The Irish rock band U2 has been recording music since 1980 and continues to be one of the most artistically prolific, commercially successful, and God- and Bible-haunted acts in rock history. Originally called Feedback and then The Hype before settling on U2, the band has continued to write and perform music that causes dissonance for those looking for cleanly demarcated genres—musically, politically, and theologically—and has consistently remade itself.

Psalms.

As teenagers, three of the four members of U2 (Larry Mullen Jr., David Evans [“The Edge”], and Paul Hewson [“Bono”]) were members of an evangelical Christian group in Dublin called Shalom that hosted weekly prayer meetings. That group’s emphasis on moral living caused The Edge to question whether he could pursue a life in a rock band and still maintain his Christian values. Yet it was also in that environment that Bono found the seeds for his merging of spirituality, biblical reflection, and rock and roll. In reflecting on his youth, Bono cites the Psalms as deeply formative:

"Psalms and hymns were my first taste of inspirational music. I liked the words but wasn’t sure about the tunes—with the exception of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” I remember them droned and chanted rather than sung. Still, in an odd way, they prepared me for the honesty of John Lennon, the baroque language of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the open throat of Al Green and Stevie Wonder—when I hear these singers, I am reconnected to a part of me I have no explanation for … my “soul” I guess." (1999, p. ix)

The U2 catalog is peppered through with biblical allusions and direct citations, with the Psalms playing a central role. “The Psalter may be a font of gospel music,” Bono says, “but for me, it’s in his despair that the psalmist really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger” (1999, p. viii).

Early in their career, this appeal to the Psalms was overtly framed in “40,” the final track from the War album. Interwoven with other lyrics, the song includes these quotations from Psalm 40:1–3:

I waited patiently for the LORDHe inclined and heard my cryHe brought me up out of the pitOut of the miry clay …He set my feet upon a rockAnd made my footsteps firm …Many will seeMany will see and hear

Set against these direct quotations from a Psalm of praise, the chorus echoes the frequent biblical cry from Psalms of lament, “How long?,” perhaps alluding especially to the voice of the people in exile in Psalm 137, who are asked to sing their songs in a foreign land: “How long / How long / How long to sing this song?” Thus the song not only expresses praise but also bridges the suffering of the Israelites with the continued religious violence that framed Irish identity in the early 1970s for the members of the band.

As Deane Galbraith has observed, inspiration from the Psalter is also evident in U2’s first single, “Gloria” (from their debut album Boy, 1980), which evokes “the opening words of three Psalms, each disguised in Latin: in te domine (‘In you, O Lord’; Ps 31); exultate (‘Rejoice’; Ps 33); and miserere (‘Have mercy’; Ps 51)” (Galbraith, 2011, p. 186).

Likewise, in “Wake Up, Dead Man,” from the Pop album, Bono draws on Psalm 44 (“Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love”) in forming his appeal for Jesus to arise and save, even while sitting in the contemporary anguish of loss in an ever-accelerating society that has lost the ability to truly hear the groaning of the world. As the song progresses, the desire to hear God in a deafening world becomes more and more difficult: “Listen as hope and peace try to rhyme / Listen over marching bands playing out their time.”

As seen through the decades of the band’s work, this tension between seeking inspiration from the Bible and speaking to a wider audience in relation to popular culture has permeated their work, often causing discord among their fan base, which ranges from liberal to conservative, religious to antireligious. The band signed their first major record deal in 1980 with Island Records, which, until then, had been primarily releasing reggae music. Being outsiders in the music world on a smaller label and coming from a country that had economically and culturally sought to differentiate itself from Great Britain for centuries fueled the band’s identity as perpetual underdog. Their musical lineage, a blend of the New Romanticism, which was on the rise in the early 1980s, and punk rock, which was in its twilight years, continues to frame much of their sound today: a deep, passionate melodic pop sensibility coupled with a revolutionary call to arms. These themes—the voice of the outsider, drawing together seemingly contesting artistic forms of expression, from the biblical to punk rock, in a quest for spiritual transcendence—have only increased in importance as the band has grown in prominence.

Biblically Inspired Calls to Justice and Love.

Throughout the canon of U2’s back catalog, the plight of the poor and downtrodden has been a central theme. Arguably one of their biggest hits, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (The Unforgettable Fire, 1984) centers on the lives and deaths of those struck down in the pursuit of justice and love. Through a driving guitar riff and pounding drum and bass line, a single Gospel reference to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus with a kiss (Matt 26:49) gathers all these prophetic victims together with the life and death of Jesus: “One man caught on a barbed wire fence / One man he resist / One man washed up on an empty beach / One man betrayed by a kiss.”

In 2006, Bono was asked to deliver the keynote address at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. There he underscored the prophetic call to love and social justice for the poor and the oppressed and related that call directly to the Bible, drawing upon his understanding of the biblical Year of Jubilee, that is, to “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” by forgiving all debt every 50 years (Lev 25:10), connecting that proclamation of liberty for the oppressed to Jesus’s own proclamation at the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4:

"So, even though I was a believer—perhaps because I was a believer—I was cynical—not about God, but about God’s politics. … What was this year of Jubilee, this year of our Lord’s favor? I’d always read the scriptures, actually, even the obscure stuff. There it was in Leviticus 25:35: “If your brother becomes poor,” the scriptures say, “and cannot maintain himself, you shall maintain him. You shall not lend him your money at interest, not give him your food for profit.”"

This is such an important idea, Jubilee, that this is how Jesus begins his ministry. Jesus is a young man, he’s met with the rabbis, impressed everyone, people are talking. The elders say, he’s a clever guy, this Jesus, but—you know—he hasn’t done much public speaking.When he does, his first words are from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he says, “because He has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor.” And Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, the year of Jubilee.[Luke 4:18]

This proclamation from Jesus is also, of course, a quotation from Isaiah 61. Thus the commandment to be an agent of liberation for the poor by releasing them from insupportable debt is here tied both to Jesus and to the prophetic tradition.

It is said that Bono once asked the Christian songwriter Michael W. Smith if he knew how one could dismantle an atomic bomb. After replying that he did not, Bono answered, “Love. With love.” Indeed, the central theme of much of U2’s music is so basic that it is profound: love. Whereas earlier records like War and The Unforgettable Fire made direct statements of social responsibility and railed against the political and corporate machines that were crushing people right and left through a variety of systematic evils, the more mature and even better-informed Bono has not only come to grips with the magnitude of the world’s woes but has also come to rest in a peace about what the silver bullet is, love.

Indeed, the years since Zooropa and Pop have been filled with a rebirth of the band’s bent toward a biblically inspired call to justice and love that was only glimpsed during the mid-1980s and his now-famous cry in the charity supergroup Band Aid’s hit song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”: “tonight thank God it’s them instead of you!” Over the past decades, audiences and intentional conversations with some of the greatest living activists, economists, and political leaders of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, among others) have forged a vision for Bono and the band that has made overcoming debt in developing countries a mandate for his life. As previously mentioned, the band has taken seriously the call to Jubilee in Leviticus 25:10 through various nonprofit ventures such as Drop the Debt, End AIDS Now, Jubilee 2000, and the One campaign, all of which have galvanized a vision of responsive activism that was constructive rather than merely retaliatory. In recent years, Bono seems to have unclenched his fists and resigned himself to truthfully answering the question that has haunted his musical search since the first song, “I Will Follow” (the opening track on Boy): “I was on the outside when you said / You needed me / I was looking at myself / I was blind, I could not see.” Echoing and twisting the blind man’s testimony after being healed in John 9:25 (“One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see”), the blindness in this song is self-absorption, “looking at myself.” Eyes now opened, there is a new determination: “I will follow.”

But what does it mean to follow, and what do we desire through it all? In “Miracle Drug” (from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb), the teenager in “I Will Follow” grows up and embraces the fullness of a vision of love that is also one of justice: alluding to Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 25 that when one loves and serves “the least of these,” one does so to him (“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me,” Matt 25:35), Bono sings, “Beneath the noise / Below the din … I was a stranger / You took me in.” Likewise, on the same record, in “All Because of You,” there is a comfort in merely living, conceived as a “tune” drawn from “confusion” that doesn’t have to strive or prove anything beyond praise: “You heard me in my tune / When I just heard confusion … All because of you / I am … I am.”

Liturgical Calls to Benediction.

The ending tracks of U2 albums always seem to close as a sort of benediction and “song of sending”—an overt turn to the liturgical and direct assessment of Christendom and the Christ that can be lost amidst it. Since “40,” which closed War with direct quotations from Psalm 40 and the laments, U2 continues to draw its productions to a close by opening toward something more—more than what words and music can convey, an opening to the “not yet” of the Now. This is continued in How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb with the ending song, “Yahweh,” whose title is also the common transliteration of the Hebrew biblical name for God (YHWH, the tetragrammaton): “Yahweh, Yahweh / Always pain before a child is born / Yahweh, Yahweh / Still I’m waiting for the dawn. … ”

[See also CHRISTIAN MUSIC, CONTEMPORARY and ROCK MUSIC.]

Bibliography

  • Bono. “Introduction to the Psalms.” In The Book of Psalms. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1999.
  • Bono. Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas. New York: Riverhead, 2005.
  • Calhoun, Scott, ed. Exploring U2: Essays on the Music, Work and Influence of U2. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2012. Further development of the mystical engagement of U2 through “sonic mysticism” (see esp. pp. 54–66).
  • Galbraith, Deane. “Drawing Our Fish in the Sand: Secret Biblical Allusions in the Music of U2.” Biblical Interpretation: A Journal of Contemporary Approaches 19, no. 2 (2011): 181–222.
  • Keuss, Jeffrey F. “The Comedy of No Line on the Horizon: A Theological Reading of U2’s Latest Album.” The Other Journal, 16 March, 2009. More development review of No Line on the Horizon.
  • McCormick, Neil. U2 by U2: Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr. London: HarperCollins, 2006.
  • Scharen, Christian. One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2006.

Jeffrey F. Keuss