The Irish band U2 has been a pop music and pop culture phenomenon for over two decades. They were rock ‘n’ roll crusaders during an era of synthesized pop and heavy metal in the 1980s. At the top of the industry in the wake of their 1987 album The Joshua Tree, they became experimental in the 1990s, only to move back into mainstream success in this decade.
Apart from wide respect in popular music circles and tremendous world-wide acclaim in a 13-album career, they have given a unique expression to a deep Christianity ever since three of the four charter members had conversion experiences in the late 1970s.
That spirituality has undergirded their entire canon, and among their many fans are an eclectic group of Christians who have used their songs as illustrations and springboards for sermons in the 26 sermons which are the core of Get Up Off Your Knees – Preaching the U2 Catalog, released by Cowley Publications in 2003 and now available domestically through Novalis.
Two of those people for whom U2 has been central in their pilgrimage are Raewynne Whiteley, Vicar of Trinity Episcopal Church in Swedesboro, N.J., and Beth Maynard, Rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Fairhaven, Mass. These priests, involved in the Gathering the Next Generation network – a grouping of generation X (post baby boomers, born in the 1960s and ’70s) Episcopalians in the United States, edited the collection apart from contributing their own sermons.
The sermons are organized into six broad themes. Both the theology and the quality are uneven. Most, though, are left-of-centre and social action driven theologically. Most, too, are effective. (This is not an indication that the more theologically conservative pieces are, by definition, the weaker sermons.)
In an essay which is one of three appendices which ends the book – the others are a spiritual history of U2 especially useful to those who know more about the Bible than the band and a six-week adult study series using U2 music – Ms. Whiteley rightly laments the two paths that have often happened with respect to popular music and Christianity. She regrets a mutual abhorrence of one group’s fans towards the other. She also skewers the vacuous attempts to borrow religious trappings to give a “spiritual” effect to a secular work or the adding of pop music and general simplicity to “attract the young people” to the Christian religion. She says, “Neither of these responses does full justice to the integral and substantial relationship between religion and culture.”
This book, and its sermons regardless of quality, scope, or theology, does. U2 shows that you can be a thinking person and a Christian. They show that you can really rock while being anchored to the rock. They show that Christianity is a religion that is deep within the heart and is expressed when that heart spurs one to Christ-like action.
In his wonderful foreword to the book, Dr. Eugene Peterson, professor emeritus of spirituality at Regent College in Vancouver puts it this way: “And then a prophet shows up … If we won’t face up, they grab us by the scruff of our necks and shake us into attention. Amos crafted poems, Jeremiah wept sermons, Isaiah alternately rebuked and comforted, Ezekiel did street theatre. U2 writes songs and goes on tour, singing them.”
This collection gives their prophetic voice some wonderful new expressions.
Rev. Wilfred Langmaid is student advocate and lecturer in biology at the University of New Brunswick, and a priest in the diocese of Fredericton. He writes on popular music and religion for the Daily Gleaner and has written about music and popular culture in the Anglican Journal since 1993.