By: Christopher West
A new book called The Gospel According to U2 captures two of my great loves in life — Jesus and the music of these four men from Ireland: Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. Most people who follow popular music know about the Christian roots of the biggest rock band in the world. But many of the Christians who followed U2’s career in the 1980’s thought they “lost it” in the 1990’s. I was one of them. And I was wrong.
Had U2 Lost It?
Truth be told, I wasn’t much of a Christian in the 80’s. I was a rebellious teenager pursuing the pleasures of the world, and, because of it, I was empty. In no small measure, it was the music of U2 that kept me alive during those tumultuous times. With these guys, it wasn’t your typical “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.” They sang about dying for love and yearning for heaven. Anthems like “Pride” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” got in my blood and became hymns of hope. They stirred a voice in me that sometimes whispered and at other times screamed: Keep searching! I was new to faith in the early 90’s, and it seemed the band that had inspired me to pursue belief had now gone off the deep end. I couldn’t help but love the Achtung Baby album, but what was one to make of Bono appearing on stage dressed as the devil? It seemed he had flipped completely to the “other side.” With tinges of self-righteousness, I decided to “pray for him.”
In 2000, a friend and fellow fan of the “earlier U2” called me with great delight having just listened to their latest album All That You Can’t Leave Behind. He said two simple words: “They’re back . . .” They were indeed — as was my enthusiasm for their gift. In fact, I became a bigger fan of U2 in my thirties then when I was a teen. And I was also put to shame for how judgmental I was of them during the 90’s. As Greg Garrett, author of The Gospel According to U2 put it, “What those in panic mode did not understand [about their approach in the 90’s] was that U2 had not completely lost their minds; they had merely changed their methods.” With deliberateness, they had exchanged their sincerity for satire and irony.
Screwtape & Amazing Grace
It was a big gamble that took incredible chutzpa to pull off — indeed, they would have to (and did) put their musical career on the line for the chance to make at least two critical points to their vast, but divergent audience. First, by appearing — quite convincingly! — to have bought into the debauched excesses of “rock stardom,” they knew a large segment of their fan base would not even begin to understand what they were up to, and would write them off (guilty!). But in the very process they would be demonstrating just how superficial, “uptight,” and judgmental believers can be at times (guilty!). Imagine my surprise when I learned that Bono was actually acting out scenes from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters when he dawned that devil costume.
The second point they were trying to make was aimed at a different segment of their audience — those who thought the excesses of “rock stardom” were the be-all and end-all of life. As with all effective satire, the joke was on those who believed the ruse. By appearing utterly self-absorbed and full of himself in front of stadiums full of screaming fans, Bono was saying: Don’t you see how ridiculous it is for you to think I’m as great as you think I am!?
Bono and the gang are certainly not saints. But nor are they your typical debauched rock stars. Those with eyes to see it can recognize that grace is at work in these four men and their craft — amazing grace. This was confirmed all the more for me at a recent U2 concert in New York City. The pinnacle of any U2 show is when the band transitions artfully into “Where the Streets Have No Name,” a song about heaven. On this night, it happened as Bono was singing “Amazing Grace” — yes, “Amazing Grace” — with eighty thousand people singing along. Then, behind Bono’s voice I heard the familiar organ swell that signals the beginning of “Streets.” I was pierced by beauty, utterly overwhelmed. And it seemed that, together, eighty-thousand people were tasting a bit of heaven. What an amazing grace indeed . . . I was filled with such gratitude for these four men and what their music has meant to me over the years. And I hope this brief article gives you the permission to “claim the comfort,” as Garrett says, that your favorite music has offered you.