Love is a temple, love is a higher law. . . .But it was only yesterday that I learned that U2 is an explicitly Christian band. Joshua Rothman:
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. . . .Interesting. And this makes me wonder about religion and art, and what it is that I personally find profound. I am attracted to religion in many ways: I like religious architecture and music, I like myths, I admire the call to take ethics seriously, and most of all I like the idea that there are deeper, more profound levels to life beyond the mundane, or underneath its distracting surface. But in practice I have never been able to tolerate church. On occasion Christian rituals move me, but more often they leave me cold. Theological disputation baffles me. I have no confidence in any sort of revelation, and I bristle at any suggestion that there are things I ought to believe because somebody says so. I find eternal life an absurdity, and I am too ambivalent about the notion of the sacred to participate in worship.
As U2 grew up, they continued to talk about God without seeming to. On 1987’s “The Joshua Tree,” Bono combined sexiness with holiness, writing love songs sung to God, in the vein of the Song of Solomon. U2 has written a few straight-up love songs, like “All I Want Is You.” But, most of the time, when Bono uses the words “love,” “she,” “you,” or “baby”—which he does often—a listener can hear “God” instead.
Song lyrics are endlessly interpretable, of course—but, once you accept U2’s religiosity, previously opaque or anodyne songs turn out to be full of ideas and force. People sometimes sway to “With or Without You” at weddings, but the “you” isn’t a romantic partner (the line about seeing “the thorn twist in your side” should be a giveaway); the song is about how the intense demands of faith are both intolerable and invaluable (“I can’t live / With or without you”).
And yet because of my susceptibility to religious ideas and imagery, I repeatedly find myself drawn to art that is religious or quasi-religious. I cannot tolerate the bald assertion of doctrine, but I like the suggestion of it; sermons bore or offend me, but I like to get lost in the music of their echoes. So you'll find me in the back of the cathedral, admiring the carved angels; reading Tolkien; or listening to one of Palestrina's masses. Or to U2, whose music must have been appealing to the spiritual part of my mind without my really being aware of how or why.