Thursday, November 30, 2006

U2, The Wanderer (Theological Reflections)

The Wanderer
I went out walking
through the streets paved with gold
Lifted some stones
Saw the skin and bones
Of a city without a soul
I went out walking
under an atomic sky
Where the ground won't turn
And the rain it burns
Like the tears when I said goodbye

Yeah I went with nothing
Nothing but the thought of you
I went wandering

I went drifting
through the capitals of tin
Where men can't walk
Or freely talk
And sons turn their fathers in
I stopped outside a church house
Where the citizens like to sit
They say they want the kingdom
But they don't want God in it

I went out riding
Down that ol' eight lane
I passed by a thousand signs
Looking for my own name

I went with nothing
But the thought you'd be there too
Looking for you

I went out there
In search of experience
To taste and to touch
And to feel as much
As a man can
Before he repents

I went out searching,
lookin' for one good man
A spirit who would not bend or break
Who would sit at his father's right hand
I went out walking
with a bible and a gun
The word of God lay heavy on my heart
I was sure I was the one
Now Jesus, don't you wait up
Jesus, I'll be home soon
Yeah I went out for the papers
Told her I'd be back by noon

Yeah I left with nothing
But the thought you'd be there too
Looking for you...

Yeah I left with nothing
Nothing but the thought of you...
I went wandering

I've enjoyed and learned a great deal from Robert Vagacs' new book, U2 in Theological Perspective (Vagacs). However, I'm not sure he does justice to this particular song, "The Wanderer." I'd like to offer some brief alternative readings of my own and also ask for readers' comments as to the meaning of the Wanderer for them.

Vagacs is surely on solid ground when he argues that the protagonist of the poem is wandering through "Zooropa," the modern world in cultural winter. As he says, the figure is on a "journey into the emptiness of Babylon" (p. 52), the world bereft of God, a "dystopia."

But Vagacs does not mention the similar journey taken by Qohelet, the writer of Ecclesiastes. Qohelet was on a God-project, a meaning-quest, whereas Vagacs argues the Wanderer does not actively search for spiritual meaning but "moves about aimlessly" (p. 52). Thus, Vagacs gives a pessimistic and negative reading of the figure's wandering rather than understanding him as one like Qohelet, involved in a project to lay out the ground-work for a faith-solution to finding meaning in life.

The relationship of the Wanderer with Ecclesiastes is fairly clear. According to Bono, that relationship is what made him think of Johnny Cash to sing the lead on the song: “Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books,” says Bono. “It’s a book about a character who wants to find out why he’s alive, why he was created. He tries knowledge. He tries wealth. He tries experience. He tries everything. You hurry to the end of the book to find out why... There’s something of Johnny Cash in that.” One popular translation of Qohelet is "the preacher," and the Wanderer is about a preacher like Cash. Bono says, "Johnny Cash always left the line about cutting and running out. I always liked that. You know--bottle of milk, newspapers and he's off. He's got God's work to do. He's on tour."

In n. 30 on p. 53, Vagacs explicitly calls Bono's own understanding of the Wanderer overly "optimistic." He disagrees with Bono that "The song is definitely the antidote to the Zooropa manifesto of uncertainty." He does not see how Bono can say that "this track gives one possible solution." Interestingly, the faithful have often voiced just such doubts about the book of Ecclesiastes itself! Speaking of Ecclesiastes, H. Wheeler Robinson wrote, "The book has indeed the smell of the tomb about it." Fortunately, recent scholarship is often much more appreciative of Qohelet's theology.

The Wanderer is not aimless or prodigal, he's conducting wisdom-experiments, he's "looking for you." As Vagacs writes, "you" here is probably imagination---imagining God and the world interconnected, imagining transcendent meaning to life. The Wanderer goes out confident that "you'd be there too." The world, Zooropa, is bereft of God, but the Wanderer certainly is not. Certainly, he is on a "pre-repentance" experiment, but he promises Jesus "I'll be home soon."

Isn't the faithful thing to come home right now? No. Consider Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison. There and then, it was not his time or season to be "home." From the Nazi Tegel prison in 1943 Bonhoeffer wrote, "When the time comes (but not before!) we may go to him with love, trust, and joy." "Sooner or later there will be times when [one] can say in all sincerity, 'I wish I were home.' But everything has its time, and the main thing is that we keep step with God, and do not keep pressing on a few steps ahead--nor keep dawdling a step behind. It's presumptuous to want to have everything at once."

Vagacs complains that the Wanderer is "powerless to break out of Zooropa" (p. 53), yet should this be his goal? Ecclesiastes 2:24 reads, "There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil." In a post a few days ago, we looked at the metaphor of "eat and drink" as an expression of contentment in where God has placed us for the time being.

Martin Luther emphasized this as a key theological insight of Qoheleth: "Don't let the present moment, our moment, slip away," wrote Luther. No matter how strongly we might want to jump to the wonderful things God has in store for us in the future, we must not do it. "Do not desert the battlefield but stick it out."

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Blogger U2 Sermons said...

Thanks for pointing this out to me. I also found Rob's book to have wonderful insights - some fresh ideas.

My bias is always to be a little skeptical of Bono's statements about his own lyrics, because they vary so much with time and can tend towards revisionist history. As the band do in general - cf their current practice of more or less airbrushing out the 90s.

This isn't so much a response as a related comment -- perhaps my favorite thing about the song (other than the stellar line "they say they want the Kingdom but they don't want God in it") is something dealt with in none of the sources you work with above: the shock of the last verse where the listener is brought up short and made to say: "wait - is - 'a gun?' - hang on - the guy's crazy! Isn't he?"

To me this is just a delicious undermining of any attempt to find an unambiguous interpretation of the main character. It's like a sort of Flannery O'Connor gesture, one which to me increases the depth of the song about tenfold.

Thu Nov 30, 03:07:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Thanks so much for these notes, Beth. Yeah, you can hear clear revisions in the video version above, where, e.g., "gun" is now changed to "sun"! And you're right, anyway, that a piece of art is cut free from the umbilical cord to its author. But even if Bono didn't make the connection to Qoheleth for us, I think the verbal resonances are there pretty clearly. I was surprised Rob didn't deal with them. Yet, this is just a few pages of his total book. Anyway, I so much appreciate your notes! ---S.

Thu Nov 30, 03:41:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Peter Carey said...

All I can say is "damn good stuff!" wow; this is a wonderfully thick, dense, and wonderful reflection on such heroes of mine U2, Johnny Cash, Bonhoeffer (who I'm doing some work on for my thesis), and Martin Luther --- wonderful!


Thu Nov 30, 03:55:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Targuman said...

This is great! Thank you. I will now use this song as a entrance for my students into Qohelet.

Thu Nov 30, 05:16:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Thanks Peter, thanks Chris. ---S.

Fri Dec 01, 09:07:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger René Rejón said...

Hi, Dr. Stephen, I´d just discovered "The Wanderer" among the U2´s discography. I was amazed immediately. I read and read it again and again. It is hard to understand so I began searching other people´s interpretation, so I got to your blog.

I´d read your post, and I have some questions i hope you may answer. I agree with the relation between "the wanderer" and "the preacher", but i may not agree with Vagacs´: "powerless to break out of Zooropa", even with your: "yet should this be his goal? Ecclesiastes 2:24 reads".

I mean, according to Bono when he said: "this track gives one possible solution." and the lyrics: "I went out searching,
lookin' for one good man
A spirit who would not bend or break
Who would sit at his father's right hand
I went out walking
with a bible and a gun
The word of God lay heavy on my heart
I was sure I was the one
Now Jesus, don't you wait up
Jesus, I'll be home soon",
the meaning couldn´t be that this man went out searchin for a "good man..." then he realized that God´s word lay heavy in his heart, so he was sure he "was the right" himself, so he can return home, cause he had find that man: himself?

I mean, what if the song shows that the man found that "good man" in himself when he realized the word of God?. In that case, the track shows a solution to Zooropa.

I don´t know. I´m just a student, you´re the expert. I hope you can answer this post. Greetings from México.

Mon Jul 11, 06:22:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

René, thanks for your comment. Do you think that the "one good man" is Jesus? This would fit with the idea that the Wanderer is searching for spiritual meaning, for a spiritual breakthrough. The line "I was sure I was the one" is interesting. Somehow, the Wanderer does think he's got God's work to do. Is this work simply keeping step with God, throwing oneself into the here and now? Is it "going on tour," sharing a spiritual imagination with the world?

Mon Jul 18, 08:43:00 PM GMT-5  

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