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Songs Of Experience's Patron Saint: John The Divine

@U2, April 28, 2018
By: Sherry Lawrence


Bono has been coy with the use of "love" and "light" throughout his songwriting career. He is the master of ambiguity, which is one of the reasons why U2's music is so universal. He has also been far more public with his spirituality in the past few years, making it a bit easier to connect the lyrics to biblical scripture. Bono seems to be inspired by the Apostle John for quite a while, and John's contributions to the Bible (the Gospel of John, the three Epistles of John and Revelation) have focused on love and light as well. The Apostle John was the author of the book of Revelation, a book describing heaven and the afterlife, and after his death was given the title John the Divine by the Greeks to honor the scope of his writings and acknowledge his standing within the church. Songs Of Experience infuses so much of what Bono holds dear, and the amount of inspiration he has taken from John, one of his favorite apostles, is evident on the album.

John the Divine has popped up before in "Breathe" on 2009's No Line On The Horizon. Perhaps elements of Songs Of Experience are a callback from the phone call mentioned in "Breathe": "9:09 St. John Divine on the line, my pulse is fine." In Songs Of Experience, Bono's pulse serves as inspiration for the tracks and many of the tunes allude to the afterlife and the revelations he shares with everyone through the "letters" he offers as songs.

One such example is "Lights Of Home." The song describes a journey that could take the singer right up to the pearly gates of heaven: "One more push and I'll be born again, One more road you can't travel with a friend." The next lyrics mention bright lights and a gold guitar, which could represent the stage or allude to heaven. Revelation 21 refers to an angel with a gold measuring stick and "God's Glory is its light, the Lamb its lamp!" (The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language translated by Eugene H. Peterson)

"American Soul" offers a more direct reference: "Hold on, brother John, Too many mothers weeping, Dream on, brother John, But in your dreams you can't be sleeping." At first, I thought it might be a reference to John Lennon because he was a hero to Bono. That would have been too obvious. The call-out to "brother John" links much of what "American Soul" touches on: evangelizing to the masses about taking care of each other (love thy neighbor). The Apostle John was given this task when Jesus commanded him to care for his mother, Mary, at the time of his crucifixion. (John 19:25-27). Mary was not the only mother weeping at the time.

When John was at Gethsemane with Jesus prior to the Last Supper, he fell asleep instead of remaining awake to focus on Jesus (Mark 14:32-42). The song is not just a wake-up call for America; it could also be a subtle wake-up call to the church. The reference to "brother John" might also be a reference the childhood nursery rhyme "Frère Jacques": "Brother John, Brother John, Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping? Morning bells are ringing. Morning bells are ringing. Ding, dong, ding. Ding, dong, ding." In this nursery rhyme, the friar overslept and was responsible for waking the monks to go to morning prayer. It's another play on innocence (nursery rhyme) and experience (derivation). The line "but in your dreams you can't be sleeping" could also express how John wrote the book of Revelation, which came as a vision while he slept.

"American Soul" isn't the only track on Songs Of Experience full of these love and light connections as written about by John the Divine. It's practically the entire album. For example, 1 John 1:5-7 sets up the light theme: "This, in essence, is the message we heard from Christ and are passing on to you: God is light, pure light; there's not a trace of darkness in him. If we claim that we experience a shared life with him and continue to stumble around in the dark, we're obviously lying through our teeth — we're not living what we claim. But if we walk in the light, God himself being the light, we also experience a shared life with one another, as the sacrificed blood of Jesus, God's Son, purges all our sin." (The Message)

The love theme, which "Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way" encapsulates, could be influenced by 1 John 4:17-21: "God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we're free of worry on Judgment Day — our standing in the world is identical with Christ's. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life — fear of death, fear of judgment — is one not yet fully formed in love. We, though, are going to love — love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first. If anyone boasts, 'I love God,' and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won't love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can't see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You've got to love both." (The Message)

The apocalyptic theme found in "The Blackout" ("A meteor promises it's not gonna hurt, yeah / Earthquakes always happen when you're in bed, Fred / The house shakes, Maybe it was something I said, Ned") also touches on John's accounting in Revelation 16:17-21: "The seventh Angel poured his bowl into the air: From the Throne in the Temple came a shout, 'Done!' followed by lightning flashes and shouts, thunder crashes and a colossal earthquake—a huge and devastating earthquake, never an earthquake like it since time began. The Great City split three ways, the cities of the nations toppled to ruin. Great Babylon had to drink the wine of God's raging anger — God remembered to give her the cup! Every island fled and not a mountain was to be found. Hailstones weighing a ton plummeted, crushing and smashing men and women as they cursed God for the hail, the epic disaster of hail." (The Message)

Overall, perhaps Bono is continuing John's evangelic calling through the many subtle references to John's writings found through Songs Of Experience's lyrics. If an album could have a patron saint, then Songs Of Experience's is John the Divine for sure.

Special thanks to Scott Calhoun and Kelly Eddington for assisting with this article.

© @U2/Lawrence, 2018

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