By Brian Keepers
The stadium was packed. Over 50,000 people crowded into Soldier Field, the whole place vibrating and humming like a hornet’s nest, eagerly waiting for the band to take the stage.
The sun has set and, from where we’re sitting, we can see the incandescent Chicago skyline poke its head above the stadium walls. My brother and I are seated far back from the stage, too far away to get a glimpse of what is happening up close. But suddenly there is cheering and screaming and a spate of camera flashes as the tiny silhouettes of four figures walk out onto a stage extension, an island among the sea of enthusiastic fans.
Then the pound of drums. Next the thrum of a bass guitar. And then the familiar riff of an electric guitar. The stage lights up and the lead singer, a prophet and a poet with an uncanny magnetism, howls out the first lyrics into the microphone.
And the crowd erupts.
I’ve long been a fan of the Irish rock band sensation U2. This is the third time I’ve seen them in concert. But what makes this third time so special is that this is the 2017 Joshua Tree Tour—the 30th anniversary of the 1987 album that many would say was U2’s finest moment.
I was in middle school when The Joshua Tree came out (the band’s fourth album), but it wasn’t until college that I really fell in love with U2 and came to appreciate what they’re about. As my faith matured, I found myself longing for something more than the often stilted and cliché-driven “contemporary Christian music” I was exposed to in high school. I longed for something more artistic. Something more nuanced and honest as I wrestled with my own doubts and questions.
I found that in U2. And especially in the album The Joshua Tree. Anyone who knows the history of U2 or who listens to their music will find a spiritual depth and social consciousness that doesn’t fit nicely into North American evangelicalism’s categories. Here is a band where three of its four members (Bono, the Edge and Larry Mullen), from the very beginning, have confessed their faith as Christians. And so many of their songs explicitly deal with faith and its intersection with the world. Yet U2 doesn’t fit the genre of “Christian music” and the band would vehemently resist being squeezed into that category.
In his book Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2, Steve Stockman recounts U2’s rise to popularity, especially in the United States, and points out that while the release of The Joshua Tree welcomed their status as rock legends, it sparked backlash among many in the Christian community. One of the songs in particular—“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”—was especially troubling to so many Christians. Stockman writes: “The Soul Patrol and Theological Police were out in force…and they concluded their case that anyone who had not found what they were looking for could not have found Christ,” (p.63).
This is such a puzzling reaction to me. Not only because it seriously misunderstands the song’s lyrics but also because it betrays a faulty theological assumption that to become a Christian means that one has suddenly “arrived” and the journey is over. Stockman is spot on in his assessment when he writes: “Even with the song’s dichotomy, it could be regarded as their clearest confession of the faith,” (p.64).
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” resulted because U2’s producer, Daniel Lanois, suggested they write a gospel song. Up to that point the band had written songs with Christian content, but they had never written a song within the gospel genre. So Bono (U2’s lead singer) followed Lanois’ advice and wrote “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, calling it “a gospel song for a restless spirit.’”
In an interview with the L.A. Times around the time of The Joshua Tree’s release, Bono put it this way:
At one time, I thought you had to have all the answers if you were going to write a song, so it was embarrassing to make a record that was filled with doubts and questions. Then I began to see that many of the artists who inspired me—Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Van Morrison, Al Green, Marvin Gaye—had similar feelings of awkwardness and spiritual confusion. I realize now it’s OK to say you still haven’t found what you’re looking for.
This would become a theme for the U2 albums that followed. U2’s songs became more and more honest about the struggles of personal faith and the complexity of the human heart, and yet the hope we have even in a dark and broken world.
Here’s what’s so ironic. Even though Bono consistently resists being elevated as a model Christian, he continues to be such a compelling witness on and off the stage. Regularly people who attend U2 concerts—religious and irreligious—describe it as a “spiritual experience.” In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bono riffs on the mystery of the Incarnation in such a poetic and winsome way that he gives even the greatest skeptics and cultured despisers something to think about. And then there is Bono’s activism and the way he has used his platform to advocate for eradicating poverty (Jubilee 2000 campaign) and ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa (One campaign). You will know a tree by its fruit, Jesus said.
The song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (and so much of U2’s music) not only invites us to honestly engage our own questions and struggles with the faith, but it describes the Christian journey more accurately than so much of Christian music on the radio today. It taps into the “already-not yet” tension we find permeating the pages of Scripture, especially the Pauline epistles. Finding Jesus doesn’t end our search; it redirects our hearts and intensifies our longing and sends us running towards a hopeful future that is breaking in now but not yet here in its completion.
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection,” St. Paul writes. “Not that I’ve already obtained this or have reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own….Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on…” (Phil. 3:10,12-14).
Maybe the church has something to learn from U2 and the honesty, passion and artistic integrity of their music. Perhaps the world would take the gospel we proclaim more seriously, as well as the answers we offer, if we were more honest about our own questions, doubts and struggles. Perhaps the gospel really is good news for restless hearts—a gospel that not only brings rest to our restlessness but paradoxically intensifies our longing for a better world, a more just and beautiful world. Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. We still haven’t found what we’re looking for.
And let’s not forget that the heart of our Christian hope has never been that we’ve finally found what we’re looking for. It’s that we’ve been found, grasped, apprehended by a passionate God who has left heaven and scoured the earth looking for us. In the words of Bono: “I wasn’t looking for grace, but luckily grace was looking for me.”