U2. For their fans (like me), the name says it all. But for those of you who aren’t as familiar with them, let me throw out a few points that might give you reason to pay attention to this rock and roll band. For instance, what group was named Band of the Year in the industry leader Rolling Stone in 1983; was later named the Band of the Eighties by the same magazine; and was most recently declared Band of the Year for 2001, again by that same magazine? In 1987 Time put them on their cover and named them the hottest ticket in rock—only the third band to make the cover after The Beatles and The Who. U2 has regularly won Grammy Music Awards since 1987, including 3 for their latest album.
But U2 has not only had an influence in rock. More than any other band, U2 has worked for social and political change on a global scale. Just a few examples: they were the show stealers at 1985’s Live Aid concert; they’ve supported Amnesty International with benefit concerts for 15 years; they have been leaders in the Jubilee 2000 Third World Debt Relief movement; and are putting more and more energy into focusing attention on the African AIDS crisis. Their lead singer, Bono, attended the latest G8 summit in Genoa and addressed the assembled leaders; he’s met with Pope John Paul II and let him wear his sunglasses; he’s spent time with George Bush; and he’s taken boat trips with Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The level of international respect that Bono enjoys and the access he has to the political powerbrokers of world politics is unparalleled for a rock star.
Like most U2 fans, I eagerly anticipated their 10th album. U2 is known for successfully reinventing themselves on almost an album to album basis while continuing to increase their fan base, record sales, and critical acclaim. Musically, they’ve moved from the angry punk of their first album through various flavors of esoteric ambient and western and blues tinged rock to heavier Euro-techno and house beats, all the while anchored by lead singer Bono’s “most recognizable falsetto in rock music.” What kind of sound would they adopt for this latest effort?
Perhaps unlike most U2 fans, however, I was awaiting their album for another reason: I wanted the latest spiritual checkup of this band whose faith I have avidly tracked through their music.
Three of the four members of U2—lead singer Bono, guitarist The Edge, and drummer Larry Mullins, Jr.—grew up as speaking-in-tongues Pentecostals in the projects of Dublin. The fourth, bassist Adam Clayton, was an atheist, and the first few years the band experienced recurring tension as Adam felt like an outsider during things like back-of-the-tour-bus prayer meetings. The band worked through it, however, and throughout their 20 year history, U2 has explored their spiritual beliefs and questions through their music.
They started off, as most teens do, idealistic and bold, shouting out their faith from the rooftops. For instance, the opening song of their second album, October, was called “Gloria,” and is probably unique in being the only punk rock song to have a driving, passionate chorus in Latin:
Gloria in te domine. Gloria exultate.
Gloria, Gloria. Oh Lord, loosen my lips.
The Irish folk-tinged “Tomorrow” testified to their belief in Christian doctrines, as well as their evangelistic impulses, as Bono pleads:
Won’t you come back tomorrow?
I want you to be back tomorrow!
Open up, open up to the Lamb of God,
To the love of He who made the blind to see.
He’s coming back, He’s coming back—I believe it!
I’m gonna be there!
Owing to the obvious spiritual orientation of the first few albums, their first concert tours in the States were played mostly in churches rather than bars or clubs—hardly the traditional start for a UK musical invasion.
U2’s popularity and critical acclaim continued to rise, until 1987 when they released their landmark 5th album, The Joshua Tree. But their spiritual statements had become less frequent and less direct, and seeds of doubt seemed to be sprouting. One of their biggest hits off the album was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For:”
I believe in the Kingdom Come;
then all the colors will bleed into one.
But yes, I’m still running.
You broke the bonds, loosed the chains,
carried the cross of my shame, of my shame.
You know I believe it.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
On this and their next few albums, it sounds as if Bono, the main songwriter for the band, is dealing with a growing struggle between Romans 7: “What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…” and Romans 8: “The mind of the sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace…” Many of U2’s songs in this period swing drastically from passionate faith to confused doubt, as the ideals of their faith clashed with their inability to live them out, and the pain and suffering they saw in the world. Throughout, though, there is a recurring plea for God’s love to rescue them.
As the band reached new heights of worldly fame and riches, their albums grew more and more cynical, ironic, and dark; though Bono never lost his gift for poetic and thought-provoking lyrics, nor the band their ability to find beautiful melodies. Their ninth album, the Euro-techo Pop, is an extended and insightful, if bleak, meditation on how commercialism and consumerism have become the shallow but extensive new world religion, while traditional religion itself has become commercialized. The line between U2’s critique of pop culture and their buying into it whole-heartedly was unhelpfully and uncomfortably blurred, however, over the course of the album; they seemed to want to trumpet that pop is empty and meaningless, but at the same time are unsure what is left after our disposable culture is disposed of. The last song on the album is “Wake Up Dead Man,” a return to the theme of the brokenness of this world, but this time the plea for Jesus’ rescuing hand becomes a blatant challenge about the problem of evil, and even a question as to whether he really is alive and sovereign:
Jesus, Jesus help me.
I’m alone in this world,
And a f***ed up world it is too…
Jesus, I’m waiting here, boss,
I know you’re looking out for us,
But maybe your hands aren’t free…
If there is an order in all of this disorder,
Is it like a tape recorder?
Can we rewind it just once more?
Wake up, wake up dead man…
During these last years I worried about U2’s spiritual state, and prayed for them off and on. Had Jesus’ warning that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” proven true for these formerly young believers who had tasted the heights of what the world had to offer them?
Calm After The Storm
And so I waited with excitement and apprehension for the new album. U2 had journeyed from idealistic, perhaps naive faith through doubt and confusion to disillusionment and cynicism. Were there further depths to plumb, or had God “brought them up out of the miry pit?”
As it turns out, I didn’t even need to listen to the music—the album cover gave the answer away. It pictures the four members of the band standing in a brilliant white airport concourse with some pieces of carry-on luggage, as if they’re waiting to board a plane. But which plane? Where are they going? The boarding sign in the background reads simply “J33-3” with an arrow pointing down another even more brightly white concourse. When asked by Rolling Stone about the unusual gate sign, Bono admitted it referred to God’s words in Jeremiah 33:3: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.” “It was done like a piece of graffiti,” Bono said. “It’s known as God’s telephone number.”
Musically, All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a move away from electronic beats, back to more classic rock and roll arrangements; away from the dark, dense, ironic musical space they had inhabited recently, to an expansive one of soaring, bright, ringing chords and melody lines. There are elements of all U2’s past musical styles in this album, but they aren’t there as sad rehashes, a fallback to the safety of “what worked before.” Rather, they are references to the best musical places the band has been, while being pushed forward into new and unexplored territory: for instance, some songs have a distinctly Motown, oldies feel to them.
But the most significant change is found in the lyrics. There’s a sense of peace, as if the band has learned how to live in a place of calm between the stormy tensions of our sin-broken world and its promised restoration. Bono sounds like a man who has passed through a turbulent flood to reach a place of new solidity. The first song on the album, “Beautiful Day,” says as much:
See the bird with a leaf in her mouth;
After the flood, all the colours came out.
It was a beautiful day, don’t let it get away.
It’s a beautiful day, don’t let it get away.
The album is filled with references to grace, all the way to the last song entitled simply, “Grace.” Next to the lyrics for that song there is a picture of a dove, and indeed it is a treatment of the Holy Spirit personified as a woman, a technique Bono has used in the past (and which Biblical writers have employed as well; for example, see how Proverbs personifies godly wisdom as a woman). In U2’s vision, the Spirit roams the earth working out healing and redemption:
Grace, she takes the blame, she covers the shame,
Removes the stain, it could be her name
It’s also a thought that changed the world.
And when she walks on the street you can hear the strings;
Grace finds goodness in everything.
What once was hurt, what once was friction,
What left a mark no longer stings,
Because grace makes beauty out of ugly things.
Grace finds beauty in everything.
Though the Holy Spirit works out God’s grace in this world, Bono himself is fully conscious of his own limitations, his inability to even see the world through God’s eyes, as he makes clear in “When I Look At The World:”
When you look at the world, what is it that you see?
People find all kinds of things that bring them to their knees.
I see an expression, so clear and so true,
That changes the atmosphere when you walk into the room.
So I try to be like you, try to feel it like you do,
But without you it’s no use; I can’t see what you see
When you look at the world.
I’m in the waiting room, can’t see for the smoke.
I think of you and your holy book while the rest of us choke.
Tell me, tell me, what do you see?
Tell me, tell me, what’s wrong with me?
Everywhere on the album there are exhortations to strip off our concern with the temporary, material things that we can’t take with us anyway, and to stop longing after them because they aren’t truly what we need. For instance, “Beautiful Day” ends with the lines:
What you don’t have you don’t need it now
What you don’t know you can feel it somehow
You don’t need it now…
In “Stuck In A Moment,” Bono advises,
And you are such a fool to worry like you do.
I know it’s tough, and you can never get enough
Of what you don’t really need…
It sounds as if this album is the antithesis of Pop; or even the antidote to it. Where Pop plunged into the depths of over-produced superficial pop culture and came up empty and gasping for meaning, All That You Can’t Leave Behind soars into a rarified atmosphere of infectious joy, proclaiming that there are deep and transcendent realities such as grace.
That’s not to say there aren’t songs on the album that deal with more down-to-earth subjects. “Elevation,” with its grinding guitars, is a pretty straightforward celebration of the physical side of love, one of God’s extravagant gifts, in the tradition of the Song of Songs. “In A Little While” and “Wild Honey” also focus on relationships, and are delightful vignettes on companionship, attraction, comfort, and the promise of a sweet reunion after wanderings.
As I hinted at before, thoughts of mortality and longings for heaven pervade the album. In “Peace On Earth,” Bono longs for an end to war and death:
Heaven on earth, we need it now
I’m sick of all of this hanging around.
Sick of sorrow, sick of the pain,
Sick of hearing again and again,
That there’s gonna be peace on earth….
Jesus, can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line?
Peace on earth.
To tell the ones who hear no sound,
Whose sons are living in the ground,
Peace on earth.
Jesus, in the song you wrote,
The words are sticking in my throat,
Peace on earth.
Hear it every Christmastime,
But hope and history won’t rhyme,
So what’s it worth, this peace on earth?
Rather than an abrasive challenge to Jesus, however (as in “Wake Up, Dead Man”), this song is an Old Testament lament, a prophet-like cry of yearning for God’s kingdom to come, for injustice to be righted, for the bereaved mother’s tears to be wiped away.
“Walk On,” shows U2 at one of the things they do best—writing songs that work on more than one level. The song is dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, pro-democracy fighter in Burma, and on that level it is an encouragement to keep going with her fight. But on another level, the song resonates as an exhortation to keep steady on towards the hope of heaven:
And love is not the easy thing
The only baggage you can bring…
Is all that you can’t leave behind…
Walk on! Walk on!
What you got, they can’t steal it,
No they can’t even feel it,
You’re packing a suitcase for a place none
of us has been.
A place that has to be believed to be seen…
Walk on! Walk on!
What you got, they can’t deny it,
Can’t sell it, or buy it,
Walk on, walk on…
And I know it aches, and your heart, it breaks,
You can only take so much;
Leave it behind, you’ve got to leave it behind:
All that you fashion, all that you make,
All that you build, all that you break,
All that you measure, all that you feel,
All this you can’t leave behind…
After the release of this album, I had the chance to see U2 in concert in Cleveland. It would be an understatement to say I was curious to find out if my reading of the strong resurgent Christian spirituality of the album would be supported or undermined by the “Elevation Tour” experience.
In fact, I found that the concert went further than I could have imagined. Two representative examples: in the introduction to “Where The Streets Have No Name,” Bono launched into a long monologue in which he gave glory to God for the band’s success and also quoted Psalm 116: “What can I give back to God for the blessings he’s poured out on me? I’ll lift high the cup of salvation, a toast to God. I’ll pray in the name of God, I’ll complete what I promised God I’ll do, and I’ll do it together with his people.”
The last song they performed was “Walk On.” At the end of the song, Bono sank to his knees while the band kept playing. After thanking the Cleveland fans, he said twice, “Unto the Lord Almighty, thank you!” Then he sang, “Hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah,” to the melody of the closing chorus. The song ended, the band left the stage, the lights went up, and “Grace” started playing over the speakers.
As I drifted out with the rest of the audience, I realized with surprise that I felt as though I had been in worship! Many of the college students I work with in InterVarsity went to the concert as well, and they had the same feeling. One of them had gone to the Delirious! concert a few weeks earlier (Delirious! is a Christian praise/rock band from the UK). She told me, “This was a much more worshipful experience than the Delirious! was!” She, too, had had a strong sense of God being lifted up in front of 20,000 rock fans that night.
As I write this, there are rumors that U2 has decided to revisit the US with another, previously unplanned tour. I invite you to consider dropping in on these boys from Dublin, and cheering them on the latest leg of their roller coaster spiritual journey!