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Concerning Hidden Realities and Human Destiny

I'll Show You A Place: Contemplating U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name"

John Carswell | Tuesday, June 06, 2017

"I'll show you a place / High on a desert plain / Where the streets have no name"

Concerning music, it all begins for me with this singular song about a singular place...
u2-where-the-streets-have-no-name I don’t remember the first time I heard “Where the Streets Have No Name”, but I couldn’t have been much older than 8. The song’s opening organ is the dawn on my musical consciousness. It’s a spiritual sunrise as well. Just as I was discovering that Christianity was more of a mystical romance than a set of self-help platitudes, I was discovering through "Streets" that music could be more than just sugary sweets manufactured for mallrats.

"Streets" is the sound of rock and roll transcendence. It goes beyond anything popular music had ever done before. It’s a “further up and further in” moment, an invitation to escape the horrors and hardships of this world. But don't call it escapism! This ain't no daydream narcotic. It's the Tolkienian Escape, the courageous breakout of the POW rather than the flight of the deserter. When Bono cries "I wanna tear down the walls / that hold me inside", he's defying the tyranny of materialism, the WYSIWYG conceit of modernity. Henry Farrer, City and Sunset, Where the Streets Have No Name? But what of that unforgettable notion: where is it that "the streets have no name"? In the process of naming something, we gain knowledge of it. However, such knowledge is both a blessing and a curse. The tragedy of our present condition is that through this very knowledge we forget to see things as they were meant to be seen. And so we must escape to a place high above the "desert plain" of our prideful knowledge. It’s the things of the heavenly realm that we are incapable of naming, for, to paraphrase St. Paul, we have no idea what awaits. "Streets" is an apophatic anthem to the eternal kingdom, an undefinable place that, by some common intuition, we all know exists.

It's a bit of wonderful irony to me that "Streets" is, according to the band, an unfinished song. After all, to finish a thing is to perfect it, but how could anyone in the here and now have the final say on such a place? To finish "Where the Streets Have No Name" would have been to ruin it, to make it fit for consumption. Instead, by leaving it rough and unrefined, a sort of holy and numinous presence comes to dwell within you as you dwell within it.

Image: “City and Sunset” by Henry Farrer (American, London 1844–1903 New York) via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under CC0 1.0

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Brian O commented on 27-Jun-2017 08:39 AM

Thanks for the fresh way to look at this song!

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Hi - I'm John. Welcome to TrueMyths, where I explore music, Christianity, literature, and culture. I'm co-host of The Tolkien Road podcast, and am the author of Tolkien's Requiem. You can learn more about TrueMyths here.

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