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My Top 10 12 Spiritually Significant U2 Songs

14th August 2006

I’ve been on a bit of a U2 kick lately (what else is new, you may ask!). Here’s a cute story to illustrate: the other day my family and I went to pick up my oldest daughter from summer camp. My five year old son ended up riding back from the camp with friends. As soon as they got going, my son asked if they had any U2 to play and said matter-of-factly how “my Dad REALLY likes U2″ and then he proceeded to sing his unique rendition of “Elevation.” Last week’s interview with Bono at the Leadership Summit only further fuelled my U2 obsession.

I thought I would share with you the top 10 12 songs from the U2 corpus that have been the most spiritually significant in my Christian walk. So this list is not a list of my favourite U2 songs — while there would be some overlap, that list would include a number of other less spiritually profound U2 songs (like Numb, Elevation, and Discotheque, among others).

As always, I found it very difficult to limit my list to only the top ten, so I decided to make it twelve (a nice Old Testament number). So, without further ado, counting down from 12, here is my list of…

The Top 12 Spiritually Significant U2 Songs

12. “40″ (Lyrics; from War 1983; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). This classic rendition of Psalm 40 has been used to close many U2 concerts. The line “How long to sing this song” — which is actually not in Psalm 40, but is inspired by the cry “how long” found in numerous psalms — expresses the longing for God’s intervention that characterizes many U2 songs.

11. Wake Up Dead Man (Lyrics; from Pop 1997; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). This song is perhaps U2′s darkest lament. The song opens with a cry to Jesus: “Jesus, Jesus help me / I’m alone in this world / And a f*cked up world it is too / Tell me, tell me the story / The one about eternity / And the way it’s all gonna be.” The theme of the absence of God, expressed in the name of the song, comes to the fore in the rest of the lyrics: ” I know you’re looking out for us / But maybe your hands aren’t free.”

10. Peace on Earth (Lyrics; from All That You Can’t Leave Behind 2000; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). Written by Bono after the Omagh bombing in August 1998, this prayer of lament takes its cue from the angels proclamation to the shepherds at the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:14) and asks, where is this peace on earth? “Jesus can you take the time / To throw a drowning man a line / Peace on Earth.” This dissatisfaction over the gap between “hope and history” is a major theme of U2′s music and is expressed well in this song: “Hear it every Christmas time / But hope and history won’t rhyme / So what’s it worth / This peace on Earth.”

9. Gloria (Lyrics; from October 1981; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). In the early years as U2 was finding their spiritual moorings, perhaps this song expressed their faith and devotion the best: “I try, I try to speak up / But only in you I’m complete … Oh Lord, if I had anything / Anything at all / I’d give it to you.”

8. Crumbs From Your Table (Lyrics; from How To Dismantle and Atomic Bomb 2004; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). When I first heard this song I was moved and convicted. But then I watched the DVD that came with the CD and listened to Larry Mullen note how he was so drunk when they wrote that song that he doesn’t even remember writing it! Talk about a downer! But then I read a great blog entry on this song from Spera In Deo where he relays an interview with Bono about the song that redeems the song in my eyes. Here is an excerpt:

About the Crumbs song, he [Bono] told the story of the Irish nun, Sister Ann, who’s story broke his heart. She lives and works near a sewer and brings in people who live in horrific conditions. When he visited her, he saw people who were sleeping “three to a bed.” I had previously thought the song was about Bush’s promised–then rescinded–offer of $15b in Africa aid. But it turns out it is really (also?) about this nun and how some people in the world await crumbs to fall from the feast table of American Christianity (You speak of signs and wonders / But I need something other / I would believe if I was able / But I’m waiting on the crumbs from your table).

Bono also made a passing reference to the title of this song in his interview with Bill Hybels when he was talking about his work with the ONE Campaign and how they want to raise awareness and money for this cause “without coming with our heads bowed and cowed and, you know, looking for the crumbs from the table; we believe that the poor deserve an honourable place at the table, they deserve the head of the table, as God would see things.” Amen.

7. Until the End of the World (Lyrics; from Achtung Baby 1991; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). The lyrics of this song contain one side of a post-resurrection conversation between Jesus and Judas: “I took the money / I spiked your drink / You miss too much these days if you stop to think / You led me on with those innocent eyes / You know I love the element of surprise / In the garden I was playing the tart / I kissed your lips and broke your heart / You, you were acting like it was / The end of the world.” The ending of the song is somewhat ambiguous, but I think that it holds out for love and forgiveness for even the likes of Judas: “Waves of regret and waves of joy / I reached out for the one I tried to destroy / You, you said you’d wait / ‘Til the end of the world.”

6. I Will Follow (Lyrics; from Boy 1980, Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). This was probably the first U2 song I ever heard. Before I was a Christian I had bought the album Boy and quite liked this song. This album was, in fact, the only one that survived my very brief “fundamentalist” phase when I burned my entire record collection. Boy was spared because I heard from someone that U2 was a “Christian” band! I have no recollection of what I thought the song was about early on, but after I became a Christian I took the song as a response to Christ’s call to follow him. This interpretation of the song really comes to the fore in the live version on the Elevation 2001 DVD where Bono intersperses even more lines from the classic hymn Amazing Grace.

5. Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of (Lyrics; from All That You Can’t Leave Behind 2000; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). While written about the suicide of Michael Hutchence (from INXS), this song is about hope in the midst of crisis. It’s about staying the course until daybreak, recognizing that in the grand scheme of things it is but a moment. “And if our way should falter / Along the stony pass / It’s just a moment, this time will pass.”

4. I Still Haven’t Found What I am Looking For (Lyrics; from The Joshua Tree 1987; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). This song is at once both a clear affirmation of the band’s faith (at least three of them at that time) as well as an expression of striving for a theological home: “You broke the bonds and you / Loosed the chains / Carried the cross / And my shame / All my shame / You know I believe it / But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

3. Yahweh (Lyrics; from How To Dismantle and Atomic Bomb 2004; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). OK, how can a Old Testament professor not like a song with the title “Yahweh”?! This song is a moving prayer for Yahweh (the Hebrew name for the Old Testament God) to intervene, to transform the singer: “Take this shirt / Polyester white trash made in nowhere / take this shirt / and make it clean, clean. Take this soul / Stranded in some skin and bones / Take this soul / and make it sing…. Take this heart / And make it break.” But it also has elements of lament, questioning God about suffering and why God is not acting: “Yahweh, tell me now / Why the dark before the dawn?”

u2_yahweh_live.jpg

2. Walk On (Lyrics; from All That You Can’t Leave Behind 2000; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). Inspired by Burmese human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi, I read this as song about persevering in the life of faith. It’s about leaving everything that hinders you behind and walking on because life is more than this life: “You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of has been / A place that has to be believed to be seen.” When my Dad was dieing of cancer, this song spoke to me perhaps more than any chorus or hymn; that’s why it makes number two on my list.

u2_leaveitbehind.jpg

1. Sunday Bloody Sunday (Lyrics; from War 1983; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com) This is one of U2′s most moving songs — and my all-time favourite. In many ways it is an anti-war athem that helped define a generation. I still get shivers down my spine when listening to it (I actually rarely just listen to it; I usually sing along at the top of my lungs!). The songs asks, like “40″, “how long must we sing this song?” and also affirms a partial realised eschatology: “The real battle just begun / Sunday bloody Sunday / To claim the victory Jesus won.” The most stirring version of this song is found on the Rattle and Hum DVD (Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). This performance was filmed in Denver the evening of 8 November 1987 — the same day an IRA bomb killed thirteen innocent people at Enniskillen. In the middle of the song, after rehearsing the day’s tragic events, the emotional Bono declares, “f*ck the revolution!” A close second is on the Vertigo 2005 DVD where they go stright from “Love and Peace or Else” to “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

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Honourable Mention

There are many other U2 songs which are spiritually significant. Some that deserve honourable mention include, Pride (In the Name of Love), With Or Whitout You, Where the Streets Have No Name, One, Acrobat, The Wanderer, The Playboy Mansion, When I Look at the World, Grace, Love and Peace or Else, and All Because of You.

What are your top spiritually significant U2 songs?

UPDATE: You will want to see my “Addendum to U2 Spiritually Significant Songs: The First Time


16 Responses to “My Top 10 12 Spiritually Significant U2 Songs”

  1. Christopher Heard Says:

    I think you should have gone to 13 so you could get “Pride (In the Name of Love)” on the list.

  2. Loren Rosson Says:

    Interesting list, Tyler. I still like U2 but not as much as back in the pre-Joshua Tree era. My favorite songs (however “spiritual” they are or are not) would be: Where the Streets Have No Name, A Sort of Homecoming, Bad, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Ultraviolet, End of the World, New Year’s Day, Drowning Man, Pride, The Fly.

  3. Beth Says:

    Tyler, I’ll link this; it fits in well with the “data-gathering” phase we’re in over at U2 Sermons.
    It’s great and interesting to hear someone do a list of what in *their own walk* have been the most spiritually significant songs, rather than the usual schtick of claiming to name the “most spiritual U2 songs” and then rattling off a few really well-known ones that happen to mention God.

    Some of the U2 songs that have made the greatest impact on my personal walk with Christ:

    Also have to name “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” In the late 80s I used to run a homeless shelter, and I listened to this song all the time in those days, as inspiration and recommitment to the task of trying to claim the victory Jesus won, and of not growing numb to those who were dying in the streets while I ate and drank.

    Also have to name “I Will Follow.” This song is what conversion sounds like to me, and it conjures up the fear and uncertainty and inevitability and joy of being confronted by God and having no answer to give but yes. (I’m a convert from atheism). I love how on “Boy” it sounds cautious but by 1982 Bono is screaming “I WILL!” And I love the sudden mystical language of “your eyes make a circle…”

    “Tomorrow.” The first moment I remember viscerally finding the second coming believable and relevant was listening to this song.

    “Streets” for the realized eschatology live. I want to go there. Wait, we are there.

    “When I Look at the World,” just a great tender devotional piece. I have a workshop on this one.

    “One Tree Hill.” I can’t quite put this into words – something about the magisterial theological sweep of it.

    “Surrender,” because some of my earliest and most intense spiritual formation was in a context that used surrender/ yielding language, and because I really identify with Sadie’s determination to find out at any cost the difference between relying on good works and relying on God: “tried to live a good life, but it’s not good enough.” (At least that’s how I read Sadie.)

    “The Fly” in the new visual version, a shattering depiction of the battle between truth and lies that was the spiritual highlight of every Vertigo show I saw.

  4. Kevin P. Edgecomb Says:

    Like Beth, I’d want to add One Tree Hill from The Joshua Tree, particularly for the line that always gives me chills? hope? something anyway: “I’ll see you again / when the stars fall from the sky / and the moon has turned red / over One Tree Hill.” It makes me think of a time when I’ll again see friends and family I miss so much.

  5. Seumas Says:

    My most significant spiritual U2 song is “Drowning Man” from War. Its lyrics with their ambiguity of speaker, deep love, and spiritual dimension, seem to reflect to me the patterns of the Song of Songs, and express a deep love of God for me.

  6. Kyle Haack Says:

    I’m putting together a retelling of the Easter story with the words of Mark’s gospel and the music of U2 for our church. Do any of you have suggestions on songs I should use? I have “Please” for the Garden of Gethsemane, “Until the End of the World” for Judas’ betrayal and “Where the Streets have No Name” for Easter morning. I also plan to use “Sunday Bloody Sunday” as a closing song. Any ideas on a Triumphal Entry or Last Supper song?

  7. Camassia Says:

    Kyle, how about “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” as a Triumphal Entry song? It sort of gets to the basic perversity of the event. Although I’m not sure how the “They want you to be Jesus…” line would fit when it actually IS Jesus.

    “Tomorrow” would rock as a Holy Saturday song.

  8. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    How about “The First Time” for the triumphal entry? (see my post here) It’s about throwing away God’s grace, which kind of fits the notion of praising Jesus and then rejecting him.

    For last supper I just think about “Until the End of the World”

  9. Mike Crowther Says:

    I would agree with many of your choices, however for me the song ‘Grace’ encapsulates beautifully what we believe about Jesus and His Good News. I sometimes think that Bono has achieved in a few words to a song, what St.Paul spent a lifetime trying to explain! When I feel utterly unworthy of God’s love, I can listen to the song and then I remember, ‘Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.’ Wonderful!!

  10. James Lumsden Says:

    In our U2 Good Friday “God Part II” was a favorite because it spoke to the conflict we all face with our values and broken self. “Numb” is another winner as it speaks to life in abundance. Currently, “Vertigo” is the best description of modern life — especially ‘all this can be yours’ — while “Grace” gives us the essence of Christ and “Beautiful Day” reminds me of God’s promise beyond the flood.

  11. Chip Says:

    *”The First Time,” mostly for the second verse with its “hound of heaven” imagery

    *”Scarlet,” for its meditative quality

    *”New Year’s Day,” for both the incredible sense of eucatastrophe (to borrow my favorite “word” from Tolkien) and its counterbalancing now/not yet theme

    *”Dirty Day,” for how it nails human beings’ alienation toward each other and God

    *”The Unforgettable Fire,” for its intimate mysticism and allusions to the Psalms

    *”Heartland,” for its rich poetry and strange sudden mystical connection of a country’s belief with Christ’s crucifixion (“Into the side of love/Like a burning spear [spirit?]“)

    *”The Fly,” for being the most thought-provoking and concise summation of the fall of humanity and its effects that I’ve ever found

    *”The Wanderer,” for its complex poetry and for how it nails the sinfulness and rebellion against God that characterizes all of us at some point in our lives (“I went out there/In search of experience/To taste and to touch/And to feel as much/As a man can before he repents” — Yep, that nails it)

    *”Drowning Man,” for its emotion and biblical imagery, and because it was the song that sucked me into U2 fandom

    *”Lemon,” for being a devastating look at humanity’s plight without God and daring to ask the question, “What will satisfy us?” (and then daring not to answer)

    *”Miss Sarajevo,” for its incredible use of a twist on a phrase from Ecclesiastes to tell a heartbreaking story

    *”Until the End of the World,” for its hope for redemption and Bono’s anguished cry to/for “love, love, love …”

  12. nhe Says:

    Ditto “God Part 2″ – good call – Thanks Tyler great post and very fun to read the other comments…..

    My top 5:

    1. Grace – (ATYCLB) Mike Crowther summed it up well….grace “travels outside of karma” – wonderful.

    2. Hawkmoon 269 – (Rattle & Hum) I’m not sure who Bono is singing this to, but the intense longing in the words “I need your love” is as strong here as in any of their songs…..this song reminds of “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel – they both may have been written about girls (at least in part) but they can certainly be sung to the Lord – both have tremendous passion.

    3. 40 – (War) this song uses the Psalms to tie in themes from the rest of the album – “I will sing a new song” and “I will begin again (New Years Day)” and “how long to sing this song” with Sunday Bloody Sunday (as was mentioned by others here)…wonderful in concert too – as worshipful a moment as found in any Christian concert I’ve attended.

    4. When Love Came to Town (Rattle & Hum)….I used this song in the “How to write your personal testimony” class I teach at church. The song depicts the elements of one’s testimony – before Christ – “I did what I did before love came to town” and conversion – “I’ve seen love conquer the great divide.”

    5. Still Haven’t Found what I’m Looking For (Rattle & Hum)…..the Harlem choir version in particular…..spiritual longing at its most earnest

  13. Kim Says:

    I didn’t see anyone list “All Because of You” or “Mysterious Ways”.

    “All because of you
    All because of you
    All because of you
    I am… I am”

    It’s like a prayer of simplicity, yet depth. All because of you, Yahweh. Yet all because of You, I am.

    Mysterious Ways continues to be one of the most provocative songs of all time, not just because of the element of human sensuality, but the exploration of who the Holy Spirit is and the role of the Spirit in the Trinity and in our lives. (And perhaps, could we even go so far to explore thinking about God and sensuality at the same time? That’s another topic though…)

    “Let her talk about the things you can’t explain.
    To touch is to heal, to hurt is to steal.
    If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel…
    One day you’ll look back, and you’ll see
    Where you were held now by this love.”

  14. Ashley Says:

    So many of U2′s songs have had a spiritual impact on me, but I know beyond any doubt God is there whenever I hear With Or Without You- especially live. Its such a comfort- room for doubt in Faith. One is also a big one for me, and Love Rescue Me.

  15. Isaac Says:

    I need the lyrics for ‘Mysterious ways’ by Kim Hill from the album Brave hearts. To anyone that has the lyrics, please send them to me. I can’t seem to find it. Go to my website and you’ll be able to find my e-mail address there. Thanks.

  16. stillhaventfound.org » Occasional Links 13 Says:

    [...] Tyler Williams’ Top 12 Spiritually Significant U2 Songs. See also Caritas on U2’s Most Spiritual [...]