“The Theology of U2”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
July 24, 2022
God leaned close and heard my cry.
hauled me out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a solid rock,
making sure I wouldn’t slip.
God taught me how to sing the latest God-song,
abandoning themselves to God.
oh, let them sing and be happy.
Let those who long for your saving presence
Acts 17:22-24a, 26-28a
So Paul took his stand in the open space at the Areopagus and laid it out for them. “It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, TO THE GOD NOBODY KNOWS. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with.
“The God who made the world and everything in it, this Creator of sky and land, …starting from scratch, this God made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find God, since God is not remote, but near.
– – –
Most Top 40 music, whatever the decade, isn’t about God. With rare exceptions – George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord, Bette Midler’s From a Distance, Joan Osbourne’s What If God Was One of Us? – pop music doesn’t have much to say about faith, and explicitly Christian music doesn’t have much to say about secular life. That dichotomy reinforces the divide in our culture between the sacred and the secular, between believers and atheists, between folks who will evangelize any chance they get and folks who keep their faith a little quieter.
But U2, a globally popular Irish rock band formed in 1976 and still going strong today, has somehow managed to defy that divide, with fourteen albums, dozens of Billboard-charting singles, and 11 tours, with the most recent one wrapping up in 2019 – and a whole lot of songs either implicitly or explicitly talking about God. So many of U2’s songs, in fact, reference God that some Episcopalians started U2charist – U2 + eucharist, the Greek word for communion – a worship service entirely scored by U2’s music.
U2’s success reminds us that God doesn’t just belong in the sanctuary; that our faith doesn’t have to look like a narrow piety concerned only with itself; that the music we listen to in the car with windows rolled down or that we sing in a karaoke bar can point us to worship our Creator as surely as traditional hymns do.
Several of U2’s songs are pretty subtle in their references to faith. The theme of my high school prom one year was U2’s hit With or Without You, which, when you listen to the words, is an odd choice for teenage love. According to The New Yorker contributor Joshua Rothman, who has written about “the Church of U2,” the ‘you’ in With or Without You “isn’t a romantic partner (the line about seeing ‘the thorn twist in your side’ should be a giveaway); the song is about how the intense demands of faith are both intolerable and invaluable:
I can’t live
With or without you.
The church start that my husband Chris and I led for five years in Atlanta played U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name during a worship service, with everyone singing together about the longing to somehow transcend this world:
I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside
I want to reach out and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name.
In Rothman’s words, “where else would the streets have no name” but…heaven?
Or listen to these two short lines from the bridge in Beautiful Day:
And see the bird with the leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colors came out
That reference to the rainbow God puts in the sky after the flood makes you reexamine this song about what to do when you’re feeling like you’re at a dead end.
Of course, the beauty of great music is that it’s not just about one thing, it’s open to multiple levels of interpretation – and that’s probably why so many people who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or just plain oblivious to religion are U2 fans and can sing every word in these songs.
But many of U2’s songs are more obvious in their references to faith, like this morning’s prelude which takes its title from the sacred Hebrew name for God:
Take this soul
Stranded in some skin and bones
Take this soul
And make it sing
Window in the Skies tells the story of the resurrection and its effect on the singer in a few short lines:
The rule has been disproved
The stone it has been moved
The grave is now a groove
All debts are remo-o-o-oved
Oh can’t you see what love has done?
Oh can’t you see what love has done?
Oh can’t you see what love has done?
What it’s done to me?
You can almost hear Paul preaching to modern-day Athenians who haven’t quite figured out yet who this Force is around which their lives might revolve!
Pride (In the Name of Love) mingles the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with references to Jesus’ story, contrasting the power of their willingness to give their lives in love with those who would rule by force:
One man come in the name of love…
One man betrayed with a kiss
In the name of love
What more in the name of love?
Our postlude (and my go-to karaoke song), I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, starts out sounding like a romantic love song:
I have climbed highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to find out in the last verse that we’re talking about Jesus:
You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Oh my shame
You know I believe it
Then comes the iconic chorus:
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
U2 lead singer Bono has called it “a gospel song with a restless spirit.” (There’s actually a great recording of the song with a gospel choir in Harlem which I highly encourage you to listen to if you haven’t heard it.)
Wake Up Dead Man is a straight up prayer to Jesus, voicing the dissonance of belief in God in a “messed up” world that seems to show so little evidence of God’s intervention:
I’m waiting here boss
I know you’re looking out for us
But maybe your hands aren’t free
He made the world in seven
He’s in charge of heaven
Will you put a word in for me
The ambivalence in Wake Up Dead Man and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For highlights another theme of U2’s music: honesty about the push and pull of faith, the desire and difficulty of trusting and following God.
We heard that push-and-pull in this morning’s call to worship, which is both an expression of trust and a question about how much longer we’re going to have to keep asking God to rescue us. U2’s song version of this psalm, 40, ends with singing this line over and over:
to sing this song?
In other words, you rescued me, God, so I will praise you with a new song – but why do I keep needing to be rescued? Why, if you are a loving God who pays attention to your creation, do we keep getting caught up in such messes?
There’s a lovely mini-documentary of a conversation between U2 frontman Bono and Eugene Peterson, the theologian who penned The Message translation of the Bible whose idiomatic, contemporary language I often use to help us hear familiar verses in fresh ways, like in today’s psalm. In the course of their conversation, Bono shares about his first encounter with the Psalms:
“I remember the Psalms from the little Church of Ireland church as a child…I remember thinking, ‘Great words; shame about the tunes.’ …[The Psalms] have this rawness… the psalmist is brutally honest about the explosive joy that he’s feeling, and the deep sorrow or confusion. And it’s that that sets the Psalms apart for me. And I often think, gosh, why isn’t church music more like that? …it’s a shame because these are people who are vulnerable to God, in a good way – I mean porous, open.”
“I read the Psalms of David all the time,” Bono says elsewhere. “They are amazing. He is the first bluesman, shouting at God, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ But there’s honesty in that.”
Sarah Dylan Breuer, co-founder of the U2charist service I mentioned earlier, says that “A lot of the contemporary music that’s written for worship in Christian circles can be this kind of relentlessly ‘I totally love God with all my being, and everything’s going to be great.’ And that’s really not most people’s lived experience day to day.”
U2 has figured out the lesson of the Psalms: that there’s a freedom in that honesty, in that vulnerability, in the ups-and-downs of life with God – and that there’s a lot of hope, in that, too: hope that even without being 100% sure of our faith 100% of the time, even with a sense that we haven’t arrived at certainty, even when we have a bone to pick with God – there’s room for our faith to speak to us and shape our lives, there’s room for us in all our doubts and questions and our wrestling with the Divine.
U2 often pivots from that personal vulnerability to a more collective, prophetic voice, one that challenges our complacence in the face of injustice and suffering. In the driving anthem Sunday Bloody Sunday, written about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, that same line from 40 is repurposed as a searing lament about the cycles of sectarian violence:
How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long, how lo-o-o-o-o-ong?
Then the last verse expands the scope of the song to strife and injustice throughout the world, the Old Testament-worthy voice ringing uncannily true to today’s headlines:
And it’s true we are immune
When fact is fiction and TV reality
And today the millions cry
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die
It finishes with an explicit link between that injustice and Jesus’ promised kingdom:
The real battle just begun
To claim the victory Jesus won
U2 has long taken on that prophetic voice out of a conviction that our faith cannot just be personal piety but must make some public push for an embodied kindom. I remember learning about Burmese democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi for the very first time when U2 projected her face onto a huge screen at a stadium concert in Atlanta. They had the spotlight, and they used it to spread awareness and empathy for the plight of a people most Americans had never heard of.
Similarly, Bono has spent years working alongside activists and politicians to significantly slow the spread of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way, the song that we sang at All Ages Together, was written in part as a tribute to the teenagers who took the trauma and grief of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Florida and turned it into a movement to end gun violence. The song has as its music video a celebration of queer Irish youth, another place where Love, indeed, has proven bigger than any obstacle in its path.
One of my favorite U2 lyrics is from One, a song that apparently a lot of people have chosen as their first dance song at their wedding without realizing it’s about a breakup (this is why you should always listen closely to song lyrics!). The line I’m thinking of is not ostensibly theological at all, but it provides a prescription for how we get to that prophetic vision, that kindom come U2 has told us they believe in:
You got to do what you should
With each other
But we’re not the same
We get to carry each other,
Carry each other
That’s church right there.
Alright, friends, even though there’s so much more that I could say, I’m going to leave the last word to U2 themselves, as interpreted by the McPherson-Sidel-Hart band. But first, a hymn that gets at the message of U2: it’s okay for our relationship with the Divine to be restless; perhaps, in fact, our restlessness even reflects the restlessness of our God moving in the world. Let us use that restlessness, then, like God, to be attentive not only to our own dynamic spiritual lives, but to the life of God’s world, as well – to the places that need to know that Love is, indeed, bigger than anything in its way. Amen.