Heaven -- U2's where the streets have no name

I want to run
I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls
That hold me inside
I want to reach out
And touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

-- Bono, U2, "Where the Streets have no Name"

Regardless of anyone's personal like or dislike of their music, there is no denying that U2 is one of the premiere rock and roll bands of all time. Part of their success is fueled by the great lyrics of frontman and one of Time's 2005 Person of the Year, Bono. Bono has worked diligently on helping the poor of the world, and his efforts are fueled by his belief in the person of Jesus Christ. As he told Christianity Today Magazine:

Christ teaches that God is love. What does that mean? What it means for me: a study of the life of Christ. Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honor. I don't let my religious world get too complicated. I just kind of go: Well, I think I know what God is. God is love, and as much as I respond [sighs] in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that's my religion. Where things get complicated for me, is when I try to live this love.

But his Christianity is not only reflected in his work with the poor, but has been reflected throughout his life in the lyrics of his songs. The first big U2 hit was "I Will Follow" -- a phrase that doesn't need much elaboration for a Christian. While the song is primarily about the relationship between a mother and son, it contains allusions to following God as well when Bono laments, "I was blind, I could not see" (a reference to John 9:25), and later rejoices, "I was lost, I am found" (a reference to Luke 15).

One of my favorite songs is from The Joshua Tree entitled "Where the Streets have no Name". The song is a masterpiece of suggestion that seems to have three levels of interpretation. The first level is about poverty in Africa. As I understand the story, Bono wrote the song after 6 weeks working onsite as a volunteer with World Vision in Africa. The streets that have no name refer to the tent cities in the poorest parts of Africa where people were starving. "I want to run, I want to hide" may reference the frustration of either the citizens of these tent cities or Bono's own frustration over his inability to help so many hungry people. (Note, according to Beth at U2 Sermons, the trip was occasioned by the specific Ethoipian famine/drought/ refugee crisis of that era, and she thinks that I should not refer to it as the poorest parts of Africa. Since she is more of an expert on this than I am, I bow to her superior knowledge on this point.)

A second level was suggested by Bono himself who described the song as being suggested by the social standing in Belfast -- a place that was so segregated between Roman Catholics and Protestants and rich and poor at the time that you were able to tell a person's religious views and income simply by what street upon which they lived. Bono's desire to end the bloodshed in his beloved Ireland (as also reflected in the earlier U2 anthem "Sunday, Bloody Sunday") is shown in this dream of a place where the streets have no name, i.e., they are places where all people live without the walls that otherwise divide us. Couple this experience with the visit to Africa, and the song takes on a deeper meaning.

But like J.R.R. Tolkein's great Lord of the Rings trilogy which was not meant to be a Christian allegory, Bono's underlying Christian beliefs provides even a deeper level of interpretation regardless of Bono's intention. The streets that have no name can be seen as an unintentional allegory for heaven. In visiting the destitute streets of the tent city and feeling the deep compassion that must follow from anyone who has a heart for his fellow man, Bono reflects in the song:

The city's aflood and our love turns to rust.
We're beaten and blown by the wind; trampled in dust.
I'll show you a place high on a desert plain,
Where the streets have no name

Again, I am not denying the more obvious reference to the dusty nameless streets of the tent cities of Africa, but just as there exists a deeper allusion to Belfast, so there exists a still deeper reference to heaven. The first two lines are references to the inability of man to make the world a perfect place. Looking at the poverty, he notes that our love (mankind's love for its fellow man) cannot cope with the scale of the poverty. The city is aflood, i.e., buried, in poverty, and our love is not big enough to cope with it and is, in fact, overwhelmed in the same way the metal turns to rust in the presence of too much salt water. Humanity is at the mercy of the world, and despite all we do we are "trampled in dust." (compare, Ecc 3:20 --"All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again").

Yet, despite our own inability to love our fellow man enough to bring the destitute out of poverty, there is a better world coming. It is a place high on a desert plain where the streets have no name. The heavenly city is often portrayed as being "up high" in its descriptions as the city on the hill or as Mount Zion (Isa 24:23). The streets have no name which refers, in part, to the fact that those who are saved will be able to sit down with the greats of the faith as one people, with no separation between us (See, e.g., Matt. 8:11, where Jesus says that "many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven"), which hearkens back to the earlier reference about "tearing down walls" that "hold me inside."

Probably the most compelling evidence that the song contains an allusion to heaven is the fact that Bono himself explicity recognizes the connection between his place "where the streets have no name" and heaven. According to Jonas Steverud (Maintainer of U2MoL),

In the Popmart Tour the song ends with then there will be no toil or sorrow, then there will be no time of pain, then there will be no time. This is a clear reference to heaven - no work, no tears, timeless. Revelation 21:4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

(Again, Beth at U2 Sermons says that the quote is from U2s song "Playboy Mansion". She is correct, of course, but I it appears to me that Jonas Steverud claims that Bono says much more than is stated in "Playboy Mansion", and either way there are clear references to the Bible.)

Is this understanding obvious? No, not on first reading. It requires peeling back the layers of song to the deep core of the being of the writer -- a Christian who cares compassionately for Jesus, the poor, and who looks forward to heaven. As Bono said in the afore-mentioned interview:

I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there's a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let's face it, you're not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That's the point. It should keep us humbled. It's not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven.

I never thought I'd say this to a rock and roll frontman, but "Amen."

(A big thank you to Beth at U2 Sermons for some factual errors I made in this post as originally written.)

Edited 2/18/06


Kevin Rosero said…
BK, this is possibly my alltime favorite song. I did not know about the allusions to Africa or Ireland, or about anything that Bono had said about the song. I just always felt that it was a mystical song about a higher realm, if not necessarily the Christian realm of heaven; I could not be sure that Bono wanted to get that idea across specifically. But he did. It's a wonderful mystical song; and I'm glad to hear it seems to say some specific things about the world. Thanks for the post.
Catez said…
where have I been all week? Some great posts here! Where the Strrets Have No Name is one of my favourites. I never got the African connection with it - always took it as looking forward to the net life and wanting shelter here - heaven on earth to a degree.

I think their best album is War - definitely.
BK said…
Kevin -- thanks for the kind words. I found the African tent city and Belfast allusions to give depth and meaning to the song that I hadn't known was there.

Catez -- You need to come by more often. :D And I agree that War is their best album (although Rattle and Hum, Boy and the Joshua Tree are all close behind).
U2 Sermons said…
Thanks for your nice words BK. I didn't mean, when I pointed out the quote from Popmart, to imply that there was no meaning to it beyond the fact that it was a quote from "Playboy Mansion" (altho a sermon in our book deals with Playboy Mansion and points out several deep layers in that text along the lines of your "Streets" post...)

I was only observing that the actual quote itself given by Jonas was incorrect: the line is "then there will be no time for sorrow."

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