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One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God

by Christian Scharen

Brazos Press, 2006
Reviewed by Jeff Crosby

One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to those Seeking God by Christian ScharenA veritable cottage publishing industry has grown up around the Irish supergroup U2 in the years since its North American debut recording Boy in the autumn of 1980. Some titles have focused on lead singer Bono’s humanitarian work, while others have chronicled the band’s history and tours, dissected recordings and drawn observations on each of the four member’s philosophical foundations.

In the midst of the publishing cornucopia Christian Scharen’s One Step Closer manages to offer a unique slant on the group and goes a long way toward articulating why U2 has been a beacon to many who are earnestly seeking God.

Scharen, associate director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture in New Haven, Connecticut, argues that U2 is a cultural icon that points people “one step closer to the cross, a place both of suffering because of the world’s rejection and violent killing of Jesus, as well as joyful hope that comes from God’s raising him to new life as a victory over violence, hatred and death.”

Divided into a “step one, step two, step three” structure, the book’s first step looks at how we talk about God through five distinct “voices,” each of which U2 has used throughout its catalog of recorded music and legendary tours:

  • Psalms as both thanksgiving and heart-bearing lament.
  • Wisdom as both deep desire and illusion.
  • Prophecy as both judgment and lasting hope.
  • Parables as both offense and mercy.
  • Apocalypse as ecstasy and healing.

Chapter by chapter, Scharen expounds on what these voices are and, in turn, examines how they have been expressed through the songs of U2.

For example, in exploring psalms as both thanksgiving and lament, Scharen explains that psalms “speak of our whole existence before God. Psalms are earthy and therefore don’t hurry past the reality of human experience. Rather, they dwell deeply in the midst of life, taking seriously the raw energy of human agony and ecstasy.” He then illustrates the voice by examining in some detail the songs “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Wake Up, Dead Man,” the latter of which laments:

Jesus, I’m waiting here, boss
I know you’re looking out for us
But maybe your hands aren’t free.

In defining the voice of prophecy, Scharen acknowledges the Bible’s books of prophecy are “hard to read. They shake us up from slumber and force us to confront uncomfortable truths.” He then illustrates this voice through “Last Night on Earth” from the 1997 album Pop, a song telling the story of a woman “lost in the fast life, burning the candle at both ends, and embracing its inevitable self-destruction”—a song that, like the prophetic scriptures, confronts uncomfortable truths.

Step two of the book digs deeper into its core message regarding a theology of the cross and how the music of U2 powerfully embodies its concepts and truth. Scharen suggests that a theology of the cross, which he says is “Christ crucified and the way of costly discipleship he asks us to follow,” is to be understood in contrast to a theology of glory which “amounts to religious triumphalism, something that we as humans do.” Both Scharen and U2 cling to the cross, and critique a theology of glory.

Remarkably, the author is able to succinctly present these weighty theological constructs in a readable manner, keeping his primary audience of people unfamiliar with Christianity clearly in his sights. Once again, he intersperses lyrics from U2 songs to illustrate his points.

With the theology of the cross firmly established, Scharen uses the remainder of step two to unpack the virtues of faith, hope and love and offers perspectives on how each are illuminated in the songs of U2.

In the final chapters of the book, Scharen attempts to sum up what he believes U2 means by “truth,” and he depicts the ways in which the band seeks to live that out in the real world. Scharen suggests that as U2 has grown as a band, simply singing the truth is no longer enough. They have to live it out, whether that’s in front of a cheering audience at Wembley Stadium or in front of presidents and prime ministers at national prayer breakfasts. He writes:

Even though the band avoids rock star hubris with family and friends, they’ve always tried to use their rock star fame for political purposes. They decided early on that they would transgress the rule that rock bands don’t sing about religion and politics. They went beyond that to aggressively use their fame to promote ideas they believed in, beginning with their effort to portray a position of Christian nonviolence in response to the troubles of Northern Ireland embodied in their famous anthem, "Sunday, Bloody Sunday."

'Scharen moves from the band’s work in Northern Ireland to the “One” Campaign, Jubilee 2000 and other humanitarian work for which Bono was named (along with Bill and Melinda Gates) a “Person of the Year” by Time Magazine.

One Step Closer is a book of significance not only for U2 fans but for anyone interested in the relationship between Christ and culture.

Jeff Crosby serves in management at InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, and lives in the western suburbs of Chicago with his author/editor wife, Cindy, a frequent contributor to

Copyright ©2006 Jeff Crosby

One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to those Seeking God by Christian Scharen

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