Interview with Mark Wrathall, Author of U2 and Philosophy

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By Brenda Clemons, U2 Station Staff Writer

Mark Wrathall is a philosophy teacher at Brigham Young University. He is also a U2 fan. It was while riding his Harley through the desert that he came to the realization that Bono's lyrics would make good examples for his lessons. The idea caught on and soon his students were bringing their favorite U2 CDs to class. This led to the idea of a book. Several philosophy Professors have written essays that make up the text of the book. Mark Wrathall is the editor. He took time out of his schedule to talk to me about U2, Bono and the human soul. (Editor's note: Mark Wrathall's book can be purchased from

1. Do you believe the world's governments have a responsibility to foster higher thinking or the evolution of the human soul? If so, do you think that they have been successful or have they failed?

I think governments have a responsibility to secure an environment that lets people develop their thinking capacities or improve their souls. But I don't want the government to dictate how this development or improvement is to be brought about. The interesting questions for our time are, first, to what degree governments are capable of fostering this sort of environment in a globalized, technological world culture.
It could be that other actors and social forces are eclipsing the power of national governments to shape the intellectual and spiritual atmosphere. Second, we ought to be asking to what degree political actors can legitimately limit their focus to their own nations, to the exclusion of the rest of the world.

2. During the past decade there has been a rapid increase in the pagan/earth bound religions. Do you see this as evidence that the more traditional religions (Christianity, Judaism) are failing?

It doesn't necessarily mean that traditional religions are failing. It might be we who are failing - it might show that we've lost the strength and focus required to devote ourselves to religions as demanding as traditional Christianity and Judaism. Having said that, it is my opinion that at least part of the interest in alternative religions is driven by a search for an experience of divinity in the world. For whatever reason, many people can't find a 'church they can receive in' (to paraphrase U2's song "Acrobat").

3. Do you think the soul has evolved faster than religion? Or do you feel that religion is a black/white truth and that humanity is basically lacking in its ability to make morally correct choices?

I see no reason to believe that the soul has evolved. Cultures do change, but an essential feature of the human "soul" has always been its capacity to settle into radically different styles of life. Some cultures are more open to religious experience than others. In contemporary Western culture at large, religion tends to be marginalized.
As I understand Christianity, a central feature of its message is that its truth is concealed from the unbeliever. That means that, in our day and age, the possibility of living a Christian life is less and less manifest, and people at large are less exposed to the moral truths that Christianity has to teach them. People lack the ability to live Christian lives because they can't find their way into the faith that supports that life. I would describe their moral failings, not in terms of a lack of ability, but as arising through the loss of the possibility of exercising their abilities.

4. U2 is obviously one of your favorites. Do you remember the first time you heard a U2 song and what affect it had on you?

The first U2 song I remember hearing was "Gloria." It must have been in 1981 or 1982. It caught my attention because, despite sharing a name with Patti Smith's "Gloria" (I was a big fan of the Horses album), it inhabited a completely different dimension. It blew my mind to hear a rock band express that kind of spiritual longing - both musically and lyrically. It changed my whole idea of what rock music could do.

5. You use Bono's lyrics in your classroom. What is the most memorable thing a student has said regarding Bono's lyrics?

I don't know that I could identify one especially memorable thing. It seems that every time I use Bono's lyrics in class, my students teach me something. This usually takes the form of pointing out that lyrics I had interpreted one way could also be interpreted another way. For example, take the opening lines of "Peace on Earth": "Heaven on earth / We need it now / I'm sick of all of this / Hanging around." I had understood this as expressing a kind of philosophical pessimism - as expressing the view that this world is irredeemably corrupt. But my students pointed out that it could be interpreted as basically optimistic - as expressing the view that life on earth could and should be happy (even though it is not now what it should be). Students also get me thinking about the philosophical meaning of songs that I haven't thought about before.

6. The University is obviously very supportive now, but was it always this way?

As an institution, Brigham Young University has always been extremely supportive of me and my work. All good Universities trust their faculty members to pursue their own research agendas, because they understand that the benefit of a particular line of research will rarely be evident at the outset. When I proposed a research trip to Denver to hear U2 perform in concert, that raised some eyebrows. But the proposal was approved.

7. For U2 and philosophy, you are the editor. How is this process different from writing?

Editing an academic book is like herding cats. Each contributor has a very different view about what they want to accomplish in thinking and writing about a subject. These different views don't always sit easily with each other. The editor's job is to identify good contributors, and to try to pull the collection together in a coherent and harmonious fashion. The strength of a single-author book is that it presents a single line of inquiry in considerable depth. A good edited collection gives you lots of perspectives, and in the process rewards the reader with insights that would not have been visible from a single point of view. With a good work of music, there is never a single interpretation that can do justice to all of its various facets. So an edited volume seemed the natural way to go in exploring U2's work.

8. Have you been in contact with U2 regarding your book?

Regrettably, no. I'd love to sit down and talk philosophy with the members of the band.

9. You recruited writers (for U2 and Philosophy) at conventions. Obviously, the reaction was positive. But, were there any negative reactions to your idea?

Not really, no. Nobody that I approached as a potential contributor was dismissive of the idea as such.

10. Based on Bono's lyrics, do you think he has matured spiritually, or do you perceive him as still struggling with the same demons that he had during the recording of U2's first album, Boy?

I think that there is no question that he has matured spiritually. At the same time, he has also developed as a lyricist. If you compare the lyrics of Boy or October with the lyrics of Achtung Baby or How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, this is immediately obvious. He is able now to express many of the same attitudes in a much more nuanced, subtle, and powerful way. Part of that ability undoubtedly comes from having become a master of the craft of songwriting. But I have to think that it also grows out of a more profound understanding of religious faith. He can describe it better because he understands it better.

11. What is next on the agenda for you?

I'm trying to finish a book on 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Like U2, Heidegger was deeply concerned about our ability to experience the divine and live meaningful lives in a modern, technologically frenzied, globalized world culture.
If I decide to write any more on rock music and popular culture, my next essay will be on Rammstein. I think their music is really philosophically interesting. The problem with such projects is finding a publishing outlet. I am really grateful to Open Court Press for picking up U2 and Philosophy. I hope the success of their Popular Culture and Philosophy series will persuade publishers that there is an audience for more intellectually rigorous discussions of rock music than is the usual fare.

Copyright © 2006 All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Brenda published on December 29, 2006 11:30 AM.

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