Archives For U2

Music Is Medicine

Mark Beuving —  July 14, 2015 — 1 Comment

The title of this post is probably enough. We all know what it’s like to somehow feel better or consoled or validated or inspired after listening to a piece of music—as if by magic. And magic is not the worst term for it: much of music’s power comes from an indefinable quality ingrained in this mysterious art form by the Creator. Many have tried to explain why it is that music is so powerful. No one has succeeded.

In this post I won’t be trying to explain the “active ingredient” that makes music medicinal; I simply want to honor the power of this gift of God and commend it to you as an important part of a healthy lifestyle.

Flannery O’Connor, a legendary Catholic fiction writer, explains the art of fiction in a way that helps me understand what music is doing when it helps me feel better. “You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate,” she explains. In other words, when you have something to say that can’t be said, you turn to art—in O’Connor’s case this meant fiction writing. She says,

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”

A kind statement from a loving friend that “Everything’s going to be alright” is important. But there’s another dimension at work when we hear the Five Stairsteps sing “O-o-h child, things are gonna get easier; o-o-h child, things’ll get brighter.” The words mean what the words mean, but their poetic arrangement allows them to mean more, and the music itself is an added balm, another layer of significance and exploration and auditory compassion.


Wheaton literature professor Leland Ryken adds some helpful thoughts here:

“A rich confusion of awareness lies below the level of our consciousness. Artists reach into that confusion and give it an order. As we stand before a painting or listen to music or read a poem, we suddenly see our own experiences and insights projected onto the details of the work before us. Artists turn our pain into art so we can bear it. They turn our joys into art so we can prolong them.”

This thought was recently beautifully expressed by the band U2 in the song “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”: “We got…music so I can exaggerate my pain and give it a name.” Bono was apparently inspired when he heard the Ramones as a youth, and found in music something that spoke to him deeply, a reality that he expresses in the song:

Vinyl“Heard a song that made some sense out of the world
Everything I ever lost now has been returned
In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”

Bono has written about his early experiences with music, and speculates a bit on what was happening to him deep down when he listened to the musicians he loved:

“When I hear these singers, I am reconnected to a part of me I have no explanation for…my ‘soul’ I guess. Words and music did for me what solid, even rigorous, religious argument could never do, they introduced me to God, not belief in God, more an experiential sense of GOD. Over art, literature, reason, the way in to my spirit was a combination of words and music.”

The National acknowledges this type of connection when they sing (in “Don’t Swallow the Cap”):

“If you want to hear me cry, play ‘Let It Be’ [The Beatles] or ‘Nevermind’ [Nirvana].”

I’m not trying to be overly mystical about all of this. My point is ultimately very simple: music often “speaks” to us more deeply than words can go. We could take a “mystical” approach that views music as a type of impersonal magic. Some Christians feel threatened when they hear arguments about a “power” of music that supersedes logic. But we shouldn’t feel threatened by this. Instead, we should remember that God is the one who designed music. Music is his gift. That indefinable quality that makes music so powerful was implanted by God. Music has no power aside from what God has placed within this amazing art form. Rather than downplaying the power of music, we should acknowledge the power and beauty of God’s good gift.

I’ve always loved the introductory song on Wilco’s self-titled album, which introduces the whole album with: “This is an hour of arms open wide, a sonic shoulder for you to cry on. Wilco will love you, baby.” For me, Wilco is a great place to go when I need a sonic shoulder. You might choose to go somewhere else. But the point is, music is medicine because God has made it so. May we find comfort and hope and empowerment as we explore God’s gift, and may we sense the loving arms of the Creator as we experience the healing that often flows through this mysterious part of his creation.

For more on this and other related subjects, click here.

Yesterday I wrote about U2. I said that they stand amongst the most influential Christians in the world. If that statement bothers you, at least read yesterday’s post to see why I say that.

U2 CoexistIn any case, I have a lot of respect for U2, and I see a lot of value in listening to their music. But U2 has made themselves suspect to many Christians in recent years because of their “Coexist” campaign in which they call Islam, Judaism, and Christianity to all get along. That makes many of us uncomfortable. Think of it this way. Judaism aside, if the Bible says that there is only one God and describes him in a specific way, and if the Quran says that there is only one God and describes him in a contradictory way, then both of these religions cannot be true. Truth becomes a meaningless term when we use it like this.

So is this what U2 is proclaiming when they call us to coexist? Here is the way their mantra gets expressed lyrically:

“Jesus, Jew, Mohammed, it’s true…All sons of Abraham…Father Abraham, look what you’ve done, You’ve pitted your son against your son, No more, no more, no more…”

In our postmodern world, it’s difficult to not take this as a proclamation that your truth is as good as mine, and that you can believe something contradictory to what I believe and we can both be right. And that may well be what U2 intends. If that’s the case, then I stand against U2 on this point.

But it’s also possible that Bono is simply saying that all of these religious beliefs are deeply held, and that we should not persecute those who disagree with us. If that’s the case, I’m with him.

For centuries Christians and Muslims have been killing one another, and everyone has been killing the Jews. That’s not right. But there have also been great moments in history where Christians have lived under Muslim rule or when Muslims have lived under Christian rule and things worked out peacefully. They found a way to “coexist,” if you will. So if U2 is calling us not to kill each other over religion, then I agree with them on this point.

(Part of me wishes they would be more clear on their meaning here, but I also believe that much of the power of art comes from ambiguity and indirection because it forces us to think more deeply.)

Let me be clear: when anyone—rockstar, president, pastor, spouse—goes against the truth, we reject the lie and call that person back to the truth.

U2 - Coexist2But let’s not stop there. Too often Christians don’t think beyond the presence of inaccuracy. Worse than that, Christians tend to freak out about ambiguity. Can we still get along with someone with whom we disagree? Can we still appreciate U2 and most of their message if we disagree with some of what they say?

I absolutely think we can. Even if U2 is getting it wrong with the coexist thing, I don’t think that makes them useless.

It’s not right of us to expect our musicians to be infallible. We’re all going to get things wrong, and none us is too important to have our errors seen for what they are and called to correction—rockstars not excepted. But Christians of all people should understand that God uses imperfect people to further his kingdom.

So I say listen to U2. But always do so with both appreciation and discernment. They may be leading people astray in some regards, but they are helping people think through some important issues in some other regards. And in reality, this is the case with all of us.

It’s okay if a band like U2 doesn’t complete the Great Commission single handedly. On the flipside, it would be a mistake to ignore the unique and significant contribution they have made toward helping people see truth and beauty. They can be helping the cause of Christ and still be imperfect.

Getting legitimately excited about U2 does not equal agreement with everything they say and do—past, present, and future. Where there is truth and beauty in their lives and in their music, let us affirm it. Where there are lies and ugliness in their lives and in their music, let us reject it and call them back.

Isn’t this the way we would want people to treat us, rockstar or no?


U2U2 has been extremely influential for a very long time. Not many bands have been major players in the music world for 30 years. And they have earned every bit of their notoriety—not through pop gimmicks, but through dedication to creating inventive and genuine music.

Bring up U2 in Christian company, and you’re likely to receive two polarizing responses: (1) “U2 is amazing! Did you know they’re basically Christian?” or (2) “I can’t believe you listen to them! Don’t you know they’re trying to convince the world that all religions are basically the same?”

How should we think about U2? First of all, let me assure you that even if U2 sings about bad things and promotes a “coexist” agenda, their music is still worth listening to. Their music reflects the creative genius of the Creator, and we can glory in the beauty and creativity that flows out of the remarkable gifts that God has given these men. So it’s not a decision between “They attend three Bible studies a week, so let’s listen in!” and “We need to plug our ears in disgust when they come on the radio!” Music, and all culture, deserves far more appreciation and discernment than this naïve dichotomy offers.

Next, let’s explore the reality that members of U2 see themselves as Christians, and they see their music as an extension of that identity. Music writer Steve Turner writes about listening to a message delivered by Bono and the Edge in the early days of U2 in which they cited Isaiah 40:3 and explained that their purpose as a band is to prepare the way for the Lord. In Turner’s assessment, they have succeeded in this purpose:

“Although any mistakes they have made over the past twenty years have been very public, U2 has expertly created a body of work which draws from the best traditions of modern music, adds something unique and incorporates a vision clearly rooted in the Bible. More than any other act in the history of rock, they have forced God, Jesus, the Bible and a Christian worldview on to the agenda. Rock critics could ignore the Jesus rock of the 1970s (and they did!), but they couldn’t ignore U2; they had to voice an opinion about the values they stood for.”[1]

U2 on stageIf any of this is even remotely true, then we have to acknowledge that U2 are among the most prominent ministers the world has ever seen. Now, you may object by pointing out that you were at a U2 concert and didn’t hear Bono preaching the gospel. But when was the last time you stood up in your cubicle at work and started preaching? When you led a training seminar on safe and ethical business practices, did you start talking about the cross?

We all understand that being a faithful follower of Jesus requires a slightly different approach if you’re working in the public sector than when you’re standing behind a pulpit. We don’t expect Christian contractors to build crosses into people’s newly constructed houses, nor would we expect a Christian who writes presidential speeches to sneak a few “repent and embrace Christ” phrases onto the teleprompter. But we should expect these Christians to be a faithful presence for Christ in every activity, and to point to him through their lifestyle and, when appropriate, their words.

Why should we expect anything different from Christian musicians? We have a tendency to assume that a song is a sermon set to words. It’s not.

And in the case of U2, I don’t think they really need that much slack in this regard. They often introduce explicitly Christian themes into their music. Many of these themes are subtly stated, but I believe that they are all the more powerful for their subtlety. U2 has consistently brought significant gospel truths to the forefront of the music world and been a key player in discussions of these important topics.

But there’s still an important issue to be addressed. Can we really get behind a band that is pushing a “coexist” agenda? That question will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

UPDATE: You might also find this interview with Bono interesting:



[1] Steve Turner, Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001) 106.