"[I]n the early '80s . . . there was this rather ridiculous idea . . . that if it was big, it was bad. Which of course rules out Elvis."
Why I Would Follow Bono Into Hell...
...and why evangelicals should listen to him and join U2's worldwide evangelistic outreach
September 14, 2002
[@U2 note: This article is from the July/August 2002, issue of PRISM magazine. It's archived here with express permission of the author and publisher.]
"The only thing worse than a rock star is a rock star with a conscience," larks Bono, front man for the Irish rock band U2 during his commencement address at Harvard University last year. "Worse yet is a singer with a conscience: a placard-waving, knee-jerking, fellow-traveling activist with a Lexus and a swimming pool shaped like his head." Such is the self-deprecating posture of the world's most recognized rock star, a man of whom Newsweek asked the question, "Can Bono Save the Third World?" only to be recently outdone by Time which asked, "Can Bono Save the World?" Heady stuff for a personality that has emerged from an arena best known for narcissism and hedonism set to catchy lyrics and danceable tunes, the quintessence of perpetual adolescence.
But as much as Bono seems to enjoy poking fun at his outrageously inflated ego, something he has turned into a fine-tuned verbal sport, there is an underlying seriousness about this musical trickster. Bono is perhaps the finest contemporary example of what the Eastern Orthodox tradition would understand to be a holy fool -- someone whose entire inner being points to a transcendence beyond himself, even though the outer self is cloaked in outright folly, the embodiment of "foolish things to confound the wise." (Think of the 1970s musical Godspell, and the metaphor of Jesus painted up as a clown.)
Not only has Bono been the singer and main lyricist for one of the most successful and enduring rock 'n' roll acts of all time, but he has recently recast himself as an international activist, placing himself at the center of Irish peace negotiations, raising consciousness for AIDS awareness in Africa, and lobbying politicos around the world to forgive Third World debt. Bono is probably as close to an international spokesman as the evangelical movement could ever dream of having, a poster child for the successful marriage of social justice and biblical faith. He is an exemplary secular saint whose efforts within what some might call the literal hell of the music industry have captured the attention of both believers and unbelievers. If you've wrestled both angel and demon in your attempts to be a salty cultural influence rather than compromised bystander, who better than the U2 singer to look to for hints on how to be culturally relevant, socially concerned, and biblically faithful?
What's Going On?
For years, U2's open juggling of politics, musical verve, and spiritual activism has kept fans and critics both transfixed and perplexed, never quite sure of what's coming next but always thirsting for more of what is delivered. He may boast brashly about being the "best band in the world" and about "God walking through the room while we recorded this album," but the questions still loom: What is Bono really up to? Is U2 a "Christian band"? Where does faith fit into our secularized world?
Countless critics have dissected Bono and U2 over the years. In Race of Angels, Irish journalist John Waters suggests they are the apotheosis of Irish music, best viewed through the lens of nationalism. Bono's alignment to the Lypton Village crew, a motley collection of his boyhood friends who took their antiestablishment cues from the punk movement, is seen by some as planting a countercultural impulse at the core of the band. Many evangelicals consider U2 "God's favorite sons," believing their musical vision and worldview were shaped while three of the four members were involved at the Shalom community, a Pentecostal-tinged church group based in Dublin in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Truth be told, U2 is defined by none of these singularly, but perhaps all of them in composite. U2 belongs solely neither to the Irish nor to the realms of political/social activism. Neither is it truthful to call them a "Christian band." Instead, as their all-inclusive name suggests, U2 are citizens of the world, transcending easy definition and compelling listeners to delve into their complex and sometimes contradictory world. But not all the streams that converge into U2's ocean are of equal strength. While early musical influences and Irish nationalism offer some insight into what they are doing, I believe their holistic vision of Christianity, most publicly and passionately modeled by Bono, is the key to unlocking what they're all about.
Finding God at a Rock Concert
The gathering crowd emits an excited buzz as they fill the seats of the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, CA. Music-hungry pilgrims arrive in to witness a rock concert, the quintessential religious experience of the young since Woodstock. Four nondescript characters emerge from behind a curtain and slowly ascend the steps of the stage, like musical roadies on a fix-it mission. With the house lights on, they gird themselves with their instruments and begin the night's musical assault. The Irish Fab Four launch into the song "Elevation," aptly bringing the audience to their feet. Gone are the giant video screens from the Zoo TV stadium extravaganza, the giant lemon of the anti-commercialism PopMart tour and the staccato-like video assault on the senses designed to shock audiences into recognizing the fragmentation of the culture that envelopes them. This most recent reincarnation of U2 is shrouded in sonic humility, a more roots-oriented rock sound with much less rhythmic experimentation. Even the message is straightforward, less clouded in metaphor and allegory than previous efforts. In line with friend (German filmmaker) Wim Wenders' pronouncement of "the end of irony," Bono claims that the Elevation tour is "more about God than Elvis."
For the next two hours, U2 pounds through the frenetic paces of the typical rock concert ritual, replete with verbal braggadocio, loud throbbing music, and visual stimulation. Although the scantily-clad teenage girls sitting to my left and the bong-smoking 20-something male two rows ahead might not know, there is something strangely spiritual about this night, especially for those who have ears to hear. For one, the audience is transformed into a choir, a vocal throng of 25,000 belting out the words to the songs. Furthermore, Bono prays over the audience, echoing the words of Psalm 116: What can I give back to God for the blessings that he has 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'll do. And I'll do it together with his people. At the end of the song "Walk On," Bono interjects "Hallelujah" and "Unto the Almighty" and issues a sincere "God bless you" as the band leaves the stage. I leave the stadium feeling that we have somehow been transformed from an audience into a congregation and that Bono has been leading us in an evening of worship.
Music to Change the World
U2 maintains that music's potential is unlike that of any other medium. Not only can it move listeners from complacency to compassion, but it also has the power to change the world if enough souls are stirred. Gleaning insights from the lives of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and John Lennon, the band has channeled the naïve idealism of Live Aid into a viable cultural vision intent on tackling the bigger issues head-on. "I owe more than my spoiled lifestyle to rock music. I owe my worldview," says the singer, also during his Harvard speech. "Music was like an alarm clock for me as a teenager and still keeps me from falling asleep in the comfort of my freedom." From the moment they broke into the music industry, U2 has consistently incarnated the truth that it is better to give than to receive -- yes, even in the inherently selfish rock 'n' roll world. And it is to evangelicals that their most poignant lesson should be directed. Unlike any other music band since the inception of Jesus music-cum-CCM, U2's catalog has brought the gospel message into the mainstream culture without compromising message or ethics. With over 20 years on the music scene, U2 commands the respect of their peers. Showered with awards and kudos, nobody even blinks when Bono offers a psalmic prayer over his audience or breaks into a chorus of hallelujahs.
To get to this stage, U2 has made a long, arduous and well-planned trek, astutely avoiding the cultural ghetto of Christian music. (Can you imagine what would have been lost had U2 been signed to Word Records?) Though every CCM band has their eye on U2 as the cutting edge of what spiritually-infused music might become, they find themselves in a cultural Catch-22, desiring cultural acceptance and viability and yet stuck preaching to a choir of the already evangelized.
Although taking some unexpected twists along the way, U2's journey was entirely intentional. As recounted in Bill Flanagan's U2: At the End of the World, the yen to use music to promote redemption was mapped out from the start. In a letter to his father, an 18-year-old Bono cloaks his words with missionary zeal: "I hope our lives will be a testament to the people who follow us, and to the music business where never before have so many lost and sorrowful people gathered in one place pretending they're having a good time. It is our ambition to make more than good music." By all accounts, they seem to have succeeded.
It would be difficult to miss the spiritual themes strewn throughout U2's entire catalog of albums. The wide-eyed innocence and coming-of-age themes in Boy gave way to the contemporary praise & worship exuberance of October ("Oh Lord, if I had anything at all, I'd give it to you"). War saw their idealism tempered with anger and spiritual bravado in the face of pain and suffering ("How long must we sing this song?"), while The Unforgettable Fire beckoned listeners to connect the dots between Christ's betrayal and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the unfortunate legacy of prophets whether ancient or contemporary.
With The Joshua Tree, U2 reached a new level of commercial and critical acclaim without sacrificing poignant content. Their most mature album up to that point, it compelled listeners to look closely at the tightrope between the sacred and profane, fidelity and immorality, love and hate, saint and sinner, provoking us to introspection and to ask the question, "angel or devil?" Achtung Baby was cloaked in the mystique of Ecclesiastes, the pseudo-rebellion of the man throwing off the facade of spiritual sycophantism shaking an angry fist toward heaven ("The men who love you, you hate the most. They pass right through you like a ghost") only to slump back into submission after realizing there is no place else to go ("I reached out for the one I tried to destroy"). And while Zooropa and Pop were a little more thematically scattered, U2's most recent project, All That You Can't Leave Behind, features songs such as "Walk On" and "New York" that have taken on prophetic significance in the aftermath of 9/11. The song "Grace" that finishes the album would not be out of place as Psalm 151 ("What left a mark, no longer stings. Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things"). What should be of great interest to aspiring filmmakers, poets, writers, musicians, and other artists who find their spiritual worldview most attuned to evangelical sensibilities is that U2's cultural offerings have been made without embarrassing the Christian church. Encountering the risen Lord has not made the band into musical evangelists peddling propaganda under the subterfuge of rock music, nor has it made them speak the "Christianese" that is so indecipherable to all but church insiders. In a review of October for Ireland's Hot Press, Neil McCormack wrote, "It's a Christian LP that avoids the pedantic Puritanism associated with most Christian rock, avoids the old-world, emotional fascism of organized religion and the crusading preaching of someone like born-again Bob Dylan." Christian faith, then, has made U2 more human, more vulnerable to the plight of others around them. And it is in the arena of social justice that Bono has most recently emerged to make a profound contribution.
Scream Without Raising Your Voice
Bono's social consciousness was raised in the aftermath of Live Aid in 1985, the site of one of U2's most poignant musical triumphs. Personally, however, the concert was a crisis point for the young singer as he struggled to figure out how the life of a rock star preening on stage could possibly be justified in light of what he knew to be true. "This whole thing of whether I wanted to be in a band or not came back to me," recounts Bono in U2: A Conspiracy of Hope by Dave Bowler and Bryan Dray. "At Live Aid the whole question of Africa and the idea that millions were dying of starvation brought back the stupidity of the world of rock 'n' roll." The music industry has long since been the backdrop for high-minded idealists painting lyrical visions of a utopian future that does little to camouflage extreme political and social naiveté (not to mention the glaring fact that many performers can barely take care of themselves, let alone anyone else). So when Irish rocker Bob Geldof announced he planned to conduct a worldwide televised rock 'n' roll telethon to raise money for Ethiopian famine relief, you could almost hear the groan from politicos and other activist insiders who had long since tired of celebrities with their cause du jour. While it's difficult to tell whether the money raised at Live Aid had any long-term effects on Ethiopians, the questions raised by Geldof and company had a profound impact upon Bono.
"I started to ask myself some real fundamental questions about the way I was living in the First World as opposed to the Third World," admitted the singer after taking quiet, media-free trip to Ethiopia with his wife and spending some time working at an orphanage. "I came back [as] this big fat spoilt child of the West and I started to get confused, seeing our cities as wastelands. Even though we aren't physically impoverished I started to see that we're spiritually impoverished." Fostered by Bono's obsession with the pacific social activism of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the band began to lend their support to humanitarian efforts such as Band-Aid, Amnesty International, Artists Against Apartheid, and Greenpeace. Bono has long lobbed contemptuous grenades at organized religion, especially in his critiques of American televangelism ("preachers on the Old Time Gospel Hour stealing money from the sick and the poor") and Christianity shorn of any social component ("Please, please, please, get up off your knees"). "To me," says the singer, "faith in Jesus Christ that is not aligned with social justice, that is not aligned with the poor -- it's nothing." Writing in his preamble to the Book of Psalms, Bono writes, "I stopped going to churches and got into a different kind of religion. Don't laugh. That's what being in a rock 'n' roll band is." After Live Aid the band began a slow journey into activism: bringing grieving Chilean mothers on stage and demanding that the government give answers to the whereabouts of their missing children, protesting against a nuclear waste dump in England, calling George Bush from stage every night during the Zoo TV tour, and even playing a concert in Sarajevo at the pinnacle of the war. But all this looks like fumbling around in the dark compared to what Bono has involved himself in over the last few years. After learning that the $200 million raised by Live Aid was less than what African nations owed in debt payments in a week, Bono threw his support and celebrity into the Jubilee 2000 campaign, asking First World nations to forgive the debts of Third World nations based on the Old Testament command. "It's hard to make debt cancellation for the Third World sound sexy," quips Bono in an interview with television host Charlie Rose, "because statistics just don't rhyme." Although the Pope had in the mid-1980s called for the idea of Jubilee to be in effect by the beginning of the new millennium, it was Bono's involvement that sparked interest in what has now become known as the Drop the Debt campaign.
The other prong in Bono's present social agenda is the HIV-AIDS epidemic currently raging throughout Africa. Statistics suggest that more than 25 million Africans are HIV-positive, with projections that by decade's end the disease will orphan over 40 million youngsters. Along with Bill and Melinda Gates, who created a $24-billion-dollar fund to bridge the healthcare gap between First and Third World nations, Bono has been at the forefront of the DATA Agenda for African healthcare. DATA (Debt, AIDS and Trade for Africa) has set forth an agenda calling for both private philanthropy and government intervention to combat the problem. In a report filed with CNN.com, Bono is cited offering the analogy of the United States' investment in Europe in the aftermath of World War II: "At the moment Africa is in the same kind of vulnerable position that Europe was...And I think it would be very smart for the West to invest in preventing the fires rather than putting them out, which is a lot more expensive." Storming the Gates
The English missionary C.T. Studd once wrote, "Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell." The more I think those lines, the more I believe that the stakes have changed, and that a yard outside the gates of hell is not good enough anymore. If we are to be faithful representatives of Jesus Christ in this age we are going to have to get our hands dirty and, as has Bono, enter hell itself to "snatch others from the fire" (Jude 23).
With all the hand-wringing that evangelical leaders and theologians are doing, fretting aloud about the future of the church, maybe it's time we nominate Bono our new temporal high priest to lead us beyond the internecine theological warfare, premillennial dispensation navel-gazing, and impoverished cultural hermeneutic into the promised land where belief and action are wed into a culturally viable and socially relevant package.
I believe in Bono because he offers me a living exemplar to diffuse the stereotypes that non-Christians inevitably hold of Christians (by simply dropping his name I can minimize the damage done by televangelist scandals or Harry Potter book burnings). I believe in Bono because he has shown me that the gospel can weave itself into the fabric of my daily life without making me act and speak like a Martian. I believe in Bono because he is first off the mark to poke fun at himself and laughs the loudest at his own mistakes. I believe in Bono because he has set up an effective mission outreach in the center of hell for the last twenty years. But ultimately, I believe in Bono because he says he believes in me and my ability to do the same, to leave this world in a better condition than when I first arrived. Follow Bono into hell? For those that have ears to hear, what other choice do we have?
David Di Sabatino is the editor of Worship Leader. He can be reached at email@example.com.
© PRISM magazine, 2002. All rights reserved.