U2 is still the greatest rock band in the world, and it’s a Christian rock band. It can be easy to ignore this fact because they are not this genre from the Christian recording group, but the evidence speaks for itself.
Now that might be a surprise. Perhaps you understood that U2 was vaguely spiritual or almost Christian-but-who-really-knows. Or maybe you thought the band’s Christian stripes were only evident on occasion, not album after album after album. If this is you and you want a taste of the depth with which the Bible has shaped and informed the work of U2, please enjoy the list below (anyone can do that, too).
Especially with the band getting ready to release their 14th studio album, “Songs of Experience”, this Friday (12/1), it’s a reminder not only of U2’s Christianity and how deeply rooted it is in their songbook, but also that they always wrote cohesive, thought-provoking songs and didn’t have to be everything for everyone.
5. Snow white
“White as Snow” is not the kind of song you would expect to find on a rock ‘n’ roll album (in this case, U2’s 2009 release, “No Line on the Horizon” ). It’s a wintery, meditative folk hymn to the tune of “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel” and sung from the perspective of a US soldier in Afghanistan who was fatally injured in an improvised explosive device blast. .
These are his last words, spoken by Bono in a sober and respectful performance. He describes his home, various childhood memories and the arid landscape that surrounds it. The heart of the matter comes in the lines, “Once I knew there was divine love / Then came a point where I thought he didn’t know me.”
What exactly is “divine love?” “The snow-white lamb.” The contrasting images of a bloodied soldier and a spotless lamb parallel the dichotomy of Isaiah 1:18: “If your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow. We are also supposed to think of their opposite: a bloody lamb and a cleansed child of God.
While Bono doesn’t resolve the tension of the song, he points to the crucified Christ as the ultimate answer – the path to forgiveness, salvation, and, at the end of the story, the wedding feast of that same Lamb.
4. The first time
For those who are not faithful to the church or who are not read from the Bible, “The First Time” probably comes across as a simple drama of love lived and rejected. For the rest of us, this hushed, slow-building gem of the 1993 “Zooropa” offers a lot more. When Bono sings about his lover (“She has a soul, a soul, a soul, a sweet soul”), his brother (who lives a life of sacrificial service) and his father (who has “many mansions” and a “kingdom to come ”), you do not need a M.Div. to grasp that it is the Trinity.
Further, the details of these relationships make it clear that the account is an account of the parable of the Prodigal Son, with two crucial differences. Instead of accepting his father’s grace, Bono reveals, “But I left through the backdoor / And threw away the key.” An elegiac piano then sweeps over the soundscape, bringing home the pain and confusion of sinful rebellion.
Hope lies in the other difference. As suggested above, Bono replaces the Pharisaic elder brother we find in Luke 15 (a replacement for the Pharisees to whom Jesus was speaking) with what Timothy Keller calls “the true elder brother”: the Christ, who “passes his (time) run after me. That’s a lot for a pop song, but it was also the case with the parables. Their simple and economical style veiled deep truths. Bono was just following the Master’s example.
Here’s a quick tour of U2’s anxious and aggressive 1983 record, “War”: civilian deaths, sectarian strife, nuclear proliferation, martial law, political extremism, refugee fate, prostitution. It’s an intense race, and lives up to its name.
As a result of all this conflict and injustice, how does U2 end “War”? In worship. “40”, referring to the Psalm Bono searched for most of the lyrics, is an airy prayer of hope and thanksgiving, eyes closed and head swaying. “I waited patiently for the Lord / He bowed and heard my cry / He brought me out of the pit / Mire clay.”
You can feel much of the weight lift off Bono’s heart and mind as he calls on the name of the Lord and acknowledges his bliss. In the context, the song essentially functions as a Sabbath rest. After declaring that he will “sing a new song”, Bono ends by repeating the question “How long to sing this song”, which refers to the album’s opening, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (“How long should we sing this song? ”), and seems to be another way of saying,“ Come quickly, Lord Jesus. ”
After the release of “War”, “40” became a staple in U2’s live performance and has since been performed, in whole or in part, more than 500 times in concert. It is serious and sustained public worship. In other words, “40” honors the spirit and mission of the Psalms through more than just borrowed lines.
2. Awaken the dead man
“Pop”, U2’s most misunderstood record, begins in a nightclub and ends with a dark night of soul. “Wake Up Dead Man” is a punch of a closer, ghostly funeral song, possibly one of the two or three darkest songs the band have ever recorded.
Right out of the door, in a heavily distorted voice: “Jesus, Jesus help me / I’m alone in this world / And it’s a crazy world too.” Ouch. It’s as close to a portrait of utter desperation as Bono ever was. He continues in the same way, wondering if there is “an order in all this mess” and begging God to step in and put everything in order.
On the chorus, it’s uncertain whether Bono is urging himself to “wake up” or whether he is simply playing with imagery of the buried and pre-resurrected Messiah (or maybe both). Either way, it’s powerful and shocking.
Basically, “Wake Up Dead Man” contains echoes from all corners of Scripture. Think of King David in the Psalms wondering if God forsook him as he fled from murderous opponents. Think of the honesty of the man without a name in Mark 9 who cried out to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my disbelief. And think of Christ himself dying in Gethsemane because of the cup of God’s wrath and asking the Father if it could pass from him. Bono recognizes that the path to spiritual healing and renewed hope can begin with powerful, undiluted prayer.
1. The wanderer
Where do you start with “The Wanderer”, the last track from “Zooropa”, a song as daring and memorable as any other U2 song? The most important is the Johnny Cash show. Bono recruited the country music icon to take on the duties of lead singer and “play” the title role, which was modeled after the figure of the “Preacher” from the Book of Ecclesiastes, who ponders the possibility of to build meaning in life apart from God.
The decision was a daring masterstroke. Cash inhabits the character in a way Bono never could have had, especially with his old baritone sounding so clear and bossy and almost prophetic. In a post-apocalyptic context (“under an atomic sky”, “through tin capitals”) and with little more than a synthesized bassline and shimmering backing vocals to guide it, The Preacher launches into a experience project: “To taste and touch / And smell as much / As a man can / Before he repents.
To borrow from Saint Augustine, he is agitated because he does not rest entirely in God. Yet the wild pilgrim remains faithful: “Jesus, I will be home soon. He knows that the wilderness of human frailty, spiritual bewilderment and false idols that Bono portrays in “Zooropa” (and pretty much the entire 90s U2 trilogy) will never come close to satisfying his deepest desires. .
This is the world Cash sings about, “They say they want the kingdom / But they don’t want God in it” – a perfect line and basically a diagnosis of the modern West. All in all, “The Wanderer” is an exhilarating success. He epitomizes the creative risks U2 was once willing to take and the heavy religious topic they often broached.
To top it off, it’s hard to imagine a more American moment than Johnny Cash chanting, “I went out for a walk / With a Bible and a gun.”
Barry Lenser lives and works in the Upper Midwest. He loves the Lord, his family and the Packers.