The Theology of U2
Rev. Douglas Taylor
March 23, 2014
I can’t believe the news today
Oh, I can’t close my eyes
And make it go away
How long must we sing this song
-Sunday Bloody Sunday
As I entered my teenage years, the Irish rock band U2 crossed the ocean with their third album entitled War. In many ways they are what you expect from a rock band – four guys: a drum kit, bass, guitar, and vocals. They’re loud, they swear, they thrive in the center of attention, they go by iconic names – Bono and The Edge rather than by their birth names: Paul and Dave. They totally work that ‘too cool for you’ look in photo shoots. They are rock stars.
But in many ways they are atypical for a rock band. Their music is not all love songs. They sing about faith and hope, they sing about injustice and social turmoil, they sing about brokenness and the power of love.
In 1983 they performed at Red Rock amphitheater in Denver, filming the concert for release titled Under a Blood Red Sky. Rolling Stone named them the band of the year in 1983. The opening lyrics of their song Sunday Bloody Sunday captured me. “I can’t believe the news today. I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.” U2 captured my emotional and political stance with those words.
I remember hearing about a prominent religious figure saying several decades back that he had to stop watching the news because it interrupted his prayers; it made it too hard for him to pray. What I heard from this rock band was the opposite. I watch the news and am drawn to lament with the Psalms: ‘How long must we sing this song?’
When I was a teenager I didn’t know what this song was about. I thought it was a reference to the America’s Civil Rights movement and our 1965 Bloody Sunday when Dr. King and protestors tried to march across the Edmond Pettus Bridge. But it was instead about two events 50 years apart both called ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Ireland’s history; one from the 1920’s and another from the 1970’s
Broken bottles under children’s feet
Bodies strewn across the dead end street
But I won’t heed the battle call
Bono insists it is not a rebel song or a partisan song. It is an appeal to end the violence.
And the battle’s just begun
There’s many lost, but tell me who has won
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters
For years after writing it, violence would still flair up in Ireland, bombs would still go off.
And it’s true we are immune
When fact is fiction and TV reality
And today the millions cry
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die
How long, how long must we sing this song? The urgency of the emotion gives the song its drive, but the clarity of its conscience gives the song its heart. As I think about my own ministry and passion I can see the influence U2 in general and this song in particular had on me in my teenage years.
Over the years, U2 has written songs about the social problems of drug addiction (Bad, Running to Stand Still), inhumane treatment of the mentally ill (The Electric Co.), suicide (Stuck in Moment), female body image insecurities (Original of the Species), and grieving Argentine mothers of political victims ( Mothers of the Disappeared). But it is the appeal against violence that appears most regularly in their music throughout the years.
Bono and the band are regulars at the various global music charity and consciousness-raising events such as Live-Aid, Band-Aid, “We Are the World”, and the Conspiracy of Hope tour. Plus Bono has gained renown for meeting with political figures around the global to talk about helping Africa rise up out of debt and crushing poverty. They are an activist rock n roll band. And for more than a generation, they have made it cool to be an activist!
Van Diemen’s Land is a song off their “Rattle and Hum” album. It is a song written by lead guitarist Edge as an appeal for justice without violence. John Boyle O’Reilly was a poet sentenced to the Van Diemen penal colony in Australia back in 1848 for his role in an Irish rebellion associated with the Great Potato Famine – which wasn’t really a famine but a plundering of Irish potato farms for export while the Irish people starved. The song calls not for a rebellion but a reflection on suffering and justice.
I am far from the first person to recognize and comment on the ethics and theology of this rock band and their music. For over a decade, nearly a dozen books have been published with titles such as:
Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 (2005)
One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters for those Seeking God (2006)
Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalogue (2003)
We Get to Carry Each Other: The Gospel According to U2 (2009)
The depth of this band is not captured only in a political and social outcry. U2 has always had an element of religious and spiritual search in their lyrics. Early on, three of the four band members were part of a Charismatic Christian community. After their first album they felt pressure to pick a side – to be a Christian Rock band playing the message of that particular community or to let go of Christianity and faith to embrace the rock star world. They choose to find a third way. Their music has strong themes of redemption and salvation, with lots of biblical imagery, but they explore doubt and loss of faith as well.
All over the websites people of faith are condemning U2 for not being Christina enough or not ‘really’ Christian. And then other websites have people of faith lifting up U2 (usually with a perplexed expression because U2 doesn’t quite fit what they expect from a rock band with a message of faith.)
In their 1991 song Mysterious Ways, they have the line: “To touch is to heal, to hurt is to steal. If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel” but that is coupled with words from an earlier song: “We thought we had the answers, It was the questions we had wrong” (11 O’clock Tick Tock – 1983). In their 2009 song Magnificent Bono sings: “I was born to sing for you, I didn’t have a choice to lift you up and sing whatever song you wanted me to. I give you back my voice … I will magnify.” But they also sing “I have spoke[n] with the tongue of angels, I have held the hand of the devil … but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
In a 2004 interview Bono said:
There [are] cathedrals and the alleyways in our music. I think the alleyway is usually on the way to the cathedral, where you can hear your own footsteps and you’re slightly nervous and looking over your shoulder, and wondering if there’s somebody following you. And then you get there and realize there was somebody following you: it’s God.
-from Jon Pareles, New York Times, section 2, p29 (Nov 14 2004)
Their song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For was covered by a gospel Choir; there is a clip of Edge saying it really is a gospel song if you listen to the lyrics … it’s not in they way they play it, he says, but it is gospel. But then Bono will say it is more an anthem of doubt than an anthem of faith. My sense is that it’s a mix – it is a searching through doubt and faith.
A significant element of U2 is the message of grace and hope and the Gospel. While they don’t come on heavy handed with their beliefs, they do lean heavy on their faith. There is no denying they are a rock n roll band with deep spiritual overtones.
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For comes from the 1987 “Joshua Tree” album. It was a number 1 song on a number 1 album. The album’s title is about old growth trees in the Nevada desert. The Joshua tree grows in dry dirt, sand and stone and somehow survives to show there must be water somewhere around there, hope lives hidden there somewhere. The song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is about spiritual doubt and the drive to keep searching, knowing that the source of life is there somewhere.
As was mentioned in the announcements, Jason Smith won the sermon topic at last year’s church auction and asked me to preach about the Gospel of U2. In our conversations we learned that he and I were both at the 1987 concert at Silver Stadium in Rochester for the Joshua Tree tour.
Jason wrote me saying:
I remember seeing MTV videos for Gloria and I Will Follow, [but] it was the performance of Sunday, Bloody Sunday at Red Rocks that caused me to buy my first U2 [album] …riding my bike down to T&C World of Video on Market Street in Corning to pick up the Under a Blood Red Sky EP when I was 14 years old, seeing them perform at Live Aid, playing the song Bad when Bono jumped into the crowd, going to see them twice on the Joshua Tree tour in Syracuse and Rochester, during my Freshman year at Corning Community College with my best friend Scott, continuing the tradition of seeing them live with Scott right up until 2009 when I took my boys to see them for the first time at Giants Stadium.
When I asked him why U2 was important to him he said:
It’s a combination of the depth of U2’s convictions, their willingness to discuss social action in their music and the history of camaraderie that the music has provided to me that keeps me coming back for more.
What keeps me coming back to U2’s music is the way they cast hope while being firmly grounded in reality. They sing about resilience and the power of love.
Their 2000 album has a song about Aung San Suu Kyi, the political figure from Burma/ Myanmar who chose to leave the comforts of Oxford University and return to Burma facing imprisonment but to fight for the cause of democracy. She became a symbol for people.
Walk on, walk on
What you’ve got, they can’t deny it … Walk on, walk on.
A favorite of mine is their song One from their Achtung Baby album. Bono sings:
Have you come here for forgiveness
Have you come to raise the dead
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head
It has the line:
One love, one blood
One life but we’re not the same
We get to carry each other, carry each other
I love that it doesn’t say, ‘we have to carry each other,’ but that we ‘get to.’ What makes us “one” is not that we are all the same; but that we belong together as humanity and that we are responsible for each other in a way that blesses us.
U2 performed their latest song at the Oscars last month; Ordinary Love is a tribute to Nelson Mandela. One interpretation is that it offer the perspective of Mandela when he gets out of prison.
I can’t fight you any more, it’s you I’m fighting for
The song has won the Golden Globe award for Best New Song this year and was nominated at the Oscars from the soundtrack to the new Mandela movie “Long Walk to Freedom.” The song appeals just to ‘ordinary’ love – not the extraordinary, monumental love like that of Gandhi, King, or Mandela. Just the ordinary love will be enough, more than enough to see us through.
U2 sings about more than injustice and a bit about faith. They have blended the activist spirit with the postmodern yearning for deeper meaning. The Christian ethic and faith they present are not neat and clear. Bono sings about brokenness and despair, lost faith and found hope. He sings about our responsibility to build a better world with the flawed material of our own aching hearts. U2’s theology is about the transforming power of love that can and does change the world.
So what music or art has influenced your outlook on life, your faith and understanding of the world?
Pride (In the Name of Love) is from the “Unforgettable Fire” album of 1984. The first two verses are stylistically written to be like “grainy photos sent back along the wire from the front lines of resistance;” snapshots of the work and its cost. The last verse is about the death and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. The song is about the power mix of love and pride that propel people to stand up and speak out and change the world.
Gracious and Loving God, from whom all things come and to whom all things return
Let us turn our attention this hour to the clamoring needs of our world, of our people, of our own souls. We gather today as a liberal people of faith, people of a wide path, a welcoming path, a path of compassion and acceptance.
We gather as a people in honor of our differences and the differences all the world round.
Let us gather as people of courage and hope, let us gather as people of love and justice
In this silent moment we recognize and honor those places in our own lives and in our own hearts where burdens reside. We seek the comfort of community, the peace of faith, and the yearning for wholeness in our lives. May this hour bring life-giving truth and peace to us and all the world.
We recognize and honor that people in many places the world over seek this same balm.
We recognize that this very hour and over the past days and weeks and ages and eons, people have come together in faithful community seeking this same balm of comfort and justice and life.
Let us recognize that humanity is one family; that though we are not the same, we are still one human family in one common web of existence with all that is holy.
Let our prayer be not only for ourselves and for our near neighbor. Let our prayer be for clean water for all people, for schooling for every child, for medicine for all the afflicted, and for an end to extreme and senseless poverty
Let us together build a better and safer world for all creation. Let us not ask for the blessing of the holy upon our lives and upon this world. Let us instead step up and be the blessing to the world.
Let us speak up for the disempowered, and be the voices of compassion and reason for a world gone mad with cruelty, poverty, and injustice. Let us set aside hate, and devote our lives to the ways of peace and justice.
Let us be tender with the broken places in our own souls and in the souls of our neighbors near and far. Let us be tender yet persistent with the broken places in our global systems that allow racism and poverty to flourish, that allow homophobia and misogyny to run rampant.
For such injustice let us be tender but not complicit, demanding but not unkind. Let us acknowledge these broken places in our world and in ourselves and stand up, speak out, and reach out to make a difference
Be thou an ever present strength upon our journey, O Spirit
In the name of all that is holy
may it be so