U2’s “The Wanderer” & Grace in Ministry

One of my favorite U2 songs is “The Wanderer.”  It’s not too well-known outside of U2 fan-dom, but it’s brilliant in so many ways and on so many levels.  It is the final song on the Zooropa album, released in the midst of U2’s highly experimental phase during which, according to Christian Scharen, the band was exploring a number of themes from biblical wisdom literature.

The song blends a collection of characters into one.  There are resonances of Qoheleth from Ecclesiastes and his probing the mysteries of the world, including all sorts of pleasures.  There are also notes of self-reflection on the part of Bono that turn into something like confession.  Another character in view is someone like “Sonny” played by Robert Duvall in “The Apostle,” a self-appointed minister whose gifts and calling are somehow undeniable but whose personal failings and flaws do some pretty serious damage and make him a tragic figure.

What makes the song particularly powerful is that it is sung by Johnny Cash, who embodies these characters (or, these aspects of a singular character) and brings them to life.  The song is at the same time haunting, carnivalesque, and completely catchy.

U2 have rarely played “The Wanderer” in concert, though they performed it for a tribute to Cash.

The song begins with the wanderer noting some of the things he’s seen on his journeying:

I went out walking through streets paved with gold
Lifted some stones, saw the skin and bones
Of a city without a soul
I went out walking under an atomic sky
Where the ground won’t turn and the rain it burns
Like the tears when I said goodbye.

Yeah, I went with nothing, nothing but the thought of you.
I went wandering.

He’s seen cities whose beauty is skin-deep, places like Las Vegas—superficial and soulless.  He’s also seen the devastation done by apocalyptic Chernobyl-like tragedies.  His pondering the burning rain recalls the pain he’s caused to his loved ones, probably a woman whose heart he’s broken.  The only reason, however, that he’s embarked on this journey is because of a sense of divine calling—“nothing but the thought of you” (i.e., God).

The wanderer considers the two dominant empires of the Cold War era—America and the Soviet Union.

I went drifting through the capitals of tin
Where men can’t walk or freely talk
And sons turn their fathers in.
I stopped outside a church house
Where the citizens like to sit.
They say they want the kingdom
But they don’t want God in it.

But just as this prophetic role comes to the fore, the wanderer’s flaws do, too.  His sense of his own prophetic calling is caught up with and perverted by his craving for celebrity and praise.

I went out riding down that old eight-lane
I passed a thousand signs looking for my own name.
I went with nothing but the thought you’d be there too,
Looking for you.

The song’s conclusion is particularly powerful and especially relevant for contemporary ministry.  It seems that Bono gets confessional here, meditating on his overly pious behavior throughout the 1980’s.  U2 had gotten really preachy in those days, and looking back, they see the hypocrisy and corruption of that posture and prophetic mode.  They were trying to do God’s work for him, and anyone doing that perverts the work of God and somehow becomes perverted, too.  That person doesn’t truly understand God and his grace nor his own brokenness and need of that very same grace.

Here’s the final section of the song:

I went out searching, looking for one good man
A spirit who would not bend or break
Who would sit at his father’s right hand.
I went out walking with a bible and a gun
The word of God lay heavy on my heart
I was sure I was the one.

Now Jesus, don’t you wait up, Jesus I’ll be home soon.
Yeah, I went out for the papers, told her I’d be back by noon.
Yeah, I left with nothing but the thought you’d be there too
Looking for you.

Yeah, I went with nothing, nothing but the thought of you.
I went wandering.

Again, the wanderer had gone out to do God’s will.  He was out there because of this sense of divine calling.  But he went out with a Bible and a gun, ready to do God’s will with violence and coercion.  He had an unshakable faith in his own superiority and the righteousness of his cause—“I was sure I was the one.” 

The penultimate section is just brilliant—“Don’t you worry, Jesus, I got this one.”  It’s profoundly striking how U2 portrays this sort of figure who seeks to do God’s work for him but totally misses it.

The temptation of this sort of ministry posture is so powerful.  We want to change others, coerce others, make them take our side and convert them to our movement.  This was Paul’s mode of doing God’s work before his conversion.

But this ministry mode is anything but pleasing to God.  Jesus condemns the Pharisees for going to great lengths to make disciples.  They don’t realize that they’re turning people into twice the sons of hell that they are (Matt. 23:15).  Imagine the Pharisees’ horror at hearing this—what are you talking about!?  We’re doing God’s will!

This may be the very sort of behavior that John has in mind in 2 John 9, speaking of those who run ahead of God.  Sometimes passionate zeal can seem like godliness, but it often carries a person beyond and outside of what God intends.

A ministry partner mentioned to me a few months ago that he found himself trying to turn our church into what he thought it should be.  I was struck because his comments revealed my own attitudes and strategies.  The end of this way, however, is frustration and anger, which do not bring about God’s righteousness (James 1:20).

A variety of pressures force us into modes of coercion that marginalize God’s grace in relationships and ministry.  They must be resisted, however, so that we never coerce or become relationally manipulative or rhetorically violent. 

God’s grace only flows through cruciform servants who radiate freedom to others and joyfully love with abandon.

7 thoughts on “U2’s “The Wanderer” & Grace in Ministry

  1. joey

    Great song and great exegesis! I’ve been a U2 fan since ’83 – seen them 4 times. I hear biblical themes throughout their music. I often listen to U2 when I’m preparing to teach a Bible class, just to remind me of the bigness of the Gospel; as a reminder to not atomize the verses I might be using. We need to recognize that the writings of, say, Paul are not the sermons he preached. His sermons were probably nothing like his writings, which were mostly written to deal with “issues.”
    And, yes, we think it is our job to stamp out immorality. We do this by pointing to our alleged moral superiority and by ceaselessly teaching/preaching moralizing “Bible” lessons, as though that is what the Bible is about.
    Our calling is to tell GOD’s Story!
    Really good post, Tim. It is so encouraging to see someone who recognizes the things that desparately need to be said. The things you are writing are not just “Oh, I think I’ll say a little about this today, and maybe that tomorrow, and, oh, isn’t it lovely weather we’re having.” You are saying essential, critically important things. Maybe I’m living under a rock, but I don’t get the sense that there are a lot of other people out there with the insights you’re offering.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks Joey! I’ve been a fan since 1982. Will never forget my cousin giving me two of their tapes (tapes!) and being stunned. Went to my first concert in ’87 in Chicago. They capture the ‘voice’ of Scripture in ways that so many preachers just can’t.

      1. joey

        The Joshua Tree Tour. I waited in line all night for tickets to see them at the Pontiac Silverdome.

  2. joey

    Speaking of U2…
    I’ve been hearing Bullet the Blue Sky as a lament, especially the live Chicago version on the Vertigo DVD. I love the lament in Edge’s solo. We never sing laments in church! I wonder why that is.

    1. timgombis

      For one lecture I put up the lyrics to “Wake Up Dead Man” next to those for “It Is Well With My Soul” and asked students to identify which one was the “biblical” response to trials. Of course they said that the U2 song was an unbliblical and faithless response to trouble. I then put up the lyrics to Psalm 46, from which the song is taken (esp. The Message’s version) and they were stunned. Laments are in the Bible!?

      U2 is indeed a good guide to speaking with canonical variety, which includes praise, expressions of pure joy and elation, and lament.

  3. Pingback: Tim Gombis and U2 Songs | Euangelion

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