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U2’s 'The Joshua Tree' A Masterpiece Every Christian Should Know

@U2, September 29, 2017
By: Scott Calhoun


Along with The Book Of Kells, the stained-glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle, Emily Dickinson’s poetry and Frank Capra’s movie It’s A Wonderful Life, U2’s The Joshua Tree is one of the 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know. Author Terry Glaspey created the list and tells “the fascinating stories behind great works of art, literature, music, and film.” In 2016, his book received the Medallion of Excellence from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association and the Christianity Today Book Award for best arts and culture book of the year. Glaspey, a popular speaker on art, creativity and spirituality, is also the author of The Prayers Of Jane Austen and Not A Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy Of C.S. Lewis.

I enjoyed reading through what were, for me, some familiar and unfamiliar selections. Each brief story he told gave me a greater appreciation for the art and often taught me something new. The book draws mostly from a Western civilization canon, and while I was happy to see U2 on the list I was also curious as to why he picked U2 from all the contenders. We talked by email about his decision.

I guess you probably had to limit yourself to just one album of U2’s for your list of 75, so why The Joshua Tree?

I chose The Joshua Tree for at least three reasons. First, it is such an iconic album, one familiar to even those who are not necessarily big U2 fans, as it had several hit singles and U2 toured it again this summer with fresh new live performances. Second, for the purposes of my book it is probably the album that best captures the way that the band so convincingly straddles the realities of belief and doubt. I find their expression of faith in this album so honest and so utterly convincing. And third, I just plain love this album. I owned it on vinyl when it was first released, bought it on cassette, and then again on CD, and now own the deluxe boxed set. And I know every line of almost every song on the album by heart. It is so emotionally intense and resonant, so honest and edgy, and yet so ultimately hopeful. It just speaks to me. Certainly, there are other U2 albums that could make the case for being their greatest achievement, but The Joshua Tree just seemed like the obvious choice for my purposes.

U2 is in great company with other 20th-century popular music artists on your list. What do you see U2 as having in common with them?

I think the common theme running through most of the popular music artists I chose for the book -- Mahalia Jackson, John Coltrane, Johnny Cash, Larry Norman, Bob Dylan and Bruce Cockburn -- is that they are all fellow travelers in the sojourn of life. None of them spout an easy, triumphalist version of faith. All of them, especially artists like Dylan and Cockburn, are artists who write a great deal about the struggle of life, as well as the struggle of belief. They are less interested in making an argument or affirming a position than they are in allowing you to travel alongside them as they explore the big questions of life and love and meaning. They are not afraid of admitting to having doubts and unanswered questions.

U2 fits into this category beautifully, of course, as would other artists such as Nick Cave, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Leonard Cohen, Mark Heard, and a bunch of others.

Though I limited my inclusions in "75 Masterpieces" to those who specifically self-identify as Christians for the purposes of the book, I have received so much inspiration from other artists outside that tradition. I want to hear from artists who try to tell the unvarnished truth. They are the kinds of musicians whose work feeds me. They tell it like it is about life -- all its pain and confusion and mystery, but still emerge with a kind of hope about life that seems earned, not just borrowed from someone else’s belief system. I have found such songwriters to be irreplaceable companions for my own spiritual journey, along with a lot of great poets, novelists, spiritual writers, painters, and filmmakers.

U2 fans will heartily agree The Joshua Tree should be in your book, but what would you say to those who might need convincing that U2 made a masterpiece of music just as classical artists have, like Haydn and Mendelssohn, or sacred music artists, like Hildegard von Bingen and John Newton, who are also on your list?

A few readers have stumbled over the meaning of the word “masterpiece,” and one Amazon reviewer took me to task because she didn’t think that people like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan belonged in the same league as Bach and Handel. But her attitude says more about the narrowness of her own taste than actually putting forward a coherent perspective. Who says it has to be either/or? I love classical music. I love jazz. And rock, and bluegrass, and traditional country, and the list could go on.

\What makes a masterpiece in each category is the commitment of the artist to pursuing their craft with a high degree of creativity, of working within the boundaries of their genre while at the same time finding ways to stretch beyond it. Ultimately, a masterpiece is a piece created by a master. And if U2 and Dylan and Johnny Cash can’t be considered masters at their own musical craft, then I don’t know what the word even means. When I set my iPod to shuffle it is not unusual for a Dylan song to be followed by John Coltrane, then something by Old Crow Medicine Show, followed by a harpsichord piece by Bach, and maybe something by the Beach Boys. Frankly, I find it all wonderful.

I noticed William Blake's Songs Of Innocence And Experience is on your list too. Does anything strike you as a tight connection between Blake's poetry and what U2 has recorded?

I don’t see where U2 is explicitly drawing from Blake on their album Songs Of Innocence, but I think some similar themes emerge: childhood, faith and mystery. Often the most powerful kinds of influence are those subtler in nature, and I’m certain that Blake’s verse has meant a lot to Bono and the guys. I’m looking forward to seeing what Songs Of Experience will hold. I’ll be preordering it as soon as it is announced.

What’s on your U2 playlist?

My favorite songs would include “War,” “All I Want Is You,” “A Sort Of Homecoming,” “Running To Stand Still,” “Walk On,” “Pride (In The Name Of Love),” “40,” “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “Bad,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “One” and “The First Time.” I return to the songs and albums regularly, and every time I seem to discover something new that feeds my spirit.

What does U2’s art do for you personally?

U2 has been a companion for me on my own spiritual journey, an authentic voice for the universal struggle between our common human virtues and vices. I have been following them since the release of October, though War was the first album that I absolutely loved. They have challenged my tendencies toward comfortable piety and offered a vision for a faith that could make a difference in the rough and tumble of the real world. Their picture of the life of faith isn’t neat and tidy, and it isn’t particularly religious in the usual meaning of the word. Instead, it is confrontational. It shakes up my own conception of who I am and what is/should be important to me. And it makes me look at my life in the world in a new way.

Some have criticized U2, and especially Bono, for taking themselves too seriously. But watching them navigate their career through the years and holding up a light that is beyond themselves, I find it refreshing to see them stumble, to shake off their own pretensions, and to get back on their feet and keep producing music that rattles my soul, makes my body move, and gives my mind plenty to consider. They are true artists in the overly commercial world of rock-and-roll.

The title of your book says these are the works "Every Christian Should Know." What do you think someone misses out on if they never get to know The Joshua Tree?

I argued unsuccessfully with my publisher about the book title. I never felt comfortable telling people that these are works they should experience — that seemed a little too much like the high school literature teacher who is required to spoon-feed the classics to unwilling students, as if it were some kind of nasty medicine. And the result of that approach is often an inoculation against something that is actually quite wonderful and life-changing. But who wants it shoved down the throat? But I lost, and it probably really doesn’t much matter.

As to The Joshua Tree, I truly cannot imagine how anyone could give it a careful listen and not be moved (by both the lyrics and the music) and likely even changed because of their exposure to it. That’s what great art does. But no need to get too ponderous here. The music of U2 is also just plain enjoyable, and that is of great importance too!

(c) @U2/Calhoun, 2017

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