U2 at 40. For a rock band to have survived 40 years without a change in personnel is a story in itself but that social media should still be buzzing rumours of the release of the band’s next record is literally unheard of in the history of rock music. Add to that that they have used the currency of their fame to literally change the world, and done it from the foundation of a Christian faith, and there is simply no other story like the story of U2.
As they reach this landmark anniversary, all the more poignant as they have written songs about both Psalm 40 and Isaiah 40, it is a good time to stop and recognise the impact that U2 have had on the world and the Church.
September 1976 was no golden age in rock history. A new birth was in pregnancy but the top 40 was littered with bland and anaemic pop; Abba Bay City Rollers, The Wurzels, Cliff Richard et al. Something better change. It did! The next year would see punk rock and the new wave transform the doldrums of 70’s pop and prog rock. The Sex Pistols, The Jam, The Stranglers, The Ramones et al brought vibrant new life.
During this gestation period, four teenagers from Mount Temple School in Dublin were getting together in the drummer’s kitchen. There was something blowing in the north Dublin air that they would later describe:
“The spirit’s moving through a seaside town
I’m born again to the latest sound
New wave airwaves swirling around my heart.”
As we celebrate 40 years of U2 it is hard not to plumb the depths of their most recent record Songs Of Innocence to get some insight to what was going on in that kitchen of Larry Mullen’s.
Lucifer’s Hands, quoted above, describes well a collision of adolescent discovery that was about a whole lot more than just learning some chords, finding an echo box for a guitar and some words for the charismatic singer to sing.
There was something else blowing in the wind; another kind of charismatic in the swirl. The late 70s was a time of Holy Spirit revival across the world and Dublin felt the refreshing impact. A number of house churches grew up overnight. One was called Shalom and three of the boys in that kitchen rehearsing were soon in that fellowship discussing God.
The vortex of the swirling of adolescence, punk and Jesus created not only the world’s biggest rock band but give the band a dimension that no other rock band of this stature ever had; God. Another recent song The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) testifies to this blend and blur of faith and punk. Discovering Jesus and The Ramones around the same time shaped the music and honed a vocation. They were made “brand new” in spiritual rebirth. They were now “pilgrims on their way” in discipleship. It was a personal miracle that became a rock history one.
American author and minister Frederick Buchner has defined vocation as “where your deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need.” U2 have been doing more than make chart topping records. In the glare of stardom, they have been living out their Christian vocation.
At the Greenbelt Festival in 1990 rock journalist, author and Christian thinker Steve Turner was a doing seminar about Christian engagement in society. He suggested that Christians have to be involved in the conversations going on in our culture. He then used U2 as an illustration suggesting that they not only got involved in the conversation but that they actually changed the vocabulary of the conversation. Imagine before U2 a band taking a song called Sanctify Yourself into the top 10 as Simple Minds did in 1986. Or the Pet Shop Boys It’s A Sin topping the charts in 1987.
Across four decades U2 have made a Christian contribution to a vast array of conversations. When U2 sneak faith words, ideas and statements into songs, interviews or live concert settings, it never feels like a contrived mission strategy. It seems that it is simply a natural part of who they are that they caress and collide their faith against the world that they are living in and engaging with.
I was there when they started conversing about the Northern Ireland Troubles. It was at the Maysfield Leisure Centre in Belfast on December 20th 1982 when Bono explained how Sunday Bloody Sunday was not a rebel song and that if the crowd didn’t like it he would never play it again. A song about the violence hoping that the victory Jesus won could reconcile.
It wasn’t the last time they would break into he Northern Irish Reconciliation conversation. Their biggest interruption was in 1998 before the Referendum on The Good Friday Agreement when U2 played at a Vote Yes Rally at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, news footage sent out across the world of Bono holding the hands up of the leaders of both sides of the Conflict, Nationalist John Hume and Unionist David Trimble. The Yes Vote won!
From the War album until the end of that 80s U2 conversed about United States involvement in Central America, apartheid in South Africa and British miners, among other political situations.
They were also putting theology into mainstream. When they reached Number 1 in The US Charts on August 8th 1987 with I Still haven’t Found What I’m Looking For radio stations across the world were ablaze with as succinct a theology of Christ’s cross as any hymn ever written:
“You broke the bonds
You loosed the chains
Carried the cross
And my shame
You know I believe it”
Remarkably Christians missed the theological clout and actually wondered if they had lost their faith, distracted by the line I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. A wee Bible Study in Philippians 3 and they would have maybe found the Biblical equivalent; “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (verse 12). It should be pointed out that when Contemporary Christian Musician Amy Grant reached the top of the charts, four years later, her theology was not so robust - “Baby Baby!”
On the last week of 1989 at Dublin’s Point Depot U2 said goodbye to the 80s and hello to the 90s with a series of concerts. Bono told the crowds that the band had to go away and dream it up all over again. When Achtung Baby was finally dreamed up it took U2 into a whole new conversation. If the 80s was a band singing about what they believed in then they spent the 90s singing about what they didn’t.
The message of 90s U2 can be understood by watching their two massive concert tours; Zooropa and Pop Mart. The former was a conversation about Television and the modern phenomenon of media. The latter was an expose of commerce and materialism. During the Popmart Tour Bono would stand like a tiny spec in from of a big screen and during Mofo sing “looking for the baby Jesus under the trash”, as his hand gestured to the kitsch of colour and giant lemons and the biggest outdoor film screen ever built. Jesus was still the centre of the thesis but U2 were looking from another angle to find him in the mayhem of postmodernity. These were very powerful contributions to the conversation of changing times.
As the new millennium began U2 shifted again. All That You Can’t Leave Behind was back to what they believed in. There was a maturity in the band’s work, attitude and spirituality. The content of that record was influenced by Bono’s activism fired by the Jubilee 2000 campaign and that Bono had been reading Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace. This was a very influential book across Christendom and itI struck a chord in Bono’s soul. Grace indeed was the last track and the central thought to that record:
Grace, a name for a girl
And a thought that can change the world
Grace makes beauty out of ugly things”
The Elevation Tour that followed would end most nights with the song Walk On and Bono getting the crowd to sing Hallelujahs while declaring “The Spirit is in the house.”
On the Vertigo Tour in 2005 after the release of How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb most concerts ended with a deeply spiritual trilogy; the personal testimony All Because Of You I Am (the I Am referring to the name God gave himself to Moses); the commitment prayer that was Yahweh; and their old favourite closer from the 80s a communal Psalm, 40!
Yahweh’s last line must be on of the most subversive lines in rock music. In a rock history that tends to concentrate on sex and drugs and rock n roll here is the biggest rock band in the world at the time closing out gigs singing as an offering, with their hands held open to the Almighty, “Take this heart… and make it break,” That’s a conversation changer!
In 2008 I found myself in a songwriting retreat in Nashville. It was at the home of Charlie Peacock who after a few years on mainstream labels at the beginning of the 80s found himself an artist, the producer and finally a major guru in the Christian music industry. His influence on Christian artists had led many to cross back into the mainstream.
There were around 60 artists gathered in his Art House, a converted Church that doubled as his home, a venue with a recording studio attached. What struck me very quickly was that almost every artist in the room was a Christian songwriter working in the mainstream. Ten years previous this would simply not have been the case. As I started asking artists why they were not signed to Christian record labels they all answered, “U2”.
U2 modelled another way for Christian artists to converse. From the late 60s with artists like Larry Norman and Barry McGuire there had been a Christian underground that became its own industry. Christians would write Christian songs and use them to evangelise. The strategy was usually a Church putting on a concert and inviting people in.
Being from Dublin, U2 had no such underground world or Christian circuit to play. They had to take their songs out into the world rather invite the world in to hear them. By the beginning of the new millennium U2’s success had inspired most other Christians to seek to be similarly salt and light; check out Jars Of Clay, Switchfoot, Sixpence None The Richer or OneRepublic as examples.
U2 very rarely had any relations with the Christian Music industry. A train ride and surprise 25 minute set at 1981’s Greenbelt hardly counts! Then in late 2002 Bono found himself at the heart of it. At the end of that year Bono did a speaking tour of American evangelical Churches to preach the need to respond to AIDS in Africa. It took him to Nashville, into that same room of Charlie Peacock’s that I’d be in a few years later. When Bono visited it was full of the major Christian artists.
Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman would say after the meeting:
“I would not have dropped everything and booked a ticket at the last minute to hear a social worker discuss the problems in Africa… I am as selfish, star struck, rich, American, Anglo-Saxon fan of Bono. He took a coupe of hours to talk to a bunch of fans to tell them to use their clout to change the world… To feed the poor, to clothe the homeless, to heal the sick, to preach the Good news of the Kingdom of Heaven. Sounds like an odd headline, “Bono Comes To Nashville to Convert the Christian Music Industry.” I was convinced. Guilty.”
It would be an over exaggeration to suggest that Bono changed the theology of social justice among evangelicals. However, I think too, it would be an oversight to leave him out of the story. John Stott said that the greatest evangelical heresy of the Twentieth Century was ignoring social justice. Stott’s book Issues Facing Christians Today was published the very same week that Bob Geldof recorded the first Band Aid single. Bono was marrying his faith with Geldof’s development vision. This didn’t only find its way onto the songs on Joshua Tree but Bono and his wife Ali headed out to Ethiopia to see it for themselves.
That experience would lie dormant for 15 years until Bono was approached about Jubilee 2000. This Jubilee campaign changed Bono’s life and Bono’s justice work would in turn change the lives of millions across Africa. By Jubilee 2000 Stott’s prophetic challenge for Christians to become justice activists was beginning to find its way into
Bono’s way into justice issues was through Christian doors. His trip to Ethiopia in 1985 after Live Aid was with World Vision His trip a couple of year later to Central America was with Central American Mission Partners It was Christian Aid’s Jamie Drummond who brought Bono into Jubilee 2000. Drummond would later be who Bono used in his One and Red organisations. In the thirty years since Band Aid and Issue facing Christians Today evangelical Christians have shifted from thinking of justice issues as an inferior social Gospel to be an internal part of mission. I would contend that Bono contributed to that conversation.
Let us break into this hagiography with a reality check. Bono is not everyone’s cup of tea. His intensity, passion and travelling preacher punch has had him accused of having a Messiah complex and he himself would readily admit he gets tired of himself!
He has never been one to make the Church feel secure in his membership. He’s not short of a few expletives, or getting caught with a bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand. He can at times be short of patience for religion. On the recent Innocence and Experience Tour he was celebrating Ireland legalising Gay Marriage in a referendum. For those of a Christian behavioural sensitivity he can make you queasy.
Yet, he will send video messages not once, not twice but three times to Bill Hybel’s Willow Creek congregation; U2 will invite Rick Warren to pray with them and the crew before a concert; He will send Noel Gallagher Philip Yancey books after a discussion on faith; and he will do a beautiful and informative documentary with Eugene Peterson about the Psalms.
In the end, any close look at the career or U2, cannot deny that they have kept Christianity in the conversations of the age at a time when faith as becoming more and more marginalised.
Early in their career U2 the band got a prophetic word that they should give up their music. Christians shouldn’t be involved in such a world. Bono and the Edge thought of leaving. Imagine if they had. Imagine the music that rock music would have missed. Imagine U2’s contribution never appearing in the conversation of music and culture. Imagine the people reached by their campaigning left unreached. Imagine the musicians who wouldn’t have that influence.
For forty years U2 have made great albums, staged ground breaking concert tours, got involved in AIDS, Fair Trade, Northern Irish Peace and development across Africa. For forty years they have done what they sang on the first song of their first album, I Will Follow. As they continue to follow don’t be surprised if their best music is still to come and never be surprised at what they do for the Kingdom next. After all they still sing: -
“I believe in the Kingdom come
Where all the colours bleed into one
But I still haven;t found what I’m looking for.”