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

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U2 is a rock band with an impressive resume. The band has enjoyed success in three different decades, has over 20 Grammy Awards (second to Stevie Wonder), has had six Number 1 albums in the US and nine in the UK, and in 2005 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. have accomplished these worldly successes while living out a life of contradiction: in One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God, author Christian Scharen suggests that unlike many following a Christian path, U2 approach life and approach their work in a subtle and very real manner.

In One Step Closer, Scharen uses his extensive knowledge of U2 and his background in education and theology to illustrate a simple dichotomy within practitioners of Christianity (which can be expanded to apply to other faiths as well). The most vocal Christians often focus on miracles and other outward elements of Christianity, such as loud and possibly imposing preaching about righteousness, a certain place’s annointing by the divine for a certain group of people, etc. Scharen terms the living of their faith as the “Theology of Glory.” Others prefer to focus on the physical world they live in every day – good, bad or ugly. They recognize that struggle, pain and doubt are just as much a part of the life described in the Bible as salvation and resurrection. These Christians, Scharen suggests, are following what he terms the “theology of the cross.”

Scharen suggests that the book focusees on the band’s art and how that simply makes sense; its rationality leads one to question what really matters, and this can apply to people of any faith. Regardless of whether one is inspired to explore or convert to Christianity, the question “what do I live by?” applies to all, and all readers can gain something by appreciating the spiritual content of U2’s work.

Scharen provides many examples of U2 lyrics that are clearly based upon scripture, but whose foundation in scripture might be overlooked by a listener not familiar with the Biblical passages or wording. Used in this way, the lyrics can be about life in general, or about a person. Occasionally a word is changed to make a lyric more universal, such as substituting the word “you” for “God.” In this way the poetry from the Book of Psalms, for example, is brought to a larger audience.

Scharen also provides examples of traditions found in Christianity, for example the drawing of the fish in the sand. In early times, a Christian would draw an apparent meaningless arc in the sand to pose a secret challenge to a stranger. If the stranger was “in” on the secret, he or she would complete the drawing of the fish by drawing the corresponding arc; if not, he would not know that such a challenge had been posed. Scharen contrasts this against the use of the fish symbol as a “badge” as seen on modern vehicles, acting as a challenge along the likes of “I’m Christian, what are you?”

Scharen, similarly to U2, uses these lyrics in reaching his audience “beyond the cognitive,” using “more interactive multimedia to open a door” to a more abstract lesson through pop culture. Consideration of the lyrics leads to a consideration of the theory behind them. At the same time, by failing to write explicitly about their faith as much as some believe they should, U2 has come under criticism from some who argue they are not “Christian enough.” U2 perserveres, as if to emphasize the variety inherent in Christianity. They write songs that are direct and clearly reference their faith, such as “Yahweh” at the end of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and indirect metaphors such as “Playboy Mansion,” a song Scharen identifies as a metaphor for grace, also on How To..

U2, and particularly Bono, speak out on behalf of humanitarian causes such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International, and Bono has used his celebrity to turn himself into an ambassador on behalf of peace and the disadvantaged. For this, he has also received significant criticism. Scharen uses “Crumbs from your Table” from U2’s latest, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, to illustrate the conviction that drives Bono to use his celebrity to bring awareness to people who can’t bring awareness to themselves. The Edge has also joined in recently, founding Music Rising, a charity focusing on the recovery of the organic music scene in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Scharen adeptly covers themes as varied as faith, love and hope in U2 and in living the theology of the cross as well. U2 live life and enjoy success as a secular rock band, and yet have a powerful command of scripture that they do not always advertise. This, along with their superior musicianship and songwriting, is what separates them from the ordinary “Contemporary Christian” bands attempting to mimic recent trends on secular radio.

Scharen, in writing the book, augmented his expansive fan’s command of the U2 catalog with a “more systemic” review of the lyrics, and by doing further research. Unfortunately, he was unable to interview the band. This book is recommended for those seeking an example of a more subtle — and arguably more genuine — living of the Christian faith than is often displayed in the media today.

This review contains material from an interview with Christian Scharen conducted in early May 2006.

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