As I discuss in the opening chapter of my 2010 book Freedom of the Self, popular music since the late 1960’s has been replete with claims of what it means to have identity in the world. Whether our sense of identity is bound up in the longing for love, the loss of our past, or the social injustice that removes people from seeing their true beauty and worth, popular music has made its mark on how much of Western culture thinks about itself.
In 1987, the Irish rock band U2 released what has been one of the most celebrated rock albums in history – The Joshua Tree. Where most of the popular music released in the 1980’s was filled with claims of the self framed by needing more and more – more things (“I am a material girl in a material world”), more experiences (“Girls just want to have fun”), more energy (“I want a new drug, one that won’t make me sick”) and even more time (“Gotta get back in time”), U2 released an album that was sparse in both its sonic and lyrical landscape. The lead single – “With or Without You” – is a song of longing to be alive, yet the resolution to this longing is not to be found in the accumulation of material wealth, experiences or even just having more time. Rather, the protagonist of the song comes to the realization that to be fully alive will require binding his life to the one he loves and in doing so, will end any sense of selfhood he had previously known or aspired to. As the protagonist wails in both lament and exaltation the refrain “with or without you, I cannot live”, the song moves from mere lyrics to a release into something beyond categories. At approximately three minutes into the song, lead singer Bono moves from words into a scream that is the sonic representation of Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting “The Scream.” With this release of the self into the sound beyond mere words, this simple pop song points toward much of what Lent is about.
After Bono’s scream of release quiets down and Edge slowly brings the song to a close with Adam’s steady bassline, I am left asking the question: Is what it means to be in the world either about gathering things to ourself – people, experiences, material possessions, knowledge – as an accumulating mode that ever increases and never relinquishes? Or are we merely to absolve everything, put the responsibility on mentors, doctrines, traditions and take no responsibility for our lives? Both paths in absolute will be our death.
There is something to this “death” that is found in the sonic release that U2 evoked nearly 30 years ago in that 4 minute song “With or Without You” which continues to challenge me to this day. Am I willing to admit that what I bind my life to what will be a death of sorts – either a death from which there is no return, for the weight of idols around our neck will surely pull us into the very depths of the abyss, or a death that is found in the absolute abandon of agape love where my total heart, soul and strength is released into the arms of (what John Coltrane accurately called) the “Love Supreme“?
Part of the continued journey of Lent is discovering what we are willing to release in the open arms of the grand Love Supreme. Or to riff on U2 one more time – discovering that our life is ultimately found in releasing “all that we can’t leave behind.”
Take a journey back to 1987 and let Bono show you how its done:
[an aside: I spend quite a bit of time in Freedom of the Self exploring what I consider to be what our lives are called to be on the other side of Holy Week - a deep calling to be formed into the very person of Christ as a call to what I term "the Kenotic self" in and for the world].