Boise, ID. Bono, the frontman for the Irish rock band U2, has been a favorite enigma for me and countless other Christians of the Gen X vintage. Over the decades, he has somehow maintained that most fickle of celebrity commodities—cultural relevance. On St. Patrick’s Day, Songs of Surrender debuted and added the 2020s to the 2010s, 2000s, 1990s, and 1980s as decades with a U2 album in the top 10. Speaking of top 10 lists, March 17 also saw the premiere of the streaming documentary Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, with Dave Letterman. In February Bono was a highlighted guest at the State of the Union Address and upcoming U2 concerts were announced with a Super Bowl spot.
At the head of this content train is Bono’s bestselling memoir Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, which was released in October and is now the basis for a spring run of sold out one man shows in New York. With Surrender Bono has offered a deeply personal look at a life shaped by loss and a still ongoing search for God and belonging. As with any good enigma, the result is both endearing and exasperating. Bono’s embrace by elements of the institutional church that he has long rejected serves as its own enigmatic lesson—while celebrities often do not feel that they need organized religion, religious institutions scramble for affirmation from the famous.
The theme of “home” runs through the almost 600 pages of Surrender. The boy born Paul David Hewson is a man marked by restlessness who can authentically sing one of his most famous lyrics, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Of the many invocations of home in Surrender, two strike me as the saddest.
In the first Bono writes early in the book of the fallout following his mother’s sudden passing when he was 14 years old: “After Iris died, 10 Cedarwood Road stopped being a home. It was just a house.” There, three males—Bono, his older brother Norman, and their aloof father Bob—stumbled through the work of grieving.
The second comes hundreds of pages later. Bono, raised by two church-going parents, is now a father himself and writes:
I remain more suspicious of religion than most people who’d never darken the door of a church. I’ve never quite found a church I could call home, and I tell the kids to be wary of religion, that what the human spirit longs for may not be corralled by any sect or denomination, contained by a building.
Bono himself will, though, occasionally darken the door of church buildings. Surrender includes reflections on his visits to the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence in the south of France, where the stained glass reminded him of the church he would attend with his mother. And he writes movingly of being overwhelmed by the “genius” of the Nativity after slipping into the back of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin on Christmas Eve in the mid-1980s. “Unfathomable power expressed in powerlessness.” Despite such memories and epiphanies Bono is a church tourist rather than a regular.
Growing up in Dublin amid “the troubles” when religious identity was too often fused with violent nationalism, one can perhaps understand the roots of Bono’s aversion to an institutionalized church. Yet Bono’s formative years were spent at a rare multi-denominational school, Mount Temple Comprehensive, and he fondly recalls the impacts of the Charismatic Renewal Movement there and elsewhere. Derek “Guggi” Rowen gave his friend the “Bono” nickname that would stick for a lifetime, and Guggi also introduced Bono to the idea that “God might be interested in the details of each of our lives.” Bono writes that this was a concept that “was going to get me through my boyhood. And my manhood.”
In 1982, as fame was just embracing him, the 22-year-old child of a Protestant mother and a Catholic father was getting married to the girl, Ali Stewart, that he first asked out to a church youth club. The officiant was a man who Bono writes “saved my life”—a teacher (of the relatable and condom-providing variety) turned Anglican priest. The best man was Adam Clayton, a nonbeliever and the bassist for U2. The wedding scene was punctuated by the presence of “Holy Rollers” from Shalom, the radical Christian community that three-quarters of U2 at one time had frequented. This religious jumble seems to have been clattering in Bono’s head ever since.
Shalom appears to be the last Christian community to which Bono has actively belonged. He writes of his church wedding that while he “didn’t like church very much,” he “did love its symbols,” including “the idea of baptism” and the “concept of Communion.” Later in the book, Bono recounts with awe a trip to the Holy Land and writes of taking a “swim” with his family at the site where Jesus was baptized, but we are not told whether his four children (including a daughter named Jordan) have themselves been baptized and where, if at all, the family takes communion.
Nevertheless, Christian institutions have long welcomed him. Several books catering to faithful fans have been written pondering the spiritual insights of the U2 canon. The U2charist, a communion liturgy incorporating U2 songs, has been a regular occurrence in Episcopal and other progressive churches. At the height of his activism in the first decade of this millennium, Bono spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast and barnstormed heartland evangelical mega-churches and Christian colleges like the Chicago area Wheaton University, drawing Easter Sunday type crowds.
Bono writes in Surrender of using scripture as both a personal “plumb line” and a connection point with the conservative politicians, from Jesse Helms to George W. Bush, whom he tried (often successfully) to befriend. And yet too often, in his career and in his book, Bono seems pulled out to sea by the far-from-biblical tides that also circulate in the world of entertainment.
Bono calls Paul a “spiritual master” and quotes all of the Apostle’s rightly famous “love” chapter, I Corinthians 13. On issues of sexuality, however, the plumb line of scripture is not engaged, and Bono endorses “marriage equality” based on the deep truth (turned lyrical banality in this context) that “[l]ove [is] the higher law.” In 2018, U2 publicly supported the sadly successful repeal of Ireland’s constitutional provision protecting the preborn, at which point I determined that I had seen my last U2 concert.
On his recent book tour he has spoken to a packed National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. and has been the cover boy for Christianity Today. From his ecclesiology to his view of Christian sexual ethics, there would seem to be plenty grounds for probing questions. The cult of celebrity, though, usually creates a bubble of adoration that protects from pushback. Such was the case at the National Cathedral. Even when Bono engaged in a bizarre tangent extolling the AC/DC song “Highway to Hell” the resistance was merely playful. Interviewer and cathedral historian Jon Meacham later had Bono close by reading an extended version of Bono’s “never quite found a church I could call home” lament quoted above.
A bit of that ecclesial self-loathing was also on display when Mike Cosper of Christianity Today led off his article with the story of Bono jumping at a 2002 invitation to meet the Rev. Billy Graham. The evangelist’s protective son Franklin Graham had picked up Bono at the airport and “wasn’t quite sure about his cargo,” as Bono puts it. The younger Graham, set up here to play the heel in the pages of the magazine his father founded, asks Bono a number of specific questions about his faith and art. Cosper writes, “For four decades, Bono has found himself in conversations like this one, responding to Christians who aren’t quite sure what to make of him or U2.”
The CT interview would not be one of those times. Cosper, who has described himself as a “disillusioned evangelical” and who is best known for “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast, does little to hide that he is a giddy U2 fan. Cosper sees Bono as an antidote to an evangelical subculture that often elevated the trite over hard truths in its music. I share many of Cosper’s frustrations, but Franklin Graham’s questioning approach seems quite appropriate. “Test everything,” as Paul admonished the Thessalonians, “hold fast to what is good.”
Christians who uncritically embrace Bono invert the errors of discernment demonstrated by those who categorically reject any figure with a whiff of heterodoxy. As I have said of FPR favorite Wendell Berry, one need not be right about everything to be right about some things. (As an aside, Berry is another enigma averse to the institutional church and its historical sexual ethics who has been lifted up by the likes of the National Cathedral and CT, but that is a topic for another day.)
Regarding Bono, there is certainly, in Paul’s phrasing, good to hold fast to. Given a chance, Bono can often surprise, as when he gave a straightforward affirmation of the physical Resurrection and the divinity of Christ to a probing Irish public television personality in 2014. But in that same interview he also described his family’s “irregular” approach to prayer, which might occur gathered together around a family bed or in an empty church.
It would seem fair game for those affiliated with religious institutions to ask just why the church needs to be empty? Is there no value for Bono in engaging regularly with a broader body of believers? Was Christ serious when he looked at Peter and proclaimed the establishment of his church? Was Paul serious as he perilously journeyed around the Roman world establishing congregations that transcended the nuclear family?
Bono himself might be open to more engagement on the topic. In the full audio of the interview with Cosper, Bono confesses that “I am finding myself in churches much more than I thought I would in my earlier life” and concludes that “maybe I’m coming around to a more traditional expression of faith.” The singer, noting Jesus’s retort to let the dead bury the dead, also highlighted that “Jesus wasn’t nice” and Bono says that “sometimes it is kind to be truthful.” Cosper closed, though, with a cascade of thanks rather than the kindness of truth.
Bono’s embrace of churchless Christianity holds dangers for him, his family, and the Christian institutions that enable this sort of religious freeloading. An average church member might well ask, “If it is good enough for Bono (and good enough to garner praise from institutional elites) why should it not be good enough for me?”
I was reminded of the answer to that question the day before Bono took his seat at the State of the Union. At a service with Anglicans from across the country, Christianity Today editor-in-chief Russell Moore delivered the sermon and opened by asking what, if anything, was the church good for? After exploring Satan’s first temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, Moore concluded that the church must link itself, as Jesus did when he quoted Deuteronomy 8, to the historical and ongoing story of redemption and be “the people who gather around a word, who gather around bread, who gather around an authority who actually feeds us the Word of God, not bread alone.”
That idea of being “the people who gather” was then emphasized though the words of the African Eucharistic liturgy used by many Anglicans in America. The celebrant proclaimed, “We are brothers and sisters through His blood,” and the congregation of hundreds responded,
We have died together.
We will rise together.
We will live together.
That drumbeat of together, together, together struck me as the best retort to the contactless Christianity that Bono has embraced. It is a concept that Bono should know something about. The chorus to “One” is essentially an extended present tense version of “We will live together”:
One love, one blood
One life, you got to do what you should
One life with each other
One life, but we’re not the same
We get to carry each other, carry each other
Bono writes of the song’s origin in 1990 when the band teetered on the brink of dissolution, “‘One’ was the song that saved us. We wrote the song that we needed to hear.”
My prayer is that Bono hears something similar from believers on the need to be in fellowship with other Christians. In Hebrews, scripture says, “[L]et us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” “The wisdom of the scriptures,” Bono tells Cosper, “is sometimes tough love.” To hear that message of tough love for which he seems to be yearning, those who represent the church to Bono will have to have the courage to break through the aura of celebrity and invite a searcher into the true home he is looking for.
Image via Flickr: Bono at Toronto Int. Film Festival, 2011
Would be interesting to do a compare contrast of Bono’s recent (and long-term?) works with Nick Cave’s, who’s recently said something like the real shocking thing to do nowadays is to be conventionally religious.
I first encountered U2 when I was in college in 1981. I was listening to a college radio station and this was just after the release of their second album, October. In the interview Bono and one other member, either The Edge or Larry, discussed their faith in a fairly straightforward way, and as a 20 y.o. lifelong Christian myself I was enthralled. Bought both albums soon after and became a huge fan.
I followed them closely for the next few years but lost interest after The Unforgettable Fire (which, ironically, I felt was mostly forgettable), and when The Joshua Tree propelled them into stardom I pretty much stopped paying attention. I was one of the few fans who didn’t like that record — too big, too bombastic, too commercial — and their increasing pomposity was a big turn-off. As annoying as the younger Bono could occasionally be, I liked him much better when he came across as a happier, untortured Ian Curtis, rather than the pretentious spokesman for all that is true and good that he became later.
From their earliest days, Bono tended to strike me as a Christian, but as one who wanted to do things “his way.” I remember a printed interview in which he said that they were interested in the spiritual side of Christianity, but not so much in the “legalistic” side, and the interviewer in commenting on their faith compared it to the “moody mysticism” of Van Morrison. As much as I liked them back in those days, and admired their faith, that always raised red flags for me.
A fine and probing review, John; many thanks. I’d read and reviewed the book in primarily a politico-theological register, so it was valuable to see Bono’s story assessed, and thoughtfully challenged, in a more straightforwardly theological and ecclesiastical way. Well done. (Though, if you don’t mind, a question: if you can no longer financially support U2 because of Bono’s support for overturning the Irish constitution’s anti-abortion provision, does that also mean you would no longer visit or spend money anywhere in Ireland? Because, after all, it was the people there who voted for it.)
Nice write-up, Russell. Plenty of God-talk there too (though U2 draws fans on many levels and, as you note, the NYT and others seem more inclined to just whistle past the churchyard with Bono and focus on their own connection points).
So, to your question, I would not rule out a trip to Ireland. Indeed, I’ve lived in a nation that long (against the rules of language and logic) awkwardly shoe-horned abortion into its constitutional jurisprudence. The question of how thoughtful/dogmatic to be with one’s consumption is complicated by many factors. I would like my spending to be as aligned with my values as possible, but perfection is impossible in this fallen world. I suspect the desire to vote with their dollars is one reason that many Porchers seek to support local supply chains over global ones. Yet, most of us still have some product with links to a problematic position/regime within arm’s length, or maybe even touching our fingers as we type.
With U2, because part of what I was supporting and enjoying was a band that proclaimed (imperfectly though it may have been) the good news of Jesus, the explicit and vocal turn away from biblical life and sexuality ethics is enough to sour a future concert experience. [I had a similar experience with David Wilcox (https://johnmurdock.org/2023/04/07/death-on-a-friday-afternoon/), though the problem only became apparent “at” the concert that, absent a change in position by the artist (or the listener), will be my last.]
Note that I wrote that I had seen my last concert. I have not imposed a full Bono boycott as you imply. Indeed, I bought Surrender (from a thoughtful local bookstore, Hearts and Minds, run by a big U2 fan); I did not get a free review copy, partly because I didn’t know if I’d be interested in reviewing it. I haven’t imposed a full boycott on Ireland either, but if I’m in Dublin and one pub has, say, a Christus Victor lamb flying and another across the street has a (not the real) rainbow flag and an old “Yes on 8” sign, you can guess where I’ll drink my pints. And maybe I’ll try to spend more time in Donegal rather than Dublin.
I’ve never been more than a casual U2 fan, but for me the impact of their music has nothing to do with whether Bono goes to church often enough or has the correct opinion about abortion.
Some things to notice:
—Bono and John Murdock have a very similar church home. World travelers.
—Bono, through the use of boundaries that at worst are practical and at best can be described as following a Psalms/Proverbs led life, has presented us with a band with an ethos and work ethic that might be described as directly opposite to the Eagles in character and song content. ( the Eagles being a band with similar popularity and the same challenges presented to them by the world but absolutely not being a character reference for Christ or anything church )
—the Church is not the building.
—Bono‘s transparent songs about the search for faith are in the heart of the average woman attending church in a building weekly but also finds herself in need of God’s embrace when her sexual history doesn’t present a baby to the world in a way that can avoid the practical usefulness of abortion.
Bono sits with 75% of the women in the world on this one, and we really won’t know the right approach to unwanted pregnancies until we sit across from Jesus and ask Him.
Bono presents a coherent case for where his thoughts lie.
—Bono joined up with Apple to present us with a required album release with a new IPhone. This marketing failure of average songs coming from a place of ego sits in contrast to the place Surrender comes from.
Hope he continues down this new path as God leads, and never sets foot in a physical church building again in the process….