I went to a worship service recently that made my ears ring for 24 hours afterward.
It was a great event—one that included a Hallelujah chorus, searching laments, cries for justice . . . and about 20,000 screaming fans.
The sanctuary was GM Place in Vancouver. The worship leader? Bono, lead singer of the Irish rock band U2.
Many in attendance at the sold-out Vertigo tour concert were probably worshiping the frontman of the world’s biggest rock band, not God. But when the stadium lit up I saw thousands of U2 fans standing, swaying, or dancing, their hands reaching upwards. You know the chill you feel when a praise song or hymn touches something deep inside your soul?
That happened at the concert. A lot.
A Band on a Mission
For his part, Bono makes it clear his praise is directed to a higher power. “They’re all, to me, songs of praise to God and creation, even the angry ones,” he told CNN recently.
U2 is a band on a mission, and a strong sense of integrity and purpose is the foundation for their music, lyrics, and relationships. They’ve sold a gargantuan number of records (estimates range between 100 and 150 million), won 17 Grammy Awards, and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In an industry where longevity is measured in months, the band has stuck together and racked up 25 years’ worth of smash hits and signature songs.
Yet for all the celebrity hype, Bono retains a certain authenticity, a centeredness. “He seems humble,” my wife Shannon commented after the concert—no mean feat when people all over the world scream every time you show up.
The 1987 release of The Joshua Tree (the band’s seventh album) catapulted U2 into the rock stratosphere. It brought together anthems of spiritual longing (“Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”) with haunting songs about U.S. foreign policy and oppression in Central and South America (“Bullet the Blue Sky,” “Mothers of the Disappeared”).
Beneath the Surface
Probing beneath the surface of both the songs and the band’s persona is key to understanding and appreciating their music. But attempts to neatly categorize the band as “Christian” or “secular” are doomed to failure. For example, on the one hand, U2 is led by a cigar-puffing rock-and-roll star with a fondness for drink and an occasionally foul mouth. On the other, its impressive catalogue of albums is drenched in Christian spirituality—with lyrics written by the self-same star.
Of the band’s four members, only bass player Adam Clayton does not profess a Christian faith. In the song “Acrobat,” Bono acknowledges his Christian tightrope act in the hedonistic world of rock and roll: “Yeah, I’d break bread and wine/ If there was a church I could receive in./ Cause I need it now/ To take the cup, to fill it up/ To drink it slow, I can’t let you go/ And I must be an acrobat/ To talk like this and act like that.”
The band also likes to juxtapose erotic love with agape love using lyrics that could refer either to a woman or to God. Consider “The End of the World,” a song about Judas’s betrayal of Jesus: “Last time we met/ Was a low-lit room/ We were as close together as a bride and groom/ We ate the food, we drank the wine/ Everybody having a good time /Except you, you were talking about the end of the world.”
Bono wears one set of wraparound sunglasses but many hats: acrobat, showman, rock star, songwriter. But the role of social activist is one he takes very seriously. Earlier this year, Bono told the Los Angeles Times, “I genuinely believe that second only to personal redemption, the most important thing in the Scriptures . . . refers to taking care of the world’s poor.”
That conviction crystallized in 1985, when Bono and his wife, Alison, worked in an Ethiopian orphanage in the midst of a famine. On their last day, a man handed Bono his baby son and asked if the rock star would take him so the child would survive. Bono turned him down. “It was a funny kind of sick feeling . . . a feeling I can’t ever quite forget,” Bono said.
Bono works tirelessly to make sure the rest of us don’t forget the twin scourges of poverty and AIDS in Africa. During the concert, he challenged Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin to live up to a pledge to put more money toward foreign aid. As Martin’s office phone number was broadcast across huge screens, Bono urged concert-goers to pull out their cellphones. “We want to make poverty history! This is the year!” The phones’ display screens lit up the stadium like a galaxy of twinkling stars as their owners called their nation’s leader.
Chords of Hope
U2’s latest two albums strike chords of hope and optimism—impeccable timing once again. During the band’s Elevation tour in fall 2001, U2 seemed to connect with an America searching for meaning—a nation still reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Bono told Rolling Stone, “God is in the room. It feels like there’s a blessing on the band right now. People are saying they’re feeling shivers—well, the band is as well.”
Perhaps it gives God goosebumps to hear these Irish rockers touch millions with their music while acknowledging and praising his name, even as they wrestle with him on a very public stage. May Bono’s voice and U2’s music ring out for a long, long time to come.
Statements of Faith
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (from Joshua Tree) I believe in the Kingdom Come, Then all the colors will bleed into one But yes I’m still running. You broke the bonds and you Loosed the chains. Carried the cross and all my shame, You know I believe it. But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
“Grace” (from All That You Can’t Leave Behind) Grace, it’s the name for a girl It’s also a thought that changed the world. What once was hurt What once was friction What left a mark No longer stains. Because grace makes beauty Out of ugly things.