“The Wanderer” by U2

I saw U2 twice in Chicago a few weeks back and one of my favorite features was the intermission halfway through the show. They played “The Wanderer,” and on the video screen showed the face of Johnny Cash singing the song. As it progressed, Cash’s face aged, reflecting the tour’s name, “Innocence and Experience.”

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I’ve had this song on my mind constantly as I work on my Mark commentary. I think Mark’s portrait of Jesus resonates strongly with the wanderer’s discovery of those who “say they want the kingdom, but they don’t want God in it.”

Here’s a repost of a reflection on the song from a few years ago:

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.

5 thoughts on ““The Wanderer” by U2

  1. joey

    Took the family to New York, where we saw U2 on July 26th and 27th. Been a fan since 1983, when I first saw the Sunday Bloody Sunday video recorded at Red Rocks.
    Gloria (as song that’s all about God) was a highlight, as well as Bullet the Blue Sky, Until the End of the World (sometimes I ache for Judas), and Where the Streets Have No Name. Bono pointed at my 13 year old daughter during City of Blinding Lights (we were on the front row) – made her day.

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