Part 3: Sinners
Our four-part series on U2’s spiritual journey continues with a look at how the band dealt with the failure of their early aggressive form of Christianity. As we saw last time, their spiritual seeking had led them to a deep faith in Jesus. But it was in the context of an extremely legalistic community. They could not reconcile the grace they saw in Jesus with the rules-based living this community sought to enforce.
You can hear a lot of the ensuing doubt in the 1987 classic album, The Joshua Tree, especially in the super-obviously-titled, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (Watch the video here–sorry, embedding is disabled. The fun-loving Bono in the video contrasts with super-serious Edge, a good analogy for the tensions between the band and their Christian faith). In the song, Bono sings of his simultaneous faith and doubt: “You broke the bonds/And you loosed the chains/Carried the cross/Of all my shame/all my shame/You know I believe it/But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” He seems to be saying, “I love you, Jesus, but this Christianity thing doesn’t seem to work too well in my life.” Ever have a day like that?
This tension also comes out in their song, “With or Without You.” Bono describes what he was feeling:
“There I was. Loyal, but in my imagination filled with wanderlust, a heart to know God, a head to know the world, rock star who likes to run amok and a sinner who knows he needs to repent… That song is about torment, sexual but also psychological, about how repressing desires makes them stronger.”
In short, U2 had tried the Law, but the law had failed. Thus U2 enters what I call the “Sinners” phase. This coincided with the release of The Joshua Tree, the album that catapulted U2 into the rock ‘n’ roll heavenlies. Album of the Year. 25 million copies. You know the deal. But the combination of serious religious doubt with global superstardom put the band in a wierd place.
The good thing was, they relaxed a bit. (Kind of like what happens when “good Christian kids” go off to Penn State.) Bono said this: “It was a period of thawing out for the more uptight side of the band.” While recording their follow up album, Rattle and Hum, Edge remembers, “Bono and the others were basically off partying harder than ever before… Here is the band that wrote about civil rights and God going ‘native LA.’”
So they were trying out some freedom. But, interestingly, the pressure of the Law was still there. Edge says this about that time:
“We had become a very successful band, we were hanging out with Bob Dylan, but our success wasn’t bringing us a sense of artistic validation, it actually made us feel worse. We could see the flaws, the areas where we hadn’t delivered. We were really trying to live up to the respect and the opportunity we’d been given through our fans, to take on this position of being such a big group. So it was tough going at times. Bono, particularly, went through some really intense doubt about himself and the group as a whole.”
After Rattle and Hum the band took a break. (The Law forces you into hiding.) When they finally released the amazing 1991 album Achtung Baby, Edge said the opening chords were the sound of “chopping down the Joshua Tree.” The band was still looking for a better way. In Jesus’ terms, they wanted new wineskins for new wine. Stay tuned next week for part 4, where they come back to the heart of the matter.
To read part 4, click here.