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Book Review: One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God

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I’ve never been a religious person – I wasn’t brought up with religion and have only dabbled in church attendance at the behest of my wife. Yet I’ve always been interested in spirituality, the reaching toward something greater than the world gives us at face value. That interest has led me to various religious texts (including reading the Bible cover to cover, which I can’t really recommend). It has also led me toward music groups that strive for something beyond power chords and post-show groupies (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Groups like Pearl Jam, R.E.M., and, most of all, U2.

So I was especially interested to read a new book, One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God, by Christian Scharen. A teacher of practical theology at Yale Divinity School and an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Scharen knows his Christianity. Perhaps surprisingly, he also knows his U2. And he uses his knowledge of both to explain the “theology of the cross” and how U2 embodies this concept in their music.

To my understanding, the theology of the cross is a worldview that understands no one gets to heaven by being good but rather by the grace of God that forgives our sins. It seeks the glory of God without turning away from the sorrows of the world, without using religion for power or status, and without turning a blind eye to the world while keeping a self-righteous eye trained on the next life. (I may be adding a little personal commentary there that doesn’t quite hit the mark, however.) It is, as one U2 song puts it, “Looking for the baby Jesus under the trash.”

While never used in this way, One Step Closer’s original intent was to serve as a retreat curriculum for college-age students. However, its use of both U2 lyrics and updated, plain language Bible “translations” (my word, not the author’s) from Eugene Peterson’s The Message give it an accessibility that readers of any age will appreciate.

In most chapters, Scharen begins by discussing an aspect of Christianity and the theology of the cross, then shows where U2 has used these same themes in their songs. This ranges from U2’s direct use of scripture in song, such as using Psalm 40 in the song “40”, to the use of parables in songs like “Crumbs from Your Table” to spiritual doubt heard in songs such as “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.

Although I’ve been a U2 fan for years, I’ve often sang along without thinking too hard about their songs’ meanings, enjoying the feel more than any literal lyrical message. One Step Closer gave me some interesting insights I wouldn’t have picked up on otherwise. These include U2’s use of a feminine God as the subject in the song “Mysterious Ways”. Or telling the story of Jesus from Judas’ perspective in “Until the End of the World”. Or their consistent use of the word “you” in a way that signifies God but leaves a song open to wider interpretations.

I enjoyed One Step Closer on a number of levels. I enjoyed it as a U2 fan, and it also gave me insight into Biblical passages or stories I hadn’t quite grasped in the past. Most important, though, the book gave me hope. U2 has always understood that Jesus hung with the riffraff, not because they needed him the most, but because they were truthful in their sin and open to his message — it was the righteous and powerful that ultimately crucified him. In an age where our leaders too often use religion as a holier-than-thou political weapon to figuratively crucify their enemies, it’s refreshing to read a religious writer put the spotlight back on Jesus’ call for love, inclusion, and for lifting up the downtrodden among us.

Would I recommend this book to you? That depends. It’s certainly not your typical U2 book. And it’s not your typical Christian book. But if you have an interest in either, or both, it may lead to new perspectives and appreciations that are well worth your time and effort.

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About Justin McHenry

  • Joey

    Years ago, 1985? U2 was a hot topic in denominational periodicals. Which may have been downplayed by the press, and perhaps even the band itself.

    Rather than say anything negative, I guess I will interject that this is common knowledge amoung Christians, but the band receiveds little, if any airplay on Chrisian radio formats.