Let me be frank in telling you that I walked into the U2charist with strong biases. I am and always have been strongly pro-Eucharist and anti-U2. I think that one is cleansing and one is poison. And the poison of U2 has chased me ever since high school—in the CD collections of roommates, on the news, in the records that I sell at my retail job. Even as I write this, I curse Bono and Co. as the spell check red flags my failure to capitalize “Eucharist” but doesn’t peep one bit, not one bit about U2charist. Has the world gone crazy? Microsoft Word is hip to the U2charist. The point is: I’m frustrated with a world that has lowered its standards for pop music, and now that those standards apply to church and worship, it is unbearable for me to watch.
Earlier this summer, I walked into an Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood unsure of what to expect. The friend who went with me, a U2 fan, was a bit more eager than I was. The first thing I noticed was that there were booths set up around the perimeter of the sanctuary dedicated to poverty all over the world—a booth for the oppression of women in Africa, a booth for AIDS, one for children and so on. As I looked at my bulletin, I realized that yes, it was a communion service, but that the focus of it was on raising money for Africa. It was a communion service that would please Bono. We got there late and the band had already started. Just like the real U2. My favorite member of the fake U2 was fake The Edge.
The U2charist is what it sounds like—a Eucharist ceremony based on the music of U2. Songs by U2 are spaced throughout the service just as hymns in any other church service, songs including “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Pride (In The Name Of Love),” “One” and more. The U2charist is the ultimate marker of the dilution of religion in our era. Bono once said, “I generally think that religion gets in the way of God,”1 which is actually a great point, but if religion gets in the way of God, then Bono is now getting in the way of religion.
If I’m going to tell you that U2 in church is not real worship, then I guess I better tell you what in the world I think worship is. As I see it, there are two ways to think of worship, a specific way and a broad way. Worship in the specific sense is the stuff that we are given guidelines for, such as what to say in church, what to sing, what to do on the Sabbath. There are things in Christian scriptures that teach us specifically what pleases God to see and hear from us worshippers. The rest of it is kind of vague—what we do the rest of the week after Sunday. In this broad sense, singing U2 is worship, in the same way that treating the homeless guy on the street is worship, or kicking a soccer ball is worship. As the broad definition of worship goes, anything we do that is for the glory of God is worship, so not only could I be singing “One” worshipfully, I could be doing it in the shower naked. As far as I can tell from reading the Bible, God thinks of specific corporate worship as kind of special. He gives us guidelines. Therefore, playing soccer in church probably doesn’t fly.
Let’s talk about another dual nature and that is high art and low art. High art is made for the glory of God (i.e. Bach, Luther, Wesley). Low art is made for the sake of the community, to bring people together (i.e. Beethoven, Dylan, Lennon, Timberlake). At some point, God was taken out of high art and it became for the sake of achievement or progress. It should be the Church’s job to redeem high art for God. It is only common sense that the reason people worship corporately is for the sake of God and the community, so specific corporate worship should be some kind of combination of high art and low art.
Which brings me to U2, a pop band. U2 makes pop records and only pop records. As much as I hate to admit it, some of them are good, but it is low art alone. There is nothing sacred about the music of U2, nothing enlightened or technical, nothing (on the part of the listener) that requires patience or hard work. U2 is like fast food for the ears, and the U2charist is like having a Happy Meal at the communion table. Some might call this arbitrary, claiming that U2 isn’t the first pop music to be used in worship. Theologians as important as Martin Luther stole drinking tunes for hymns, and this happened quite often from the Renaissance on. The difference is that U2’s scriptural basis is superficial; the lyrics of the classic hymnologists is not.
U2 writes pop songs, sometimes about women, sometimes about politics, sometimes about God, but mostly about vague pop clichés. In fact, they canonized plenty of the pop clichés, perhaps the greatest of which is “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” I sat in that church, and as the priest read scripture, the congregation responded as liturgically as possible with, “How long, how long must we sing this song?” which is a great pop refrain, I believe, but one that I read as a reference to the African American experience or the Old Testament Jewish experience. It is nice sentiment indeed but one that doesn’t quite reflect the narrative of the Eucharist, the Last Supper, or the atonement of sins. It really just came across as a weak attempt to squeeze something Biblical from the U2 repertoire into communion. I might have had the same reaction if they had chosen a random piece of Deuteronomy. Communion liturgy should have a profound connection with scripture and the Last Supper and be written with careful thought, prayer, and purpose. It really just comes down to this—Bono might be a writer of inspired pop songs, but not an inspired writer of communion liturgy. There may be people who do both, but it is likely that the commitment to prayer and study would conflict with the schedule of one of the busiest, most popular, highest selling rock bands in the world.
Why U2? If a church accepts a Eucharist based on pop music why not other artists? Maybe we should begin a Suf-charist or a Wilco-charist (the song “Theologians” quotes Jesus’ final days more than U2’s entire catalogue)? Where do we draw the line? What about a Husker Ducharist or a Foo-charist or my favorite—the Silver Jew-charist?
As much as I am for individual tastes in worship and freedom for the believer who is in fact given his or her own priesthood by the intercession of Jesus, the U2charist more than anything else shoves in my face the problem that no matter how hard we try, the only reassurance we have that what we do pleases God is scripture. The burden of Spirit gratifying worship falls on church leaders and on us.
At the beginning of the U2charist bulletin there is a quote from Bono. It says:
“We’ve found different ways expressing it, and recognized the power of the media to manipulate such signs. Maybe we just have to sort of draw our fish in the sand. It’s there for people who are interested. It shouldn’t be there for people who aren’t.”
— Bono on faith, quoted in “U2 at the End Of The World”
Now I don’t know what in the world Bono is trying to say, but I think this quote helps me articulate why U2 poisons the Eucharist, and this has to do with manipulation. In writing this article I struggled with my own hypocrisy in allowing certain references or even works of art from outside the Church to be used inside its walls for specific worship. My intuition tells me that there is a difference between the U2charist and, for example, quoting J. R. R. Tolkien or Sufjan Stevens. The U2charist is a manipulation of pop culture to create a worship experience that is not quite a picture of culture and not quite a picture of worship but something in between. Real worship however, and real Communion is a recognition of God’s plan to redeem a culture that is fallen but valid.
And Communion should be real. It should be the most real part of worship. If our worship is specific or general, it should always point to the redemption of what the Eucharist symbolizes, the pinnacle of our faith. It is the glorious fact that we have an intercessor who speaks to the Creator on our behalf and that he is perfect and divine, a far cry from any pop star, inspired or not.