The open secret of the Gospel in U2’s music

by

This just in. U2 is a “semi-secret Christian band” that fills their lyrics with religious themes, makes no secret of how the members attempt to live their faith but does not aligns itself with a particular denomination or segment of the Church.

Jonathan Merritt is not surprised.

If you carefully attune your ears to U2’s lyrics, you’ll find there are 50 or more references to Bible verses in their songs. In “Bullet the Blue Sky,” for example, they sing about Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord (Genesis 32) and there is a reference to speaking with “the tongues of angels” (1 Corinthians 13) in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Bono even belts “see the thorn twist in your side”—an obvious reference to the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:7—in the song “With or Without You.”

If by “Christian rock band” you mean a group that repetitively parroting pop-culture with theologically homogenized lyrics then, no, U2 is not a “Christian rock band.” If you mean a band that takes a more complex view of faith and life, then that’s something else. Maybe what you have is a rock band peopled by Christians.

Joshua Rothman profiles the group in The New Yorker.

Much of the confusion around U2’s faith stems from the fact that they’ve never been an “officially” Christian rock band. The ambiguity goes back to the band’s origins, in the Dublin of the late seventies, during the Troubles. In a country divided along sectarian lines, little about organized religion was attractive. U2 were teen-agers when they got together (Larry Mullen, Jr., the drummer, was just fourteen), but they were beginning to see outside of the faith traditions of their families. Bono’s father was a Catholic, his mother an Anglican. Adam Clayton (the bassist, English) and David Evans (the Edge, Welsh) came from Protestant backgrounds; Mullen had Irish-Catholic parents. In “North Side Story: U2 in Dublin, 1978-1983,” Niall Stokes, the editor of the Irish music magazine Hot Press, writes that the members of U2 were “primed” to ask what it meant to be Irish. They were “as close as you could get at the time, in an Ireland that was monocultural to an extraordinary degree, to a licorice all-sorts of nationalities and faiths.”

Their break with organized religion was probably inevitable. But it was still traumatic, which is perhaps why almost every U2 album contains a song about their decision to belong to a band rather than a church. (“One,” for example, is about the challenges of joining together with your friends to try and find God on your own.) Greg Garrett, an English professor at Baylor, a Baptist university in Waco, Texas, explains U2’s lack of religious identification in his book “We Get to Carry Each Other: The Gospel According to U2.” In high school, Bono, the Edge, and Mullen grew close to a faith community called Shalom, whose members Bono has described as living on the Dublin streets “like first-century Christians.” The group was a big presence in their lives during the recording of U2’s first two albums, “Boy” and “October” (“Gloria,” the best song on “October,” has a liturgical chorus, sung in Latin). The turning point came just as the “October” tour was set to begin: the Edge announced that he wanted to leave U2, because the twin demands of piety and rock stardom could not be reconciled. (“If God had something to say about this tour, he should have raised his hand a little earlier,” the band’s manager, Paul McGuinness, said.) Ultimately, of course, U2 stayed together: Bono, Mullen, and the Edge left Shalom. “I realized it was bullshit, that what these people were getting close to … was denial, rather than willful surrender,” Bono told an interviewer.

The tension in spiritual life—between discipline and vulnerability, order and openness, being willful and giving in—became U2’s central preoccupation, and gave it its aesthetic. During the Troubles, the band witnessed the consequences of an approach to faith that had become too organized and martial. Against that, they argued for “surrender,” in both its political and its religious senses. When Bono ran around onstage with a white flag during performances of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” he was expressing not only an approach to politics but also an approach to faith (often, the song suggested, they were the same thing). U2 were learning to infuse their music with a sensibility that had been unreachable in their religious lives—a kind of militant surrendering.

Dislike (0)
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmail
3 Responses to "The open secret of the Gospel in U2’s music"
  1. I'm not really familiar with U2's music, but Rothman's article makes it sound a lot like the passionate, often conflicting, and very human discourse with God that we find in the Psalms.

    Like (0)
    Dislike (0)
  2. listened to a fair amount of U2 music, but I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

    Like (0)
    Dislike (0)
  3. I went to the Diocese of East Carolina's summer camp for children every year for ten years, but the best "Bible study" we did was centered around the lyrics of U2 and their expression of real Christian faith. It was so meaningful. It was a turning point in my faith, telling me I could doubt and believe and doubt again and still be a child of God. That was okay. In other words, I love U2, even when their music isn't the best 🙂

    Like (0)
    Dislike (0)