By Steve Beard
His father called him Paul, the White House affectionately calls him The Pest, and the rest of the civilized world simply refers to him as Bono. He is as well known to presidents and prime ministers for his dogged political lobbying as he is to music fans as the lead singer of the Irish rock band, U2. In 2000, the cover of Newsweek asked, “Can Bono Save the Third World?” Two years later, the cover of Time upped the ante by asking, “Can Bono Save the World?” How is that for heightened expectations for a man who once sang “I don’t believe that rock ‘n’ roll can really change the world”?
The band he leads has sold more than 100 million albums around the globe since the release of Boy in 1980. In late November, U2 sold more than 840,000 copies of How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb during its first week of release—the band’s largest debut ever.
They collect Grammys (14 in all) as if they were baseball trading cards—the recognition spanning from Album of the Year with The Joshua Tree in 1987 to Record of the Year in 2001 for “Walk On.” There are several bands whose longevity spans 25 years; U2 is the only one, however, that still matters in a culturally innovative sense.
Bono is rock ‘n’ roll’s most effective and enigmatic spiritual provocateur. He sees every stage as a pulpit and every coliseum as a cathedral. Who else talks to rock journalists about the theological superiority of grace over karma, writes the forward to a specially-packaged book of Psalms, convinces Sen. Jesse Helms to help African AIDS victims, and uses his time on national television to pray the Scriptures?
He makes pitches for the Bible, gets nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and then makes news for getting pardoned by the FCC for using the F-word on television. He is a walking contradiction. Some Christians dismiss him because he drinks, smokes, and swears. Other believers scour U2’s lyrics looking for the double entendres like code-breakers in World War II movies. Is he talking about the Second Coming of Christ or a nuclear holocaust? Is he referring to a lover or the Holy Spirit? Is Grace a girl or a theological concept?
British poet and music biographer Steve Turner observes, “More than any other act in the history of rock, they [U2] have forced God, Jesus, the Bible and a Christian worldview on to the agenda. Rock critics could ignore the Jesus rock of the 1970s (and they did!), but they couldn’t ignore U2; they had to voice an opinion about the values [U2] stood for.”
While America was still reeling from the September 11 terrorist attacks, U2—an Irish band—was asked to perform at the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show in New Orleans. As the names of the victims were displayed over a huge backdrop, Bono began to pray Psalm 51:15: “O Lord, open my lips, so my mouth shows forth thy praise. O Lord, open my lips, so my mouth shows forth thy praise.” U2 then launched into a stunning version of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” In the firepower of the moment, Bono pulled open his jacket to display the Stars ‘n’ Stripes sewn into the lining. You could almost hear the collective national gasp before the cheers crescendoed into madness. He is 100 percent Irish, but he lives the life of a resident alien that knows no borders.
Whereas John Lennon invited us to imagine a world without a heaven, Bono inverted the plea to ask us to imagine heaven in a closer proximity. “I don’t expect this pie in the sky when you die stuff,” he once remarked. “My favorite line in the Lord’s Prayer is ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10). I want it all, and I want it now. Heaven on earth—let’s have a bit of that.”
He belligerently pursues that desire through his activism. While most of the world is tired of being berated and tutored about social issues by spoiled and over-paid rock stars, we still give an audience to Bono whose heart bleeds with the best of them. Pope John Paul II wanted to wear his sunglasses when they met. Arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms cried when he heard Bono describe the plight of hungry children in Africa. Bono has done more singlehandedly to relieve Third-world debt than all the Armani-clad finance ministers that could be packed into a United Nations conference room. He has a mysterious charisma, an unpretentious grace that affords him the ability to be the only one wearing sunglasses indoors without coming off as a megalomaniac.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to ask him how his Christian faith inspired his activism. He said, “Well, you know, I am not a very good advertisement for God. So, I generally don’t wear that badge on my lapel. But it is certainly written on the inside—I am a believer. There are 2,103 verses of Scripture pertaining to the poor; Jesus Christ only speaks of judgment once. It is not all about the things that the church bangs on about. It is not about sexual immorality, and it is not about megalomania, or vanity,” he said jokingly as he ran his fingers through his hair.
Bono is a tippy-toe talker, holding on to the side of the lectern, leaning in—engaged. You can see the Irish dander and passion brew even when he tries to be sedate. “It is about the poor; ‘I was naked and you clothed me. I was a stranger and you let me in.’” he said. “This is at the heart of the gospel. Why is it that we have seemed to have forgotten this? Why isn’t the Church leading this movement? The Church ought to be ready to do that.” He’s right.
Bono is the product of a Protestant mother and a Catholic father in a fiercely sectarian Ireland. His homeland is divided with political barbwire and religious quagmires. He says that he grew up seeing “religion as the perversion of faith.” Bono often says he does not feel comfortable in churches, but I think that is more of a throw-away line than heartfelt. As he has become more outspoken on the issue of AIDS in Africa, he has been forced to spend more time with religious activists. He has said that he had to swallow his own prejudice because he tended to tar all traditional Christians with the same brush. Bono discovered that was a mistake. Some of his most enthusiastic audiences are young evangelicals and Catholics who have a heart for the justice and love rock ‘n’ roll.
I became a believer about the same time I started listening to U2 albums such as Boy, October, and War. Their music was an encouragement to me as I tried to figure out how to integrate faith into the rest of life. They were outspoken, non-apologetic about their beliefs, and did it with grit and bang. The music was more sophisticated than a simplistic mish-mash of yummy lyrics about skipping with Jesus through fields of daises. The songs often had a hefty and poetic theological substance that I think would startle St. Paul and would bring a smile to the Psalmist.
During an anti-apartheid sermonette on the 1988 Rattle and Hum, Bono asks, “Am I bugging you? I don’t mean to bug you.” Somehow you knew that was not exactly sincere. For more than twenty-five years, Bono has used his global stage to pester and prod us — lyrically, politically, and spiritually. It is, of course, this last element of sin, redemption, grace, betrayal, angels, demons, guilt, and forgiveness that is most intriguing — especially coming from a rock star.
Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck.Org—a website devoted to faith and culture. This article appeared in Good News in 2005.