One of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed rock bands of all time, U2 is not typically identified as a Christian band, although its fascination with Christianity is apparent to even the most superficial fan.
U2's first album, Boy (1980), produced only one minor hit ("I Will Follow," a tribute to Bono's mother) but drew the attention of critics who heralded the band's potential. Rolling Stone called the album "pop music with brains."
October (1981) was marketed explicitly as a Christian album, sold in Bible bookstores, and reviewed in all the Christian music magazines. The lead song, "Gloria," incorporates phrases from the Psalms. "Rejoice" invokes a biblical summons to defy this-worldly cynicism, a theme that is picked up again in the song "Scarlet" (where the word rejoice is repeated over and over).
If October was widely received within the contemporary Christian music subculture as the work of a Christian band, so too was War (1983), which finally brought the group widespread commercial success. It reached Number 12 in the United States (No. 1 in Britain) on the strength of such radio hits as "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "New Year's Day," and "Two Hearts Beat as One." The album opens with a call to "claim the victory Jesus won" ("Sunday Bloody Sunday") and closes with a hymnic meditation on Psalm 40 ("40").
U2 will always be best remembered for The Joshua Tree (1987). Some pundits may have thought it premature for Rolling Stone to name U2 "the most important band of the '80s" in 1985, but when this masterpiece arrived, all doubt was suspended. The album features the band's two biggest hits, "With or Without You" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (both No. 1 for weeks), in addition to the much-played, radio-friendly "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "In God's Country."
After The Joshua Tree, when the band had become, hands down, the biggest rock group in the world, its low Christian profile seemed to sink ever lower, leaving Christian fans dismayed and disappointed with the band for most of the '90s. "I am a Christian, but at times I feel very removed from Christianity," Bono said in 1987. Indeed, during the 1990s Bono seemed intent on deconstructing his supposed "holy stature," often behaving in ways that many evangelical Christians found distressing. A penchant for profanity and what struck many as light-hearted endorsements of debauchery may have placed him at the top of many a prayer list.
Musically, the years following The Joshua Tree saw U2 struggling with the mantle of classic rock. The band did not want to rest on its laurels, become an oldies act, or be regarded as classic anything. The solution was to mess with the formula that had served them so well (soaring, reverb-laden guitars topped by Bono's piercing, sensuous vocals). They spent the next decade tinkering.
At the start of the new millennium, something remarkable happened. No one thought the aging musicians capable of making another album on the same level as The Joshua Tree. No one in the Christian music scene expected U2 ever to record an album of nakedly pious songs.
But All That You Can't Leave Behind is certainly U2's most fully realized work musically and spiritually (see CT, Feb. 5, 2001, p. 77). Practically every track reflects confident hope and trust in the God of the Bible, leaving even the most secular reviewers to wonder what exactly had happened. The key is grace, which Bono extols as though he has only just discovered it.
It is this influence that explains the most noticeable and otherwise inexplicable quality of the entire album: an overwhelming sense of gladness.
Mark Allan Powell is professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary. This article is adapted from his Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music (Hendrickson, 2002).
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Also appearing on our site today:
Bono's American Prayer | The world's biggest rock star tours the heartland talking more openly about his faith as he recruits Christians in the fight against AIDS in Africa.
Bono's Thin Ecclesiology | Any person can stand outside the church and critique its obedience to the gospel.
For the best overview of the band's history and development, read Wall of Sound's "U2."
Previous Christianity Today articles about Bono and U2 include:
'A Rock Band That's Good for Something' | The author of Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 talks about why politicians listen to Bono. (April 19, 2002)
Bono Tells Christians: Don't Neglect Africa | He urges evangelicals to take a lead in fighting AIDS and poverty. (April 19, 2002)
Inside CT: Bono's Burning Question | Evangelicals and the U2 front man try to figure each other out. (April 19, 2002)
Honest Prayer, Beautiful Grace | The messianic and passionate U2 sounds like itself again. (Feb. 8, 2001)
Other relevant recent articles about Bono include:
Bono Named As Possible Nobel Peace Prize Recipient—ET (Feb. 19, 2003)
Bono: "Who in Ireland could have too much respect for organized religion?"—Larry King Live, CNN (Dec. 1, 2002)
Bono: World AIDS Day 2002 Interview—BBCi (Nov. 2002)
Rock Star Bono's Agenda For Africa—AllAfrica.com (March 1, 2002)
Bono's crusade comes to DC—Terry Mattingly's On Religion
Bono: 'You can't escape the politics if you're Irish'—CBS News (February 27, 2002)
Gates, Bono, unveil 'DATA Agenda' for Africa— CNN (Feb. 3, 2002)
Over two decades, U2's leader has evolved from heart-on-his-sleeve idealist to irony-drenched rock 'n' roll Liberace to hopeful pragmatist—Salon.com (Oct. 2, 2001)
Bono: The Beliefnet Interview—(February, 2001)
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