Leave it to a secular rock band to do a better job examining faith than just about any given so-called ‘contemporary christian’ artists. Not just any rock group either but, quite possibly, one of the biggest bands in the world: U2. (For those of you that don’t know, I’m a really big U2 fan) U2 have always used Christian imagery in their songs and, at one point early in their career, they were even labeled a ‘Christian Band.’ Much of the band’s spirituality can be traced to their involvement with Shalom, a charismatic evangelical youth group, which three of the four members, Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr., belonged to. This group’s influence was so great on the band that, following the recording of October, U2 nearly broke up due to pressure from Shalom; they did not feel the band could reconcile their Christian beliefs with ‘the Rock N’ Roll lifestyle.’ Ultimately, it was the band that would severe ties with the group and, perhaps, this is when Bono and crew first grew suspicious of this particular brand of faith and decided to carve out their own path to enlightenment.
As the band’s principal lyricist, we can credit much of this exploration to Bono (with the occasional contribution from The Edge). On their first album following their departure from Shalom, War, Bono would begin exploring faith through the use of a common theme first revealed in the song ‘40’. Bono actually didn’t write these lyrics; he stole them, they are lifted directly from the 40th Psalm:
“I waited patiently for the lord/he inclined and heard my cry/ he sat my feet upon the rock/ and made my footsteps firm”
Bono has long expressed his admiration for the Psalms saying that he felt they were, basically, David singing the blues. They are reflections of a man who believes in God, is grateful for all that God has given him and, yet, still has his doubts. In the song’s refrain, Bono Sings: “How Long To Sing This Song?” He is asking how long he must wait for God to answer him. He is impatient and wants God to take action and make his presence known.
This concept of the unsatisfied believer would further be explored to greater effect, not to mention much greater success, in the band’s biggest hit, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” After telling us that he has “kissed honey lips […] spoke with the tongue of an Angel [and that he] believes in the kingdom come” Bono then reaches the chorus where he sings (sing along at home if you like), “I Stiiiiiiilll haven’t Foooouuuunnd What I’m lookin’ For!” Once again, we have a man who has seen the miracles that God has to offer but he still wants more; he’s still searching for something. He feels that what God is offering him is not enough.
Ten years later, in the band’s most underrated work, Pop, U2 would close the album with the haunting “Wake Up Dead Man.” The song opens with the line, “Jesus, Jesus help me. I’m alone in this world and a fucked up world it is too.” Like the previous examples, this is a man who has faith in God but finds it hard to have faith when he looks at the world around him. The next verse states, “Jesus, I’m waiting here boss, I know you’re looking out for us but maybe your hands aren’t free.” The part about Christ’s hands not being free immediately evokes images of the crucifixion; his hands aren’t free because they’re nailed to a frickin’ cross. The effect is both darkly comic and incredibly poignant. There are too many in the Christian faith who overemphasize the importance of the crucifixion (Mel Gibson, I’m looking in your direction); the importance of the sacrifice is given precedence over the ideals that Christ was willing to died for. The chorus of the song reflects the title, “Wake Up, Dead Man.” We are living in the age when God has been declared dead and the speaker, while he has faith, is growing impatient with a God who refuses to prove his own existence.
The wonderful All That You Can’t Leave Behind, most well known for the exuberant “Beautiful Day”, also contains the track “When I Look at The World.”
Bono begins the song by asking, “When you look at the world, what is it that you see?”
He is contemplating how God can look at a world as “fucked up” as this one and see anything worth saving and ultimately laments his own inability to see anything redemptive in the chaos that surrounds him, “I just can’t see what you see, when I look at the world.”
While Bono may take a lot of flack for his charity work, when one examines his work, the reasoning behind it becomes quite clear: he has learned that faith itself is not enough but that faith must be put into action. Perhaps, most crucially, an often misheard lyric in the song “One” sums up this notion; the line “We GET to carry each other” is often misheard as “We GOTTA carry each other.” To Bono, helping each other is not a burden (GOTTA) but a privilege (GET TO) He is attempting to find God through helping man that, maybe, if he tries just hard enough he might be able to “see what [God] sees”….
Note: It will be interesting to see how Bono plays with this new notion on the new album.