U2's spiritual journey creates questions

The last of a three part series over a couple of months. Whats more taboo than drugs, sex or is God ? The unwelcomed guest in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. However that’s preciselly why Bono, lead singer of U2, finds God to be such a powerful subject for the band’s songs. “You’re in a rock band what can’t you talk about? God? OK, here we go,” he once said. “You’re supposed to write songs about sex and drugs. Well, no, I won’t.” Todays top trending conversation is #SEX and you have to wonder with the quesions posed by fans? Does U2 have a lot fo sexual references in their songs or would say that they pretty much stay on the “God” trip?

From the band’s origins as four dreaming teenagers in Dublin, Ireland, in the 1970s to its current status as among the greatest rock bands on the planet, U2 has written and performed music shot through with a religiosity that defies easy categorization.

On its 2001 Elevation Tour, U2 sold out arenas and stadiums around the world, using in the process a surprising amount of religious imagery. The band usually closed with “Walk On,” a song from, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Toward the end of the song, Bono would shout “Unto the Almighty, thank you!” and lead the crowd in a chorus of hallelujahs.

Bono and the rest of U2 would seem to fit comfortably with evangelicalism and contemporary Christian music. That placement, however, is resisted by both the evangelical establishment and the band itself. U2’s members—Bono, guitarist The Edge, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton ( which has birthday this month)—drink and smoke and swear, causing some pietistic Christians to question the band’s beliefs.

U2 doesn’t seem to care whether churches accept the band. Over  years, U2 has grown uncomfortable with organized religion, calling church life “claustrophobic” and blaming Christianity, at least in part, for dividing Ireland. “I have this hunger in me…. Everywhere I look, I see evidence of a Creator,” Bono has said. “But I don’t see it as religion, which has cut my people in two.”

The question of U2’s religious beliefs, and the ways band members have expressed them, is the subject of a 2001 book, Walk On—The Spiritual Journey of U2 (Relevant Books), by Steve Stockman, a Presbyterian minister in Ireland. Stockman mines U2 interviews and books about the band and its music to write a spiritual companion to the band’s career.

Stockman wrote that in U2’s early days in Dublin, Bono, The Edge and Mullen embraced a charismatic evangelical form of Christianity unusual then for Ireland. They found 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,”(STOCKMAN)


Fallen from Grace or Higher Calling

U2’s Bono Sings to the Heavens/ Dave Long/U2TOURFANSThese 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.

The Edge /U2TOURFANSWe 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.

U2 and Church 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.

U2 Fan Experience

Dave Long /U2TOURFANS 2009As most fans begin to look at their calendar they see that the next round of shows happen to be much closer than you think, One fan capsured their feeling of the last leg.

What was yours ? How did the show move you ? What was your experience?

Of course we have tons of videos and photos and intereviews, what about your story ? Lets reach back in time and enjoy this fans experience.

U2 is an experience. And I know that sounds kitsch and over the top if you don’t like them, and have never been to one of their shows.

I’ve heard that said over and over again, and I thought I understood it. I’ve got the dvd’s of previous tours, and watch them a fair amount.

But when I got there, and stood in front of Edge’s amps as he drove out perfect note after perfect note on ‘Breathe’, taking a rather normal base chord structure to levels you wouldn’t think it could go to, and as Bono quite literally sang his heart out, and 97,000 people for just 2 hours got to drop their learned inhibitions and allow songs to take them somewhere they might not otherwise be able to go……as over the top as it might sound, it is a spiritual experience.

So as much as I joke about the night not being fulfilled until security escorts me out for trying too hard to touch Edge, Bono, Larry, Adam, or even one of the stage crew, once you get there, it’s just about letting yourself go.

Now, U2 is not for everybody. They’re obviously for a lot of people, but not for everybody. But I can pretty much guarantee you that if you were to go to a live show of theirs, and leave any preconceived notions at the door, you would at the very least feel something.

Dave Long / U2TOURFANS 2009 Something you weren’t expecting. For me, U2 has a way of lending these orchestrations with the perfect mix of countering yet simplistic lines, to support a melody that aches and yearns as much as it gives joy. In fact, the joy probably comes out of the ache. And they do it with power and with passion, and it sings to people. Not to everyone, but to at least 97,000 people last evening at the Rose Bowl. To be able to sing with my wife with tears in our eyes during ‘City of Blinding Lights’.

To be able to be crushed by 2490 fans in the inner circle jumping to ‘No Line on the Horizon’ as I in turn crush the 10 in front of me. To sing ‘No more!’ until you think you’re going to collapse, but it’s okay because thousands of other people from 5 years old to 65 years old are singing the same thing with the same intensity around you.

And of course, to almost be able to touch Edge’s guitar when he leaned over the rail. And above absolutely everything else, to hear the untouched and pre-mic’d tone directly from his amps.  Not to sound overly sentimental

Bono,U2 and Spirituality

Given the opportunity to explore U2 from Theological, Spiritual view we have watched many books, sites and interesting side notes appear. However the classic general introduction to U2 from a spiritual perspective comes from Steve Stockman’s well organized Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2; “Stocki” an Irishman who has been writing on the band since the early 80s and knows their milieu intimately. Also consider the works of Vagacs and Scharen as well as Garrett to complete your collection,  However, most of the best theologically informed writers on U2 are working in journals, magazines, and online. U2-and-God pieces are those by Steven Harmon and Mark Meynell

Since U2 lyrics reflect a thorough immersion in Biblical thought and language, it’s often useful to turn to Drawing Their Fish in the Sand, an online archive of scripture allusions in the band’s work.

Moving from reflection on U2 to material directly by the band, one option that will spark thought is Bono’s National Prayer Breakfast sermon in 2006, which can be viewed here (a 22-minute clip via CNN and YouTube) or purchased as the book On The Move (including photos from his service in Ethiopia with World Vision as a young man).  An often-reprinted excerpt from Bono in Conversation, displays the singer at ease in the role of apologist for faith.

And then there’s listening!  Novices should certainly explore a best-of album, or a classic like The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby; however, U2 are above all a live band whose vision cannot be fully grasped from their studio material, which is in essence a preliminary sketch for what they eventually achieve in performance.

Their slogan: “Live is where we live.”

We would recommend a trip to YouTube. Either look up performances of your own favorite songs, or observe a few characteristic U2-plus-their-audience moments: Where The Streets Have No Name (2001),  Sunday Bloody Sunday (1988), Mothers of The Disappeared (1998—in Santiago with the real mothers brought onstage), the love song to the Holy Spirit Mysterious Ways (2009) and the ZooTV iteration of The Fly (1993) with Bono in character and disorientation on the agenda.

It’s a cliché to point out that the band’s name is a pun: You, too, can be part of this. With that outlook, it’s no surprise that I need to tell you that this guide just skims the surface of ways spiritually-minded listeners can interact with U2’s material. Come on in and mix it up; there’s room for everyone

There are big questions about some of the things they do and say. There are the financial decisions that U2 Inc. have made, there are other concerns of lifestyle and rock star egos, there are concerns about their theology and ethics. For example Christians some have cited their Coexist campaign (which calls on all the ‘Sons of Abraham - Jews, Christians and Muslims - to live together in peace) as evidence of universalism. Well, it may well be! Yet it is hard to deny the moral goodness of the objective.

If one needs labels (and how one wishes one didn’t), perhaps we should see U2 as ‘post-evangelical’ (in the sense of what Dave Tomlinson was getting at in his 1995 book of that name) more than anything else. That will leave many things to be desired for the regular evangelical, of course.

But it is interesting how often themes of historic Christian orthodoxy permeate and inform their creativity. It is of course easy for Christian observers to judge and condemn them - yet who of us can honestly claim to understand the choices, dilemmas and conflicts that arise from having such wealth and influence?

Nevertheless, they offer a profound challenge to Christians with their passionate and committed engagement with the world around us at the social, political and personal levels. U2 is one model of Christian artistic engagement at the highest and most exposed level.

You might not agree with everything they do; you may totally detest their music! But it is foolish to ignore their attempts – for in recent times, no another performers have brought a Christian worldview and set of values into the public square more wholeheartedly and globally than U2. U2: The Stadium Psalmists & Prophets Mark Meynell

Closing Thoughts. Most of us listen to music as background, something to fill the void. I challenge you to listen to music, really listen. Listen not only to U2 songs, but all songs. You find that references to God and man are vast and written deep within songs that you never thought would have any reference at all.

2010 will be another defining year for the boys, and we of course will be along for the ride “Will You?”

Suggested Reading

  1. Achtung Baby (33 1/3 album guide) Catanzarite, Stephen Continuum New York 2007
  2. Bono on Bono: Conversations Assayas, Michka Hodder London 2005
  3. Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog Whiteley & Maynard (eds) Cowley Cambridge 2003
  4. Into The Heart: The Stories Behind Every U2 Song Stokes, Niall Carlton London 2005
  5. One Step Closer – Why U2 matters to those seeking God Scharen, Christian Brazos Gr. Rapids 2006
  6. Religious Nuts, Political Fanatics: U2 in Theological Perspective Vagacs, Robert Cascade Eugene, OR 2005
  7. The U2 Reader: a Quarter Century of Commentary Bordowitz, Hank (ed) Hal Leonard New York 2003
  8. U2 by U2 McCormick, Neil (ed) HarperCollins London 2006
  9. U2: An Irish Phenomenon Cogan, Visnja Collins Press London 2006
  10. U2: Into the Heart (the stories behind every song) Stokes, Niall Thunder’s Mouth London 2005
  11. U2: The Complete Guide to their Music Graham / Oosten de Boer Omnibus London 2004
  12. Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 Stockman, Steve Relevant Orlando, FL 2005

U2: The Journey Toward Ascension

Three Chords and the Truth

By  Nikki Vanasse

Blackstone, MA


As I write this, I’m enjoying every second of the entire U2 library.  It was time to take a look back and listen again because these songs, for many people, are worth visiting over and over again throughout time.  The timeline is clear, you get a real feeling for the evolution, and sometimes revolution, of this band.  Don’t misunderstand them.  The biggest secret is really how vulnerable they are, particularly Bono.  And just because they write about struggles doesn’t mean they have all the answers.  The Edge has said that they’re just as confused as any of us.  So essentially we are all on this journey with them.  Bono makes that possible in the way he writes lyrics.  Metaphors abound and songs take on multiple meanings.  That’s on purpose.  Bono picks apart the specifics, throws in metaphor and before you know it, by golly, that song is about YOU!

Post-punk revival + Christian rock = U2.  Although it’s evolved into a more spiritual belief system as opposed to those of an organized Christian religion.  But know this too: there are several Christian beliefs and themes within the process of Spirituality.  The journey toward ascension.  It’s largely based on morals, compassion, charity: the words of the Bible outside any organized influences.  If you’ve read the books on the band then you know how serious and important that was to half them.  

What was discovered however, which resonates significantly with me at the present time, interestingly enough, is that it’s not about the organized religion where you have to go somewhere to be heard by God, it’s about how you connect with everyone in the world, a “oneness”, the God connection.  For Bono, it’s always been about compassion and charity, so we see that result outright these days.  He believes songs are like prayers (Rolling Stone; Issue 986 Nov. 3, 2005).

You could grab a song off each album and it will deliver a spiritual journey to, from, or with God.  After all, it hasn’t all been a bed of roses with the Man Upstairs.  Let’s give it a whirl:

Boy largely the coming-of-age album that dealt more with boy trying to be man, loss of innocence and sex.  And more sex.  They were, after all, 18 years old at this time, so factor that.  There was also a lot of anger present on the record, particularly “The Electric Co.”  Otherwise, I was hard-pressed to really find any Christian overtones yet, as the Shalom Fellowship (a Christian sect in Ireland) wasn’t introduced into their lives until 1980, just after this record.  They were certainly exposed to it, but not in the way they would experience soon.

October - “Gloria” is an outright song of confusion in finding the way in the world.  “I try, I try to stand up/but I can’t find my feet/I try, I try to speak up/but only in you I’m complete”.  That record above all represents not only the moment in time, but also the degree of which God influences the band.  October was really the album with the story.  It wasn’t the hit that Boy was, but contained in it is all the confusion and religion any band could muster up in one release.  

Four naive young men set out on the adventure of a lifetime:  to become the world’s biggest rock band. Suddenly, there IS no band.  Guilt wracked 3/4 of the band who were torn between being true spiritually as well as being true to themselves and musically on their quest towards being the best rock and roll band they could be.  However, they learned that the two could NOT coexist under any circumstances as far as the Shalom Fellowship was concerned.  

Larry states in U2 by U2, that there was tremendous pressure from the Shalom Fellowship to attend all prayer meetings and to give up the band to pursue a more spiritual avenue.  The pressure was great enough that The Edge left the band.  Bono followed because as he stated in U2 by U2, he wasn’t interested in being in the band if Edge wasn’t.

There was enormous negativity coming from the people who were their friends, about being in a rock band.  While Bono and Edge exited the band, Larry gave up the Fellowship.  As this turmoil is going on, so should the work of October.  So the band did break up for about 6 months during those sessions.  

October is a fascinating work in that the band comes together to finish work on their second album.  Adam remarks that he wasn’t too convinced that a New Wave band could get away with all the God lyrics.  The band’s new manager, Paul McGuinness, finally posed the question out loud.  “Was this really what they wanted?”  With some insight from McGuinness, they resolved their issues and pressed forward.  The rest, as they say, is history.

War - By the time War came around, everyone had come to terms with where the energy would be spent and felt that God wasn’t going to condemn them for continuing their life’s work.  In the words of Steve Stockman, a Presbyterian minister in Ireland, “The God that they met and have pilgrimaged with down the amazing road is a God who is bigger then church or religious boundaries.” (Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2).  

They had started to dial in at this time.  The album is electrically charged with the politics that hurt them, their families, their people, people all over the world.  These songs became something different for me after 9/11.  After hearing “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” in Boston in Nov. 2001, I finally understood those lyrics like no way I had before.  And these guys lived with this kind of terrorism on a daily basis!  

It hit me like a ton of bricks.  But I digress.  Let’s look at “40”. And maybe you guessed it, yes, the lyrics were restyled from the Bible’s 40th Psalm.  “I waited patiently for the Lord/he inclined and heard my cry/he brought me up out of the pit/out of the mirey clay”.  It’s very calming; spiritual.  It brought the chaos of the album to a close.  It’s no wonder why this song brought the shows to a close for so many years.  That was exactly the idea!

The Unforgettable Fire - This is where the wearing of the feelings on the sleeve becomes less apparent.  Enter Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.  The spirituality that is born on this album is more reflective of the spirituality or Christianity that the band felt right with.  It dealt with some major spiritual themes: “Desperation, desolation, separation, condemnation, revelation, in temptation, isolation, desolation” (“Bad”), as any individual would face in a lifetime.  

Pick your issue, pick your song…it’s all in here.  Now writing and creating for a larger audience, you’ll fine issues from addiction (“Bad”) to the fight for civil rights, to channeling the spirits of Indian people who were massacred in Toronto (“Indian Summer Sky”).  It strikes a chord of a more metaphysical nature, more universal.  The focus on creating atmosphere a la Eno took the nakedness right out of the experience and made it more like experiencing aura.

Next up: the holy grail of U2, The Joshua Tree

(Editor Note: We will be posting the four parts over the next few day, we invite you to sign up via facebook, twitter or our website to be updated as we post)