A chaplain’s words on the Church of U2

Last week, largely through social media sources, I learned that the latest album from U2, “Songs of Innocence,” was available through a free download for users of Apple devices. I say “became available” loosely – the album was automatically downloaded to the devices without the user being aware of the process.

Who would not want the new U2 album, delivered simply and free of charge? As it turns out, many people. While the download caused quite a stir, questions about ownership of the device and it being private property are easily answered; if you check the agreement you electronically signed, it is clear that Apple owns the space and we lease it. The device is a portal to that space and they are within their rights to move music onto it.

Aside from ownership and privacy, there are questions about the music itself. Is U2 a Christian group, subtly evangelizing the world? Its music is not denominationally specific, but it is laden with Christian imagery and motifs. Many are divided about the nature of the religiosity of the music and whether one can look past it to enjoy the music without examining it too deeply. To some, the lyrics are deep reflections on meaning and faith but to others the spiritual content can be ignored; for others, it verges on the preachy and platitudinous.  Over the last ten years the conversation has been more public and even academic. Christianity Today, an American Evangelical Christian magazine, has written regularly about Bono and his faith and the music of U2. As one author has suggested, “It is rock and roll, but it is deeply and overtly spiritual.” Even former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams entered the discussion in 2008 with his lecture “Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalogue” which explored dimensions of faith in a changing and increasingly secularized world.U2’s music has been used around the world as a way to bring young adults into conversation about faith and to encourage them into the church. This is not solely based on their lyrics, but on the holding of “U2charist” services that were particularly common for a couple of years on college campuses. Church attendance has been in decline for the last generation and the millennial generation in particular, while open to spirituality, are not interested in traditional theology or religious organization. The free download of U2 music, less subtly and more overtly theological, raises the question less about the distinction between the traditional church and its modern forms and more so about the line between reaching out with the message of the church and directly and overtly marketing of the church and spirituality.

Songs from the 1980s tiptoed around issues of faith and spirituality, allowing a variety of interpretations. “Songs of Innocence” suggests a less subtle interest in things spiritual and theological. The lyrics seem more direct and if anything, less open to the non-Christian or secular listener. While ideas about God find a rich and fulsome expression, they seem to speak to those who are already engaged in the conversation about faith and life and church. While the line of interpretation is open to the listener in many ways, religious significance sits a little closer to the surface in this latest album, suggesting more preaching and less questioning, conversing and reflecting.

I like the music of U2 and enjoy the conversations that can arise from their lyrics, faith journey, and philanthropic work.  I enjoy entering into conversations about spirituality and meaning, particularly with the millennial generation who are often distanced from the traditional forms of spiritual expression.  This makes them no less spiritual and perhaps far more open to the conversations that begin with questions rather than answers, with doubt rather than faith, and with a desire to experience something profound and sacred rather than enter into old rituals and routines of worship that may not speak to them.  This opens up more truly the work of “evangelism,” that is, sharing good news of meaning and hope that arises from the gospel word in meaningful ways; invading music space with free downloads speaks more of marketing, although one wonders whether it is to build up the church or the iPhone industry. One must wonder where church ends and the world of commerce begins. Although the use of U2, or any other music, in and of itself will not rebrand the church and attract the millennials, there is good material for reflection and conversation. Don’t be surprised if you pass by the chapel some evening, and hear the sound of U2 playing out, through stained glass.

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