While most celebrities keep their religious beliefs private, the music of the Irish rock group U2, with lyrics written by lead singer Bono, contains many religious references and ideas. A closer analysis of the song lyrics shows an evolution of the religious ideas contained within. The changing and development of these ideas corresponds to many psychological and sociological theories of faith evolution, including those of Alfred Adler and James Fowler. Adlerian theory posits that "Our ideas about God are important indicators of how we view the world. According to Adler these ideas have changed over time, as our vision of the world—and our place in it—has changed" (Nielson). There are two kinds of changes that may occur: those that advance the faith, and those that incite doubt or stagnation, as reported by Paul Fritz. Fritz, a minister, incorporated the ideas of sociologist Jean Merton into his theory of faith evolution. Fowler, in Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, states that faith evolves as individuals move through life, changing at each stage the way they make sense of existence. Commenting on Fowler's theory, John Testerman writes, "The stages of faith can be thought of as the different lenses through which we view the world as we journey through life." A careful study of Bono's lyrics can show what kind of "spiritual glasses" he wears at that stage of his life, and how his outlook on the world shapes the portrayal of his beliefs.
While the evolution of faith and spiritual beliefs may be divided into stages, a person may be in between stages at any time, exhibiting the characteristics of more than one stage. In Fritz's model, a believer may pass between stages of "faith," or advancement, and "frustration," or setback interchangeably. Also, since development is very complex, some stages may be revisited and every stage may not be experienced. The numbering systems used only represent the most simplified path toward enlightenment, the ultimate result of the journey.
In the first stage of faith, as presented by Paul Fritz, the believer relies on God for guidance and protection. "Just as a child learns to implicitly trust its mother, so a young Christian relies on the Lord for its spiritual leading" (Fritz). In the song "I Will Follow" from the first recording by the group, the refrain repeats, "If you walk away, I will follow"(U2, War). Reliance on God also can be seen in the song "Gloria" from the second album, which states "Only in [the Lord] I'm complete" and "Oh Lord if I had anything, anything at all I'd give it to you"(U2, October). The writer reveals a childlike relationship with God; this relationship is a close one in which he is the dependent.
The blind obedience of stage one evolves into a confidence in "the certainty of God's grace, counsel, and enabling"(Fritz). The believer is convinced that he will be saved and protected by God, guided in times of trouble, and supported along his journey through life. This translates into a firm belief in salvation and protection, evident in the song "Tomorrow" from U2's second album: "He's coming back, I believe Him. Jesus coming. I'm gonna be there. I'm gonna die"( U2, October). Bono recognizes his mortality, but asserts that Jesus will return, and he will be saved ("I'm gonna be there"). Closely akin to this deeply rooted belief is the acknowledgement of personal value in God's eyes. In stage three of faith, the believer becomes innovative, coming up with new ideas about the world and his place in it. The lyrics, "I can't change the world, but I can change the world in me," from another song from the second album exemplify this acceptance of the individual's place in the world and role in the "big picture."
While one song from the first album is evidence of the first stage, another represents the second, and yet another the third. The representation of more than one stage on one album shows how evolution is a gradual process occurring over time. Another fact that should be noted is that not every album by the group contains lyrics that apply to faith development. This does not necessarily mean evolution was not occurring, but rather that it was not the center of Bono's writings at the time.
Along with stages in which the believer develops a closer awareness of God and faith, there are stages where setbacks are suffered, doubts arise, or focus falters. One of these stages, defined as Inferiority, occurs when a person "experiences feelings of shame, emptiness, or futility" Fritz). In "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", from U2's fifth album, the writer lists the places he has searched, but comments that no matter where he has looked, he has not found what he sought. The song addresses Jesus directly, saying, "I believe in the Kingdom come…You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains, Carried my cross and all my shame…But I still haven't found what I'm looking for"(U2, The Joshua Tree). This need for deeper fulfillment and futile search corresponds to a setback in the cycle of faith.
The setback of Inferiority is followed by Confusion. Rather than getting back onto the path towards a better faith, another setback occurs. The frustration of the first setback grows, causing confusion and a distorted perspective. In the song "Until the End of the World," Bono affects the persona of a Judas-like character. The song talks about the Last Supper and Jesus's passion in the garden and focuses on Judas's role in the betrayal. Bono writes about this betrayal of love and trust, saying, "I took the money. . .. I kissed your lips and broke your heart," and later reveals that the betrayal haunts him, although he knows he will be saved at the end of the world: "In my dreams I was drowning my sorrow. . . Surrounding me . . . Spilling over the brim . . . I reached out for the one I tried to destroy. You, you said you'd wait ‘Til the end of the world" (U2, Achtung Baby). These lyrics illustrate a "Failure to integrate his. . . faith into reality" that leads into "further confusion," according to Fritz.
While these setbacks seem irreversible, Bono, in his lyrics, does recover and progresses forward again. In another song from the sixth album, "Mysterious Ways," he sings, "If you want to kiss the sky [heaven], You'd better learn how to kneel . . .. She [the Holy Spirit] moves in mysterious ways, God moves with it, we move through miracle days"(U2, Achtung Baby). This rebirth of faith is common, and referred to as the "Numinous Universe" stage, according to James Fowler. In this stage, "seeing once more through the lens of the imagination and intuition, we again come to live in a numinous universe of mystery, wonder, and paradox" (Testerman). After searching for so long, Bono appears to have found that God is not a cut and dry set subject, but one with many facets that perpetually change.
Although faith and progress appear to be fully restored at the time of "Mysterious Ways," Bono once more lapses in faith on the group's seventh album, into a stage called "Cool Estrangement." Using the metaphor of God as father, he writes:
Bono's words show a turning away from God and his promises, a common occurrence in this stage. People at this stage of faith tend to experience "an increasing sense of loneliness and feelings of alienation." The loneliness can progress into another stage of setback, or can be resolved. Bono's loneliness continues, as he again suffers a setback—that of suspicion. In "Wake Up, Dead Man" from the group's eighth album, Bono questions God's motives and presence, revealing his feeling of abandonment. He sings "Jesus, help me, I'm alone in this world . . .. I know you're looking out for us, But maybe your hands aren't free"(U2, POP). Later he sings "Looking for to save my soul, Looking for to fill that God-shaped hole"(U2, POP). The solitude expressed on the eighth album shows that doubt has been incited about God's presence in his life. Bono's words fit the stage of Suspicion, where an individual doubts that God cares about his wellbeing (Fritz).
This descent into doubt, loneliness and inferiority is gloriously resolved on the group's ninth album. In the song "Kite," Bono acknowledges his mortality and quotes the Christian idea that "You know neither the day nor the hour when God shall be at hand" (Matthew 25:13). He also states that he knows death is not the end. He writes, "I'm not afraid to die . . . And when I'm flat on my back, I hope to feel like I did . . .. Who's to know when the time has come around? I know that this is not good-bye" ("All That You Can't Leave Behind"). In another song, "Grace," Bono talks about the gift of God's grace and its power to change things for the better. "Grace, she takes the blame, covers the shame, removes the stain…What once was hurt, what once was friction, what left a mark no longer stings because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things" ("All That You Can't Leave Behind"). Bono's celebration of the joys of grace leads one to wonder whether grace is responsible for his spiritual renewal: whether he was hurt, shameful and stained, but made beautiful once more through his faith. The lyrics to this song lead to the conclusion that Bono has reached the stage of faith where a person feels that God is in everything and everything is a part of God, or "Unity All-pervasive God" (Testerman).
Despite several setbacks in the forward progression of his faith, Bono's lyrics throughout the timeline of albums show a journey that takes him to the highest level of faith. It is interesting to note that spiritual crises begin when fame begins, with the group's fifth album. Throughout the period of successes, Bono's lyrics are about doubt in faith and searching for God. This leads to the belief that for Bono, with fame has come a new concept of the world around him and a struggle to re-define his faith and himself within new social constraints. After taking three years off from touring and recording, Bono's idea of the world seems to have stabilized. His lyrics show a man who is at peace with the world and his place in it. The lyrics he writes reveal how his inner feelings about his faith and his relationship with God constantly mutate as they follow the path towards enlightenment.
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