U2 lyrics a big hit in philosophy class at Y.

Professor is editing book about popular rock band

Published: Monday, March 14 2005 9:22 a.m. MST

Mark Wrathall

PROVO — To the typical college student, philosophy classes tend to be long on words and short on interesting content. The staidness of philosophy education, however, may have met its match with the teaching methods of Brigham Young University philosophy professor Mark Wrathall.

As the result of an epiphany while driving through the Nevada desert in 1997, Wrathall has devised an effective method of tying pop culture — specifically the lyrics of songs by the rock band U2, which will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tonight in New York — to the philosophies of Plato, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.

The epiphany came while listening to the band's song "Last Night on Earth" from its "Pop" album, which Wrathall felt contained lyrics relevant to the material he presented to his philosophy students.

"I thought, 'Wow, I could really use this in my lectures,' " Wrathall said.

He began using lyrics penned primarily by U2's lead singer Bono to supplement the philosophies presented in his classes. He even asks students to bring recordings of their favorite U2 songs to class to listen to and analyze their philosophical relevance with his students. Not surprisingly, the method has become popular with students.

Over the years, Wrathall collected lecture notes tying U2 lyrics to his course material and, a couple of years ago, decided the notes should be put to use somewhere other than in the classroom.

He had an idea to produce a book on the band's lyrical applications to philosophy and pitched the idea to William Irwin, head of Open Court Press for its Pop Culture and Philosophy series. (Philosophical relations to pop icons like "The Simpsons," "The Matrix," Harry Potter, "Seinfeld" and "Star Wars" have been subjects of books produced in the series.)

Within hours, Irwin contacted Wrathall expressing support for the project, which will include essays by professors of higher education from the world over.

Wrathall, who will serve as editor of "U2 and Philosophy," has written an essay that will appear in the book slated for release in early 2006. In his essay, Wrathall explores U2's existential interpretation of Christianity. Further, he explores the band's struggles, as expressed in Bono's lyrics, with finding a balance between spiritual yearnings and physical passions — something Plato and others believed presented great conflict for human beings. To fulfill either of these aspects of human nature, humans believe, the other must be sacrificed. Wrathall suggests U2 has explored both of these aspects of human nature with its songs at different stages of the band's career and in its different albums.

For instance, on the "Joshua Tree" album, Bono expressed religious faith while at the same time expressing doubts in the hit song, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." After exploring varying phases of this struggle, Wrathall argues, U2 presents a solution to the dilemma of satisfying the two conflicting sides of human nature in its most recent album, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" and, more specifically, in the hit song "Vertigo."

"Vertigo" shows how vitally a person needs to love and be loved in order to find happiness," Wrathall said. "Loving someone helps you to see the world differently. It lets you understand that the real joys of life don't have to be deferred or put off for the next life. The love you feel for someone else can fulfill your greatest spiritual longings while also satisfying your passionate desires."

Other essays that will appear in the book are written by professors of philosophy from such institutions as the University of California at Berkeley, Purdue and Minnesota State University and as far away as Australia. Topics addressed, among others, will include U2's political influence and the philosophical problem of identity.

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