Vertigo, U2, and the Gospel

For all the things that I know that I can do well, there are still moments I feel as sharp as a wood block.
Such was the experience I had years ago when someone pointed out to me that Bono’s 2004 mega hit “Vertigo” – the rock-out song at any U2 concert – is based on today’s Gospel Reading (MT 4:1-11)
My blurred reaction was similar to a slug being taught to samba. It didn’t quite compute in my brain.
But that is the reaction of all us sometimes possess when we are first taught to look for God in the world. Sure we find God in the Sacraments, in the Bible, and in anything lovingly defined as “churchy,” but the skill of seeing God delicately gliding in close proximity to our everyday life can be difficult. No matter. As right as rain, when you learn to look for God, God is there.

Now to be fair, there is a great deal of speculation surrounding anything Bono (and U2) writes. Some suggest that he is just a very good artist and as with any artist, people can find their own meaning in the trancing arc of the artist’s work. But for me, I feel like I’ve seen too many connections in Bono’s work to assume that it is just random association. In new and brilliant ways, he articulates stories of faith rooted in the Christian tradition.

Vertigo, for example is less about the actual disease vertigo, and more a song about extreme disorientation. The Christian equivalent for “disorientation” is “temptation,” and the most important story us Christians tell about temptation is Jesus’ Temptation in the Desert.
In the story (MT 4:1-11), the devil takes Jesus to the height of the Temple and to the height of the mountains to show him everything that he could have. He says “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” If it wasn’t Jesus being tempted (or maybe his humanity infers he shared the same experience), it’s the kind of event that would lead someone to end up being a little dizzy, as if they had… vertigo.

Of course the song Vertigo has the singer passing through various temptations: rock and roll, money, power, sex, and then comes the haunting line near the end of the song, “All of this, all of this can be yours. All of this, all of this can be yours. All of this, all of this can be yours, just give me what I want, and no-one gets hurt.” Sounds very similar to the devil on the mountain doesn’t it?
When I look at the parallels in the song, it’s hard for me not to see Vertigo as an artist’s expression of Jesus’ Temptation in the Desert. Especially when it gets to the end as Bono sings “I can feel your love teaching me how, your love is teaching me how to kneel.” I think it is the singer coming to grips with his faith and how love is a far more powerful force than the temptations of the world. Faith can overcome temptation. It can overcome disorientation. It can even overcome… vertigo.

In pointing this out to you, I have a couple of goals. First, I hope that you’ll see a new connection in which you’ll hear the song and see the parallels. Thus, I won’t be alone in the agony that prevents me from just listening to the song and enjoying it. Consider yourself now cursed. Second, I hope that it awakens in you a renewed sense that God’s revelation is very near to us, it lurks in the most peculiar places, including our popular culture.

But the last thing I hope relates to Lent itself. The forty days of Lent are similar to the forty days Jesus spent in the desert. In that time, he was tempted, but overcame temptation in order to know his mission more clearly. I pray that Lent might also bring you to the disorienting precipice that temptation engenders, but that Lent may also purify and strengthen your resolve so that love may teach you to kneel.

-David Heimann, Pastoral Associate

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