No poet—and Bono, the 43- year-old lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, considers himself a poet— enjoys having his verse scrutinised. And no musician likes to have to explain what a song means. Nevertheless, for more than 20 years Bono’s fans have been attempting to gauge his spiritual well-being by what he sings, what he says in interviews, talk shows, and awards programmes, and what he does or doesn’t do in public.
For many Christians of a certain generation, combing through the lyrics of U2 songs (nearly all of them written by Bono) in search of biblical images or references to Jesus Christ and his teachings is almost a sport. Consider it a cross between exegesis and Where’s Wally?
He doesn’t attend church regularly. He prays frequently. He likes to say grace before meals. He tries to have a “Sabbath hour” as often as he can. His favourite Bible is Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message. He hangs out with Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones, but on a recent visit to Nashville he spent the morning palling around with Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant.
Bono knows the subject of his personal faith is of great interest to others, although he’s certain that interest is misplaced. The inquiries don’t seem to bother him—Bono seems comfortable with who he is. He just celebrated his 20th wedding anniversary with his high-school sweetheart, Alison Stewart (left), his band had one of its most successful years artistically and professionally, and he has found his calling, on and off stage. Rarely has Bono talked explicitly about his faith and beliefs. But as he has began to recruit American churches last year in the fight against AIDS in Africa, that seems to be changing.
‘Hi, I’m Bono’
Born Paul David Hewson in Dublin, Ireland, to a Roman Catholic father, Bob Hewson (who died of cancer in August 2001), and a Protestant mother, Iris Rankin Hewson (who died when Bono was 14), he has long carved his own path to Christ irrespective of institutional religion.
Bono, a moniker given him 30 years ago by his long-time friends and taken from the name of a hearing-aid store in North Dublin, has always straddled Protestantism and Catholicism looking for a “third way.”
He attended Mount Temple High School, Ireland’s first nondenominational coeducational school, which was designed to educate Protestant and Catholic children together in Ireland’s troubled sectarian society.
After his mother died unexpectedly, Bono, David Evans (who is now known as U2’s guitarist The Edge) and Larry Mullen Jr. (U2’s drummer) were all involved in Shalom, a loose evangelical group that met for song, worship, and Bible study. But when Shalom evolved into something more structured, more akin to the institutional religion he finds uncomfortable, Bono, and the others, left.
“I just go where the life is, you know? Where I feel the Holy Spirit,” said Bono. “If it’s in the back of a Roman Catholic cathedral, in the quietness and the incense, which suggest the mystery of God, of God’s presence, or in the bright lights of the revival tent, I just go where I find life. I don’t see denomination. I generally think religion gets in the way of God.
“I am just trying to figure it out. Everybody wants to make an impact with their life, whether it’s small scale with friends or family—that’s really big, is the truth—or whether it’s on a grand scale, in changing their communities and beyond. I just want to realise my potential.” He recalled one pastor’s recent advice: Stop asking God to bless what you’re doing. Find out what God’s doing. It’s already blessed. “That’s what I want,” Bono said. “I want to align my life with that.”
Bono’s spirituality is more than just a reflection of anti-sectarianism, said Steve Stockman, a chaplain at Queens University in Belfast, and author ofWalk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 (Relevant, 2001). “At the time Bono was involved with Shalom, something unique was happening in Dublin,” he explains. “There was a movement of the Holy Spirit that you simply cannot deny. In some ways I think it was the Jesus Movement hit Dublin eight years late. That radical, almost hippie attitude at some level, that this is a radical thing to live in the Spirit . . . It gave Dublin something that was vibrant and exciting and trendy, almost. Bono and [Alison] were certainly caught up in the middle of that. They’ve never been able to get over that, no matter how their faith has changed. The roots of what they’re doing now are in whatever the Spirit was doing back then.”
When expressed in private, one-on-one conversations, Bono’s faith in Christ is anything but trendy.
“The idea that there’s a force of love and logic behind the universe is overwhelming to start with, if you believe it. Actually, maybe even far-fetched to start with,” Bono said. “But the idea that that same love and logic would choose to describe itself as a baby born in s*** and straw and poverty is genius, and brings me to my knees, literally. To me, as a poet, I am just in awe of that. It makes some sort of poetic sense. It’s the thing that makes me a believer, though it didn’t dawn on me for many years.”
And though he tends to distrust religion, he appealed to religious institutions during his recent weeklong speaking tour of the American Midwest with his humanitarian organization, Debt, AIDS, and Trade in Africa (DATA). At Wheaton College – a famous conservative evangelical college whose graduates include Billy Graham - students couldn’t help trying to read between the lines of his challenges to intervene on behalf of Africans devastated by AIDS.
“I had students afterward ask me, ‘Do you think he’s a Christian?’ “ said Ashley Woodiwiss, a political science professor at Wheaton who helped organise Bono’s appearance at the college.
“I just said, these times of prayer that I took part in and observed, these were off-stage. This was the man, not the performer at all. To see that vitality, and yet, he’s not going to be captured by anybody. He’s not going to be ‘Our Saint.’ He’s not going to be an evangelical for us.”
‘God is on his knees’
A few weeks before Christmas, the singer also met with Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, during the Chicago stop on his Heart of America tour.
“After a two-hour private meeting in my office, I came away convinced that Bono’s faith is genuine,” insisted Hybels. “His vision to relieve the tragic suffering in Africa is God-honouring, and his prophetic challenge to the U.S. church must be taken seriously.”
“This is the defining moral issue of our time,” Bono repeatedly told church congregations during the tour, which was designed to raise people’s awareness of the one-two punch of AIDS and profound poverty that is claiming the lives of 6,500 Africans every day.
“This generation will be remembered for three things: the Internet, the war on terror, and how we let an entire continent go up in flames while we stood around with watering cans. Or not,” he would say, sometimes pounding his fist for emphasis. “Let me share with you a conviction. God is on his knees to the church on this one. God Almighty is on his knees to us, begging us to turn around the super tanker of indifference on the subject of AIDS.
“This is a defining moment for us: For the church; for our values; for the culture that we live in.”
Is Bono a modern-day prophet? He’d be the first to say no. He’s a rock star and makes no bones about it.
“There’s nothing worse than a rock star with a cause,” he said, as actors Ashley Judd and Chris Tucker, fellow speakers on the Heart of America Tour, stood by. “But celebrity is currency and we want to spend it this way. . . . It’s preposterous and absurd that you have to listen to it from us. But that’s how the news media works.”
Bono is similarly self-effacing about his faith. He doesn’t even like to call himself a Christian, although it is apparent to anyone who has spent any time with him that his faith is rooted in the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ.
“I’m a believer,” Bono usually says when asked about his faith. “I don’t set myself up as any kind of ‘Christian’”, he said as his gleaming silver and chrome tour bus motored east from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Iowa City. “I can’t live up to that. It’s something I aspire to, but I don’t feel comfortable with that badge.”
It’s no denial of Christ. And Bono is not trying to play hide-and-seek with his Christianity. He wants to avoid becoming an idealised poster-child for Christ when people should be looking to the Saviour, not some rock star, for their example.
A few days later at Northeast Christian Church in suburban Louisville, Kentucky, he told reporters: “I’m not a very good advertisement for God. I generally don’t wear that badge on my lapel. But it certainly is written on the inside, somewhere.”
It’s a self-deprecation, something he’s fond of indulging in, whether the subject is his faith or his success as a musician.
Self-deprecation is a national trait in Ireland, the singer told Oprah Winfrey on her TV talk show last autumn. “In Ireland, people have an interesting attitude toward success; they look down on it,” he said. “In America, you look at the mansion on the hill and think, ‘One day that will be me.’”
Still, critics have said Bono is somehow ashamed of his faith; otherwise he would make it clear in plain language that anyone could understand. The singer, they say, is hiding his light under a bushel.
“I think for evangelical Christians, there’s a problem when Bono says that kind of thing,” Stockman says. “I think you have to go back to [U2’s song] ‘I
Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.’ . . . He’s almost denying what he believes himself, because if [he believes] in grace, then wearing the badge is not a pride thing.”
But, Stockman adds, Bono’s reluctance to be labelled a Christian, or at least a Christian artist, probably has more to do with a lack of faith in journalists than in Jesus Christ.
“I call it the Messianic secret,” Stockman said. “He’s still not wanting to say too much in case he’s misrepresented. Somewhere in the ‘80s he got a belly full of misrepresentation and thought, ‘All right, let’s disguise it a bit.’ “ The band seemed to try to shed its image as rock music’s conscience.
“Even though they tried to go light, they can’t go light because he’s always asking cosmic questions, and that’s because of his faith.”
Speaking to reporters at Wheaton College, the evangelical Mecca outside Chicago, he was asked why evangelicals are reluctant to engage the AIDS issue.
“Somewhere in the back of the religious mind,” he said, “was this idea [that people with AIDS] reaped what they sowed—missing the entire New Testament, the New Covenant, and the concept of grace. Evangelicals in a poll, only 6 percent thought they should be doing something about the AIDS emergency. . . . I’m sure that made you, as it made me, wince.”
Still, Bono believes addressing AIDS is at the core of the church’s purpose and at the core of how outsiders see the church.
“I think our whole idea of who we are is at stake. I think Judeo-Christian culture is at stake,” he said. “If the church doesn’t respond to this, the church will be made irrelevant. It will look like the way you heard stories about people watching Jews being put on the trains. We will be that generation that watched our African brothers and sisters being put on trains.”
Privately, Bono’s critique of the church, in which he includes himself, is even more caustic. “It’s absolutely clear what’s on God’s mind. You just have to read Scripture.”
Those who read Scripture and don’t come away with God’s preferential concern for the poor are “just blind,” he said, noting that 2,103 verses of Scripture are about the poor.
“People have been perverting the Gospels and the Holy Scriptures since they were first written—mostly the church. This AIDS emergency actually is just such a valuable example of everything that’s wrong and perverted about Christianity today,” insists Bono.
“There should be civil disobedience on this. You read about the apostles being persecuted because they were out there taking on the powers that be.
Jesus said, ‘I came to bring a sword.’ In fact, it’s a load of sissies running around with their ‘bless me’ clubs. And there’s a war going on between good and evil. And millions of children and millions of lives are being lost to greed, to bureaucracy, and to a church that’s been asleep. And it sends me out of my mind with anger.
“This is what’s important and why I would be doing this interview… to implore the church to reconsider grace, to put an end to this hierarchy of sin. . . . All have fallen short. Let’s stop throwing stones at people who’ve made mistakes in their life, and let’s start throwing drugs.”
There is little hope for most HIV-infected Africans, Bono told crowds on the Heart of America tour, because they cannot afford the $1 a day for medications that are readily available in the U. S. and Europe.
“People are dying for the stupidest of reasons: money,” he said.
Bono’s latest comments—even his talking to Christian media—will surely be scrutinised by many fans seemingly obsessed with the “is he or isn’t he” question. But why?
“There are two camps: Those who are dying to call him their own . . . [and] those who are dying to bring him down and prove that he’s not,” Stockman said. He thinks it’s a tragedy. “We want to be very black and white about who’s in and who’s out. We want to demonise those who are out.”
Perhaps the kind of Christianity that Bono represents is threatening, Stockman posits.
“If Bono is one of us, then we have to take on the challenge of what he’s saying. But if we can ostracise him and say he’s not one of us, we don’t have to think about the marginalisation, we don’t have to think about postmodernity, we don’t have to think about the challenges he’s laid before the church. If this guy is right, then I have to sort out my life,” Stockman said. “I think Bono is very culturally aware of who he’s trying to reach. I don’t think he’s saying these things to make the evangelical church realise he’s a Christian,” he said. “He’s willing to sacrifice the understanding of evangelical Christians in order to take God into a broader context. Can you tell me a role model that’s bringing God into culture better?”
Michael W. Smith, a Bono-level celebrity within contemporary Christian music, met with the Irish rocker in Nashville in December.
“Obviously, something has happened to him,” he said. “If you really look back at the early days of U2, I hate putting labels on things, but they really were a Christian band. I think he got really frustrated with the church and became really bitter. I think he’s probably sorry for the way he reacted, to a certain degree.”
“I really can’t judge him for what he does. Everyone’s got to work out their own salvation,” Smith said. “I think that he has got a bit of a new lease on life. Maybe he’s found another place in this world and what he’s supposed to do in life. He’s been preaching this for a long time, but to know that we might actually be able to pull this thing off [saving Africa from destruction]—I think [this] does wonders for his soul and for his heart. I think he would probably love to have that as his legacy, rather than being one of the biggest rock stars of all time.”
Abridged with permission from an article that first appeared in Christianity Today magazine (USA). Copyright c 2003 Christianity Today. To read the full article go to: www.christianitytoday.com/ct/ 2003/003/2.38