Above image from Grantland.com
1987… not a golden year for me personally when it comes to music. A year or two earlier, I had fallen in love with Jesus. In my youthful enthusiasm and stupidity, I really had no idea how to follow his lead and, in that moment, I implemented a few immediate changes, one of which was curtailing/eliminating cuss words from my personal lexicon. That lasted a few years. Another short-lived change was my determination to only listen to music I could purchase from my local Christian bookstore. By the time 1987 came around, my ears, mind, and heart were being filled with Petra, Michael W. Smith, Stryper, and the like… exclusively.
Sometime that year, one of my church friends tried to tell me U2 was a Christian band. Of course, if that were so, it would be okay for me to listen to them. But I doubted. To try to convince me, my friend made me a cassette copy of some of U2’s music. Side A was War and Side B was The Unforgettable Fire. That tape sat in my room for months before I ever listened to it. I just wasn’t convinced their lyrics would bring me closer to Jesus (and I couldn’t buy their music from the Christian bookstore), so I wouldn’t give them a chance.
During the summer of that year (I believe), on a road trip somewhere in Virginia or North Carolina, I happened to hear With Or Without You for the first time. Good thing that radio station didn’t have the same bias against U2 I had. I was intrigued by what I heard. I couldn’t have put it into words then, but I’m sure it had to do with the desperate, passionate, emotional tone of the song. Sometime later, one of our local radio stations in Virginia played The Joshua True from beginning to end. When I listened to it, I was hooked.
I could write about the emotive or nostalgic connections I have with virtually every song on that album. I could also write much about how the lyrics challenged me and made me think. Where the Streets Have No Name made me think of a time when God’s shalom will reign. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For made me explore the shallowness of my faith. Bullet the Blue Sky not only made me move and got my heart pounding, but it led me to start thinking about social and political issues I’d never considered before. I could go on and on, but I won’t, at least not now.
Of course, once I was captivated by The Joshua Tree, I finally listened to that tape my friend made me. It wasn’t long before I was hearing about the revolution in Ireland, refugees, and other heavy subjects U2 covers in War. Eventually, The Unforgettable Fire would become one of my favorite albums of all time. As time went on, Boy, October, and Under a Blood Red Sky all joined the fray as well. Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen were soon depicted on a poster on my wall. I was all in.
Those early albums impacted me deeply, in some ways I’m only beginning to see. However, the two most significant ways this music influenced me have to do with social justice and the nature of creative expression. Truly, without U2’s influence on me as a teenager and young man, I’m not sure I would care about music and justice like I do now. To a significant extent, God used U2’s music to mold me into the man I have become.
When it comes to issues of social justice… well, that’s kind of their thing. I think one would have to be completely unaware of U2 for that person to not recognize how deeply justice and activism runs in them. It is truly one of their defining characteristics. They call out the folly of war and the grief it brings. They cry out on behalf of the poor. They confront racism and bigotry. And for me, they challenged the gap between my experience of Christianity and efforts toward social justice.
You see, in my spiritual context, issues of war, race, and justice were divorced from faith. Choosing to become a Christian, evangelism (to an extent), and being baptized in the Holy Spirit were the virtual endgame of Christianity in my experience as a teenager. So, when I heard Bono, a professed Christian, sing about things like social injustice, I was provoked to consider how such things related to my faith.
Growing up in Chesapeake, Virginia, I was only a short drive from the Norfolk Naval Base. The people around me were almost always pro-military, to the point of not questioning the nature of war itself and whether or not Christians should be engaged in such things. U2 challenged me to think about this. And when I began making connections between their lyrics and what I read in the New Testament, I began asking some fairly uncomfortable questions of myself, my parents, and others. It made me question whether or not God was always on America’s side. It made me wonder if our military activities were, dare I say, sinful. I began to see contradiction in being pro-war or pro-military and Jesus’ call to love my enemies and turn the other cheek.
Being from Chesapeake also landed me only a few miles from Pat Robertson’s home-base at CBN in Virginia Beach. Some close to me considered Mr. Robertson a “prophet.” As I grew up, however, he became an emblem of the sick marriage between evangelical Christianity and the GOP. In my church, there wasn’t room for being a Democrat. I don’t even recall there being much room to question such things. U2’s lyrics and very persona led me to question these biases and challenge that sick marriage (I’m still praying for a divorce). And again, what they introduced to my mind and heart resonated with what I understood from the New Testament.
U2 didn’t teach me how to think… they opened my eyes to parts of the New Testament I’d neglected or simply didn’t know yet. I could no longer be satisfied with what I’d been spoon-fed regarding politics, race, economics, or any number of other social issues. Jesus was using U2 to take me deeper.
The other significant impact of U2’s music has to do with creative expression. When I stumbled onto The Joshua Tree, my thoughts about music, what was “good,” and what I should let enter my ears were so, so limited. I had the self-imposed limitations of listening only to contemporary Christian music, but I had a very influential family member who told me I shouldn’t listen to any songs that weren’t love songs (?!) and who thought John Denver was the standard by which all musicians should be measured. And then there are the influential folks in my life who taught me that if they didn’t like something, it wasn’t any good.
All in all, those factors led me to a very small pool of music to choose from, all of which resided at Heaven & Earth Bookstore at Greenbrier Mall. My categories for what I would listen to at that time were so limited… pop rock, some rap, hard rock… that was about it. And they had to be singing about God explicitly or I wasn’t giving them much of a chance. Not only were my categories limited, but my entire view of music and art were severely limited as well. U2 pushed those limits and eventually helped to shatter them.
U2 led me far away from the synthy pop of Michael W. Smith, the driving metal guitar of Bloodgood, and the glossy sound of Stryper (none of which were bad… I just needed to expand my horizons). I had never, personally, heard anything like them. They opened my mind to new sounds, new rhythms, new variables. They led me to listen to less predictable music. Chances are I would never have fallen in love with Bon Iver, Sylvan Esso, Adelyn Rose, JE Sunde, and so many others had it not been for this mental expansion. I would have never cared about attending Eaux Claires in 2016, much less be impacted as deeply by it as I was, had it not been for U2’s influence.
And then there are those lyrics. So, not only did U2 provoke me to think about social justice issues, but, dang it, I rarely heard them mention God or Jesus in their songs, aside from the closing moments of Sunday Bloody Sunday (As a related side note, I still vividly recall listening to King’s X’s then new self-titled album in 1992,doing my best discern whether or not they mentioned God or Jesus in their lyrics. Ugh.). The irony for me, however, was that I actually did hear Jesus in U2’s words. I heard Jesus tell me to love my enemies. I heard the apostle Paul’s words about how, in Jesus, all racial, social, and economic barriers between us are demolished. I heard Paul’s reminder that followers of Jesus are “citizens of heaven.” I heard Jesus’ definition of the kingdom of God… captives going free, the sick being healed, valleys being raised up and mountains being humbled… U2 taught me to go beneath the surface, to let myself be challenged by new ways of expressing important things, to weave my intellect and my emotions together, to go deeper. And I am the better for it.
I will be forever grateful for Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen. God has used those four guys to grow me and challenge me in profound ways. It is no overstatement for me to say that he used their music and what they are about to make me more like Jesus.
Photo by Colm Henry