AUBURN HILLS, Mich. A traveling evangelist comes to town, stands in the pulpit, leans forward as he eyes the crowd, and says something like this: 'I believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. But I'm not so sure about you, me, or the church.'
With eyes on heaven and feet set on solid ground, the Irish supergroup U2 is taking that implicit message on the road as it rolls across America on its Vertigo 2005 tour. I caught the band in concert Monday night along with 20,000 fans in the first of two sold-out shows at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
The Dublin group and its charismatic lead singer, Bono, have spent the last 29 years writing and singing songs that explore spirituality in many forms, with lyrics and stage shows infused with images of angels and devils, triumphs and failures, love and peace, war and suffering, hope and despair.
All the while, the four musicians, who have been friends since high school, have avoided the standard religious jargon, cliches, icons, labels, affiliations, and traditions.
Consistently through the years, three-fourths of the band Bono, guitarist The Edge, and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. have professed their belief in, and devotion to, Jesus Christ and the Bible.
The fact that the fourth band member, bassist Adam Clayton, remains a skeptic has been a source of 'positive friction' for the band, according to the Rev. Steve Stockman, an Irish Presbyterian minister and author of the newly updated "Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2" (Relevant Press, $13.99).
By counter-balancing the zeal of his friends, especially in U2's early years, Mr. Clayton 'forced the band members to apply their faith to wider issues than if they had been a naive, homogeneous bunch of believers.'
Such a broad, independent, and artistic expression about life's big issues accompanied by the band members' ambition, vision, and growing musical skills kept U2 from being relegated to the Christian rock bin and enabled the group to work its way to superstardom.
Many Christians, however, have questioned U2's sincerity, Mr. Stockman points out in "Walk On."
How can Bono, for example, sing one of the band's signature songs, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," if he truly believes in God, Jesus, and the Bible? What more could he be searching for?
Yet the tune, which Bono describes as "a gospel song for a restless spirit," states that Jesus "broke the bonds, he loosed the chains, he carried the cross, and all my shame," and ends with the line, "You know I believe it."
Bono's gripe is not theological, it's the way that humanity himself included falls so far short of spiritual ideals. Rich nations invade poor nations, children starve to death because they lack a few pennies, corrupt leaders commit genocide, AIDS is ravaging Africa.
U2 has trouble reconciling these real-world horrors with the existence of a loving, compassionate, omnipotent God.
'If God is not dead," Bono once said, "there are some questions we want to ask. I'm a believer, but that doesn't mean I don't get angry about these things."
Mr. Stockman writes that 'instead of being a rejection of faith, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" is an indication that U2 might have been closer to biblical truth than the narrow and precise Christians who pointed their fingers.'
On the Vertigo tour, between two songs about hatred, death, and brutality "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Bullet the Blue Sky" Bono donned a white cloth headband with the word "coexist" written in black ink. The "c" was drawn as an Islamic crescent moon, the "x" as a Jewish Star of David, and the "t" as a Christian cross. He said he first saw it written that way in a graffito on a midwestern wall.
Coexist. "It's is a simple thought, but it's getting harder and harder to hold on to," Bono said Monday night. "Family feuds are always the worst. Jesus, Jew, Muhammad, it's true they're all sons of Abraham. Father Abraham what have you done? Father Abraham, speak to your sons. Tell them, No more!'?"
Growing up in Ireland, U2's members witnessed firsthand the hatred and pain inflicted by Protestants and Catholics on one another. Brutality in the name of God had a permanent impact on their worldview. Faith in God does not require blind faith in humanity or in man-made religion.
"Religion, to me, is almost like when God leaves and people devise a set of rules to fill the space," Bono says in "Walk On."
Or, as he told me bluntly in a July, 2003, phone interview, "Religion must be such a pain in the a-- for God. But it's unstoppable. We've got to learn to work together."
For their part, U2 has not retreated to a mountaintop, counting their riches between tours, but have worked tirelessly to promote programs that help the underprivileged and strive to right social wrongs.
"To me, faith in Jesus Christ that is not aligned to social justice, that is not aligned with the poor it's nothing," Bono tells Mr. Stockman in "Walk On."
Here he echoes the words of James, brother of Jesus, who writes: "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."
As Bono and U2 still try to find what they're looking for peace, love, justice, heaven on Earth they continue to back their faith with actions, even if their sermons and works are often 'outside the box' of organized religion.
David Yonke is The Blade's religion editor. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.