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Old 01-02-2006, 09:03 AM   #1
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The Bible and U2*

By Jake Olsen

In the extremely unlikely case this is the very first time you've read or heard anything about U2, here's a bit of news: for a secular rock band, U2 relies heavily on the Bible to inspire its lyrics. Even compared to religious artists, the members of U2 clearly have their noses in the "good book" (case in point: 1997's "Pop" references Jesus more than Michael W. Smith or Sixpence None the Richer releases from that same year). Biblical references are ubiquitous throughout all of U2's studio albums—characters, quotes, world view, you name it—a lot of the Bible comes out in U2's music. But U2 isn't here to preach; its use of biblical material seems more to flesh out the members' own lives and the lives of its listeners.

In other words, the Bible is U2's tool to paint its lives—faith and doubt, sin and grace, spirit and flesh. Russ Breimeier, in his review of U2's "The Best of 1990-2000" on, said it best, "U2 isn't in the business of ministering through music; they simply write about what (and whom) they know." Obviously, U2 lyrics aren't just for the Bible-thumpers; specific biblical references become experiences common to everyone. Breimeier writes again, "Perhaps part of the secret to U2's wide appeal is the subjectivity of the songs. Many of them are cryptic enough to be interpreted in a variety of ways, making them meaningful to everyone." Simply put, if you know the Bible stories upon which U2 drew its inspiration, the song becomes all the more meaningful. If you missed church that day, there's still plenty packed into the music to keep it personal.

Diving right in to the band's back catalog, take for instance "Until the End of the World," from "Achtung Baby." A casual listener would hear themes of betrayal, possibly between lovers. "I kissed your lips and broke your heart/You, you were acting like it was the end of the world." The song never mentions any names—only "I" and "you" are ever used. This is everyone's betrayal; the song about the time they betrayed, or were betrayed themselves. But this is no ordinary betrayal. Upon its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, U2 performed this song with an introduction by Bono, "[This is] a little pop ditty—a conversation between Judas and Jesus." Suddenly the inspiration becomes clear. The song is about the betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane by Judas Iscariot (Matthew 14–15). Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, using this normal sign of affection to identify Christ as the man the mob wanted to arrest and ultimately crucify. The song is written from the eyes of the perpetrator, making the lyricist—and the listener—the betrayer. Bono explains in an interview with Stuart Bailie for New Musical Express, "Well, I played Jesus for so long, I decided I needed a break! Judas, from whatever way you look at it, is a fascinating creature, because in one sense, by committing his crime, he introduced us to Grace. It's kind of bizarre." According to Christian tradition, Judas' betrayal was a necessary evil in the story of Christ's crucifixion, death and resurrection, all of which are ultimately central to forgiveness of sins in the eyes of God. Judas, overwhelmed with guilt over his betrayal of an innocent man, went on to commit suicide, never knowing what consequences his actions would have. To the average listener, there's enough in the lyrics to relate to on either side of betrayal. To the listener with the key to the reference, the song becomes all the more provocative.

"Achtung Baby" goes on to reference another biblical narrative in two songs. A B-side off that album, "Salomé" is, pure and simple, the power of lust. The song oozes seduction. "Baby please … give you half what I got/if you untie the knot/it's a promise." The songwriter implores Salomé to dance even more seductively, promising half his worldly goods for another peek. But for all the desire, there is guilt and regret to the point of nausea. "Baby I feel sick/don't make me stick to a promise." By now, the reference is obvious to anyone who has read the Gospel of Mark and the execution of John the Baptist (Mark 6:17–29). The song's namesake is a girl in the court of King Herod who so pleased him with her dancing that he promised her anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. Under the guidance of her mother, an enemy of John the Baptist, the girl asks for John's head on a platter. Herod, in spite of his growing friendship with his prisoner, John, reluctantly agrees. U2 references both the Bible and Oscar Wilde's play of the same name, "Salomé." The hit single "Mysterious Ways" also riffs off this play, with the title coming from a line in the play, "One cannot know how God acts. His ways are very mysterious ways." Some interpretations of "Mysterious Ways" indicate this song is also a retelling of the Salomé story in both the New Testament and Wilde's play. The song's "Johnny" could be John the Baptist, or it could be anyone. Bono's explanation to Niall Stokes in "U2: Into the Heart: The Stories Behind Every Song," leaves even more room for interpretation:

"'It's a song about a man living on little or no romance,' Bono says. 'It's a song about women—or a woman—but it's addressed to him.' Bono talks a bit about theology and about El Shadi—the third and least used name for God in the Bible, which translates as 'the breasted one.' 'I've always believed that the spirit is a feminine thing,' he says. 'Mysterious Ways' is not about a particular woman. It is about women in general, and the way they entrance—and often dominate—men."

Images of belly dancers during live performances seem to further link Salomé the dancer (and the song) to "Mysterious Ways." The sensual, almost hypnotic music of both tracks is enough to give away the common denominator in both songs—sex. Both of these songs speak to the compelling power of desire. That's something anyone can tell you, even without the Sunday school lesson.

Sex and betrayal: these are great themes for a typical rock 'n' roll band to sing about. But U2 also uses the Bible's positive themes as inspiration as well. Unconditional love, a concept illustrated by Jesus through his parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, is the theme throughout "Zooropa's" "The First Time," which is now finding a regular home during Vertigo Tour encores. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, a rich man's son demands his inheritance from his aging father. The young man leaves the family, squanders his wealth on wine, women and song, and finds himself destitute and friendless. In desperation, he returns to his father's house, hoping to at least find employment as a servant. Much to the boy's surprise, the Father, who has been anticipating his return, runs out to the boy, throws his arm around him in forgiveness and acceptance and holds a feast for the son who was lost, but now is found. "The First Time" echoes the characters and events: "My father is a rich man, he wears a rich man's cloak/He gave me the keys to his kingdom coming/Gave me a cup of gold." This line, with a reference to the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6, shows that the song's father, as in the parable, is God. God the father welcomes the songwriter, inviting him to see the many mansions and rooms of heaven. But Bono departs from the parable's ending and throws in his own, testifying to the human condition. Bono's parable ends with the songwriter fleeing on foot. "But I left by the back door/and I threw away the key." The Edge explains in the Nov. 1, 1993 issue of Propaganda, "I always thought of that lyric as touching on the themes of our very first record, almost like ‘I Will Follow'—there is this sense of unconditional love, and the response to unconditional love is almost the opposite to what you might imagine. You run from it, instead of to it." Man tastes divine love, and bewilderingly abandons it.

And yet, this abandonment isn't one sided. Bono notes in his introduction to the "Selections from the Book of Psalms," "Abandonment and displacement are the stuff of my favourite psalms. The Psalter may be a font of gospel music, but for me it's despair that the psalmist really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger. 'How long, Lord? Wilt thou hide thyself forever?' (Psalm 89)." U2's music seems to revel in the cat-and-mouse chase between man and God, with the roles constantly changing between the pursued and the pursuer. Nowhere is this comparison more clear than in the book of Psalms. The Psalmist vacillates between praises and indictments, singing, "He inclined and heard my cry" in one chapter and wailing "Wilt thou hide thyself forever" in the next. U2 echo this in "40," ripped directly from Psalm 40: "I waited patiently for the Lord./He inclined and heard my cry/He brought me up out of the pit/Out of the miry clay." The song later goes on to quote Psalm 6 in the refrain: "How long to sing this song?" Bono elaborates further in his introduction:

"'40' became the closing song at U2 shows, and on hundreds of occasions, literally hundreds of thousands of people of every size and shape of T-shirt have shouted back the refrain, pinched from Psalm 6: 'How long (to sing this song)'. I had thought of it as a nagging question, pulling at the hem of an invisible deity whose presence we glimpse only when we act in love. How long hunger? How long hatred? How long until creation grows up and the chaos of its precocious, hell-bent adolescence has been discarded? I thought it odd that the vocalising of such questions could bring such comfort—to me, too."

Every listener can attest to the cathartic power of chanting, "How long?" with the band, and filling in the blanks with their own struggles. As always, there's still more meaning within the source material. Bono goes on to explain in his introduction that Psalm 40 isn't just about deliverance from worldly circumstances, it's about deliverance from guilt:

"Psalm 40 is interesting in that it suggests a time in which grace will replace karma, and love will replace the very strict laws of Moses (in other words, fulfil them). I love that thought. David, who committed some of the most selfish as well as selfless acts, was depending on it. That the scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me. Now it is a source of great comfort."

These "dodgy characters"—unholy though they were—found grace and heard the voice of God.

The authors and characters in the Bible were, like U2, merely writing about what and whom they knew. Beneath every miracle in the Bible, in every encounter with the supernatural, there is the human experience 21st century listeners can still relate to, be it as base as lust or as heavenly as unconditional love. Here in the 21st century, U2 is making the soundtrack to our lives. But threaded within these terrestrial refrains are hints of the supernatural, with the lyrics and the music guiding the listener toward the sublime. So, after all those biblical references, what does U2 believe? Well, three of the four members are professing Christians, with Adam Clayton remaining largely mum on the topic. But that doesn't make them a Christian rock band. It's a rock band first and foremost, and, while some of them happen to be Christians, they'll never proselytize.

Bono summed up the band's policy on faith in Bill Flanagan's "U2 At the End of the World," "We've found different ways of expressing it, and recognized the power of the media to manipulate such signs. Maybe we just have to sort of draw our fish in the sand. It's there for people who are interested. It shouldn't be there for people who aren't."

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Old 01-02-2006, 06:52 PM   #2
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Excellent article, Jake!

Thanks for a thoughtful interpretation of this most important aspect of U2..

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Old 01-05-2006, 12:54 AM   #3
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You just made my day. Thanks.
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Old 01-05-2006, 09:17 AM   #4
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Great read!
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Old 01-05-2006, 02:16 PM   #5
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Excellent article. Thanks!
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Old 01-05-2006, 05:54 PM   #6
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i could read stuff about U2 and The Bible all day long
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Old 01-05-2006, 11:41 PM   #7
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Originally posted by Tennis05
i could read stuff about U2 and The Bible all day long
Me too!! i loved the article.. i learned so much.. i was specially surprised about the meaning of "until the end of the world" i love the song... but after reading the judas - jesus thing i played it again, and i was like, wow!!! how coul i have not gotten it before, it's so obvious!

Thanks, it's a great writting!
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Old 01-19-2006, 07:47 PM   #8
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Don't forget that a huge amount of Western literature is related to things which happen in the bible. Think about it, how often is a story in a soap opera based on betrayal, unconditional love, choosing between right and wrong etc...

Having said that U2's christianity and christian messages are what make them great, for me at least.

Great article!
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Old 01-23-2006, 10:13 AM   #9
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Maybe we just have to sort of draw our fish in the sand.
A very interesting comment from Bono. A cautionary method of sharing faith in Christ.
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Old 01-25-2006, 01:51 PM   #10
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Great read!

I printed this out at work, took it home and read it twice. Awesome job Jake!
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Old 01-27-2006, 05:50 PM   #11
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Originally posted by nbcrusader

A very interesting comment from Bono. A cautionary method of sharing faith in Christ.
Also a reference by Bono of how Christians would identify each other during times of persecution. When facing each other, one would draw the top arc of the Christian "fish" in the sand with his foot. The other would complete the fish icon by drawing the bottom arc in the sand with his foot.
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Old 04-12-2006, 01:04 AM   #12
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Well done!
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Old 04-16-2006, 05:57 PM   #13
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Totally agree, this article is really interesting, wowwwwwwww love U2!!!!!!!!!, they can espress so many things in so many ways...
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Old 04-18-2006, 03:08 PM   #14
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Bono talks a lot about God in their music in the interview with's great if you haven't read it! Also, over the last two weeks, there have been two separate newpaper articles regarding a couple of churches actually playing some U2 tunes in church during Catholic mass!!!!
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Old 08-15-2006, 02:00 PM   #15
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Great read.
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Old 08-15-2006, 02:11 PM   #16
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Well done. Thank you for this.

God bless,


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