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Arguably the world's most popular rock group, U2 has at times seemed an enigma. Since the early '80s, lead singer Bono and his bandmates have been upset about social injustice, willing to share inner struggles and prone to Christian reflection. Yet this is the same Bono who blurted an uncensored f-word during 1994's Grammy telecast and whose CDs in the '90s contained lyrical miscues. Where are these guys coming from? How should families respond? We asked author Christian Scharen, who cuts through the rattle and hum in his book One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God.

How has U2's music intersected with your own spiritual journey?
I began listening to the group in the '80s and, during a season of soul searching at that time in my life, felt challenged by my pastors to see a social side to following Jesus. It wasn't just about me and my success. It also involved a form of discipleship that cared about those who were suffering. I found in U2 a way to think about God's presence and His call to serve the world for the sake of Jesus Christ, who also met the world's needs.

Are there biblical themes in the band's body of work that the church is sometimes hesitant to address?
Lament is a big one, shouting out loud at God, "Wake up! Where are you?" People feel that and want to do it, but oftentimes the church as an institution gets nervous about doing that. The band has also drawn on apocalyptic imagery of a city of God coming down and making a new heaven and new earth, where tears are wiped away and sorrow is no more. At a National Prayer Breakfast, Bono said, "Worship leadership is the highest art form." He's probably thinking of David's Psalms, too, not only in static worship but in the sense of how our faith gets legs and connects with ministries to make a difference for people living in the margins. U2 really understands and uses that connection well, where the church sometimes doesn't.

How has U2 matured over the years?
They started out speaking prophetically, but not so compassionately, which is part of youthful idealism and thinking you know God's vision and how things ought to be. They did some soul-searching in the '90s and realized that compassion comes partly from an awareness of our own sin, culpability and hypocrisy. When you awaken to the fact that you need grace as much as the person you're criticizing, it changes your approach to people you disagree with. It helps you find ways to work together for the greater good.

Some of U2's spiritual themes are close to the surface, and others are harder to discern. What would you say to parents who are concerned about their kids listening to the band?
U2 believes that engaging in all of the world's messiness is, on the whole, going to lead to what God desires of us—though it may put us in situations that don't look so good. Yet look at what Jesus did: He was accused by the upholders of holiness of being a drunkard, eating with sinners and talking to the wrong people. I mean, some of U2's work in the '90s raises legitimate questions. The song "Discotheque" is about bubble-gum love, the party scene and sex that's real glittery on the outside but actually shallow—y'know, it's gonna burn you in your search for something deeper. But U2 has never done an all-out sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll song, because they don't believe in that. Ultimately, parents have to use their own judgment about what children are ready to comprehend and think through. It takes maturity to engage popular culture. My young son and daughter love "Grace" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)." By helping them apply discernment to U2's music, it's also going to help them at school or when they're learning other things without my input.

Published July 2006