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"It's like being down a black hole and coming out to the light.” — Bono, on finishing an album

U2: faith in the ear of the hearer

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

American religion has adopted the rock band U2.

Its lyrics can be heard coming from pulpits. Its music ringing out in sanctuaries. Its videos show up in Sunday school classes.

Rabbi Steve Lebow of Kol Emeth in Marietta, said, "I taught a class on rock and roll and spirituality. When you do a search of which band has the most biblical allusions and spiritual themes, U2 comes up as number one."

Jake Hill started teaching a class at Atlanta's Saint James United Methodist Church in September called the theology of U2. It attracts about 15 people on Wednesday nights.

"Most of their songs have a message of unity, we are all in this together to make this work," Hill said.

He was inspired to teach the class after one of Saint James' pastors showed him a book titled We Get to Carry Each Other: the Gospel According to U2 (Westminster John Knox Press, $16.95).

He has long known about the band's spiritual leanings, looked for references to faith in their music, and the book helped pull that together, he said.

Greg Garrett, the author, teaches English at Baylor University and writing at an Episcopal seminary. He was writing for a music magazine and interviewed the band in their early years.

Garrett left his faith behind for many years, but was always a U2 fan. A person can listen to their music and its messages of hope and longing, failure and redemption without caring about the spiritual context from which it came, he said by phone.

"You can say, ‘They are a perfectly good rock band and work for peace and justice, and I can get on board with that, but don't talk to me about Christianity,'" he said.

"But to leave those things out is to ignore where their passion for peace and justice come from."

It is well-known that members Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. were part of a conservative, charismatic Christian youth group as teenagers in Ireland.

Garrett said they split from the youth group after disagreeing with its leaders over whether they could be rock and rollers and Christian. The band left behind organized religion, but not spirituality or faith.

Their song "40" is a recitation of Psalms 40. Their most recent album, No Line on the Horizon is full of biblical images, such as the song "White as Snow," which references a lamb as white as snow.

Other songs refer specifically to Jesus, God and the failures of the church. Garrett said writers from rock magazines to blogs have noted the importance of spirituality as a main driver of U2's music. The rejection of organized religion is reflected in many young Americans, which in polling have described themselves as not religious, but definitely spiritual.

Churches have used that to draw in people.

The Episcopal Church has created a service called a U2charist, in which the band's music is featured and offerings are taken to be given to eradicating poverty and disease. Other churches have adopted the service.

First United Methodist Church in Pensacola held a U2charist in August, promising to give away two tickets to Tuesday's concert at the Georgia Dome. Their normal crowd of 200 swelled to 400 for the service, said the Rev. Geoffrey Lentz.

Lentz plans to attend the concert with five other members of his church, a 6-hour drive.

Is it worth it?

"It is. I think U2's music, but particularly Bono's lyrics, are perfect for the context of church and worship," he said.

© Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2009.