With U2’s iconic Joshua Tree album turning 30 this past week, the band is receiving a resurgence of much deserved attention. This is somewhat ironic, culturally, given that much of what made U2 legendary was their global social consciousness. Their whole career is a drastic contrast to the travel bans, gutting of financial and environmental protections, dismantling of diplomatic leverage, or thinly veiled xenophobia that dominate current news cycles. The global situation is increasingly more and more dire. When I hear the songs from The Joshua Tree and I can't help but be more than a little overwhelmed at how relevant its themes have remained.
The Joshua Tree is composed of songs about personal spiritual quests, relationships, people on the margins, political and economic commentary, the lives of those caught in the middle of wars, and social commentary. As an album, it holds together because every song is relevant to the real world. It’s neither a shallow pop album, nor a shrill, narrow-minded rant at global conditions. At the time it was released in 1987, no one sounded like U2 but the sound of this particular album redefined pop and rock music. Combining social relevance, lyrical brilliance, and musical passion, The Joshua Tree was one of the most significant records of all time with songs like “With or Without You,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
Far from being naive, U2 offered a generation of people of faith an alternative to the too-easy religious cliches, judgmental (if not dishonest) doctrines, and disconnected and uninformed theologies that have defined Contemporary Christian Music for—well—ever. Finally we had a band that saw the world honestly, who sang about what was real, AND they were outstanding musically. They made mindless masses think and feel while also rocking us to our core. The Joshua Tree put global famines, class and racial distinctions, and dehumanizing militarization all in the context personal spiritual quests for freedom and insight. These themes are just as important now as they were then.
The other night I watched the HBO documentary, Cries from Syria. I haven’t been the same since. The movie is full of scenes of families who desperately want freedom but were caught between government oppression and terrorist groups. Enduring chemical weapon attacks from the Assad government, terrorist invasions, Russian carpet bombs, and extreme hunger, the families featured in the footage stayed in their homeland as long as they could. When the Russians started bombing civilian neighborhoods, schools, and hospitals, already desperate circumstances became unmanageable for parents who just wanted to raise their kids, so they did the only thing they could—they fled the country, only to be met with massive fear, anger, and denial about what they had been through. Those families would have preferred to worry about First World problems like the Affordable Care Act, Brexit, or their microwaves spying on them. Their humanitarian crisis condemns those of us in the West for our selfish and greedy world view—and The Joshua Tree yet again asks the question: what good does it do us to gain the whole world if we are willing to sacrifice our souls?
In “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Bono sings about believing in “kingdom come when all the colors bleed into one.” I wish that that wish reflected a distant, now overcome time in history that we had left behind, but sadly it is still a painfully and tragically necessary vision. Yet, while that “kingdom come” has not become fully real, just to sing about it makes it more and more present—but not as real as would making Syrian refugees part of your nightly prayers, your weekly prayers at church, and a relevant issue in how you vote. If you “want to reach out and touch the flame where the streets have no name,” then take the words of Jesus to heart when he said “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” The Joshua Tree has showed our otherwise shallow and superficial popular culture how to care about the world and engage it physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Syria is not just an immigration matter, but a spiritual matter—and The Joshua Tree is more relevant to our spiritual growth than ever.