Photo courtesy of Jacqui Tan

The acoustics were horrible. The volume was unforgiving. But it was U2 in concert and it was on my bucket list, if I had one. Last Saturday, Bernice and I were at the first U2 concert in Singapore, courtesy of the kindness of sons Mark and John. Listening to the concert, I realised I wasn’t a true U2 fan. I knew only about half the songs from their Joshua Tree album (1987). But I knew all their hits.

I first encountered U2 through their Rattle and Hum album (1988). I think this happened in the early nineties because I recall that I was with the boys but their mum was no longer there. She passed away in ’93. I liked all the songs on that album and I took in the movie as well. After that I took some interest in the albums that came before and the albums that would come after. But life was hard and demanding so I only noticed certain songs.

I soon discovered that some of the members were Christian and that made me glad. I liked them first and foremost because they were a great rock group. I hardly listen to rock groups that call themselves “Christian rock groups”. Often, I find their music shallow and their Christian propaganda agenda too in-your-face. I understand the need to be discerning but, heck, I want good rock music. (Interestingly, one of the songs piped on the sound system before the concert started was one of my favourites, Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” [1971].) I think a Christian artist’s first duty is to make good art, but who you really are, what you really believe, will ooze out in your art.

My favourite U2 number is “Bullet the Blue Sky” which is found on both the Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum albums, though I definitely prefer the live version in the latter. It is a fantastic rock song — the drums, the bass, Edge’s guitar and of course Bono’s singing. The song arose from Bono’s trip to El Salvador where he saw, first hand, the pain and death from a U.S.-sponsored war on communists. Bono says that he is no communist, but he was devastated by the suffering of the innocents. You can feel the fear and pain in lyrics like:

From the firefly
A red orange glow
See the face of fear
Runnin’ scared in the valley below

This is art. This is a great rock song but it is also a punch in the solar plexus about the horrors of war.

One song that that they didn’t sing that night was “When Love Comes to Town”, from their Rattle and Hum album. The Christological lyrics in this song are crystal clear.

I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide

How gospel can you get? But U2 did this song with the late, great B.B. King and maybe it’s hard to do this song without King’s voice and guitar.

Another U2 favourite that they sang on Saturday night was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” from their Joshua Tree album. That evening Bono dedicated the song to those who had lost their faith and I think he also dedicated it to those of all faiths. I couldn’t hear very clearly because of the lousy acoustics. Often touted as a gospel song, the song is much more nuanced and honest. It speaks of the human quest for transcendence, how some discover some measure of that connection in life, but that somehow nothing this side of heaven really fully satisfies.

I believe in the Kingdom come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
But yes, I’m still running

You broke the bonds
and you loosened chains
carried the cross of my shame, of my shame
You know I believe it

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for

This is a song that is honest — even if we find God this side of heaven, it will never be a complete experience. But there is hope. You still haven’t found — you will find it one day, when Jesus returns to usher in the Kingdom. That’s just plain honesty and we owe that to people to tell them the truth. I know of so many followers of Jesus who are disillusioned because of the hype that they received from churches, yet life just didn’t turn out hunky dory.

I was told that Bono sometimes begins their concerts by reading part of Psalm 116 from Eugene Peterson’s The Message. I can think of no better way to end this piece:

What can I give back to God
for the blessings he’s poured out on me?
I’ll lift high the cup of salvation—a toast to God!
I’ll pray in the name of God;
I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do,
and I’ll do it together with his people.

Rock on, U2, rock on.