U2 has been extremely influential for a very long time. Not many bands have been major players in the music world for 30 years. And they have earned every bit of their notoriety—not through pop gimmicks, but through dedication to creating inventive and genuine music.
Bring up U2 in Christian company, and you’re likely to receive two polarizing responses: (1) “U2 is amazing! Did you know they’re basically Christian?” or (2) “I can’t believe you listen to them! Don’t you know they’re trying to convince the world that all religions are basically the same?”
How should we think about U2? First of all, let me assure you that even if U2 sings about bad things and promotes a “coexist” agenda, their music is still worth listening to. Their music reflects the creative genius of the Creator, and we can glory in the beauty and creativity that flows out of the remarkable gifts that God has given these men. So it’s not a decision between “They attend three Bible studies a week, so let’s listen in!” and “We need to plug our ears in disgust when they come on the radio!” Music, and all culture, deserves far more appreciation and discernment than this naïve dichotomy offers.
Next, let’s explore the reality that members of U2 see themselves as Christians, and they see their music as an extension of that identity. Music writer Steve Turner writes about listening to a message delivered by Bono and the Edge in the early days of U2 in which they cited Isaiah 40:3 and explained that their purpose as a band is to prepare the way for the Lord. In Turner’s assessment, they have succeeded in this purpose:
“Although any mistakes they have made over the past twenty years have been very public, U2 has expertly created a body of work which draws from the best traditions of modern music, adds something unique and incorporates a vision clearly rooted in the Bible. More than any other act in the history of rock, they have forced God, Jesus, the Bible and a Christian worldview on to the agenda. Rock critics could ignore the Jesus rock of the 1970s (and they did!), but they couldn’t ignore U2; they had to voice an opinion about the values they stood for.”
If any of this is even remotely true, then we have to acknowledge that U2 are among the most prominent ministers the world has ever seen. Now, you may object by pointing out that you were at a U2 concert and didn’t hear Bono preaching the gospel. But when was the last time you stood up in your cubicle at work and started preaching? When you led a training seminar on safe and ethical business practices, did you start talking about the cross?
We all understand that being a faithful follower of Jesus requires a slightly different approach if you’re working in the public sector than when you’re standing behind a pulpit. We don’t expect Christian contractors to build crosses into people’s newly constructed houses, nor would we expect a Christian who writes presidential speeches to sneak a few “repent and embrace Christ” phrases onto the teleprompter. But we should expect these Christians to be a faithful presence for Christ in every activity, and to point to him through their lifestyle and, when appropriate, their words.
Why should we expect anything different from Christian musicians? We have a tendency to assume that a song is a sermon set to words. It’s not.
And in the case of U2, I don’t think they really need that much slack in this regard. They often introduce explicitly Christian themes into their music. Many of these themes are subtly stated, but I believe that they are all the more powerful for their subtlety. U2 has consistently brought significant gospel truths to the forefront of the music world and been a key player in discussions of these important topics.
But there’s still an important issue to be addressed. Can we really get behind a band that is pushing a “coexist” agenda? That question will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.
UPDATE: You might also find this interview with Bono interesting:
 Steve Turner, Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001) 106.