Brian Johnston was attending church services on Sundays and Wednesdays in the part of East Texas region known as “the buckle of the Bible Belt” when adolescence came knocking.
Floating in that confused and awkward space between his Christian belief and human biology, the 12-year-old had an experience that, though the particulars differ, most have had.
Alone on the floor of his older brother’s room with headphones on, he played the 45-rpm version of U2’s Fourth of July on the stereo. Not realizing it was the B side, he flipped the 45 over to the A side and listened to the band’s hit Pride (in the name of love).
By the time the song was over, he writes in a book co-written with Susan Mackey-Kallis, his life had changed.
“The Edge’s reverberating guitar filled my chest with both yearning and power, and the first phrase of Bono’s lyrics got me hooked on love in a way no sermon could conjure and no history book could articulate.”
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The spirit and passion of the music “combined everything I still trusted about faith with a spirit of social justice” in what likened to a religious experience. That same feeling has led music lovers for generations to say listening to the music that touches their souls is “like going to church.”
The academic bent of Johnston and Mackey-Kallis’ book is obvious from its title, “Myth, Fan Culture and the Popular Appeal of Liminality in the Music of U2”; so is its price, $100, more or less.
But Johnston, who lives in Springfield and teaches at Miami University, and Mackey-Kallis, an associate professor at Villanova University, clearly are on to something.
That something starts with a simple premise.
Although we often think about music being as disposable as so many things in our lives, Johnston says, “within it may be this more profound spiritual awareness.”
Although the academic nature of the book tends to make it less accessible, most of their basic ideas are easily unpacked.
“Liminality,” which appears in the title, is an example.
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A liminal space is where things are foggy and undefined: the space between Johnson’s Christian beliefs and his adolescent body; a border where nobody rules; lyrics that seem not to have a specific meaning; a feeling that cannot be articulated.
Because it’s a medium that communicates without text - and one that touches the senses — liminal regions are often spaces music explores.
Older readers can think of these Eagles’ album title “On the Border,” their hit song “Take it to the Limit,” and the emotional desert that provides the backdrop for “Desperado.”
This is clearly the same ground explored when U2 lead singer Bono cries out “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
Liminality, the authors say, is “a central quality” marking U2’s music the band to an ongoing higher purpose: to “evoke a … longing or questing for unity and social justice in the world.”
Because of this quality, they write, the band draws fans on quests of the same sort, bestowing on followers a sense of spiritual unity with other fans of that sort found in a church congregation. And in live performance, there develops a kind of ritual communication that connects those in the seats with the leaders on stage.
Johnston is comfortable making the comparisons to religious experience, he said, “as long as we put quotations around ‘holy community.’”
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To drill down into the kinds of love that are at work in the band and fan relationship, the authors turn to the Greeks, who described three kinds of love: agape, which links people to one another; amour, which, in linking one person to another stops love from being “all about me”; and Eros, the sometimes wild and uncontrollable - perhaps feral — engine of our connections and disconnections.
They also draw a parallel between search for the Holy Grail in Arthurian times haunted searching lyrics like “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
Popular music of each generation always works this same fertile ground.
In their analysis, Johnston and Mackey-Kallis also rely on chart-topping thinkers of the modern era: Marshall McLuhan, the pioneer in understanding the connection between message and medium; Joseph Campbell, a trail-blazing thinker about myth and human experience; and psychologist Carl Jung on how by modeling its behavior for its audience, U2 draws fans into that same search for meaning.
Campbell’s work on the mythic hero is tapped explain the tendency for the fans of UI2 and other bands as quasi-mythic heroes. In U2s case, that story involves the story of the unlikely birth of a band in the violent streets of Dublin, its growth into a band crying out for peace in the world, and the tale of how a one-named singer rose to international prominence in
For Johnston, the connection with a lesser-known scholar, Janice Rushing, also is crucial.
Johnston, who studied under Rushing while earning a master’s at the University of Arkansas, said she protested against post-modern philosophers who argued that technology and its daily influences are killing the human spirit.
“It can be pushed out to the margins, it can be buried within,” Johnston said, “but spirit is never destroyed.”
This is an article of faith for authors with strong connections to Christianity shared by U2. Not coincidentally, it is a view that allows for hope that the power of spirituality can change the world, but only through social action.
On three or four occasions during an interview at Un Mundo Café, where he did much of the work for the book, Johnston that without action, a “come-to-Jesus” calls for a faithful response.
“You can’t just have that moment. You have to do something with it. You have to act.”
Like so many fans, the co-authors individual connections with U2 have deeply personal aspects.
Like an archaeologist exploring a cave, Mackey-Kallis, has unearthed feminine archetypes in the lyrics of the band. For his part.
“For me,” Johnston said, “it was a prodigal son kind of story,” the story of the son who left one day and
“needed to be brought home in some way.”
Likely in the name of love.