Friday, December 18, 2009

Elevation leads to Vertigo 2.0

I wasn't too freaked out about living ten days in the seventh highest city in the world.

I wasn't too concerned about elevation or vertigo.

I wasn't prepared for the bus trip into the highest elevation and vicious vertigo that accompanied it.

But Elevation and Vertigo got me through.

I didn't even catch the prophetic
significance of the songs on my headphones; I was simply listening to U2...the first single of "Dismantle" CD, "Vertigo," had just come out, so the six hour bus ride up the Andes was the perfect time to splice it into my playlist and acculturate myself to "Vertigo" (while I simultaneously experienced it)..

So "Vertigo" soundtracked my trip.
U2 on headphones was much to be preferred to what was on the bus speakers (5:50ff in this video, and see/hear especially the crazy repetitive bit from 6:07-6:19 below, it must have played for two hours!!...I can still hear it all these years later. ARRGHH. It was worse than Gaithers on Crack!!...If you view carefully through 6:22, you'll see how we unwound from all this!...BTW, all the videos from this trip are here)

The elevation didn't bother me..
until about 14,ooo feet.

The vertigo (AKA
soroche/AKA altitude sickness/ AKA "gringos sickness") didn't bother me..
until about 15,ooo feet.

That's another story..

In fact, here it is now.

Since I will soon need to reformat an ancient (2004) blog post, salvaging it and patching it up
(I didn't know how to format then and YouTube didn't even exist yet..imagine that!) about this Peru U2 adventure, I will start by reposting part of it here.. That might remind me to work on it


This chapter may feel like it spends an inordinate amount of time on "Elevation," and U2’s overall place in the church/culture mix, for what claims to be a writing focusing on the new "Bomb" CD. The last three chapters will focus more on the new CD, and even include a "review", but integral to my first thesis is that a short course in "Elevation" is prerequisite and integral to an informed understanding the new material, and maybe even life itself! So let’s
visit this background…by way of South America. I congratulated myself on remembering to pocket the airsick bag from the plane. I recalled how Bono had scrawled early versions of lyrics on airsick bags as lyrics came to mind; but my mission in shoplifting the bag was more basic and less profound
It all happened on a bus in Peru; where I (literally) lost my lunch, but found the revelation I was looking for. And I mean in that very act of elevated (literally…high altitude) lunch-losing (literally…regurgitation, OK?) , the vertigo; the sickness; and the revelation hit. It just spilled out..uh, the revelation, I mean. I didn’t write it on the bag, but from that point on, it would be written on my pysche. The revelation, albeit in a reductionistic nutshell, is this: ELEVATION LEADS TO VERTIGO.

"Big fat atomic deal, Captain!," I hear the fans say. "Anyone with a bonehead background in U2 knows that!" (For any souls sans that basic background, here’s the connect: The keynote song/concert-opener of U2’s previous CD/tour was called "Elevation"; the keynote song /concert-opener of their new CD/tour is a called "Vertigo." Thus: Elevation came first; then vertigo. And the new CD, as the second release in a row hallmarked by a "return to roots" vibe and value, has widely been recognized as "All That You Can’t Leave Behind"’s sequel and successor not just chronologically but logically speaking)
But, hang on; I’m not even talking U2…at least not directly…at least not officially…not yet. And though this is indeed a theological commentary on U2’s possible fourth masterpiece, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," let’s join the bus ride, and pursue this first thesis.

Winding roads and grinding gears, both heroically maneuvered by a much prayed-for Peruvian bus driver led me to (against my will) contemplate the theory, and road-test the reality, of my twin theologies of elevation and vertigo. Having braved an eight-hour bus ride up to the huge and holy heights of the Andes mountains, on a ruthless road with no name, I am a living (barely!) witness to the simple but profound fact that, as I previously and pretentiously proffered, "elevation leads to vertigo."

"Donde esta?, " I would often ask myself in English, or my Spanish-speaking bus-mates in Spanish, as I prayerfully and carefully poked my head out of slumber and sweater while on this breakneck bus ride.
Occasionally I would peek out the window, just to
tell myself I was man enough to do it, or to get some sense of where we were; I would catch a glimpse of the railroad tracks that sometimes paralleled (That’s the wrong word….no straight lines in sight) our road; the tracks belonged to the famed "Ferrocarril", the highest railroad on the planet. (Note: we pass it on 6:02 in the video above)I thanked God that at least I wasn’t on that train, but I still didn’t know the answer to my haunting question: "Where in the Peru are we?" Inevitably the answer was an annoying rerun of the previous hour’s: "Climbing even higher up the Andes, dude. We have the oxygen and alcohol ready if you need it." (Seriously, every bus or train that dares to elevate itself up the high[literal]way from Lima to Huancayo, boasts an onboard medical kit well-stocked with the only two cures outside of drastic divine intervention that soothe the sickening physical effects of travelling the high and winding road: oxygen and alcohol…and to clarify, the alcohol is to smell, not to drink; though I’m sure more than one pilgrim has been lead… despite repeated and retentive recitations of the Lord’s Prayer… into the latter temptation).


I think it hit me at about fourteen thousand feet. We had started at a kind and cozy 411 foot elevation in Lima, and before we knew it, we were seeing signs in Spanish announcing elevation, counting the height in thousands: "Uno"("one"), came the first sign, but no sweat or sickness yet at 1000 feet; then around the curve, a "dos"("two") sign, a "tres" ("three")…and then it seemed, out of nowhere and out of sequence, to appear: a sign that with Latinamerican machismo and matter-of-factness, numbered the feet at "catorce" (fourteen!) thousand feet! Unless you count some "don’t want to go there" drug-induced trips, never had I been elevated so high so fast. What came over me was what the locals call "soroche", or sometimes with a well-meaning wink, "the gringo sickness." Being an involuntarily but now inveterately sick gringo myself, I called it lots of ungracious things as I was ungraced by it. The medical textbooks coin it "vertigo," a term that has suddenly lept out of dusty textbooks and invaded the living rooms of much of the world via a relentless and repentless IPOD commercial

featuring an Irish-looking silhouette of the biggest rock star on the planet dancing himself dizzy while confessing with reckless and pulsating abandon that the place he’s at (and U2 are at) is so elevated and exhilirating; yet so damning and dizzying, that it just might be Vertigo on earth. Since this very commercial commercial has so sufficiently saturated society, my greatest fear is that citizens are so prematurely sick of the word and song "Vertigo" that another spin of the tune..or the prospect of my spin on it will ironically invoke fullblown vertigo itself…

So, let’s pause, take a break and breath (you’ll need it before rejoining the ride), and define our terms, just to be sure we are on the same page and planet here. A dictionary definition of "elevation" is so elementary as to not need spelling out; but just to be sure the significant spiritual application of this term is highlighted; let’s take our time to work out this definition with fear and trembling; for I maintain that "Vertigo" (and the CD it kickstarts) cannot be fully tasted without the backdrop of its next older brother. So we are about to spend some time in the elevator; stay with us. After we define "elevation" at some depth (pun intended); we’ll define "vertigo" until you’re dizzy enough to kneel.


All right, let’s get to the elevation of "Elevation, " because as you will recall, it’s the only path up to Vertigo (I promise we’ll get there!) . To my amazement and delight, I stumbled upon a stunningly insightful commentary on U2’s song (and therefore prayer about, and theology of) "Elevation." I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, as theological analysis of U2 is all over the world and web. (Even as scholarly papers at the business meetings of the "I guess they’re not so square and stodgy after all" Evangelical Theological Society…Baptist PhD’s contemplating the theological catalog of Bono!) . But this particular piece grasped and grappled so well with what U2 are (in Bono’s phrase) "on about" in "Elevation, " and in general, I cannot anymore hear or pray the song without this review at hand. It has rocked my world, theology and prayer life. I had always intuitively felt the song was about, indeed was, prayer. But to definitively second that motion it took these words, which should be read slowly, and with "Elevation" playing softly (!) in the background:

...For the chasid, prayer is not something one recites, it is rather an exercise that one performs, or an
experience that one enters into.... There is no room for inhibition...singing and dancing are essential means by which ...he expresses his emotional cleaving to God….but
that desire for God has to be so overwhelming that any extraneous thoughts are excluded…If distractions are erotic in nature…and (one) faces up to the predominance of the sexual urge at both conscious and subconscious levels, and
its capacity to intrude even during prayer...then he has learned to take measures…Chasidism dealt with this by introducing the doctrine of the "elevation of strange
thoughts." This...technique not of sublimation, but of thought conversion, whereby the beauty or desirability of the woman is latched upon and used not as a sexual but rather as a mental and spiritual stimulus.... taught to "elevate" these thoughts by substituting the beauty of God for the
physical beauty that is currently bewitching us. (The pray-er) has learned to immediately contrast the pale reflection of beauty that humans are endowed with, on the one hand, and the supreme Divine source of authentic and enduring beauty,
on the other…

"This is not sublimation; This is elevation
' Wow! Surely anyone who re-reads the lyrics to "Elevation," (or ventures and voyeurs a watching as Bono sings/prays/dances/incarnates it on concert DVD)
, will surely fall at the feet and conclusions of the reviewer, admitting that he astoundingly accurate. And I (seminary grad!) didn’t even know until I found this review that "elevation" was the official name for an ancient and established style and form of prayer. Surely this is exactly what Bono is fundamentally "on about" in this song; even in wider life and mission. Just for starters, lets interlace the lyrics to the song "Elevation" itself, and the review thereof:

Prayer is not something (Bono) just is an
experience he enters into. There is no room for inhibition; singing and dancing are essential means by which he expresses his emotional cleaving to God….but
such ardor/desire for God has to be so overwhelming("You make me feel like I could fly") that any extraneous thoughts are excluded…If distractions are erotic in nature…and (Bono) faces up to the predominance of the sexual urge ("I’ve lost
all self-contol")at both conscious and subconscious("Digging up my soul/Going
down/Excavation") levels, and its capacity to intrude even during prayer( "Tell me something true/I believe in You"")...then he has learned to take measures…by
introducing the ancient doctrine of the "elevation of strange thoughts." This is a Chasidic not of sublimation, but of thought conversion,whereby the beauty or desirability of the woman(the corner of your lips/the
orbit of your hips")is latched upon and used not as a sexual but rather as a mental ("I need you to elevate my mind") and spiritual("you elevate my soul") stimulus. We are taught to "elevate" these thoughts by substituting the beauty
of God for the physical beauty that is currently bewitching us. (Bono) has learned to immediately contrast the pale reflection of beauty that humans are endowed with, on the one hand, and the supreme Divine source of authentic and
enduring beauty, on the other. This is not sublimation, but

Because it so convincing, I hope Bono read the review I quoted, and I’m guessing he may well have. Not because I found it in Rolling Stone, or another obvious publication that Mr. Vox has been known to frequent, but because it’s in a classic book called "Blessed are You: A Comprehensive Guide to Jewish Prayer," by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen, copyright 1993. That’s right, a commentary on U2’s "Elevation" written long before the song. (And of course, "elevation" as the name of a prayer-vehicle has been around for centuries). No, I didn’t truly trick you; though I did


  1. I LOVE your U2 stuff ~ keep it coming! Hope you don't mind I planted a seed to your blog on newsvine under U2RocksMe. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  2. Thank you, thank you. Keep in touch.


Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!