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Spring 2019 · Vol. 48 No. 1 · pp. 78–80 

Book Review

U2: Rock ’n’ Roll to Change the World

Timothy D. Neufeld. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. 193 pages.

Reviewed by David Warkentin

For nearly forty years U2 has been producing not just music but culture, influencing millions of people to engage music, life, and society in significant ways. In U2: Rock ’n’ Roll to Change the World, {79} Tim Neufeld skillfully traces U2’s cultural influence through the past four decades. Neufeld’s work as a religious studies professor (Fresno Pacific University), which includes teaching, research, and writing in the area of religion and culture, results in an engaging project that attends to the complex relationships between popular culture, religion, and social change.

Christians, including Mennonite Brethren, haven’t always known how to engage popular culture. Outright rejection of certain dimensions of culture in the past is often countered by uncritical embrace in the present. Christians can remain unaware how they are shaped by culture at the same time as they reflect that culture. U2’s case shows this dynamic to be true, and thus provides the focus of Neufeld’s book, which is “to demonstrate that U2 provides a unique case study for understanding how popular musicians both have the opportunity to influence culture and are themselves conversely shaped by the culture they inhabit, revealing a dynamic and vibrant, ever-changing interplay of artistic expression and social engagement” (xxxix).

The book outlines the narrative of U2’s career, both in terms of their musical achievements and cultural influence. The reader is invited into the life of the band from their upbringing in the turbulence of 1970’s Ireland as a group of energetic young idealists, to the realities of rock ’n’ roll fame and life-changing encounters with global poverty, economics, and politics. Commenting on this window in the life of U2, Neufeld opens his account by suggesting that the “give and take with culture is part of a creative process that has characterized U2’s work for four decades, and it is why so many fans across the planet are intrigued—and even compelled—to listen and learn from U2” (1).

Neufeld develops this intrigue by outlining important moments and themes in U2’s career and social influence. The experiences of family tragedy for some of the band’s members growing up (ch. 1) and the significant influence of a religious commune as the band was gaining popularity (ch. 2) result in U2 representing a hopeful alternative to other cultural movements. Chapters 3 and 4 narrate U2’s rising fame and influence musically and socially as they explored the themes of individual and social identity through their albums, tours, and persistent advocacy for social engagement. The latter half of the book shows how U2 matured while continuing to push the boundaries musically and socially, resulting in a combination of failure with certain albums and tours to energizing success with social influence and a new musical direction. Representative of a kind of “new activism” (153) that combines the best of capitalism and popular culture with that of social activism and poverty relief, Neufeld collects stories and examples of how U2 has been and continues to be a cultural leader, engaging issues ranging from global conflict, poverty in Africa, and the role of religion and art. Where fans of popular culture are {80} prone to put their idols on a pedestal—U2 included—Neufeld concludes where he began, suggesting that amidst all their success and influence, U2 remain intricately connected to the world around them, shaping and being shaped by culture: “The members of U2—four dreamers who continue be transformed by the world they set out to conquer—have shown us again and again that they, too, are more malleable than we might think” (176).

Neufeld’s accessible writing and concise narratives make this a book that will appeal to both U2 fans and the more casual cultural observer. He writes not just as a fan but as a cultural critic, allowing the work to present a picture of U2 that, while certainly favorable, is not naïve. Although there are times a more in-depth critical examination of U2’s social influence would be welcome—the commercialization of poverty relief, for example—Neufeld doesn’t ignore these issues (see 171-74). Where other books on U2 are prone to focus on single topics, such as their musical catalogue or religious/spiritual leanings, Neufeld’s book is integrative, providing a window into the complex history of the band’s very ethos and identity. While not learning all the details about U2 here, the reader will learn to know U2 and the world. To anyone interested in the intersection of popular culture, religion, and social change, this integrative approach is the book’s strongest point.

Through the ebb and flow of tracing U2’s career, the purpose of Neufeld’s account remains clear: to outline U2’s desire to change the world. While written not only with a Christian audience in mind, Christian readers will find the commentary of religion in U2’s history and the specific chapter dedicated to art and faith to be a helpful guide towards what Neufeld describes as an embodied art, inspired by faith and “integrated into daily living” (151).

Overall, Neufeld offers an important contribution to the body of U2 scholarship as well as an excellent example of how studying religion and popular culture is beneficial to thoughtful cultural engagement. Avoiding the common extremes of Christian cultural engagement, Neufeld models curiosity and appreciation along with discerning examination, leading the reader to realize that, like U2, we are all participants in culture, shaped by and shaping the world around us.

David Warkentin
Director of Columbia One and General Studies
Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, BC

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