It's not very cool to like U2. As with every band that's been around for several decades, their ageing members – and fan base – means they've become referred to as 'veterans' who many think should have hung up the guitars a long time ago. Whatever your view of them however, it's hard to deny that they've made a massive contribution to popular music – and in more recent years thanks to the strong Christian faith of lead singer Bono, to wider and more important areas of our culture.
That faith has consistently been the driving force behind the band's songwriting, and as a result their back catalogue is laced with incredible lyrics about God, Jesus, faith and doubt. Here are just ten examples of how the band have addressed Christian spirituality directly in their songs over the years, and no doubt inspired millions of people along the way.
1. "As you entered this life, I pray you'll depart, with a wrinkled face and a brand new heart." (From "Love and Peace or Else")
So many of Bono's lyrics are about personal transformation, usually starting with him, but in this case focused on others. This line, from the spiritually charged album 'How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb', uses a brilliant metaphor to unpack Jesus great one-liner in Luke 18 – "whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all."
2. "Take these hands, teach them what to carry. Take these hands, don't make a fist. Take this mouth so quick to criticise, take this mouth, give it a kiss." (From "Yahweh")
More often though, Bono is preoccupied with his own journey of Christian discipleship. In this song, sung directly to God himself, he asks that he'd have the wisdom and opportunity to practice what he preaches, rather than fall back into sinful habits.
3. "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." (From "40")
Early on in their career U2 were almost an overt 'Christian band' – to the point that third album 'War' ends with this rewrite of Psalm 40. For a band fast becoming the hottest new rock act on the planet, it was a bold move; arguably one that paid off. Perhaps forgiven a bit of heavy religion because of their Irishness, they were soon embraced in America, and within four years they'd released two of the 1980s most iconic albums, The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum.
4. "I try to stand up, but I can't find my feet. I try to speak up, but only in you I'm complete." (from "Gloria")
Another early song – the opener to second album October – sees Bono directly professing his faith in, and dependence on, God. For someone who's never short of something to say, it's an extraordinary declaration of where his strength comes from.
5. "I will begin again." (from "New Year's Day")
The lyrics to one of U2's most emotive songs have their roots in the Polish Solidarity movement, but two lines in particular transcend that meaning. In a song about the desire to see a better world, the unattributed promise that "I will be with you again", and "I will begin again" chime with Bono's theological view of the universe; that while we should strive for a better future, it will only truly come when Christ returns and ushers in the remaking of all things.
6. "I want to take shelter from the poison rain, where the streets have no name." (From "Where the Streets have no name")
I'm not too proud to admit that this song – about a glorious vision of heaven come to earth, unmaking all the awfulness in our present reality – chokes me up every time. Still the song that every fan patiently looks forward to in the band's epic live performances, it seems to get better the bigger the stadium. While the spine-tingling title line is an amazing aspiration, much of the song is concerned with the mess we've made of things; it's bittersweet.
7. "I believe in the Kingdom come, then all the colours will bleed into one... well yes I'm still running." (From "I still haven't found what I'm looking for")
Bono wears his doubts on his sleeves and that's exactly what's going on in perhaps the band's most famous 'spiritual' song. He holds two ideas in tension: like the father in Mark 9:24, he believes, yet he needs help in his unbelief. Bono's faith has always had to content with the shadow of doubt, but like the biblical view of light and darkness, the doubt never quite seems to win. That's why in this line, found in the midst of a song about spiritual restlessness, he still affirms the belief that he knows but doesn't always feel.
8. "Your love is teaching me how to kneel." (From "Vertigo")
In the 90s, U2 went a little quiet on the faith front (although more subtle spiritual themes are still present in their work from that decade), in the 2000s however, Bono seemed to consciously intensify his theological content. This line, from 'the song that launched the iPod', is a brilliant surprise finale to a soaring pop/rock anthem which doesn't really seem to be about anything until a phrase about discipleship and learning to submit makes sense of it.
9. "Grace makes beauty out of ugly things." (From "Grace")
The final track from the band's big year-2000 comeback album personifies the theological concept of Grace, and then sets about telling us all What's So Amazing About Her. "It's a thought that changed the world" sings Bono, nailing his colours to the mast in a way we arguably hadn't seen since the late 1980s.
10. "And I'm a long way from your hill on Calvary, and I'm a long way from where I was, where I need to be." (from "Song for Someone")
I'm not going to defend the fact that Apple decided to force the band's most recent album into every iTunes account on the planet, but I wonder if it's sometimes critically overlooked for that reason. This track, arguably the stand-out on the album, is a prayer for Jesus' help and company, and a wonderful example of how we can talk to God directly, as a friend, even when we feel distant from him and the life we know he wants us to live.
Those are just a few of the band's most obvious and overt spiritual lyrics. There are literally hundreds of others; I apologise if I've missed your favourite. U2 might not be cool; Bono almost certainly isn't. But over the last few decades, they've written some of the most prophetic lyrics in the history of popular music – and for many of us, they've been a profound source of help and hope on the journey of faith.