U2’s music and moments of vertigo

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Jesus grounds us through the chaotic, uncertain times of life

by Tim Neufeld

Spinning. Slipping. Colliding. Many of us have faced such uncertain moments in life. In a post-9/11 world, the insecure culture that so quickly engulfs our souls has left us distrustful of politics, unsure of the economy, cynical of science and skeptical of religion. Nothing seems permanent or stable anymore.

Through their song “Vertigo,” the rock band U2 has helped me reflect on the life’s instability. In the music video for this song, band members spiral up and down, trying to hold their ground on wildly undulating rings of an enormous bull's eye, while being blasted with gale-force winds in a featureless desert.

Lead singer Bono cries out, “I’m at a place called vertigo,” to which guitarist Edge responds, “Donde esta?” (loosely meaning, “Where are you?”). The song offers both confession and question about the world around. In one version of the song Bono sings:

Lights go down it’s dark
The jungle is your head
Can't rule your heart
And fear is taking over every thought

One of my greatest fears is uncertainty. This is only compounded in our noisy, spinning world—a world that was once predictable but is now so often unclear.

The lyrics continue:

I can't stand the beats
I'm asking for the check
Girl with crimson nails
Has Jesus 'round her neck

Bono has said "Vertigo" is a commentary on the culture in which we live: "I was thinking about this awful nightclub. You're supposed to be having a great time . . . . It's that woozy, sick feeling of realizing that here we are, drinking, eating, polluting, robbing ourselves to death. And in the middle of the club, there's this girl. She has a cross around her neck, and the character in [the song] stares at the cross just to steady himself."

In the midst of chaos, says Bono, the image of Jesus grounds us; it’s here that we find hope and meaning. In this moment love breaks through, teaching us, stabilizing us. In the song’s final lyric, Bono declares, “Your love is teaching me how to kneel.”

I had one of those earthshaking moments recently. I was driving my family on a rural road when an oncoming car suddenly crossed into our lane. At freeway speed we slammed into the passenger side of the vehicle, pole-vaulting our car into the air. Spinning around, we landed upright with only abrasions and bruises. Sadly, one person in the other car died and another suffered critical injuries.

I will never forget the explosion of air bags, the screeching of brakes and seeing the world whirling around through the window behind my wife. It was a life-altering experience. The physical pain of whiplash was equal to the emotional grief we faced. I was confronted by life’s fragile and tenuous nature.

There are collisions of the heart as well as collisions of metal and machine. For some, vertigo comes through a lost relationship, a broken marriage, the death of a loved one. Others might be knocked off balance by loss of a job, betrayal of a friend or serious illness. Sooner or later, everyone feels the ground shift beneath their feet.

Our car accident rocked me in a way that I could never have imagined, but through the chaos and uncertainty, Jesus has grounded me. His cross and empty tomb provide meaning and hope. His love is teaching me how to kneel with gratitude and love for a God that sees me through the spinning and slipping and colliding.

I’ve been to a place called vertigo—more than once—and I know I’ll be there again. Donde esta?

Tim Neufeld is assistant professor of Contemporary Christian Ministries at Fresno Pacific University. He teaches a class called “Theology, Culture and U2” and writes for the website www.atu2.com, usually on the theme of theology and culture. For more information about U2’s Christian influence, see his personal blog at www.timneufeld.blogs.com and select the “U2 & Theology” category.

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