The following is part 1 of a 3-part article series that examines excerpts from a new book about U2 and C. S. Lewis (how their music and books intersect and capture spiritual hunger in powerful ways) called Shadowlands and Songs of Light: An Epic Journey Into Joy and Healing. The series is being published to celebrate the upcoming release of U2’s new album “Songs of Experience.” (#U2SongsOfExperience)
Possibly the most wonderful, intensely blissful emotional sensation that can happen to us in this world–maybe even more wonderful than falling in love–is something that C. S. Lewis called “stabs of joy” in his autobiography “Surprised by Joy.”
This “stab of joy” is a longing so intense and sweet and melancholy all at once that it’s overwhelming and ecstatic, and it can strike at any moment, as I wrote:
[This stab of joy] is close to the intense sensations of homesickness—the pangs that come when we see a place from our childhood or hear an old song that’s tied to our past. Yet it’s not quite nostalgia. It goes beyond that. When this strange Longing stabs us, we feel homesick for a home we’ve never had.
For each person this moment is different–maybe you felt it once while watching a sunset or stargazing or when you saw your newborn child for the first time or when you read a certain book or smelled a certain fragrance of flower on a rainy day in the garden. The pinprick that causes the longing is different for everyone and it changes as we get older, but it is common to the human experience. (And this bittersweet yearning for something we don’t know and can’t describe can often be the catalyst or precursor to what philosophers call existential angst.)
One of my earliest memories of a stab of joy happened while backpacking as a kid. My family had just reached the summit of a mountain at the same moment when a fighter jet flew over it, so close that the pilot saw me and gave me a thumbs up. The next moment I turned and reached a vista overlooking the California Sierra mountain ranges and the Nevada deserts.
That’s when the stab struck, as I write here:
Something pooled in my heart, an expansive longing that surprised me with its intensity. It was not the desire to see another dawn or fighter jet. Those things were pinpricks that spilled an unexpected blood, a yearning that flowed toward something I could not name.
It happened again years later when I visited my brother Ian in Oxford, England, the university town where C. S. Lewis lived and taught. One night as we were walking across one of Oxford’s ancient stone bridges, I glanced up and saw Orion glittering like a cross in the sky. At the same moment, my brother approached a homeless man huddled in blankets. Ian reached in his grocery bag, pulled out a bottled of vitamins, and gave it to the homeless man.
For some reason more joy struck me at that moment:
What an unexpected one-two punch. I saw the heavens glittering in the sky, and then I saw heaven appearing on earth as my brother showed the love of Christ to a stranger. All of it induced something beyond this world, an inconsolable longing that struck me in the streets where Lewis had walked.
This strange sensation of joy–or perhaps better described as undefined longing or homesickness for a place we’ve never seen–is more than just an interesting emotional experience. It turns out it is a sign-post to something much bigger.
A Different Meaning for the Word ‘Joy’–Not Happiness or Pleasure
Our culture thinks of joy as the most intense form of happiness or pleasure. Lewis defined it very differently. In truth, Joy has nothing to do with circumstantial happiness. He defined Joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” And these stabs would pierce him suddenly, then withdraw: “before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased” (Lewis, “Surprised by Joy: The Story of My Early Life”).
For example, it happened to Lewis while he was reading a line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Saga of King Olaf.” He describe the sensation this way in “Surprised by Joy”:
Instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.
These few moments changed Lewis’s life, as he notes later in his autobiography: “the reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.”
As we see in Lewis’s writings and in the story of how he came to faith, these stabs of longing were giant blinking arrow signs from Heaven pointing him down a path of spiritual hunger. He followed that path fervently, and it led him to Christ and to the ultimate source of what he was longing for: a restored relationship with God filled with intimacy and unconditional love because of what Christ did on the cross to wash all of us clean and open the door of access to that close communion with God Himself.
The source of this haunting stab of joy goes back to the beginning, as I wrote while remembering a sermon by Timothy Keller:
Dr. Timothy Keller, in one of his sermons at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, talked about this Joy, and he wondered if some faint memory of Eden’s paradise—that perfect bliss of fellowship we once enjoyed with God, heart-to-heart and knee-to-knee, sitting with him on top of the world with our feet dangling off the edge—somehow still haunts us.
How U2 Captures Joy and Longing With ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’
In Shadowlands and Songs of Light, I begin Chapter 2 with an attempt to summarize the entire 40-year career of the legendary rock band U2:
If I were to sum up the band U2—every song, every album, and every tour of their almost-forty-year career—those two words would be sufficient.
It’s the motion of something that refuses—obstinately, passionately, religiously—to be comforted or lulled into slowing or stopping. It refuses to settle, and fears self-contentment. It’s always straining to see what’s beyond the horizon.
U2’s epic anthem “Where The Streets Have No Name” is a classic example of how U2 instinctively (or consciously, they are fans of Lewis’s books) captures Lewisian Joy with their songwriting craft–particularly with the way they structure their songs and use the power of carefully placed dissonance (i.e. notes that clash or create subtle but complex harmonic frequencies), as I explained near the end of Chapter 2.
First, I explain how dissonance works in songwriting:
Imagine yourself snapping a group of rubber bands so that each one makes a twanging sound–some high, some low. When you play a chord on the piano, you’re striking a bunch of tightly wound strings and making them vibrate. They’re giant rubber bands in a wooden box. The higher-sounding strings vibrate faster than the lower-sounding ones, and the mathematical ratios between the vibrations do some strange things to your brain.
In 2011, researchers discovered that the brain likes ratios of sound wave vibrations that have big fat whole numbers, such as 3:2. The brain hates complex ratios such as 3.1465:7.4833. All of the chords that sound nice to the ear are the ones with simple ratios between the notes. The brain has trouble filtering and retaining data from complex ratios; it’s like watching a movie on a fuzzy TV from 1974 instead of on an HDTV flat screen. When a chord brings complex, troublesome ratios to the eardrum, it creates what musicians call dissonance—an unpleasant harmony that makes the brain cringe. When a chord has simple ratios, it is called consonance. It’s pleasant sounding.
You would think, then, that good songwriters would write nothing but consonant harmony—all simple ratios, no tension, nothing complex.
But good songwriters don’t do that.
Good music has a strange nature. It thrives on tension—well, carefully constructed tension. The songs that really pull our heartstrings have more tension than we realize, and much of that tension happens so fast that we’re not consciously aware of it.
And then the book dives into “Where The Streets Have No Name.”
One little touch of genius (among many) in the song’s opening minute is the way it lets one chord of the organ release and fade slowly as it begins a new chord.
A quiet, warm-toned organ begins the song with thick layers of chords. It enters the soundscape as slow as morning light inching across the desert floor. The organ makes the first chord linger, sort of hang in the air, just as the second chord is played. For a brief moment, the two chords overlap, and the spacious, echoing reverb of the mix intensifies the overlap….This phenomenon—spikes of dissonance that flicker, then disappear—is probably responsible for about 90 percent of goose bumps experienced in the history of music. In “Where The Streets Have No Name,” the chords at 0:19 and 0:53 have the biggest spikes of dissonance.
This is a common technique, but it’s a subtle hint of what’s coming in “Where The Streets Have No Name” as the band uses different modes of tension to powerful effect:
Another interesting thing about dissonance: it can create a sense of change and motion even when the tempo and rhythm of a song stay the same….It creates this illusion of increased, intensified motion, even when the drummer has not changed the tempo or the beat.
The organ teases the ear with little fading flickers of dissonance, but the The Edge’s guitar comes in. It’s playing simple arpeggios, all consonance, no dissonance–no tension anywhere. As I described it:
The rhythm of the guitar, a simple picking pattern of shimmering high notes, fixes itself in the sonic space. Its hypnotic repetition creates the illusion of something hovering motionless high above, like the fixed light of a star.
There is some movement, yes; The Edge is playing a lilting cluster of notes that might be compared to a lazy pendulum swing—back and forth, back and forth—but the notes are so consonant and banal that the feeling of something frozen in a loop, of a fixed body, overcomes any sense of motion. It shimmers and sparkles, thanks to the delay effects on The Edge’s guitar. It’s the twinkle of a single star presiding over a shifting world below.
U2 is building a sonic landscape. The simple arpeggio of the guitar works as an ordinary backdrop that helps the organ stand out. This is how U2 created its “slow-burn opener,” as a reviewer from NME described it—one of the greatest openings to a song in modern music.
But it’s all just introduction. U2 is still getting warmed up, as I explain:
At 1:10, the bass and drums join the guitar and organ. Just before this happens, The Edge stops his hypnotic cyclical pattern. Instead of a lazy pendulum-like swinging motion, he levels the rhythm out into a straight, driving sprint, like a jogger shifting into a hard run. He pushes the harmony away from easy consonance and moves it into some slight dissonance. The guitar is now the driver of motion. The bass and drums match this new rhythm with foot stomping, fist-pumping power that energizes and multiples the momentum in the guitar. The instruments, one by one, build upon each other until they become a racing, crashing wave.
When Bono comes in, however, everything changes again. He steps to the front of the mix, and the band’s surge of motion moves behind him. The band becomes a single sound, a fixed point in reference to the moving Bono; they’re a backdrop to his melody and lyric. The transformation is now complete: every instrument in the band melds together and becomes one fixed star orbiting high above, and Bono is now the one moving restlessly below it as he journeys like a pilgrim through his melody and lyrics; or perhaps he moves more like a hunter, as Time magazine noted: “Bono stalks a song as much as sings it, and the moment he takes the stage there is no doubt what his terms are: unconditional surrender.”
And all of it, the roaring wave of sound backing Bono and his restless melody, strains forward with Joy—that inconsolable longing for something nameless, for something beyond the horizon where the streets have no name.
That restless inconsolable motion of “Where The Streets Have No Name” is a fitting description for everything that U2 has done; and it will most likely be a good descriptor for their new album “Songs of Experience” too. (The first song to be played for the public #TheBlackout certainly has a heavy stomping dose of inconsolable motion.)
And the term works well for Lewisian Joy, for the inconsolable longing that stabs our hearts, flashes like a sign-post to Heaven, and awakens a fresh hunger for God, even if we don’t call it that yet (as Lewis didn’t call it that for many years until the longing brought him to its destination).
And when we listen to our favorite U2 songs or read our favorite C. S. Lewis books–or listen to other artists and read other authors who move us–may it remind us to pay attention to these stabs of joy that shake us out the humdrum-ness of daily live and pierce our hearts with transcendence when our daily routines bury us with immanence.
Or as this excerpt puts it:
As the cares of the world and the gnat-like swarms of the day crowd our lives, heaven has to break through those swarms to get our attention, and it uses this Longing as a surgical knife. Joy’s sharp Stabs cut through our earthly cares and surprise us. The Holy Spirit sends the Stabs as if he were sending messenger birds—or messenger humming birds, to be exact, because of the agile speed of these Stabs that prick and then retreat.
It is fixed high above, always shimmering—like the sparkling arpeggio of the guitar in the first minute of “Where The Streets Have No Name.”
And even when we’re not paying attention to it, Heaven is poised above us, ready to strike at any moment, hovering above the moments of our lives–fixed high above, always shimmering, like the arpeggio of The Edge’s guitar above the organ in the first minute of “Where The Streets Have No Name.” (Scroll down to listen to a video of this famous U2 song.)
Click here to read other published installments in this 3-part series.
Excerpts in this article come from the book “Shadowlands and Songs of Light.” Text LIGHT to 54900 to get a preview of Shadowlands and Songs of Light. You can also try the new YouVerse Bible App devotional plan written by Kevin called C. S. Lewis and Joy now available in the Bible app.