Although a rock band and the author C. S. Lewis might seem unlikely allies, the band U2 has been successful in capturing elements of joy in their music that Lewis wrote about. There’s more common ground between the two than you might think.
Here is a quote from my book about Lewis’s “Perelandra” and U2’s song “Beautiful Day.”
In the first two books, Ransom, a philologist and professor modeled after Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien, is swept up into a secret journey to Mars and Venus. Lewis himself is a character in the story and the narrator. In Book 2, Perelandra, Ransom travels alone in a coffin-like space capsule and lands in the oceans of Venus, the planet that the non-human inhabitants of the solar system call Perelandra, which is an unspoiled paradise.
Ransom catches his breath as he beholds the planet’s golden sky and emerald sea: “The very names of green and gold, which he used perforce in describing the scene, are too harsh for the tenderness, the muted iridescence, of that warm, maternal, delicately gorgeous world. It was mild to look upon as evening, warm like summer noon, gentle and winning like early dawn.”
Ransom discovers that most of the landmasses on the planet float on the surface of the sea. In order to accomplish anything, he must relearn how to walk because the ground is constantly moving—like learning to walk on a ship during a storm, except with the added challenge of malleable earth that conforms to the shifting contours of the ocean’s swells.
After learning to walk on the fast-changing, unpredictable ground, he tastes some of the food—a gourd hanging from a tree. The intense pleasure of it overwhelms him, and he wants more, lots more. On earth, he would not have hesitated to satisfy the craving and gorge himself. But something about the virgin paradise of Perelandra, something in the mood and spirit of the strange planet, restrains him:
His reason, or what we commonly take to be reason in our own world, was all in favor of tasting this miracle again.…Yet something seemed opposed to this “reason.” It is difficult to suppose that this opposition came from desire, for what desire would turn from so much deliciousness? But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.
Later in the story, Ransom notes this feeling of restraint again when he encounters bubbles that hang from trees. When he walks through one, the bubble pops and showers him with delightful, soothing sensations. He sees a long line of the bubbles, and he thinks about running through them greedily to make them pop over his head all at once, but then a thought enters his mind: “This itch to have things over again, as if life were a film that could be unrolled twice or even made to work backward…was it possibly the root of all evil? No: of course the love of money was called that. But money itself—perhaps one valued it chiefly as a defense against chance, a security for being able to have things over again, a means of arresting the unrolling of the film.”
As Ransom learns later in his journey, it was not just his virtue that restrained his possessive need for the gourd and the bubbles. The planet itself—or, more accurately, the Presence of One who inhabited it—helped Ransom. In a similar way, in our quest through the Stages of Joy, the House of Longing works to loosen our roots that have grown down into this world.
But it’s not always pleasant.
This unmooring of our roots can be unsettling. Throughout our whole lives we have learned to walk on fixed land, but now we’re staggering across a strange, undulating terrain that moves as wildly and fluidly as the surface of the ocean.
We must relearn how to walk.
We navigate a tricky in-between ground where a part of us lives in the House of Longing, enthralled with the realness of heaven, while another part of us keeps its roots tangled in the passions and pursuits of this world.
The more time we spend in the secret place of the House of Longing—and the more we apply what we learn there to our worldly interactions—the easier it will be for us to do what Ransom did: to let go of our grabby compulsion to “have things over again,” to possess all of this life’s happiness with a white-knuckled grip.
But when our hearts finally relinquish ownership, something surprising happens: we discover that losing everything voluntarily—in other words, letting the hand of God unearth our shivering rootlets from the soil and transplant us—actually results in the most beautiful day we have ever had.
…With “Beautiful Day,” the goldmine of meaning lies in the beat—in the song’s soaring schematic of boom-boom-boom. And that’s exactly how the song begins: a heart-like thump-thump of a Euro kick drum put together by producer Brian Eno, along with the murmuration of synth chords floating behind. This launches “Beautiful Day” into a steady, brisk walk—a driving, levelheaded tempo with a tinge of urgency like the hurried pace of a New Yorker on the sidewalk. (We’ll call this rhythm the New Yorker’s Walk.)
When the chorus hits, as Bono shouts the song’s title, the whole song is thrown off-balance. The driving rhythm of the New Yorker’s Walk vanishes, and an off-kilter upheaval takes its place. The song suddenly feels like a ship at sea when it lurches on a wave and everyone on deck staggers to one side of the boat. U2 achieves this by using dotted rhythms—notes with rhythmic values that hold their note and suspend in space for a moment instead of striking every beat of the song.
This technique makes it harder for the ear to pick out every beat of a tempo, and it adds a funky sense of syncopation, as if a businessperson walking with fast, determined steps down the avenue had suddenly halted and started dancing to James Brown, hopping a little or sliding here. An odd analogy, perhaps, but that’s how dramatic the rhythmic contrast is between the verses and the chorus in “Beautiful Day.”
The contrast—on one side is the even, driving New Yorker’s Walk, and on the other is the funky, off-balance syncopation—shows us what Joy does. It disrupts our sense of balance. The further we go on this journey, the more we will find ourselves treading on the islands of Perelandra, the ground that shifts with every rise and fall of the ocean. Everything is in transit, including our hearts.
But that’s a good thing.
The One who has hurtled us forward with Deep Longing has a glorious destination in mind. If we surrender, if we learn to let go of our treasures instead of clinging to them, our sense of heaven’s permanence and accumulation will grow. As Jesus said, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it” (Matt 10:39 NLT).