Church of U2?

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Bono is definitely a conversation starter. When I posted excerpts of his recent Rolling Stone interview the reaction ranged from those who loved it to those who questioned whether Bono is truly Christian!

To keep the conversation going, here is another provocative piece about a church organized around U2’s music.

Progressive Christians are using the music of U2 to illustrate spiritual teachings.

As a teenager, Rick Hunter, 35, secretly listened to Van Halen and the Scorpions. His brother, however, openly blasted music deemed more appropriate for their household — Christian singers Amy Grant and Sandi Patti. When he played U2’s Under a Blood Red Sky, his brother argued it wasn’t explicitly spiritual. It was around this time Hunter began to consider how his faith and fandom intersected.

For his friend Jonathan Gundlach, a book about U2’s spiritual journey helped him re-evaluate his perspective on faith.

Gundlach, 30, had become a civil rights lawyer arguing freedom-of-religion cases, and most of his time was spent in or related to church. But he began to realize he didn’t know how his faith and life coalesced. To sort out his spiritual crisis, Gundlach entered the seminary to get a deeper understanding of his faith.

Around that time in 2002, he read a book called Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 by Steve Stockman, a chaplain at Queen’s University in Belfast. The book chronicles the rock band’s expression of faith from their beginnings in a Bible study group at the now famed Mount Temple School.

“I was making some decisions about where I was going and that book was enough to push me over the edge,” Gundlach says. “It nailed it. The book is about U2, but it’s more about the problems with standard evangelical Christianity and its close-mindedness.”

Through a mutual friend, Gundlach and Hunter met and discovered they had a lot more in common than their love for U2. They also had a desire start a church that would engage culture in a way that seemed normal and natural, not churchy, says Hunter, who eventually entered the seminary as well.

Last year, Hunter began the process of forming CityChurch Fort Lauderdale with a close-knit group of family and friends who shared his vision. Preview services began in September at the church’s rented digs at the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society’s New River Inn. The church’s official launch is Jan. 8. He describes it as place where people who are searching for something spiritual can go without getting talked down to.

Hunter says his plans for CityChurch include incorporating arts and popular culture into worship and activities. He isn’t worried about drawing lines between music or art that’s explicitly labeled Christian or secular.

“Many artists create good art the church would frown at, like Nine Inch Nails,” he says. “Christians need to learn to distinguish between good art and bad art, but so often we differentiate between explicit art and abstract art. I think U2 fits into that abstract art camp.”

Many fans would agree that a church is an ironic place to find U2’s influence. After the band formed in Ireland in 1976, a Bible study group most of the band attended told them they couldn’t play rock ‘n’ roll and be Christians, so U2 packed up and left for America. Again they were bewildered by the church, this time, in the form of televangelists.

When Bono dressed up as Mr. Macphisto, an amalgam of Satan and Las Vegas-era Elvis, during the Pop tour in the late ’90s, many Christians thought U2 had completely abandoned the faith.

Now, through an ironic twist of fate — or part of God’s plan, as some see it — a growing group of progressive evangelical Christians like Hunter, Gundlach and Rick Dorado, a youth pastor at Kendall Presbyterian Church, are using U2’s music and lyrics in worship services and sermons to illustrate spiritual teachings.

For CityChurch’s first preview service in September, Hunter and Gundlach decided to use The First Time as the communion meditation song. The song exemplifies Bono’s complex lyricism. At first glance, The First Time appears to be addressed to a “lover like no other,” which could mean a woman or God personified as a woman, a technique Bono uses frequently. But in the third verse, the direction changes and the song becomes a twist on the prodigal son parable. In this version, the son returns home only to reject his father again:

Gave me the keys to his kingdom coming, gave me a cup of gold/He said I have many mansions and there are many rooms to see/ But I left by the back door and I threw away the key/Yeah, I threw away the key/For the first time … I feel love.

So why use a song about losing faith for a communion service?

“U2 is not like a safe Christian band in that you can listen to them and know you’re going to hear references to Jesus or something about Jesus as your spiritual boyfriend,” Hunter said. “But it’s going to be the kind of thing that’s going to engage you and cause you to think, `What in the world are they talking about here?’

“I do constantly throw away that key, in some ways more obvious than others. If I think of myself as holding on to God I’m totally mistaken. My understanding of the gospel is that it’s God who’s holding on to us in the midst of our temptations to run away.”

It’s an outlook that also resonates with Kendall Presbyterian’s Dorado, who spent the first half of his life running away from religion until an uncle started bringing him to church.

“One Sunday morning I said, `OK, this stuff is real,'” he said. “I didn’t go up to the front, didn’t fall backwards, didn’t speak in tongues, I didn’t bark like a dog, none of that. I just said, `I believe.’ It’s simple. The Gospel is simple. People complicate it.”

Dorado regularly incorporates U2’s videos, music and lyrics into youth group meetings at his church. Once, when he used the song Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of to discuss depression and suicide, he says there was not a dry eye in the house. Bono wrote the song about his friend Michael Hutchence, the INXS frontman who committed suicide.

Though he’s received some criticism about his tactics, Dorado says he won’t change his approach. Strict fundamentalists won’t reach youth because they don’t understand culture, he says.

Christian Scharen, associate director of the Faith as a Way of Life project at Yale University’s Yale Center for Faith and Culture, believes that the way Christians relate to post-modern culture is the defining issue today. His book One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God is due out in January.

“Bono talks about the difference between grace and karma, but I actually think that karma is a really big deal in Christianity. People think you get what you deserve. You have to earn your way to God by your moral behavior and so there’s this sort of code morality: to be a Christian you have to do X and Y and Z. Then you’re a good Christian. And Bono’s like no, I’m a good Christian because God loves me and because Christ died for me. That’s why I’m a good Christian. Not because of my behavior.”

The debate was at its hottest in 2003 during Bono’s tour across the Midwest to promote DATA, the AIDS and debt relief organization he co-founded with Bobby Shriver. Bono caused a stir with the editors of Christianity Today magazine by saying the church “practices a hierarchy of sin that condemns people with AIDS as deserving the affliction because of sexual promiscuity.”

An editorial in the same issue called Bono’s ecclesiology “paper-thin” and criticized him for not worshipping in a church regularly. Add to that his unapologetic dropping of the f-bomb during awards shows and in songs such as Wake Up Dead Man, in which the singer pleads for Jesus to save him from this “f—– up world.”

During a recent phone interview from his home in Belfast, Stockman vehemently disagreed.

“Some evangelicals are more worried about petty little habits than about what’s going on in our world,” he said. “Jesus didn’t die on the cross to clean up our language. The Bible never tells us not to say the f-word but to feed the poor. We are not prepared to sacrifice our decadence for people to have a square meal every night. Someone saying the f-word is not going to cause someone to die.”

Hunter agrees and says he draws the line when people look to U2 for a morality lesson.

“My individual concern is not about whether or not the members of U2 are fine upstanding Christians or not,” he says. “My job as a minister is to be concerned with the people that are in my church about their spiritual lives. I look to U2 for entertainment because they’re a damn good rock band because they cause me to think and make me uncomfortable at times.”

Gundlach says the bottom line concerning U2 and faith is that many Christians, like U2 in the early ’80s, are realizing it’s difficult to exist in the fundamentalist church and are searching for new ways to worship.

“Movements start when thousands of people reach the same issue at the same time,” he says. “I had my crisis of faith. I thought I was the only one going through it. I love my faith and I love the church, but the church without the world is weird. It’s a Christian club and I didn’t want to be in [it]. I’m not patterning my life after Bono in any way, but when I read about him and the things he does, like handing out copies of Eugene Peterson’s The Message to other rock stars, I liked that.

“If you really respect somebody, you can share your beliefs without worrying about if they become just like you or not.”

By Fayola Shakes
Staff Writer Sun-Sentinel
Posted November 12 2005

Fayola Shakes can be reached at fashakes@sun-sentinel.com

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

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