It's not a news piece, but there is a lot of chatter out in mainstream media right now about that Joshua Rothman essay in The New Yorker that ran under the headline "The Church of U2."
I'll be honest. I have no idea what that piece is trying to say, just in terms of the on-the-record facts about the band's history. It's like the last three or four decades of debate about what is, and what is not, "Christian" music never happened. It's like Johnny Cash, Bruce Cockburn, T-Bone Burnett, Mark Heard, Charlie Peacock, etc., etc., never happened.
Here are the opening paragraphs, including the buzz term that everyone is discussing -- "secretly Christian."
A few years ago, I was caught up in a big research project about contemporary hymns (or “hymnody,” as they say in the trade). I listened to hundreds of hymns on Spotify; I interviewed a bunch of hymn experts. What, I asked them, was the most successful contemporary hymn -- the modern successor to “Morning Has Broken” or “Amazing Grace”? Some cited recently written traditional church hymns; others mentioned songs by popular Christian musicians. But one scholar pointed in a different direction: “If you’re willing to construe the term ‘hymn’ liberally, then the most heard, most successful hymn of the last few decades could be ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,’ by U2.”
Click pause for a moment. I love "Still Haven't Found," and it's crucial to discussions of the band's offerings on faith, but U2 has released songs like "Magnificent" that only make sense -- as coherent statements -- when viewed as hymns. More on this later. Moving on to the key paragraph.
Most people think of U2 as a wildly popular rock band. Actually, they’re a wildly popular, semi-secretly Christian rock band. In some ways, this seems obvious: a song on one recent album was called “Yahweh,” and where else would the streets have no name? But even critics and fans who say that they know about U2’s Christianity often underestimate how important it is to the band’s music, and to the U2 phenomenon. The result has been a divide that’s unusual in pop culture. While secular listeners tend to think of U2’s religiosity as preachy window dressing, religious listeners see faith as central to the band’s identity. To some people, Bono’s lyrics are treacly platitudes, verging on nonsense; to others, they’re thoughtful, searching, and profound meditations on faith.
So is this a piece about Bono and crew being confused about what they do or do not believe, or is it about the fact that some people on the secular side of the cultural aisle are -- after three-plus decades -- still struggling with their grief because one of the planet's most popular and important bands is, well, meaningfully Christian?
On the other side, of course, there are plenty of Christians arguing about whether U2 is, as a band, "Christian" enough. I understand that argument, because it's linked to the tragic art vs. evangelism divide in modern Protestantism. (Over to you, Charlie Peacock, in 1999.)
I also understand (in fact, I wrote my Universal syndicate column on this topic this week) that some people simply like to argue about U2 lyrics -- period.
But "secretly Christian"? Say what? It's like that Huffington Post take on the "surprising" friendship between Bono and Billy Graham.
People, there are facts here that can be discussed, on the record statements in interviews and in books that can be cited.
The best take on this? Go straight to Religion News Service for the Jonathan Merritt "Faith & Culture" column on this dust-up. If you are into facts, you really should read it online so that you can follow all of his hyperlinks (especially this one) to crucial facts, quotes and info. Here is a major chunk of that:
If you carefully attune your ears to U2’s lyrics, you’ll find there are 50 or more references to Bible verses in their songs. In “Bullet the Blue Sky,” for example, they sing about Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord (Genesis 32) and there is a reference to speaking with “the tongues of angels” (1 Corinthians 13) in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Bono even belts “see the thorn twist in your side” -- an obvious reference to the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:7—in the song “With or Without You.”
Lead singer Bono is so comfortable talking about his Christian faith that he even agreed to be interviewed by “Focus on the Family.” In it, he spoke to Focus’ president Jim Daly about how much he liked King David and said he believes that “Jesus was, you know, the Son of God.”
In another interview, Bono wasn’t waffling when he articulated a view of the atonement of Jesus: “The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death.”
Veteran GetReligion readers will know that, for me, it is especially ironic that this debate just rolls on and on. After all, it's been nearly 32 years since the interviews I did with Bono and Edge on these issues (including the whole "Christian" music industry debate) for The Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. I tried to land a story based on those interviews at Rolling Stone, but the editors, well, seemed to think I had made the quotes up.
Two years ago, I wrote a column that hit the key point in this debate, from my perspective. The 20-year-old Bono was already saying the same kinds of things he told Focus on the Family and plenty of other unconventional media outlets, if you're talking about platforms for rock music news and commentary. Here's the second half of that "On Religion" column:
Thirty years down the road, what is striking about that interview is the fact that the issues that drove Bono then still dominate his life today. For example, he stressed that U2 had no interest in being stereotyped as a "Christian band" or in allowing "Christian" to become a sad marketing term for its work.
"The band is anxious not to be categorized," he said. "You know, if, for instance, people are talking about U2 in a spiritual sense ... that becomes a pigeonhole for people to put us in. That worries us.
"Also, from the point of view of coming from where we come from, Ireland is a place that's been cut in two by religion. I have no real time for religion and, therefore, avoid those kinds of stereotypes. I would hate for people to think of me as religious, though I want people to realize that I am a Christian."
Decades later, tensions remain between believers who work in the so-called "contemporary Christian music" and believers who work in the mainstream music industry. The latter often cite U2's work as a prime example of how religious imagery and themes can be woven into successful popular music.
The goal, Bono stressed, is to avoid making preachy music that settles for easy answers while hiding the struggles that real people experience in real life. When writing a song about sin, such as "I Fall Down," he stressed, "I always include myself in the 'we.' You know, 'we' have fallen. I include myself. ... I'm not telling everybody that I have the answers. I'm trying to get across the difficulty I have being what I am."
At the same time, he expressed disappointment that so many people – artists in particular – attempt to avoid the ultimate questions that haunt life. The doubts, fears, joys and grace of religious faith are a part of life that "we like to sweep under the carpet," he concluded.
"Deep down, everyone is aware. You know, when somebody dies, when somebody in their family dies. ... Things that happen around us, they shock people into a realization of what is going down," he told me.
"I mean, when you look at the starvation, when you think that a third of the population of this earth is starving, is crying out in hunger, I don't think that you can sort of smile and say, 'Well, I know. We're the jolly human race, you know. We're all very nice, REALLY.' I mean, we're not, are we?"
I'm sorry. What part of "secretly" am I failing to grasp?