“Vertigo:” Half-Price Messiah
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
“Hello, hello…you’re in a place called Vertigo…”
The song is “Vertigo” by U2, from their album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. You’ll notice the obvious mixture of sacred and secular imagery, including the story of the girl wearing some type of cross necklace. Commenting on the origin of the song, Bono tells fans:
“In the case of ‘Vertigo,’ I was thinking about this awful nightclub we’ve all been to. You’re supposed to be having a great time and everything’s extraordinary around you and the drinks are the price of buying a bar in a Third World country. …you’re just looking around and you see big, fat Capitalism at the top of its mountain, just about to topple. It’s that woozy, sick feeling of realizing that here we are, drinking, eating, polluting, robbing ourselves to death. And in the middle of the club, there’s this girl. She has crimson nails. I don’t even know if she’s beautiful, it doesn’t matter but she has a cross around her neck, and the character in this stares at the cross just to steady himself.” (Bono, U2 By U2)
But you’ll also notice the line: “All of this can be yours; just give me what I want, and no one gets hurt. The lyric is an allusion to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.
In Luke’s gospel, one of the very first things to happen in Jesus’ adult life is the showdown in the wilderness. If you read the story in Luke 1:1-14, you see that the entire account is bookended by talking about the Holy Spirit. It is God’s Spirit that leads Him into the wilderness, it is God’s Spirit that leads Him through the time of temptation, and it is God’s Spirit that leads Him out of the wilderness after Satan leaves Him.
And it is Satan who resides in the other corner of this showdown. The ancient mind saw Satan as something of a prosecuting attorney for the nation of Israel. In today’s world, we often see Satan as something of a myth; a holdover from a bygone era where evil was described in superstitious terms, and a myth that endured only inasmuch as it allowed members of one religion to demonize (literally, in this case) all others.
But if we believe in one supernatural being (God), why not another?
And further, even if we treat the existence of Satan and moral evil as symbols or ancient superstitions, we can’t get around the suffering that exists. In other words, even if evil is in the eye of the beholder, suffering certainly is felt by everyone:
“The moral order is absolute, woven into the very fabric of creation. Personal sin, therefore, is never merely a private psychological event; owing to ignorance or stupidity or an idiotized upbringing, the sinner may be subjectively without blame, but the sin itself has objective consequences that claw at the well-being of the sinner and of others around him and of still others yet to be after him.” (John R. Dunlap, “Identity Crisis,” see catholiceducation.org)
So what’s happening here is that Jesus is stepping into a world in which He might Himself abandon His Father’s vision for the sake of a lesser kingdom.
Jesus is presented with three tests: to cure His physical hunger by turning stones to bread, to consolidate power by exchanging the worship of Satan for a worldly empire, and to engineer the security of God’s protection by throwing Himself from the temple.
And what a temptation that last one must have been. Since Jesus’ biographers were unconcerned with chronological sequence, Luke places the temptation of the temple in Jerusalem last. Jerusalem would later be where Jesus would collide with the religious hegemony of His day, and eventually be crucified. Now would be the best time to seek protection, and avoid the suffering that awaited Him.
This is why some have heard the song “Vertigo” and thought it to refer to the dizzying sensation that must accompany the height of Jerusalem temple.
HOW TO KNEEL
But Jesus would have none of this. “Your love is teaching me how to kneel,” Bono writes, and indeed it is love that prompts Jesus to submit to the Father’s will and not His own. Satan is said to leave Jesus until another time, culminating ultimately in another garden, that of Gethsemane prior to His arrest and execution.
And because of all of this, Jesus proves Himself to be something other than the “half-price Messiah” we’ve made Him out to be in our minds: His soul “can’t be bought.”
C.S. Lewis writes: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast – the breaker and destroyer of images. Jesus is the supreme example; he leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.”
Jesus passes the showdown not through clever gimmicks, not through compromise, but through submission. And, as we saw in the last post, His victory can be our victory. But this victory also means something very significant for you and me.
STEERING THE ELEPHANT
Classic writers have turned to a whole host of metaphors to describe the relationship between desire and intellect. Most recently, the Heath brothers borrow the metaphor of the elephant and the rider in their book Switch.
Here, the rider represents the intellect. The elephant represents desire. But steering the elephant is a colossal task: you may as well ask a mountain to move.
But what if the elephant can be differently motivated? What if the elephant could be motivated not by the lust of pleasure, power and glory, but motivated by God’s inestimable love?
In other words, Jesus resisted temptation not because He was trying to “steer the elephant,” or control His desires. He resisted because His desire was for something far greater. For us, this means that our affections should be so wrapped up in the love of God and His Son, that our prayer should not be “help me avoid this temptation,” but “give me more of you.”
It is then that life in God’s kingdom begins to fully take shape. We’ll see how that shape take further form as Jesus begins His ministry.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.
Human beings, as we’ve just noted, bear God’s image. We “take after” God, so to speak—much as we might say that a child “takes after” his earthly father. It means that we share with God some aspect of his character, his nature, even his gifts. In the immediate context of Genesis, this means two things. Because man bears the image of a Creator, we share in his capacity for creativity. And because we bear the image of God’s divine community (Father, Son, and Spirit), we share in his capacity for relationship.
Or perhaps “capacity” is too clinical a term for such elemental gifts. For these qualities are indeed divine gifts, just as human language likewise has its origin in God himself. In his recent work on the clarity of Scripture, Mark Thompson notes that “God is himself the source of human language. He is the first speaker and invests language with a deep significance for generation and nourishing personal relationships.”
If language is a divine gift, writing becomes a liturgical practice. It is through language that the human needs for creativity and relationship are brought together. Surely writing is not the only means of human communication, but there is a uniqueness to the craft that cannot be so easily snuffed out by a so-called “post-literate” world. When we write, we write to engage the world—or at least our small corner of it. We write in order to hone our God-given skills of creativity and make a meaningful contribution to humanity’s collective imagination. We write because it’s in our blood, in our hands, in our soul.
Christianity says that God’s Word shaped God’s original creation, but God’s Word likewise takes prominence in God’s new creation. “In the beginning was the Word,” John tells us—cribbing lines from the opening pages of Genesis. The Word of God, once confined to the page now takes on human flesh in the person of Jesus. Christianity calls this the incarnation, meaning that in Jesus God literally became a human being to walk among us, to share life with us, and to give his life that we might live.
Writing is part of the way we engage and share the gospel narrative. Writing is therefore an incarnational practice, a means by which the story of God is translated into the various languages of human culture.
Living the gospel narrative means not only “take and read” but also “write and give.” Every voice is different. Every voice matters.