For most Americans, U2's performance, featuring lead-singer Bono's stroll through an on-field crowd to a heart-shaped stage, and his display of Sept. 11 solidarity when he flashed an American flag stitched inside his black leather jacket, was just another tribute to the American victims of terrorism.
But many Gen-Y Christians look to U2 as the standard-bearers of a passionate, think-outside-the-church faith. To them, Sunday's performance was perhaps U2's plainest confirmation yet that they accept the charge. "This is the first tribute I've seen that has brought in the [victims'] souls and heaven. It gave a whole new context to that event," says Cameron Strang, publisher of a soon-to-be launched Christian magazine, Relevant. "It's going to be a moment that our generation shared."
U2's religious connections have been subjected to a kind of rolling reality check, administered by Christian fans and mainstream press alike, since their spiritually preoccupied second album, "October." With the release of their 1987 album, "The Joshua Tree," in the United States, however, Christians adopted them unconditionally as heroes. That album's radio hit, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," a seeming plea for redemption, became a Christian anthem. "You loosed the chains," Bono sang, "Carried the cross, and my shame. You know I believe it." Another track, "Where the Streets Have No Name," was cited as a reference to heaven.
Even Christians have objected that no one sold on Jesus could say he hasn't found what he's looking for. Other critics have come up with competing interpretations for "Where the Streets Have No Name": couldn't Bono be imagining a world undivided by hatred based on racial and ethnic labels-a Belfast without a Shankill Road?
Sunday's performance of that song, though, seemed to favor an explicitly Christian reading. Reprising a segment from their recent arena show, the band played a song from their latest album, then launched into "Where the Streets Have No Name." As the crowd roared in recognition, a screen behind the stage rose and scrolled the names of those who died on Sept. 11. "I thought it had never been connected more closely" as an image of heaven, says Strang.
What's more, Strang says he and a friend slowed down a videotape of the show to understand a phrase Bono muttered in the transition between songs. "He quoted Psalm 51:15," Strang says, "'O Lord open my lips and my mouth show forth thy praise.' Then he said, 'Yes, America.'"
Strang's frame-by-frame sleuthing has a certain "Paul is dead" vibe, but his antennae aren't the only ones quivering. Since U2 began touring in the fall, Christians have sensed a new Christian surge from the band. Some have reported feeling more inspired by the two hour concert than any church service in memory. "There's been a very noticeable return to a focus on spiritual things, or more accurately 'Christian' things," says Wendy Lee Nentwig, a former editor at CCM magazine, the Rolling Stone of Christian rock. "My take is, Bono is settling into his faith, feeling like he has less to prove, getting tired of playing characters on stage and more content to be himself."
Doubtless, the NFL and its party planners had no intention of turning the halftime show into a religious blowback to those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. (If anyone took offense at Bono's appearance, it was because the star had flown straight from New York, where he had lobbied against the evils of global capitalism at the World Economic Forum, to New Orleans, where he performed at global capitalism's high holiday.) Christian kids were likely too busy bouncing off the walls to think of the geopolitical implications, and Al-Qaeda probably didn't notice. But just in case: with baseball season coming up, is Muhammad Ali available to throw out the first ball?