One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking GodOne Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God
Christian Scharen
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U2 is widely hailed as the greatest rock and roll band in the world, and lead singer Bono is often seen in the media touting humanitarian goals. Now, author Christian Scharen provides a thoughtful look at the driving force behind the band.

Scharen reflects on how U2 "fits within the longer Christian tradition of voices that point us to the cross, to Jesus, and to the power of God's ways in the world." He explores the music's honest spiritual questioning, making comparisons to figures such as King David, St. Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Dorothy Day. Music lovers, pastors, and anyone on the path to God will value this book.

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Christian Scharen (Ph.D., Emory University) is associate director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and teaches practical theology and congregational studies at Yale Divinity School. An ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, he has served congregations in California, Georgia and Connecticut. The title for your book One Step Closer comes from a song on U2ís recently released How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. What lead you to choose this as the title for your book, over other more popular songs in the U2 library?

Christian Scharen: This is, I suppose, one of the dirty little secrets of the publishing business. I didnít get to choose the title. The editorial and marketing departments got together and came up with this title. I was a bit reluctant because it is such a common direction to go ó quoting a snippet of, or title, from a U2 song. But I listened to the song One Step Closer about a hundred times and I prayed about it. To me, it seemed like what God wanted from the book was that people be drawn one step closer to love, mercy, forgiveness and new life in Christ. The title points to that desire present in the book. So I told Brazos, "Okay, letís do that title." I was very impressed with the amount of background information you provided on U2. When did you begin studying the band and how did you acquire such an extensive history on Bono and crew?

Christian Scharen: I am a long-time fan, so I had a base knowledge to work from. But since Iím also trained in social science as well as theology, I knew I had to have multiple sources of information (we call that triangulation) to try and get the best quality information. I read books about the band, listened to and read the lyrics for every U2 song many times over and read or listened to some of the important speeches Bono has given over the last few years. And then there are interviews with the band going back to the start, available mostly online from fan websites. I read interviews from every era. I talked to other fans, and learned from them, as well. And of course, I tried to interview the band, but no luck thereóthey have quite an effective screening system set up to protect the privacy of the band. Perhaps now that the book is out Iíll get to talk to them and see what I got right and wrong! I appreciated your approach in defining the various genres of biblical literature and illustrating U2ís faithful representation of these forms in their music. This clearly sets One Step Closer apart from the many U2 books already on the market. Here the reader is not only given an inside look at the band but they also become familiar with the structure of the biblical canon. Why did you choose this format when preparing your book?

Christian Scharen: There are already lots of books on U2. As a result, I wanted to write a book for people seeking to know God, and who happen to like U2. I wanted to do a book that, with and through U2, points beyond the band and toward God. A pastor friend of mine, Ian Cron, says that when the front door of the intellect is closed, the back door of the imagination is usually wide open. So U2 opens the door of the imagination into the world of Scripture in a way no book that simply dealt with scripture straightforwardly would do. So in a sense, the book is an invitation to the Christian faith disguised as a book about U2! However, it is also a portrayal of U2 as witness, and as an invitation to faith both through their music and through their lives. In chapter 8 of your book, you call attention to a larger group of Christians (dubbed "Squeakers" by U2) who were very critical of the bandís departure from the outspokenness of their first two albums. Thus, many evangelical Christians saw the era between the The Joshua Tree and Pop as a period in which U2 had presumably fallen from their faith. Why do you think so many were drawn to this misunderstood conclusion?

Christian Scharen: This is one of the most important points of my book. It is something I talk about on radio and TV interviews, trying to get the message out to Christians today. In the book, I compare the theology of glory to the theology of the cross. Bono calls these two orientations to God "karma" and "grace." Iíd say that "Squeakers" believe in karma, not Grace. They think the job of Christians is to earn our way into Heaven by "getting it right" on earth. That orientation means lots of things including clarity about right and wrong, who is in and who is out, and what you should say and shouldn't say. It unfortunately ends up looking a lot like the religious leaders Jesus was in conflict with. I think Bono, U2, and Philip Yancey (in Whatís So Amazing About Grace) are on just the same page here in saying, as I say in my book, that too many Christians think their "good" behavior will earn them passage through the pearly gates of Heaven. And notice where this view leads: as we mature in faith, we spend more time with other Christians, make up rules about what "Christian behavior is like," and judge others by how well they follow these rules.

Bono might say that as we mature in faith, we should spend LESS time with other Christians and more time with people who look like those Jesus spent time with. Why? So that we can communicate the love of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, thatís why! If we truly are given the gift of Godís love and forgiveness while we are yet sinners, as St. Paul says, then the issue is not how do I behave in order to earn Godís love, but how do I participate in what God is doing in the world because Godís love has found me. Well, God says (Isaiah 65, Revelation 21) that He has promised a new heaven and new earth, a place where there is no longer suffering and tears. We experience that "other place" in worship, and then weíre sent out into the world to meet God who is already in the world working to bring this "new" reality to birth. What I find almost more interesting is how quickly evangelical Christians reattached themselves to U2 once All That You Canít Leave Behind was released, especially those who had once written them off as lost. What is your take on this sudden reattachment, and do you believe this return to overt spirituality was an intentional effort to recapture this audience?

Christian Scharen: I donít think U2 made a play to overt faith to regain an audience. Unfortunately their loss of audience among some Christians during the late 1980s and 1990s is just a straight fit with a theology of karma that says, "if you admit doubt, your faith is not strong enough and God wonít bless you." See how it starts with an "if?" So this group says, if U2 are explicit enough about their faith, weíll listen. If they are explicit about their doubt, weíre pretty sure they are lost and weíre tuning out. Ouch! That is a shame, and misunderstands both U2 and God. That is a strong statement, I know, but read on.

We live in the "long Saturday" between Christís coming and his coming again to make all things new. We have the victory, but it has not been brought to completion. And because of that first coming, we who have received the Grace of God by faith are drawn into the work of praying, watching and working for the day when all things are made new. Doubt is simply part of that reality of faith. We have salvation now, but it is not complete. The world is changed, but it is not transformed. So when we see terrible things happen in the world, or experience great suffering in our personal lives, we do doubt and it is something we can and should bring directly to God. If we canít admit anger at the worldís suffering, or admit feeling adrift because it seems God is not present to us, and admit these things in prayer, in hymns, in Christian community, then isnít our faith actually weak rather than strong? I think U2 has given us an amazing contemporary book of Psalms through their 14 albums so that we can sing our lives before God. This includes the faithful songs such as October or Gloria, as well as the doubtful songs like Wake Up, Dead Man or Peace on Earth. Those of us who have had the opportunity see U2 perform in concert can certainly testify to the breathtaking atmosphere that accompanies their live shows. Would you take a moment to describe, for those who have never seen them in concert, how U2 bears witness to the Christian faith from the stage, as well as through their music?

Christian Scharen: They play great music and really think imaginatively about how to put together a live show. They believe that God has blessed them with artistic ability, gifts for performing the art of rock Ďní roll, and they are very loyal to a group of creative friends who work with them in recording and staging live shows. Few bands have been as successful as U2 at writing really amazing songs in the duration that they have for 26 years, spanning I Will Follow (1980) to Vertigo (2006). Add to that the Christian references in their songs, from the reference to Amazing Grace in I Will Follow to the reference to Jesusí temptation in the desert in Vertigo. Add to that the conviction that a concert ought to take the audience to, as they refer to it, "that other place" where an experience of communion lifts and heals, challenges and blesses those attending so that they leave the concert changed.

This aim, stated early in their careers and held to constantly throughout, is why so many fans speak of going to U2 concerts as "going to Church." Their songs reference this "other place" usually including lines that portray it as a place "where there is no sorrow, no shame, no tears." Their song Sunday, Bloody Sunday says, "we could be one tonight." Their song Playboy Mansion says, "then there will be no time for sorrow." And their song Beautiful Day cries out, "take me to that other place."

For the band, and for many fans, this experience of "that other place" happens when they play Where The Streets Have No Name, a song that is at least about experiencing a glimpse into what Jesus prayed for when he said, "on earth, as in heaven." Perhaps equally, for many fans, when a concert ends with 40 and the band leaves stage, a stadium or arena full of people ó literally thousands ó are left singing Davidís ancient psalm in unison. It is a spine-chilling moment, I tell you. Awesome. Throughout your book you introduce a number of quotes from Bono and the band, which contain some profanity. While the book censors these words it seems apparent that U2 doesnít mind sprinkling some of these terms into their everyday language. To many, this may be considered "non-Christian" behavior. How might you respond to those who consider these words unedifying or unbecoming of the Christian life?

Christian Scharen: In one sense, profanity is unseemly. Many see it as improper behavior, especially for Christians. I find it so disheartening, however, to see such a rush to judgment. Leave judgment to God. Does U2 have a speck in their eye? Well, look at the log in mine! None of us are perfect, none is deserving, and yet still God showers grace upon us. U2 might say back to those concerned about swearing: "Do we consider it a profanity that we spend more per day on a cup of coffee than a billion people earn each day in their struggle for survival?" I say this as I drink my morning cup of coffee at Starbucks, the place where I wrote much of my book. Do fellow Christians walk by and see the profanity of my comfortable, self-assured lifestyle? Beyond that, there is a missional aspect to profanity, if you will. U2 are intentionally trying to reach the broad world of popular music and invite them into consideration of a way of living that seeks God and the deep blessings of abundant life in Christ. That is what their song, All Because Of You is about. "I was born a child of Grace," they sing. Jesus was accused of lots of "non-Christian" behavior, if you will. The ultra-religious people called him a glutton and a drunk. Why? Because he was so secure in his identity as "Godís beloved" that he gave himself over to being with and relating to those on the margins. Do those of us in the church have the guts to do that, as well? Or do we condemn and reject the world as lost in order to make ourselves feel certain that weíre on Godís side? What does the church have to "get over" to hear to the message of U2?

Christian Scharen: The church has to get over "religion." Nothing has been more harmful to the churchís life than preoccupation with its own purity and self-perpetuation. U2ís ambivalence about traditional Christianity has roots in their experience growing up in a land torn apart by factions defined by religion. The Protestant-Catholic divide cast a long shadow over "religion" in Ireland in a complicated set of ways, and not only in terms of political power (the Church of Ireland, a protestant church tied to the Anglican Communion, is the church of the upper class, as well). So when Bono wonders aloud if "religion is the enemy of God" and suggests "religion is what happens when the Spirit has left the building," the roots of such sentiments are fairly understandable!

The church has to get over its religious bias, insofar as religious identity exists as much to judge and exclude as anything. The absence of that kind of religion in the band is part of why many fans, and the band itself at times, refer to U2 concerts as "going to church." So much of the churchís energy goes into its own self-perpetuation (check a budget sometime), its buildings, clergy, and trappings of holiness. They act as if theyíve got God or the Spirit in a box, and the purpose of church is to come get a God-fix. U2 is saying, "No, God is active in the worldóin creation, in the work of artists, activists, and everyday people doing as God desires." The task at church is to learn, be inspired, be forgiven, and be renewed in the work outside in the world, joining in what God is already doing there. The question is a simple one, and an old one: What if instead of being known for tall steeples and judgmental people, the church was known, as Jesus wanted, by its willingness to love, forgive, and do justice? If you were stranded on a desert island, which U2 album would you want to have along?

Christian Scharen: Well, before writing the book I would have said The Joshua Tree. But today I think I would take 1997ís Pop. Pop is more complex than any other album. It includes the sort of "big anthem" and "political outcry" type songs of the 1980s. But it also has the experimental music tied to ironic playful critique of postmodern materialist culture found (in different ways) on Achtung Baby and Zooropa. Lastly, on Pop they have, perhaps as much as any album theyíve ever done, a major conversation with God going on. In addition to U2, what are some other artists you enjoy listening to? Are there any particular artists, authors or filmmakers on the market you believe are making an impact similar to U2 regarding their respective mediums?

Christian Scharen: Very few, Iím afraid. Iíd like to know about more, but usually such people donít gain the level of success U2 have enjoyed for all these years. U2 combines faith, art, and politics in a way that is sincere and beautiful to behold. I like the band Switchfoot, for example. They are a younger band that has been inspired by U2 and are trying to live this integration of faith, art, and politics. But there is something to be said for believing Jesus when he says that God makes it rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5).

The other night I watched Walk the Line with my wife Sonja. It is a movie about Johnny Cash and June Carter. It is a complex story, including deep suffering, drug addiction, divorce, and also great love, repentance, and an experience of healing. Was God only present in Cashís "gospel songs" or was God somehow present also when Cash sang Folsom Prison Blues to a room full of prisoners? U2 presents us with this challenge. Bono, while meeting with religion reporters after his "homily" at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year, said, "Iím asked, ĎWhy doesnít your music proclaim Christ?í and my answer is that it does." He went on say that "creation has its own proclamation of God, and Iíd like to think our music has the same qualities to it." Can the Church find a profound enough view of sin to see its own faults, and a profound enough view of grace to see Godís presence working in the world? That is a major question posed by the work of U2. Do they proclaim God only when they sing Gloria or Grace, or do they proclaim God also when they sing, Desire and Discotheque? If we split it like this, we risk missing the very human presence in Gloria and Grace, and miss the heavenly resonances in Desire and Discotheque. Do you have any upcoming books we can look forward to?

Christian Scharen: Iím writing a book this summer that will be called something along the lines of Leading Faith as a Way of Life: A Challenge for Pastoral Leadership. It comes out of a project Iíve lead over the past few years at Yale. The main point is to describe the problem in viewing faith as solely a church thing, and disconnected from how we live the rest of the week. In response to this widespread problem, the book shows how church leaders can help their churches become busy intersections, empowering people to live faith in all the various spheres of their lives (family, work, school, and so on). This book will be out next spring from Eerdmans.

I am also exploring a follow-up from my work on U2 that I have tentatively called Grace Over Karma: Living On Earth, as in Heaven. This book, taking its inspiration from a famous Irish rock star-theologian, contrasts two models of Christian living. One model imagines that if I'm good enough in this life, I'll get to heaven in the next. The other model imagines that because God became human, then we are able to live out of the truth that heaven has come to earth. As I say in One Step Closer, the Christian tradition has at times called these two perspectives the "theology of glory" and "the theology of the cross." In this book I spell out how living the way of the cross means living abundant life. It is a way of living "on Earth, as it is in Heaven" and following such a spiritual path makes a profound difference in the honesty and spiritual depth of our Christian practice. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Christian Scharen: James, thank you for the chance to dialog about some of the most important things in life. I offer these reflections, as I offered the book, as a gift to Godís purposes. I trust that they will reach and encourage many, but I recognize that what Iíve said may also perplex others. No matter how you respond, you are invited to contact me! Reach me at And a kind thanks for your participation Christian. We appreciate your taking time out of your schedule to provide a glimpse into the biblical, theological and spiritual themes found in U2's lyrics, and for stating the importance this has for those seeking God.