The church of U2

A few years ago, I was caught up in a big research project about contemporary hymns (or “hymnody,” as they say in the trade).

I listened to hundreds of hymns on Spotify; I interviewed a bunch of hymn experts.

What, I asked them, was the most successful contemporary hymn—the modern successor to “Morning Has Broken” or “Amazing Grace”?

Some cited recently written traditional church hymns; others mentioned songs by popular Christian musicians.

But one scholar pointed in a different direction: “If you’re willing to construe the term ‘hymn’ liberally, then the most heard, most successful hymn of the last few decades could be ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,’ by U2.”

Most people think of U2 as a wildly popular rock band.

Actually, they’re a wildly popular, semi-secretly Christian rock band.

In some ways, this seems obvious: a song on one recent album was called “Yahweh,” and where else would the streets have no name?

But even critics and fans who say that they know about U2’s Christianity often underestimate how important it is to the band’s music, and to the U2 phenomenon.

The result has been a divide that’s unusual in pop culture.

While secular listeners tend to think of U2’s religiosity as preachy window dressing, religious listeners see faith as central to the band’s identity.

To some people, Bono’s lyrics are treacly platitudes, verging on nonsense; to others, they’re thoughtful, searching, and profound meditations on faith. Continue reading


Joshua Rothman is The New Yorker’s archive editor.

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