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Theological Notebook: Unfinished, Unpublished Review of U2's "How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb"

I was just working on things, half-listening to music playing randomly on my iTunes in the background, when U2's "Yahweh" from 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb came on. I was suddenly reminded of a review of the album I had started writing, with the intent of trying to hawk it to the Jesuits' journal of opinion, America. The review wasn't finished as I got so sick with post-surgical complications that basic functioning became my only task. By the time I was starting to really pull myself back together in February-March, and start writing my academic work again, it seemed to me that the review was no longer really timely, and so I put it away. As I said, I was just reminded of it, looked it up in my computer, and thought I would toss what I had of it here onto the journal.

Off to buy socks, ink, Euros and Swiss Francs.
Review: How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb by U2
Michael Anthony Novak
Doctoral Student in Systematic Theology
Marquette University

Let us open with a wild assumption to orient ourselves: Bono is the Psalmist of our generation. Now let us try to build upon that assumption.

Whether or not you pay attention to the music of U2, the mere fact that this band has reigned as the world’s rock band for nearly two decades demands a certain amount of respect. When that band’s frontsman has mezmerized the world not only with his words and his voice, but also his conscience—even moving governments to act on the indebtedness of developing countries, in company with Pope John Paul II—then an informed person ought to be aware of the influence of such an artist. When the band that is arguably the strongest Christian voice in popular music releases a new album, then even a Catholic publication like America, which normally does not review popular music, ought to spare some space to listen thoughtfully.

U2’s previous release—2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind—was a prolonged, joyous set of songs whose unifying theme throughout was grace. It was grace—not karma, as Bono would tell any interviewer who would listen—that was capturing his attention at the time: the grace that is freely given, and is beyond any conception of being earned. The freedom that saturated those songs became the music Americans turned to in the aftermath of September 11th, and the band’s continuing tour through the United States reflected an understanding that these songs were somehow a communication between the band and the audience. In those performances, particularly of the hopeful “Walk On,” the band and the audience moved together through the aftermath of great tragedy, ministering to one another and trusting in some kind of grace to lead them to another “Beautiful Day.”

It should then perhaps not be surprising that their new release How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb—the first since September 11th—has a darker current running beneath the surface. In a turn from the easy freedom of the gift of grace in their last album, Bono here keeps returning to the difficulty of perhaps the most basic act of the Christian life: kneeling. The first track (and first single) of the album, “Vertigo,” introduces this theme at the end of the song. It steps in after a quiet and unexpected voice-over that perhaps echoes Satan’s demand to be knelt to, from Christ’s temptation in the desert: “All of this, all of this can be yours/Just give me what I want and no-one gets hurt….” In response to this, Bono’s voice, resurging through a dizzying electric guitar, “from a place called Vertigo,” gives us a stark couplet worthy of a Desert Father: “I can feel your love teaching me how/Your love is teaching me how, how to kneel….”

Tags: art, cultural, grace and freedom/nature, musical, mysticism/spirituality, theological notebook, u2, writing

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