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The Real Transformers

The Real Transformers
Spring 2010 | Volume 33, Number 1 | Features

Can a Rock Band Change the World?

U2’s Bono performs at the Camp Nou Stadium in Barcelona, Spain. Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

By Jeff Keuss, SPU Associate Professor of Christian Ministry

When we hear the blending of music that matters and music that moves us, we do more than listen. We ask questions that are at the core of our identity. Rock music is often discounted in theological circles as mere distraction from what we are called to be and do in the name of Christ. Music that does nothing more than make people fantasize about becoming rock stars is a good example. But when we hear music, regardless of genre, that calls out the “Better angels of our nature” and causes us to reflect on our core vocations — as spouses, parents, leaders — then we need to inline our ears and consider what is going on in that music.

Lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, identified U2’s goal in a 1981 interview in Rolling Stone magazine. He said the band sought to move beyond “punk rock” and re-establish rock and roll as a vehicle for people to think about their actions in relation to one another:

“The idea of punk at first was, ‘Look, you’re an individual, express yourself how you want, do what you want to do,’” Bono told the reporter. “Kids were sold the imagery of violence, which turned into the reality of violence, and it’s that negative side that I worry about. … We want our audience to think about their actions and where they are going, to realize the pressures that are on them, but at the same time, not to give up.”

As a band whose career has charted countless No. 1 hits and filled stadiums with fans of all ages for three decades, U2 has certainly earned a place in the history of rock and roll as one of the most successful rock acts ever. But can a rock band, to borrow Seattle Pacific University’s vision statement, move beyond fame to truly “engage the culture and change the world” as Christ would have us do?

Eugene Peterson, Seattle Pacific alumnus of 1954 and author of The Message, thinks so. In a foreword to Get Up Off Your Knees (Cowley Publications, 2003), a collection of sermons inspired by the music of U2, he wrote: “Is U2 a prophetic voice? I rather think so. And many of my friends think so. If they do not explicitly proclaim the Kingdom, they certainly prepare the way for that proclamation in much the same way that John the Baptist prepared the way for the kerygma [preaching] of Jesus.”

While it is true that U2 is a band where three of the four members are self-described Christians, they are not a “Christian rock band” in the sense that we would understand in the States. They prefer to compete in the public marketplace, not preach to the choir. That impulse motivates imaginative and compelling lyrics at the symbolic intersections of faith and apathy, hope and despair, love and betrayal, grace and damnation. And that impulse reminds us that true leaders speak without boundaries.

If U2’s early albums (War, 1983; and The Unforgettable Fire, 1985) were about kerygma — getting the word out — and their later albums (Achtung Baby, 1992; Zooropa, 1993; and Pop, 1997) were about the musical form of that kerygmatic vision — R&B, Euro pop, retro disco, electronica — then their latest CDs have been about putting it all together.

The years after Zooropa and Pop have been enlivened by Bono’s renewed passion for the social gospel, only hinted at during the mid-’80s by his now-famous cry “Thank God it’s them instead of you” in Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Today U2’s music challenges people to stand up from their comfortable lives and look into the eyes of the oppressed, who were the concern of Jesus’ ministry.

Through decades of conversations with some of the greatest activists, economists, and political leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries — Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, and Mother Teresa, among others — Bono has made overcoming debt for developing countries a mandate for his life. That vision began with Live Aid in 1985 and Bono’s 1986 trip to work with various development organizations in Ethiopia with his wife, Alison Stewart.

Taking seriously the commission of Leviticus 25:10 — “Proclaim liberty throughout the lands and to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you” — Bono became actively involved with such programs as Drop the Debt, End AIDS Now, and Jubilee 2000 and galvanized a vision of responsive activism that brought secular and Christian groups together rather than letting them remain sectarian. Today he is co-founder and spokesperson for the ONE campaign, one of the most influential anti-poverty and debt-relief organizations committed to collaborating with the private sector, faith-based organizations, and government agencies.

For theologians, one indication of what a church values is the way in which a community of faith worships together. Similarly, transformational leaders gather people together in ways that exemplify what they value and seek to embody. From their earliest concerts, U2 has seen the gathering of people as an opportunity to invite people into causes larger than the music and spectacle of typical rock shows.

During the 1983 “War” tour, members of the band waved a white flag to challenge their audience to look beyond mere nationalism and embrace a larger humanitarian spirit. And during the 2005 “Vertigo” tour, thousands of lit cell phones texted support for African relief work through the ONE campaign. Now, during the current 360° tour, audience members line the stage choosing to wear a mask with the face of the imprisoned Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi during the song “Walk On” as a sign of solidarity, demonstrating how U2 has continued to lead its fans into acts of selflessness and social action that many churches would do well to emulate.

The closing tracks of U2 albums usually function as benedictions and “songs of sending” — an overt turn to the liturgical and a direct assessment of Christendom and the Christ that can sometimes get lost within it.

Whether it is the direct biblical quotation in “40” from War, or the reframing of Pilgrim’s Progress for the e-generation in “The Wanderer” from Zooropa, or the whispering cry of the Psalmist in “Wake Up Dead Man” from Pop, or the call of grace from All That You Can’t Leave Behind — U2 continues to draw its productions to a close with an invitation to something more, more than words and music can convey. This is continued in How to ​Dismantle an Atomic Bomb with the final song “Yahweh”:

Take these hands
Teach them what to carry
Take these hands
Don’t make a fist …

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, Yahweh
Still I’m waiting for the dawn

The band became superstars in the late ’80s singing about the already-but-not-yet character of God’s reign in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and they now seem to rest in the assurance that amidst the uncertainty and pain in this life, to paraphrase Rattle and Hum, Love has indeed come to town, and for now maybe that is what we need the most. As Bono sings in “A Man and a Woman” from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb:

You can run from love
And if it’s really love it will find you
Catch you by the heel
But you can’t be numb for love
The only pain is to feel nothing at all
How can I hurt when I’m holding you?

Bono once asked Christian songwriter Michael W. Smith if he knew how someone could dismantle an atomic bomb — a question that would lead to the title of U2’s 2004 album. After Smith replied that he didn’t, Bono simply answered, “Love. With love.”

And this is what U2 has given us as probably the highest watermark for transformational leadership — that in the end, the world will change when we truly learn to love it as Jesus did. Jesus did not call us to evoke change through willpower or blind agendas. Rather, akin to St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13, change will come when we realize that of all virtues a leader can offer us, the greatest of these is love.


View a video of Keuss' Day of Common Learning presentation at iTunesU.

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