Music has always been important to my friends and me. If nothing interesting was going on, we’d head to Zia Records and wander up and down the aisles of new and used CDs. Maybe someone would buy something, but not necessarily. It felt good just to look around and talk about music. Songs were part of our common language; music flowed through every corner of our worlds. Sometimes we’d be sitting on a back porch talking about nothing, or maybe we’d cram into a car at midnight and head for the first rest stop up Mount Lemon to see the city lights, or we would be out in the middle of the desert at the edge of town watching the stars—and someone would break the silence or the chatter and say, “Dude, I can hear Mazzy Star right now. Yeah, Fade into You is the perfect song right now.” And, we’d stop… and think for a minute—we had to feel the moment while playing the song in our heads. Sometimes it was unanimous: “Fade into You…yeah…perfect.” Other times a heated argument ensued: “No way! Forget that, man. You’re totally off. Right now feels like something off the live Portishead album, or…” We were after a soundtrack, a soundtrack to our lives—an album we could play in the background of our very ordinary lives.
It’s the inverse of some of Brian Eno’s projects. Many call him the father of electronica—but that’s a bit misleading because his stuff sounds nothing like today’s “electronica.” Anyhow, he made a few soundtracks… but they weren’t soundtracks to any movie. Instead, he created music-scapes for imaginary movies, imaginary lives, imaginary landscapes. Great stuff. But my friends and I did the opposite sort of thing. Music was the language that held our lives together and we wanted a compilation album that made sense of us, or helped us make sense of our ordinary worlds; or, probably more true (maybe even painfully true), we were a bunch of kids stuck in the middle of an uninteresting town with middle-class lives and middle-class problems that struggled to escape the ordinary, to make things a little more interesting, more edgy—you know, piercings and tattoos, and stuff like that. This is indie America, friends. It’s no accident that Conor Oberst and his constantly shifting crew (i.e., Bright Eyes) are from Nebraska.
Well, I don’t know what this says about me, but I still carry around this idea of a soundtrack to life. Most of my songs are still in limbo; I’m not ready to release an album. But there are two that you can be quite sure will make the final cut: Radiohead’s “Talk Show Host” and U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Yeah, that U2 song, in particular, says it all—as Lauryn Hill and the Fugees might say, “Telling my whole life with his words.” It’s one of those songs that I can’t live without; the sounds and melodic words reach deep down inside me and accompany those groans too deep for words. It’s a song that walks with me, whose music moans with a world waiting in eager expectation for something to happen—the arrival of something that will make sense of the shadows. When I hear it I feel something stirring in this present darkness: a fleeting beauty, a glimpse of eternal light, something unspeakable,…maybe divine?
But it has to be the live version from Rattle and Hum, not the one from Joshua Tree. There’s something about that African-American gospel choir that sings along with Bono—it just makes more sense. In the Madison Square Garden, singing with a full gospel choir, Bono sings these words that, in a sense, become my words, the words of a pilgrim—or, better said, a refugee:
I have climbed the highest mountain; I have run through the fields, only to be with you. I have run; I have crawled; I have scaled these city walls, only to be with you. But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for… He will lift you higher and higher. He will pick you up when you fall. He will be the shelter from the storm. I believe in the Kingdom come, then all the colors will bleed into one, bleed into one, but yes I’m still running. You broke the bonds, loosed the chains, carried the cross of my shame, of my shame, you know I believe it. But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
It speaks of a taste, a sweet moment, a brief glimpse of something. But as soon as it came, it left again: I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Does the overflow of ecstatic love leave despair in its wake? It’s hard to say. Maybe that’s why I’m usually pretty pessimistic about this world that’s fading away. But the song also witnesses to newness… something happened: I’m still running, Bono says. And that’s just it. I can’t help but keep on running…crawling…climbing. Because there’s still that after-taste on the tongue, a faint savoring. There was a brief glimpse that passed away as soon as it came, but I am left remembering—and it’s a memory that promises, a memory that births hope.
Maybe years of listening to that song predisposed me to the Epistle to the Hebrews. That letter makes me feel the same sorts of things I feel when I listen to U2’s song. Right in the middle of the description of those great saints who lived by faith, we read about the wandering people of God, the refugees:
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Heb. 11:13-16)
They were aliens and strangers on earth because they were longing for a better country. And Bono sings, “I have climbed the highest mountain; I have run through the fields, only to be with you. I have run; I have crawled; I have scaled these city walls, only to be with you. But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” One echoes the other.
Unsettling. The text and song disturb any sense of belonging: “Where’s home?” “Who are my people?” Of course this unsettling provocation calls into question civic commitments and political ‘responsibility’—this is not our country. But the way Hebrews and the U2 song unsettle me runs deeper than the issues surrounding citizenship and belonging to the nation-state. My question: who am I? If I am without place, without a context, without frames of reference, my identity (dare I say ontology?) is insecure, tentative, unstable. It’s like being stuck in the middle of the Atlantic without a compass or stars above that could set the bearings for the journey. This, I think, is Bono’s desperate longing; this is Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, desperately awaiting the promised land—a people without land, looking for “the world to come,” as the writer of Hebrews puts it.
Is this the ecclesia? A people always called out? A people never arriving, never fixed or settled; rather, always to come—a provisional people, nomads living in tents, worshiping in tabernacles. The church: a people hastening to the edge of history’s collapse, and waiting for the city of promise to come down from heaven; a wandering people, marching (in circles?) in this chaotic wilderness at the border of the promised land, the heavenly city. The temptation in our wilderness is to build lasting houses, comfortable accommodations filled with the comforts of accommodation, which promise to shield permanently the desert winds—structures of order that promise reasonable and responsible defenses against the relentless bombardment of violent sand-storms, anarchic whirlwinds.
This is the ecclesia: the pilgrim people of God, refugees that witness to the world to come through wandering, through breaching the walls of security erected by those who fear the desert…
…Aliens and strangers on earth, longing for a better country—a heavenly one.