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“The Unforgettable Fire:” Human Destruction, God’s Judgment, and Our Refuge

Mary McCampbell

u2 Seeing U2’s "Gloria" video for the first time changed my life; I was amazed that these four seductively scrappy Irish lads were singing so overtly about Jesus, and that the music was not formulaic, cheesy, or sentimental. It had an honest, raw, edge—and this seemed to match its message. When watching and listening, I let out a junior high sigh of relief without even understanding why. Perhaps I first understood my desire to see the jagged edges of our reality reflected in art by those who endeavor to have a relationship with the author of a Reality beyond those jagged edges.

The title of U2’s fourth studio album, 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, is grounded in the painful history of our collective ability to destroy ourselves and others; the album title was taken from a 1982 exhibit at the Chicago Peace Museum of artwork painted and drawn by the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bomb dropped in 1945 was an unforgettable ball of fire to those that were physically and emotionally damaged by its power of fragmenting destruction.

The U2 album that takes its name from the exhibit refers both directly and indirectly to the human capacity for inward and outward violence, including such harrowing topics as heroin addiction (“Bad”), racism and murder (“Pride”), and the sad decline of a cultural idol (“Elvis Presley and America”). But the title track itself, a deeply evocative song full of longing, sadness, and hope, does not initially seem to specifically allude to the exhibit or tragic event that gave it its name.

But on revisiting both the song and video through a lens of Psalm 46 (a line is quoted in the song itself), I would have to disagree with the many music critics and fans that share this view. Although the lyrics are admittedly cryptic in many parts, they make sense on an emotional level—and this emotional richness is intensified by the video’s images. Both the song and the video open with a vivid image of “these city lights”that “shine as silver and gold.”The song also speaks of the seductive lights of a carnival where the “wheels fly and the colors spin”. Yet as the music builds dramatically, we see video images of a fairground ride transforming into an exploding atom bomb and a cityscape that is struck by lightening before experiencing a violent rainstorm.

Yet directly after these images of violence and destruction, Bono alludes to Psalm 46: 2 as he sings “And if the mountains should crumble or disappear into the sea, not a tear, no not I.”But how does any of this of this relate to the bombing of Hiroshima? Psalm 46 speaks about the “trouble”that we must endure on this blood stained, war loving earth—but that God Himself will bring “desolation”to the earth as “He breaks the bow and shatters the spear.”In a sense, the Psalm speaks of God’s judgment and his ushering in of justice and peace, putting an end to human cruelty and injustice.

At the very beginning of “The Unforgettable Fire”video, just as we see Bono’s grief-stricken face against a dazzling cityscape, we also see the rising of a blood-red moon. In one of the accounts from the exhibit titled The Unforgettable Fire, a survivor drew and described a moment when “the sun appeared blood-red in the dark sky.”We also read in Acts 2:20 and Joel 2:31 that “The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood”before the “Day of the Lord”comes. In these allusions, the video opens by alluding to both human destruction and God’s judgment.

The same city that we see throughout the video is emblematic of modernity’s narrative promise of an efficient, comfortable, and exciting heaven on earth. Later, the members of U2 descend into the bowels of the city itself as they walk into a large blue-tinted factory space; here we see the promise of technology. Soon after, we see the carnival ride explode in a mushroom cloud and realize that the same seemingly messianic technology that produces our amusements, also enables us to annihilate other human beings as we appoint ourselves false gods of this earthly “paradise,”the city. As the lightning strikes and the rain waters come down, the video alludes to even more biblical narratives of God’s judgment against those who have taken this heretical role.

The video’s images are not, however, only of the doomed city; as Bono sings that one should “walk on by, walk on through,”we see a transition to a shot of The Edge walking a lonely, snowy path in an open space. We see the same beautiful scene as Bono sings“I am only asking but I think he knows. Come on take me away, take me home again….”. Although the mysterious lyrics do not name God, there is no other reference point that would possibly explain the mention of a knowing “he.”

Towards the end of the video, there is a striking image of Bono’s face, illuminated by a flame, superimposed over another image of the band warming their hands over a fire in a snowy field. As Larry Mullen, Jr. smiles, we see the familiarity and connectedness between the band members, the only moment of warmth and joy in the video. As the video and song both end, Bono tells us to “save your love,” and we see the same serene face dimly light by a constant fire. Perhaps the title “The Unforgettable Fire”has a two-fold meaning: it alludes to both the horror of the A-bomb, its image forever burned into the psyche of its survivors—but it also alludes to the eternal fire, giver of life, warmth, and illumination. Just as Psalm 46 tells us that God is a refuge and fortress, a constant source of strength that we will know profoundly if we can “be still,”“The Unforgettable Fire”video reminds us that justice will be done, that even if “the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea”there is a constant source of strength and calm.