The Spiritual Journey of U2
by Jason White
More taboo than drugs or sex, God is a most unwelcome guest in the world of rock 'n roll. But that's precisely why Bono, lead singer of U2, finds God to be such a powerful and provocative subject for the band's songs.
"I sometimes think I have a kind of Tourette's syndrome, where if you're not supposed to say something, it becomes very attractive to do so," he once said. "You're in a rock band -- what can't you talk about? God? OK, here we go. You're supposed to write songs about sex and drugs. Well, no I won't."
From the band's origins as four dreaming teenagers in Dublin, Ireland, in the 1970s to its current status among the greatest rock bands on the planet, U2 has written and performed music shot through with a religiosity that defies easy categorization.
The band brought its brand of soaring and sublime rock 'n roll to a worldwide audience during the halftime show of the Super Bowl in early February.
On its most recent tour, the 2001 Elevation Tour, U2 sold out arenas and stadiums around the world, while making use of a surprising amount of religious imagery in the process.
Most nights, the band closed with "Walk On," a song from its newest album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind." Toward the end of the song, Bono would shout, "Unto the Almighty, thank you!" and lead the audience in a chorus of hallelujahs -- which means "praise the Lord."
In describing the mood of these concerts to Rolling Stone magazine, Bono suggested that rock 'n roll's most unwelcome guest was crashing the party.
"God is in the room," the singer said last May, "more than Elvis. It feels like there's a blessing on the band right now. People are saying they're feeling shivers -- well, the band is as well. And I don't know what that is, but it feels like God walking through the room, and it feels like a blessing, and in the end, music is a kind of sacrament; it's not just about airplay or chart positions."
With words like these, Bono and the rest of U2 would seem to fit comfortably within evangelical Christianity and its musical offspring, contemporary Christian music. That placement, however, is resisted by both the Christian establishment and the band itself.
U2's band members -- Bono, guitarist the Edge, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton -- drink and smoke and swear, causing some pietistic Christians, especially American evangelicals, to question the authenticity of the band's beliefs.
In addition, U2's music has moved over the past decade from a focus on overtly Christian themes to more secular subjects, such as politics and human relationships, leaving some Christians to wonder whether this reflects a move away from Christianity as well.
For its part, U2 doesn't seem to care whether it is accepted by the Christian community. Over the course of more than 20 years of making music, U2 has grown increasingly uncomfortable with organized religion, calling churches "claustrophobic" and blaming Christianity, at least in part, for splitting Ireland in two.
"I have this hunger in me everywhere I look, I see the evidence of a creator," Bono has said. "But I don't see it as religion, which has cut my people in two. I don't see Jesus Christ as being any part of a religion. Religion to me is almost like when God leaves -- and people devise a set of rules to fill the space."
The question of U2's religious beliefs, and the ways band members have expressed them over the years, is the subject of a new book, Walk On -- The Spiritual Journey of U2, by Steve Stockman, a Presbyterian minister in Ireland (Relevant Books, 2001). Stockman uses interviews and books about the band and U2's music to write a spiritual compan-ion to the band's career.
Stockman says that in the early days of U2 in Dublin, Bono, the Edge and Mullen embraced a charismatic and evangelical form of Christianity unusual for the Ireland of that time. They found community with like-minded believers in a small group called the Shalom fellowship.
In the early 1980s, one of Shalom's leaders declared that U2 would have to give up rock 'n roll to please God. It was a crossroads for the band, and after deciding that God would rather have them play rock music than stay in the fellowship, Bono, The Edge and Mullen left. Never again would any members of U2 be formally aligned with a religious group.
"For Bono, the Edge and Larry, the God that they met and have pilgrimaged with down the amazing road is a God who is bigger than church or religious boundaries," writes Stockman. "They discovered him outside of the straitjacket of traditional religion, and they have continued to see a God who has gotten bigger and bigger in every way."
Through over two decades of making music, U2 has never failed to bedevil those who try to pigeonhole its religious beliefs. Some of this is an intentional attempt to maintain an element of privacy behind an ironic public face. But some of this is also an artistic and public working through of private religious struggles.
For example, one of Bono's most direct statements of faith can be found in a mid-tempo, gospel-like song from U2's 1987 album, "The Joshua Tree."
"You broke the thorns, and you loosed the chains. Carried the cross of my shame, of my shame. You know I believe it," Bono sings in a plaintive melody.
But, these lyrics stand in tension with the song's chorus, a meditation on the incompleteness of earthly life, even for those who, like Bono, believe in the cross of Christ: "But I still haven't found what I'm looking for."
© 2002 Religion News Service