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History repeats itself in U2’s upcoming “The Joshua Tree” tour

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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It’s not easy being one of the world’s most popular bands for more than forty years, but U2 has accomplished just that since their formation in 1976, and they’ve largely done so without relying on the kind of retread nostalgia that many groups cling to in an attempt at continued relevance. That’s why the recent decision to take their 1987 album The Joshua Tree on tour across America and Europe caught many by surprise. It’s a pleasant surprise, no doubt, as the group will perform such iconic songs as “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With or Without You” in their original musical context. Still, the choice to plan for the future by looking to the past is a break with the band’s traditional approach. But, as guitarist The Edge, told Rolling Stone‘s Andy Greene, that original context had a lot to do with the decision.

Their next album was all but complete when the recent US election happened and left the band with the distinct impression that “suddenly the world changed. We just went, ‘Hold on a second—we’ve got to give ourselves a moment to think about this record and about how it relates to what’s going on in the world.'” That’s where The Joshua Tree comes in. The guitarist would go on to describe how that 1987 album was originally written during “a period when there was a lot of unrest . . . It feels like we’re right back there in a way . . . It just felt like ‘Wow, these songs have a new meaning and a new resonance today that they didn’t have three years ago, four years ago.'”

There’s an old cliché that history repeats itself. While there is, perhaps, some truth to that statement, the fact remains that such repetition is usually just humanity finding new ways to make the same mistakes. Mark Twain was closer to reality when he quipped, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

One of Scripture’s primary purposes is to give an account of all the ways that people have messed up in the past so that we might, ideally, learn from those mistakes and not repeat them. We don’t have to look very hard to find examples within its pages of just about every sin that has plagued humanity since Eden. Joshua and Judges alone provide fertile ground for seeing this pattern play out. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Judges ends with the author recording that “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25). Is there a more fitting way to describe our culture today?

Cultural unrest comes, in large part, when everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes. If God is not our king, we should expect nothing else. After all, why shouldn’t people do what they perceive to be right if the only other voices in the conversation are those of other fallen people? Granted, political leaders and others with influence can fill that role for a time, but the truth is that we were created to serve only one Lord and nothing can take his place.

A key part of being a Christian is recognizing that God alone is king. Unfortunately, our lives don’t always support that reality. We may claim that God is the one in charge, but our actions often tell a different story to the world around us. One of our primary purposes as Christians is to live out our nature as light to the world and as a city on a hill so that they might better understand the kind of existence for which God created them (Matthew 5:13–16). That’s an awesome responsibility and one we cannot afford to take lightly.

So, when people look at you today, will they see someone going through life doing what is right in your own eyes or in God’s? How you answer that question will largely determine the degree to which you can make a positive impact for the kingdom. Israel found out the hard way where the wrong answer leads. Will you?

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