The debate about are they or are they still Christians is now well past the sell by date and needs even less discussion here. This is, as Stuart Bailie formerly of NME said, without doubt a Christian album. The fact that many evangelicals will question that suggests to me that you can be evangelical without being Biblical though you can never be biblical without being evangelical.
The Bible is a vast book of many many theological issues and though Paul is very much a part of all that he is just a part of it. What U2 have done in Pop is to bring many Biblical books and themes alive again; most notably Ecclesiates which could be described in the same way as Stuart Bailie described Pop as, "watching the world dancing, shagging and shopping and suggesting that it is ultimately joyless".
U2 are artists and there is a stark difference between that and what pervades as art in late nineties Britpop. Amazingly the same music press who condemned U2 thesis on the history of rock ‘n roll, Rattle And Hum, takes to it’s heart the cheaper imitations of Oasis et al. On Pop, U2 reinvent themselves yet again with a sound that is new and fresh and yet unmistakably U2. The use of such as Howie B has kept their sound young, involved them in the technological conversation of the nineties scene but never degenerated into gimmick.
Still involved in the technological conversations is not where U2 leave it. In the midst of a world of Wonderwalls and Beetlegums it is so good to hear a major selling rock album dealing with the issues of life. It is in their content that U2 particularly stand out and it seems to me that there is no doubt that that is the fruit of their faith.
Bono, Edge and Larry never had a frivolous hedonistic emptiness in their lives. From their late teens they have been wrestling with issues of God, the Cosmos, faith and the application of particularly a Christian faith to the world that they live in both inside and outside the music world. The result is that they cannot write small talk, even the seemingly throw away lyric of Discotheque is insightful critique of an age that is reaching but unable to grab it and obsessed with that lovey dovey stuff - check any magazine from Arena to Cosmopolitan to Just Seventeen.
Love is a recurring theme throughout Pop but again not in any throwaway silly love song type vein. "Love is rough and love is tough/but it is not love that you are thinking of” suggests that love needs to be reassessed in the light of the definitions thrown out daily in our condensed packets of thirty minute soaps. Reviewers and interviewers have been writing much about Bono’s healthy 14 year old marriage and perhaps the "stuck together with God’s glue" hints are some of loves solutions.
Elsewhere Bono seems to have this ability to distract people who are looking for the obvious Christian foundation of the album by mentioning God in some seeming negative ways. He is shouting at God asking him where he is. And it seems on the surface more fuel for the backsliden fire. Unless of course you’ve read The Psalms, Lamentations or Job without playing hermeneutical gymnastics with it to keep the rough edges of real life experiences out of your doctrinal basis. The parents of Dunblane can be assured that it is perfectly Biblically to scream at God and ask him where he is and to then doubt that he might give an answer - it may not be very evangelical though. The conclusion among many is therefore that Bono has thrown in the towel.
Wake Up Dead Man may be the strongest part of the case. Is Bono really screaming to Jesus as a dead man who needs to wake up? This is a real rant. This is a man at sea in a world that is so messed up and he cannot see a way to turn it around. "Jesus Jesus help me/ I’m alone in the world/ and what a fucked up world it is." Immediately the clean language police and the theological correct brigade will be out for burnings.
It seems remarkable that the use of a bad word will be more of a talking point than the fact that the world is messed up. The theologically correct never have been too good at dealing with the arts and poetic licence. If these words had been found in the Old Testament there would have been some expositional gymnastics done to explain it away but you need the tag inspired word to get away with such ideas. What about us making Paul’s use of the word "dung" anaemic in the NIV by translating it "rubbish". The Psalms seem full of such ideas. David was constantly ranting at God to waken up and bring a wee bit of justice to bear on a world gone mad.
A serious and thoughtful listening to the rest of the lyrics makes the burn the heretic sentence absurd. The album basically gazes across the skyline of the post modern very close to midnight darkness of the 20th century. As Bono said to Jon Pereles of the New York Times, "Musicians, painters whatever, they have no choice but to describe where they live." Name checks of Michael Jackson, Big Macs, OJ Simpson, The Lottery and even flute bands ... are described reflected on and questioned and the conclusions are matched up against the alternative Kingdom values spoken by Jesus in asking us not to store up treasure on earth where it will not last but in heaven where to get in and save your soul you’ve got to give it away. Thus when Bono imagines a girl faced with the reality of living her Last Night On Earth what does she conclude; "give it all away".
The word on the fleet streets of the world is that this is a much more subjective album than any U2 offering before and that might best be brought out in Gone where Bono recalls the sentiments of God Part 2, "you get to feel so guilty got so much for so little.”
For a Ballymun boy there has to be some kind of struggle in adapting to a big house in Killiney. Even greater is the dilemma when your rooted in an awareness that money and momentary fame and fortune are not what life and eternity are all about. In Gone, Bono seems to be wanting to rid himself of the obsessions and addictions of pop stardom, trying to get rid of his night time existence and suit of lights. In the end he concludes "that what you thought was freedom was just greed”.
MOFO, with it’s nod in the direction of John Lennon’s Mother, is again Bono in most intimately subjective muse when he tries to deal with the death of his mother and what that has meant in his development down through the years and finds him "lookin for a sound that’s going to drown out the world/ lookin for the father of my two little girls, got the swing got the sway got the straw in the lemonade/still lookin for the face I had before the world was made".
There is something of the pop star, the family man and the spiritual pilgrim about that verse as if Bono is crying out to God that in finding those three in some kind of balance he will find what the song begins with "lookin’ for to save my soul/ lookin in the places where no flowers grow/ lookin for to fill that God shaped hole".
Yes, there are still no comfortable refuges in the life of this Dublin boy but the search is still there. The compass points have not changed even though he may be in the wilderness in some kind of Old Testament wandering. It is still that "God shaped hole" that captures the thinking of his heart, soul and mind.
Never mind all of this or the fact that this album has made Christianity a talking point and written about in the media across the world. It is just simply an awesomely brilliant album. Never listen to pop to be entertained when you can listen to art and have your whole life interrogated, provoked, challenged and inspired.