Thursday, 11 May 2006

Travelling outside karma: U2's Grace

Tonight while I was washing the dishes I listened to U2’s sublime song, “Grace” (2000). I need to listen to this song every now and then, just to be reminded that I still know nothing at all about grace. Many preachers, perhaps even many theologians, do not understand the grace of God half as well as this song does.

The song depicts grace as a beautiful woman who creates music wherever she goes, a woman who “travels outside of karma,” while carrying a single pearl. The woman’s entire existence is nothing more or less than a single, unconditional Yes to the world, a Yes that heals and forgives without a second thought, a Yes that cancels every debt and covers every shameful thing. Her existence is an embodied contradiction of all “karma,” of getting what you deserve. You never get what you deserve from this woman; from her you deserve only silence, but instead she stops to talk, and when she’s near you, “you can hear the strings.” And so the woman finds and creates beauty wherever she goes.

The song’s personification of grace is superb; but the music is just as important, especially that simple, carefree guitar riff on which the whole song rests. Even before Bono starts to sing, this riff itself already conveys everything the song wants to say about grace. The riff is as smooth as a woman’s hips, as soft and easy as her footsteps on the street. In its seamless, circular perfection, it’s like the “pearl in perfect condition” that the woman carries. From the moment we first hear those notes, we know that we are in another world, travelling “outside of karma.” This effortless riff is itself the contradiction of all karma and all works-righteousness.

Beneath everything else in the song—Bono’s voice, the percussion, the guitars and synths that rise momentarily out of darkness and then fade again—beneath all this, that single, carefree riff still follows its own uninterrupted path. Even when Bono begins for a moment to lapse into a kind of vocal works-righteousness, with his too-strenuous repetition of the final line, the guitar riff continues undisturbed, so that the small vocal flaw is sublated and transformed, caught up and carried on the gentle rhythms of grace.

It’s no accident that the song both begins and ends with this guitar riff. At first, we hear nothing but the riff—and when every other instrument has faded into silence, for a moment we hear again only those same pulsing notes, the notes that continue on their way when all else has ceased. In the end, there is only grace.


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