Great article in New Yorker, The Church of U2:
...almost every U2 album contains a song about their decision to belong to a band rather than a church. (“One,” for example, is about the challenges of joining together with your friends to try and find God on your own.)..
...The tension in spiritual life—between discipline and vulnerability, order and openness, being willful and giving in—became U2’s central preoccupation, and gave it its aesthetic..
...most of the time, when Bono uses the words “love,” “she,” “you,” or “baby”—which he does often—a listener can hear “God” instead..
..People sometimes sway to “With or Without You” at weddings, but the “you” isn’t a romantic partner (the line about seeing “the thorn twist in your side” should be a giveaway); the song is about how the intense demands of faith are both intolerable and invaluable (“I can’t live / With or without you”). “The Fly,” on “Achtung Baby,” seems a little overwrought as a love song, but as a song about the writing of the Gospels it’s surprisingly concrete (“Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief, / All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief”). “Until the End of the World” is meaningless until you realize that it’s a love song for Jesus, sung by Judas, as portrayed by Bono. (This becomes especially obvious when the song is juxtaposed with scenes from “The Passion of the Christ.”) The best of these songs may be “Ultra Violet (Light My Way),” which sounds like it’s about a desperate romance, but is actually about the cruelty of God’s reticence:
You bury your treasure where it can’t be found,
But your love is like a secret that’s been passed around.
There is a silence that comes to a house
Where no one can sleep.
I guess it’s the price of love; I know it’s not cheap.
In the chorus, Bono alludes to the Book of Job (“Baby, baby, baby, light my way”), while the Edge offers a metaphor for the near-invisibility of God (“ultraviolet love”). On their recent “U2 360°” tour, the band came up with a clever visual metaphor for the song’s big idea: Bono wears a jacket trimmed in red lasers that point out into the crowd. It’s a pained, incomplete aura—trashy, but beautiful.
U2’s best songs were written during these years—roughly from 1986, when they began recording “The Joshua Tree,” to 1997, the year “Pop” (which is actually very good) was released. But there was a problem: the songs depended for their power on the dramatization of Bono’s ambivalence about God. Onstage, he theatrically performed his doubt: on the “ZooTV” tour, in support of “Achtung Baby,” Bono regularly dressed up as the devil, singing songs of romantic-religious anguish in costume. That anguish was genuine, but 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. In a song called “Acrobat,” on “Achtung Baby,” he accused himself of hypocrisy: “I must be an acrobat / To talk like this and act like that.” He quoted Delmore Schwartz: “In dreams begin responsibilities.”
U2 have continued to write songs of doubt (“Wake Up Dead Man,” off “Pop,” is especially good). But they are no longer wild, ludic, and unhinged in the way they talk about God. 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. On their most recent albums, including “Songs of Innocence”—which Sasha Frere-Jones, the magazine’s pop music critic, reviewed last week—Bono sings about religious subjects with the kind of unfussy directness that, perversely, makes the songs less open to the resolutely secular. Two songs on the new album, “Every Breaking Wave” and “Song for Someone,” express rich ideas about God—in the first case, the paradoxical idea that, to really sink into faith, you have to stop questing after new experiences of it; in the second, the idea that fleeting moments of religious feeling, even when they don’t make sense in your own life, might be a “song for someone” you don’t know, perhaps someone in need, or some other version of yourself. These songs aim for clarity but end up being uncommunicative; they aren’t rough enough around the edges, and so there’s nothing to grab on to if you’re not already interested. If you aren’t listening carefully, it’s easy to think they’re about nothing.
The story of U2 might be this: having begun as a band that was uncertain about the idea of pursuing a life of faith through music, 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.