These days bringing U2 into a conversation with a group of Christians can be a dangerous occupation. Once up held as the prime examples of Christians in the music business, many people now view the band as arrogant and egotistical, having long since abandoned their early religious fervor.
In fact, many churches will point to U2 as evidence of the fact that the music industry is too full of corruption and depravity for even the most committed believers to hold out against, almost as mothers used to frighten their children into good behavior with stories of the hobgoblins that awaited the ill-behaved child! Viewing U2 on the surface this can be understandable, but a deeper look at what the band is doing portrays a very different story.
Without a doubt U2 have changed a lot since their early albums. Many believe that U2 no longer possess the Christian beliefs which so obviously underpinned these albums, and in many respects amidst the images which U2 have created their beliefs can be difficult to unearth.
Often such use of artistic subterfuge is deeply frowned upon by Christian fundamentalists who argue that the gospel message should be perfectly clear; however, this is ignoring the fact that much of the Bible is itself written in artistic prose, rich in hidden meanings and multi-faceted nuances, whilst several books merely contain poetry - the most artistic of all writing forms.
Jesus himself taught in parables, using the images of the day to bring across truths about God, and most of the time leaving the people scratching their heads and wondering what he meant.
We cannot know exactly what U2 dreamed of during their two year break, but anyone who knows something of the very early days of U2’s career may have some ideas. Before they recorded their first album U2’s live gigs were characterized by the two personas which Bono would play - the Boy and the Fool. When it came to recording, however, the Boy became the primary character, and the Fool faded into insignificance.
Over the next ten years the Boy grew into a Man, and U2’s punk beginnings became everything punk had rebelled against. U2 were the epitome of stadium rock giants, spearheading the social conscience in Rock music. They had taken this path as far as they could, reached the biggest audiences imaginable and needed to totally rethink what they were attempting to achieve as a band. With the realization that Stadium Rock could never be personal or subtle, U2 were faced with a choice - return to playing smaller intimate venues, or redefine the framework entirely. Their popularity made the first total
Whilst many other stars have burnt themselves out with the ‘rock-and-roll life-style’, U2 have managed to cope with the pressures of success fairly well. The band has talked of how the pressure of their lifestyle was getting to them, and, if they had kept on the way they were going, they may indeed have burnt out. However, the realization of the absurdity of rock ‘n’ roll has deflated this. The band had been so intense that the only way out was to go totally over the top. Whereas they had previously spent so long avoiding the paraphernalia of being rock ‘n’ roll stars, now they are having fun playing with it, exploding all the clichés.
The Church has never coped well with its artists and U2 are no exception. They have refused to play by anyone else’s rules, and have frequently overstepped the tight boundaries of ‘permissible behavior’ drawn up by the church.
As a result the church has often viewed them with suspicion. Even one of their most explicit songs of Christian faith and longing for a better world, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” was taken by many Christians as evidence that U2 had lost their faith.
The tendency for the Church to look for perfection in its heroes has placed an overwhelming pressure on U2.
They are expected to have all the answers with no sign of doubt, and the church embraces them warmly when they express their faith clearly. However when they have expressed doubts or confusion the church has been just as quick to point the finger and disown them.
The offspring of a mixed marriage, Bono has claimed that he feels equally at home in both Catholic and Protestant churches. However the way in which the Church has often treated U2 has meant that he has come to feel equally not at home in either.
As he sings in Acrobat, “I’d break bread and wine, if there was a church I could receive in.” In his experience the church is too constricting and stifling. It has constructed a set of rules and beliefs to which he is expected to adhere.
However Bono describes his faith in terms of John 3:8 - no-one knows where it’s coming from or where it’s going to, it’s like the wind. “I’ve always felt that way about my faith. That’s why on the new album I say ‘I’ve got no religion’, because I believe that religion is the enemy of God, because it denies the spontaneity and the almost anarchistic nature of the Spirit.”
He sees no reason why all of his songs have to be full of happiness and joy and is fascinated by the connection between the Blues and Gospel Music. He describes the Psalms as the Blues of the Bible, with David giving off to God, “where were you when I needed you?”
The church has often failed to understand art or rock music, and often looks with suspicion on anything which it does not understand.
Everyone’s faith and spirituality must be worked out in the context in which they find themselves, and although few within the church have any idea of where U2 “are”, many are quick to point out where they think they should be.
We need to stop looking for perfection from those in a position of power. They are as much real people as the rest of us - open to doubts, depression, confusion and fear. We must not expect people to hide these emotions, but must allow people the freedom to be honest in their art.
To do otherwise is a denial of the realities of life. God does not solve or remove all our problems, but can help us through them. U2 has never merely painted a black picture of the world, but have stressed a salvation encompassing this.