On Religion

God and U2: How Long Must We Sing This Song?

In the first song on U2's new album -- "Songs of Innocence" -- the singer once known as Bono Vox sings the praises of the punk prophet who led his teenaged self out of confusion into stage-stomping confidence.

"The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)" proclaims: "I was young, not dumb. Just wishing to be blinded, by you, brand new, and we were pilgrims on our way. I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred. Heard a song that made some sense out of the world. Everything I ever lost, now has been returned. The most beautiful sound I'd ever heard."

Actually, this could be a metaphor, noted Greg Clarke, leader of Bible Society Australia. What if Bono is actually describing another earthquake that rocked his life in those years -- his Christian conversion? What if God is the "you" in this song?

"We are not told what the miracle is, but there are plenty to choose from: the incarnation, the Gospel proclamation to an angry young man, or his encounter with a God whose story makes some sense of the world," argued Clarke in an online commentary. "Whatever it is, this miracle is the shaping concept for the album that unfolds. ...

"The line, 'Everything I ever lost, now has been returned' has definite echoes of not just 'Amazing Grace's' "I once was lost," but more importantly, Luke 18:29. In this Gospel passage, Jesus talks about the way in which God will keep and restore the relationships of all who have prioritized the kingdom of God. The things and the people you have lost will be returned to you. It is a most moving idea, especially for pilgrim souls who take risks for their beliefs in the way Bono has always done."

Well, that's one way to hear the song.

"I don't know about that one. To me, 'Miracle' sounds like a song about Joey Ramone," said the Rev. Beth Maynard, laughing. She is an Episcopal priest in Champaign, Illinois, and nationally known as co-editor of the book "Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog" and as a key writer at the U2 Sermons blog.

After decades of experts dissecting U2's music, it should be clear that Christian faith "is part of their native language. It's how they view the world. ... But sometimes the songs just say what they say. These guys are more Flannery O'Connor than the Newsboys," she said, contrasting a famous Catholic storyteller with a pop group in Contemporary Christian music.

Critics agree that this album is packed with literal references to events and locations that shaped the band members during their years at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin, Ireland. The first person thanked in the credits is the school's chaplain -- "Jack Heaslip, our north star."

But there are layers in the content. One song, "Cedarwood Road," describes life on Bono's home street: "If the door is open it isn't theft. You can't return to where you've never left. Blossoms falling from a tree, they cover you and cover me. Symbols clashing, Bibles smashing, paint the world you need to see."

When the album was released -- given free to 500 million iTunes subscribers -- commentators noted that there was a blossoming cherry tree at the house where a Plymouth Brethren family held Bible studies attended by Bono, Larry Mullen Jr. and Dave "The Edge" Evans. Bono wrote in the album's notes: "In their company I saw some great preachers who opened up these scary black Bibles and made the word of God dance for them, and us. ... One minute you're reading it, next minute you're in it."

By now, it's obvious that many people -- the band's fierce critics, as well as loyal fans -- will find faith content in everything U2 releases. However, many evangelical Christians will never embrace a quartet of smoking, drinking and often bawdy Irishmen.

What's next? With a nod to poet William Blake, "Songs of Innocence" could be followed by "Songs of Experience" -- creating an autobiographical U2 song cycle.

The bottom line: Listeners will keep debating what it all means.

"At this point in their careers, they've pretty much earned the right to do whatever they want to do," said Maynard. "I'll be perfectly happy to go along for the ride, along with millions of other people."

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