Plenty of ink has been spilt on the topic of the religious dimension of the music of U2. Christian Scharen’s book, One Step Closer, is especially good on this, as is Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog. Brian Walsh’s contribution to the latter volume is particularly illuminating of U2’s long-standing and deep immersion in the Bible’s prophetic literature, psalmody, and apocalyptic traditions.
This preoccupation with the theology of U2 — some would say “obsession” — annoys not a few folks, fans and detractors alike. The theologically astute listeners who get a little weary of all the hype often respond to this or that exegesis of a particular U2 song with that most sophisticated of responses: “Duh. Bono’s songs biblical? Ya think?”
And then there are those who say that they could really dig U2 if the band would just leave all that scriptural, political, do-good stuff out of it. Which is a little like saying country music would be swell if they’d take out all the drinkin’, cheatin’, swearin’, and lyin’.
And then there’s the stuff about the live shows: that a U2 concert is a kind of religious experience; that the charismatic Bono holds forth as both preacher and prophet, singer and savior; that two hours in the presence of this band and 60,000 of their closest fans is practically sacramental.
I spent a considerable sum of money to share communion with Bono, Edge, Adam, and Larry — and the stadium masses — last weekend. I can attest that their concerts are transcendental experiences. I suspect that for those of us who are long-time fans — who are completely captivated by U2’s body of work, their personal histories, their spiritual journeys — the experience of a live show is deeply satisfying, even profound.
But I also think it’s a little dangerous to take the church analogy too far. For what U2 creates in a stadium concert — as thrilling as it is — is not anything like what Christian worship ought to be. The pervasive, problematic idea that worship is something we create or orchestrate, that it requires we do something in order to conjure the presence of the living God among us (along with the appropriate, corresponding emotions) — all of this is the opposite of what true worship is.
As James Alison has argued, true worship presupposes that the crucified and risen Lord is just there.We think we have to do liturgy “right” so as to make something happen, but the reverse is true.
“Because He is just there,” Alison insists, “our liturgy is an ordered and relaxed way of habitually making ourselves present, as worshipping group, to the one who is just there, already surrounded by festal angels and our predecessors in the faith. If you like, it is an orchestrated detox of our mimetic fascination with each other which is the only way we are going to be able to glimpse the other Other who is just there, and who has been inviting us, all along, to his party.”
U2 is a party, too. But we need to know the difference.