U2 is still the biggest rock band in the world, and they’re a Christian rock band. It can be easy to overlook this fact because they’re not that kind of Christian recording group, but the evidence speaks for itself.
Now, maybe this comes as a surprise. Maybe you understood U2 to be vaguely spiritual or quasi-Christian-but-who-really-knows. Or maybe you thought the band’s Christian stripes have only been evident on occasion, not on album after album after album. If this is you and you want a taste of just how profoundly the Bible has shaped and informed U2’s work, please enjoy the list below (everyone else can too).
Especially with the band set to release their 14th studio album, “Songs of Experience,” this Friday (12/1), it’s a reminder not only of U2’s Christianity and how deep it runs in their songbook but also that they once consistently wrote weighty, challenging songs and didn’t need to be everything to everyone.
5. White as Snow
“White as Snow” isn’t the kind of song you’d expect to find on a rock ‘n’ roll album (in this case, U2’s 2009 release, “No Line on the Horizon”). It’s a wintery, meditative folk-hymn set to the melody of “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel” and sung from the perspective of an American soldier in Afghanistan who’s been mortally wounded in an improvised explosive device blast.
These are his dying words, delivered by Bono in a restrained and reverent performance. He describes his home, various childhood memories, and the barren landscape that surrounds him. The heart of the matter arrives in the lines, “Once I knew there was a love divine / Then came a time I thought it knew me not.”
What exactly is that “love divine?” “The lamb as white as snow.” The contrasting images of a bloody soldier and a pristine lamb parallel the dichotomy of Isaiah 1:18: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” We’re also meant to think of their inverse: a bloody lamb and a purified child of God.
Even if Bono doesn’t resolve the song’s tension, he points to Christ crucified as the Ultimate Answer—the way to forgiveness, salvation, and, at the end of history, the wedding feast of that same Lamb.
4. The First Time
To the unchurched or biblically unread, “The First Time” probably scans as a straightforward drama of love experienced and rejected. To the rest of us, this hushed, slow-build gem from 1993’s “Zooropa” offers much more. When Bono sings of his lover (“She got soul, soul, soul, sweet soul”), his brother (who lives a life of sacrificial service), and his father (who has “many mansions” and a “kingdom coming”), you don’t need an M.Div. to grasp that this is the Trinity.
What’s more, the details of these relationships make clear that the narrative is a retelling of the parable of the prodigal son, with two crucial differences. Instead of accepting his father’s grace, Bono reveals, “But I left by the backdoor / And I threw away the key.” An elegiac piano then washes over the soundscape, driving home the pain and confusion of sinful rebellion.
Hope lies in the other difference. As implied above, Bono replaces the self-righteous older brother we find in Luke 15 (a stand-in for the Pharisees Jesus was addressing) with what Timothy Keller calls “the True Elder Brother”: Christ, who “spends his (time) running after me.” That’s a lot for a pop song, but such was the case with parables too. Their simple, economical style veiled profound truths. Bono was just following the Master’s lead.
Here’s a quick tour of U2’s anxious and aggressive 1983 record, “War”: civilian deaths, sectarian strife, nuclear proliferation, martial law, political extremism, the plight of a refugee, prostitution. It’s an intense ride, and aptly named.
In the wake of all that conflict and injustice, how does U2 bring “War” to a close? In worship. “40,” referring to the Psalm Bono raided for most of the lyrics, is an airy, eyes-closed, head-swaying prayer of hope and thanksgiving. “I waited patiently for the Lord / He inclined and heard my cry / He brought me up out of the pit / Out of the miry clay.”
You can feel much of the weight being lifted from Bono’s heart and mind as he calls on the name of the Lord and acknowledges his blessedness. In context, the song basically operates as a Sabbath rest. After declaring that he will “sing a new song,” Bono ends by repeating the question, “How long to sing this song,” which points back to the album opener, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (“How long must we sing this song?”), and seems like another way of saying, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”
After the release of “War,” “40” became a staple of U2’s live act and has since been played, in full or in part, more than 500 times in concert. That’s serious, sustained public worship. In other words, “40” honors the spirit and mission of the Psalms through more than just borrowed lines.
2. Wake Up Dead Man
“Pop,” U2’s most misunderstood record, begins in a nightclub and ends with a dark night of the soul. “Wake Up Dead Man” is a gut-punch of a closer, a ghostly dirge, probably one of the two or three darkest songs the band has ever recorded.
Right out of the gate, in a heavily distorted vocal: “Jesus, Jesus help me / I’m alone in this world / And a f**ked up world it is too.” Ouch. That’s as close to a portrait of total despair as Bono has ever come. He continues in like fashion, questioning if there’s “an order in all of this disorder” and pleading with God to intervene and put everything to rights.
On the chorus, it’s uncertain if Bono’s exhorting himself to “wake up” or just playing with imagery of the entombed, pre-resurrected Messiah (or maybe both). Either way, it’s potent and jarring.
In broad strokes, “Wake Up Dead Man” contains echoes from all throughout Scripture. Think of King David in the Psalms wondering if God has abandoned him as he flees from murderous adversaries. Think of the honesty of the unnamed man in Mark 9 who cries out to Jesus, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.” And think of Christ himself agonizing in Gethsemane over the cup of God’s wrath and asking the Father if it might pass from him. Bono recognizes that the road to spiritual healing and renewed hope can begin with a forceful, undiluted prayer.
1. The Wanderer
Where to begin with “The Wanderer,” the final track on “Zooropa,” a song as audacious and memorable as any in U2’s body of work? Most important, this is the Johnny Cash show. Bono recruited the country music icon to handle lead singer duties and “play” the title role, which was modelled on the “Preacher” figure from the Book of Ecclesiastes, who ponders the possibility of constructing meaning in life apart from God.
The decision was a bold masterstroke. Cash inhabits the character in a way Bono never could have, especially with his aged baritone sounding so clear and commanding and almost prophetic. Against a post-apocalyptic backdrop (“under an atomic sky,” “through capitals of tin”) and with little more than an ambling synth-bass line and shimmering backup vocals to guide him, The Preacher embarks on an experience project: “To taste and touch / And feel as much / As a man can / Before he repents.”
To borrow from St. Augustine, he’s restless because he’s not fully resting in God. Still, the rugged pilgrim remains true: “Jesus, I’ll be home soon.” He knows that the wasteland of human frailty, spiritual waywardness, and false idols that Bono depicts on “Zooropa” (and pretty much all of U2’s ‘90s trilogy) will never come close to fulfilling his deepest desires.
This is the world of which Cash sings, “They say they want the kingdom / But they don’t want God in it”—a perfect line and basically a diagnosis of the modern West. All told, “The Wanderer” is a bracing achievement. It epitomizes the creative risks U2 was once willing to take and the heavy religious subject matter they often tackled.
To top things off, it’s hard to imagine a more American moment than Johnny Cash singing, “I went out walking / With a Bible and a gun.”