A recently released Italian book provides a song-by-song commentary on the lyrics to U2 songs from all twelve studio albums. What I want to have a quick look at, here, is the interesting media reception which U2: The Name Of Love (Rome: Arcana, 2009) provoked – a reception that illustrates the role of the reader and listener in observing and construing biblical allusions.
In his introduction to the book, journalist-author Andrea Morandi explains that his commentary will attempt to identify the literary and historical influences of each song, as well as place them within a biography of the band’s development over the last 30 years or so:
“This book attempts to tell the story of U2 sequentially by putting together the pieces of a mosaic: 137 songs, one after another, combined to produce the final design. The structure is like that of a film script that begins in 1974, in a cemetery in Dublin and ends in 2009 in Beirut. In between there are twelve chapters on twelve records, involving America and the Bible, Karl Popper and Johnny Cash, New York and Berlin, Barack Obama and Margaret Thatcher, El Salvador and the British miners, the supermodel and the IRA. A hundred and thirty tales, in which we follow the evolution of Paul Hewson, a boy who begins by writing lyrics in the first person as in a journal and who, album after album, becomes increasingly aware of his literary power, learning lessons from Bob Dylan and John Lennon, joining together fragments from anywhere: popular and high culture, ancient and modern, the Psalms of David and Jack Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor and advertising slogans, the book of Habakkuk and Wim Wenders, but also the world and its changes, the fall of the Wall to September 11.”
The introduction stresses the great diversity of influences on U2’s lyrics, and this variety of literary and historical factors is documented more fully throughout the 664-page book. As you see, there is no special emphasis on biblical influences, but rather, these are integrated into the book along with relevant literary and historical influences.
So how did the media receive it?
First: the Vatican daily newspaper. An article published in the 4-5 January 2010 edition of L’Osservatore Romano included a number of comments on Andrea Morandi’s book. The article, by journalist Gaetano Vallini focuses, somewhat unsurprisingly, on the biblical allusions in U2 songs. The article notes, quite correctly, that U2’s 1981 album, October stands out as especially significant for its biblical and Christian allusions, but that such allusions can be detected throughout U2’s subsequent albums. While the Vatican’s newspaper is understandably slanted towards this particular aspect of Morandi’s book, and this aspect of U2’s music, it does not misrepresent the content of the book.
But now consider an article which was published by UK newspaper The Guardian, on its music blog (6 January 2010). Laura Barnett’s article reported both on Morandi’s book and its review in the Vatican’s newspaper. The Guardian‘s article is headlined as follows:
U2: Rock’n’roll’s answer to the Book of Common Prayer?
Is Bono really a true crusader for Christianity? Two Italian journalists have examined his lyrics and discovered Biblical allusions in almost every song
The remaining content of the Guardian article is typical of the UK media’s inability to understand religion, a failure that frequently boils over into outright animosity, as it does here. Barnett’s article continues by incorrectly reporting that the Vatican’s newspaper article constitutes “the official endorsement of the Vatican” on U2. (It’s not – it’s some Vatican journalist’s piece.) Her article then describes the Vatican article as “mak[ing] the case that Bono is a true crusader for Christianity”, and reports that his lyrics are “a veritable treasure trove of Biblical references and allusions.” She follows this up by claiming that, in his book, “Andrea Morandi laboriously extracts Biblical allusions from almost every U2 lyric.” This is patently untrue, and suggests both a misreading of the Vatican article (which only claims such a comprehensive degree of biblical allusions on the album October) and a complete failure to read Morandi’s own book. As the quotation from U2: The Name Of Love shows above, Morandi’s book contains a great diversity of literary and historical sources for Bono’s lyrics, of which biblical allusions form a regular but not all-pervasive presence.
What is particularly amusing about Barnett’s hatchet-job is that, in the one case where Barnett concludes there is no biblical allusion, she gets that wrong as well. Barnett objects when L’Osservatore Romano finds a biblical allusion in the song “Magnificent” to Mary’s magnificat in Luke 1. She comments that this “feels like an extrapolation too far.” What is interesting here, for me, is that the words to “Magnificent” can be interpreted as secular by someone without any great biblical literacy. Whereas, the case can be just the opposite if you have the words of the magnificat in your “intertextual encyclopedia” – as Bono confesses he himself did, when he wrote the song. Not that I’d proffer the songwriter’s own comments as in any way decisive on the issue.
What is also fascinating about this largely religiously illiterate Guardian reviewer is that she clearly feels that she has been “taken in” by U2. At the conclusion to her article, she wonders if listeners should steer clear of U2 for fear of “religious conversion by stealth” (my emphasis). She doesn’t quite understand the biblical allusions in U2’s music, but now she knows that they’re there. And if she can’t determine where they are exactly, they could be bloody anywhere! Despite a career in musical journalism, which should have afforded her with some degree of acquaintance with bands like U2, it seems that U2’s regularly biblical allusions and Christian themes have largely passed over her head. And on this point, she might have got something right. U2’s lyrics have always been able to speak in different ways to different audiences, depending on the community to which they belong and that community’s particular goals, interests, and knowledge.
See also: some (more timely) comments on the issue from Beth Maynard and an interview between Scott Calhoun and Andrea Morandi.