A decade ago, a critic at Christianity Today worried about U2’s “thin ecclesiology.” Though openly Christian, Bono and his crew have not associated with any church.
Writing at The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman argues that the last several decades have bolstered the band’s theology. He connects their chariness about organized religion with their Dublin origins and their penchant for searching, doubt, and not finding what you’re looking for. Genuine as it was their doubt was highly theatrical: “Bono regularly dressed up as the devil, singing songs of romantic-religious anguish in costume. . . . there was something unseemly about his flaunting of faith and doubt. It was a peep show in which, instead of showing a little leg, Bono teased us with his spiritual uncertainty.” But this was the secret of the haunting power of their music: “the songs depended for their power on the dramatization of Bono’s ambivalence about God.”
Rothman argues that the band has now settled: “There used to be something improvisational and risky about their spirituality—it seemed as though it might go off the rails, veering into anger or despair. Now, for the most part, they focus on a positive message, expressed directly and without ambiguity. The band’s live shows have a liturgical feel: Bono, who regularly interpolates hymns and bits of Scripture into his live performances, leads the congregation with confidence.”
In the process, they’ve reconciled with organized religion, with the proviso that the band itself can be considered “organized Christianity”: “they have resolved that uncertainty. Their thin ecclesiology has become thick. Today, they are their own faith community; they even have a philanthropic arm, which has improved the lives of millions of people. They know they made the right choice, and they seem happy. Possibly, their growing comfort is bad for their art. But how long could they have kept singing the same song of yearning and doubt?”
Not that U2 has entirely abandoned its earlier starkness. In “Iris,” written for Bono’s mother who died at her own father’s funeral when Bono was 14, “Bono compares her love for him, which he still feels, to the light that reaches Earth from a star that’s gone out. It’s a comforting, not unfamiliar idea, until this thought: ‘The stars are bright, but do they know / The universe is beautiful but cold?’ Then the song stops being comforting; it reaches for something it doesn’t quite understand, and possibly doesn’t even want; it becomes ambiguous and mournful. It expresses a particular combination of faith and disquiet, exaltation and desperation, that is too spiritual for rock but too strange for church—classic U2.”
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy often claimed that the church was entering a “Johannine” phase of her history. It’s not entirely clear what he meant by that or whether he entirely endorsed it, but he appears to refer to a world that is so infused with Christian faith that one can carry on a Christian life and mission without any contact with traditional churches. A Johannine Christian can express his spirituality working for an NGO, and never attend a Eucharist.
For good or ill, “Johannine” movements and communities have been popping up for decades. U2 is a church of the Johannine age—organized, Christian, evangelistic, missional—but by any classic definition, not a church. Johannine Christians pose a challenge to churches: Is Bono a false prophet, or a late modern Billy Graham in sunglasses?
Wisdom on this question lies in meditation on Jesus’s paradox: While “he who is not for us is against us,” it is equally true that “he who is not against us is for us.”