oblique references of that kind seemed to be just about all I could find to link these songs with Scripture.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, twenty years on, I can understand that, whilst U2 lead vocalist and lyricist Bono did not in any sense attempt to write biblical commentary, he did seek to use biblical themes and images to deliver social commentary and in particular to critique attitudes in the ruling class of a mid-1980s America that he considered to be, in its own way, just as corrupt and oppressive as its Soviet counterpart. By exposing the barriers that kept the prosperous and the underclass in their respective places, The Joshua Tree[1] sought to turn the tables on America’s leaders, confront them with social barriers such as the poverty of their own people and the perceived injustice of their foreign policy, and say to them, Mr. Reagan, take down these walls.

In seeking to implement that agenda, U2 had it's advantages. Perhaps, prophetic critique has to arise from within a community if the community is to be able to receive it, but from the periphery if it is to prove genuinely critical, and U2’s status as an Irish band with a global reputation speaking into the United States certainly provided them with that opportunity in a unique way. Their other advantage, which is for our purposes of rather greater interest, was that they sought to employ the Bible to speak to the heart of America. Bono wanted to be biblically inspired, motivated, and guided in his social critique, and actually he sought even more than that, for he explains: “I wanted something biblical. My understanding of the scriptures were the psalms of David and the lyricism of the King James Bible and I tried to bring that in, to give it a religiosity.”[2] It is almost, then, as if he felt he wanted to write scripture in the process of rereading it   to deliver a new psalter for his generation that combined the pathos of lament with prophetic fury to rage against (what he saw as) the injustice endemic in God’s own country.[3]

And if in this imagination Bono is the new epic biblical poet, then 1980s America is, for The Joshua Tree, biblical Israel: a chosen, special nation, led by a noble and respected leader who, tragically, only rarely managed to live up to expectations but was seduced by other priorities; a land set apart from the others by its inherent nature, afforded the opportunity to be bigger and better, but often failing in its fundamental remit; a people who were once enslaved and are now free, but still wandering through their own wilderness in the quest for their home whilst still carrying the wounds of their oppression. The Joshua Tree conceived America’s journey in forthrightly biblical language and imagery   and observed that it was still a nation in the wilderness.

There are perhaps indications of dependence upon the biblical traditions even in the cover design of the album. The main sleeve photograph is taken in Death Valley (no shadows here, but the biblical resonance is still clear). Members of the band stand closely together, outsiders in a wilderness of truly biblical proportions, the landscape around them hemmed in by mountains in the distance and as bleak, lonely, and isolated as one could imagine. The severity of the band’s expressions, the darkness of their clothes, and this lack of color all contribute to the image of separation, exclusion, and austerity. Jeremiah’s description of the Israelites at the Exodus as wandering “in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives” (Jer 2:6) could easily apply here.

The back cover image is equally interesting; though it was taken in the same location, the band is here rather more anonymized, taking the focus to a large extent away from them and forcing it onto the new element in the photograph, the eponymous Joshua Tree, the presence of which is made all the more obvious by the structure and set-up of the photograph, let alone the striking nature of the tree itself. This is not a bush, and it is not burning, but its isolated existence and unexpected appearance in this harsh wilderness are surely evocative, given the other hints toward Exodus imagery that are present throughout the album.

It helps, of course, that this tree is of the species Yucca Brevifolia, more commonly called the Joshua Tree. The tree was so named apparently by Mormon migrants in the nineteenth century because it typically appears to adopt the posture of a worshipper looking to the heavens with arms outstretched in prayer, which reminded them of the great biblical leader.[4] As biblical Joshua led his people on, so these incredible trees had been seen by the settlers as calling them on through the harshness of the Mojave to their own land of milk and honey. By titling their album this way, U2 emphasized its fundamentally spiritual nature, but also their passionate desire for America to continue, despite the costs, its journey toward a brighter future for all its citizens, which they conceptualize as a biblical quest.

The biblical dependence continues into the songs themselves. Clearly there are a number of different ways in which a song lyric can be biblically inspired. Whilst there are no examples of precise quotations of extended passages from the Bible on Joshua Tree, the song “40” from the album War is a clear setting of Psalm 40:1-3. More commonly, however, U2’s biblical inspiration shows in allusion or in a thematic commonality between song and Scripture. Here, as in most other areas, allusions are in the eye of the beholder, and it is not difficult to find fan websites offering all manner of biblical connections to U2 songs. This is the analysis offered by one website I found:[5]

Track

Lyric

Biblical Parallel

1. Where the Streets Have No Name

We're beaten and blown by the wind

James 1:6 – But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.

2. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

I have spoken with the tongue of angels

1 Cor. 13:1 – If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

3. With or Without You

See the thorn twist in your side

2 Cor. 12:7b – Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.

4. Bullet the Blue Sky

Jacob wrestled the angel/And the angel was overcome

Gen 32:24 – Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

5. Running To Stand Still

Sweet the sin, Bitter the taste in my mouth

Rev. 10:10 – So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.

7. In God's Country

Hope, faith, her vanity/The greatest gift is gold

I stand with the sons of Cain

1 Cor. 13:13 – And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Genesis 4

8. Trip Through Your Wires

I was cold and you clothed me honey...

Matt 25:36 – I was naked and you gave me clothing

9. One Tree Hill

You know his blood still cries from the ground

We run like a river to the sea

Genesis 4:10 – And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!

Eccles. 1:7 – All streams run to the sea,

but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.

10. Exit

Saw the hands that build can also pull down

Jer. 1:10 – See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.

Even a cursory summary reveals some of the major observations that can be drawn from this data. For starters, by viewing the song lyrics in context, it becomes clear that in many of the examples cited here, the biblical allusions serve primarily artistic purposes and treat the bible purely as a cultural artifact and source of literary imagery. Sometimes they may be accidental or even non-allusions (as may indeed be the case in the first example cited above). Maybe even in such circumstances, however, the source from which such passing allusions are drawn says something about the alluder and his/her intentions. In this case, I think we could certainly consider such examples as sure evidence of Bono’s clear familiarity with certain biblical traditions, but I would not want to push my claims beyond this, not least because some of the parallels might be culturally mediated anyway.

In other cases, the literary “baggage” that the biblical allusions bring with them is used to good effect. There is a good example of this phenomenon in no. 9 above, “One Tree Hill,” a song about the tragically early accidental death of a U2 stagehand, Greg Carroll. “His blood still cries from the ground” is a very clear throwback to Gen 4, carrying with it a strong sense of the injustice and tragedy of the death and also perhaps how close the young man was to the band. The context of the line in the verse as a whole is significant too:

And in the world, a heart of darkness, a fire-zone
Where poets speak their heart then bleed for it
Jara sang, his song a weapon in the hands of love
You know his blood still cries from the ground

It runs like a river runs to the sea
It runs like a river to the sea

I don’t believe in painted roses or bleeding hearts
While bullets rape the night of the merciful

“Jara” is the (seminary-educated) Chilean folk singer and popular activist Victor Jara, who was tortured and killed for his political beliefs in the aftermath of the 1973 (US-backed) coup in his home country. The reference to him might at first seem strangely out of place in this affectionate tribute, but perhaps the fundamental message of the song is one of the continuing injustice of the death of the innocent and how awful the loss of a loved one is in any circumstance. It also highlights how U2 see their music too as a “weapon in the hands of love” in the fight against oppression. The biblical allusion highlights that this is a tragically ancient phenomenon and thereby certainly adds something substantive to the pathos and depth of the song. The chorus, ‘”It runs like a river to the sea,” though rather more oblique, is possibly a reference to Eccle 1:7, expressing the continuity of life even in the midst of drudgery or misery.

There is also a third category where I think the references are deliberately and wilfully used for precise impact, sometimes even theologically. Perhaps, the two most obvious instances are the parody of 1 Cor 13 in “In God’s Country,” which is used to express the sense of misplaced priorities the band feels about the United States, and the line in “With or Without You”—“See the thorn twist in your side”—which to me at one and the same time manages to draw on Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” language of 2 Cor 12 and a conflation of two of the most vivid images from the crucifixion of Jesus: the crown of thorns placed on his head and the spear thrust in his side. The lyric offers us pictures, therefore, of enduring hardship and extreme anguish that were both in some measure divinely inflicted and humanly resisted; both Paul and Jesus ask to avoid the pain, but are compelled by divine purpose to endure it still.

To illustrate the album’s biblical dependencies more specifically, let us briefly consider one of Joshua Tree’s more famous tracks in a little more detail. “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” is clearly a song about a quest. Whilst in its proposing and dismissing of alternative priorities for living, the song might be thought to have similarities to Qoheleth, essentially it offers a liberationist reworking of the Exodus motif that to my mind pervades the album as a whole, and I think this is reflected in the sound scape of the song as well as in its lyrics.

For example, the track begins with open, accented repeated notes on the lead guitar with a solid and regular beat at a good marching pace. It seems to express a consistency of motion and momentum that is evocative of forward progress through drudgery and effort   perhaps a march onward through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. The next instrument to be added is the tambourine, which is not only something of a biblical instrument but also has particular resonance with the Exodus narrative as the accompaniment to Miriam’s song of praise after the Red Sea crossing. The march aspect of the music is more obvious still when the band joins in toward the end of the introduction; the effort and drudgery entailed is, to my mind, emphasized by the bass line, which retains essentially the same pattern throughout the song, with only subtle changes to allow for a slow build in intensity. The same basic pattern is repeated many times over to fade at the end, emphasizing once again the ongoing nature of the search in question, in addition to the writer’s determination and persistence to pursue it despite the effort entailed.

Lyrically, aspects of the Exodus and Conquest motif continue throughout the song too, with mountains needing to be climbed, fields to run through, and city walls to scale in the quest for the object of the writer’s affection. There is, of course, an apparently Christian final verse to the song, and the religious tone of this part of the song is emphasized by the introduction of an organ into the arrangement. This third verse is also interesting for combining something of the language of fundamentalist evangelicalism (emphasized further by the use of a gospel choir in the live version of the song that appeared on U2’s next album, Rattle and Hum) with more progressive religious concepts such as the idea that we are “not there yet,” and talk of “colours bleeding into one.” Perhaps, we are seeing here something of a rejection by U2 of traditional ecclesiastical formulations of Christianity in favor of a more inclusive but engaged approach. Is Bono saying that what he is still looking for is a believing Christianity that rejoices in the operation of its transformative power   for the faith community to assume its responsibility to deliver change in society?

It seems to me that this was indeed precisely the agenda that Bono and U2 were following at this stage of their career (and continue to reflect today). Their socio-political comment and critique develop, in conjunction with the use of biblical language and imagery, something of a prophetic edge. They want us, if you like, to find faith in the wilderness, but need us to recognize just how much of a desert the global community finds itself in before they can offer their pillar of fire for us to follow.

To what extent is this biblical interpretation? I think it is a conscious and perfectly legitimate reworking and repurposing of biblical traditions (the Exodus ones particularly here), redeploying them to work towards their original affect but in the quite different context of 1980s America. It seems to me that it is in all of our interests to at least bring biblical values to the table for discussion, and sometimes this has to be done through mediated means. The Joshua Tree succeeds both because it is using the Bible, in subtler as well as bolder ways, to speak to middle America and offer it a vision and a model of true liberation from slavery, and because it uses the incredible rhetorical capacity of music to do so. Over twenty years and more, the album has proven to be a power for transformative change in the world, precisely because it is very difficult to resist the persuasive power of a good tune in such contexts. As Bono himself once observed, “Music is so powerful, it carries you to some places you'd rather not have been.”[6]

Andrew Davies, Mattersey Hall Graduate School

[1] Its original working title was The Two Americas.

[2] Bono in U2 by U2 (HarperCollins, 2006), p. 179.

[3] One of the songs on the album; usually taken as referring to America, though perhaps intentionally ambiguous

[4] I cannot find a specific Bible reference that relates to this image; the closest is perhaps Moses stretching out his hands over his armies at Rephidim when they are fighting the Amalekites, Exod. 17:8-13.

[5] http://www.atu2.com/lyrics/biblerefs.html, accessed 18 November 2008.

[6] Bono in U2 by U2, p. 189.

Citation: Andrew Davies, " The Bible Under the Joshua Tree: Biblical Imagery in the Music of U2," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2009]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=795

 
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