It’s easy to mock Bono, the lead singer of the superstar rock group U2. Bono seems pretentious even as he tries to puncture the pretentiousness of rock stars. He banned President Trump from U2’s live shows. He hectors people about AIDS and forgiving debt. He is currently hawking a new book.
Still, I will always love Bono. In the early 1980s Bono kept me a Christian when there were strong forces working against it—forces that included the liberal culture, Catholic priests, and my budding alcoholism. I even remember the very night in 1983 when I was in a bar providing exegesis on “War,” which U2 had just released. I may have been corrupted by the liberal culture; I may have had socialist teachers; I may have been developing a drinking problem. Yet in a moment of deep conversation and re-conversion, I decided to stay a Christian. Bono was at the center of it.
Despite the presidency of Ronald Reagan, in the broader, cultural sense, conservatism was on its heels in the 1980s. There was a hangover from the 1960s. If you were cool you did not vote Republican. Some people actually looked forward to the 1990s which, they speculated, would be even more radical than the 1960s. There was a revolution to complete. Abortion on demand, high taxes, abolishing organized religion and the patriarchy. It was a dress rehearsal for the woke Stasi of today.
The Left’s increasing hold on the institutions at the time also applied to the Jesuits, who were teaching me at the time at Georgetown Prep. The older Jesuits were strong and tough men of faith; the younger ones were mostly communists. The best description of the time is in the book Jesuit at Large: Essays and Reviews by the late Paul Mankowski, S.J. In the essay “Liberal Jesuits and the Late Pope,” Fr. Mankowski unmasks the raw hatred that leftist Jesuit priests had for John Paul II.
Fr. Mankowski goes into detail about the burning apoplexy experienced by his fellow Jesuits when it came to the dynamic and orthodox pope. He recalls that after the attempted assassination of the pope, Jesuit priest Fr. Cyril Barrett said of failed assassin Mehmet Ali Ağca, “The only thing wrong with that bloody Turk was that he couldn’t shoot straight!” The line was quoted in an official Jesuit magazine. Mankowski heard fellow Jesuits pray that Wojtyla would have an early death. While it wasn’t in the official documents or magazines or brochures for the schools run by Jesuits, the current of rage within it was a system of “oblique rewards and punishments, by the smiles and scowls of the men who count.”
Fr. Mankowski then offers this:
Men’s hatred for the one who has been unjust to them is trifling compared to their hatred for the one they have treated unjustly; every reminder of him brings a fresh twinge of pain. Liberal-apostates know that their hatred is irrational, that they do the pope an injustice in pretending he is free to un-pope himself by altering the deposit of faith. The dreams that progressivists surfaced during Paul VI’s pontificate—of a congregational, sexually emancipated, anti-sacral liberal Jesuits and “picnic” Catholicism—were frankly infantile . . . Not all Jesuits got smitten by this vision, but the majority did, and was stunned when Wojtyla failed to act out its fantasy. Many left the Society to seethe outside it; others remain, and seethe within.
There was really no reason in 1983 for a cool 18-year-old to remain a Christian. The revolution was underway, the Jesuits themselves weren’t even Christian, and the beer would never run out.
Then U2 came into my life. These four guys from Ireland, where my own ancestors were from, had been deeply influenced by Christianity. My senior year they released War, and it blew my doors off. Every song was brilliant, but my favorite was “Surrender.” It is also the title of Bono’s new book.
I fell in love with the band, even as I was readying myself to fully reject Christianity. Still, even as I blasted the pope, insulted Ronald Reagan, and drank too much, the lyrics from “Surrender” haunted me:
Oh, the city’s afire
A passionate flame
It knows me by name
Oh, the city’s desire
To take me for more and more
It’s in the street, getting under my feet
It’s in the air, it’s everywhere I look for you
It’s in the things I do and say
And if I wanna live
I gotta die to myself someday
This was a message of longing, of desire not for a girl, but for God. Then there were the live shows. In his fascinating book Becoming What We Sing: Formation Through Contemporary Worship Music, David Lemley, a Christian and a professor of religion at Pepperdine University analyzes the spirituality of U2 live. In “The Ordo of U2,” Lemley argues that U2 “provides a unique case study of the pop ordo in practice.” As religious scholar Martha Moore-Keish has defined it, the term ordo describes “the basic structure of Christian worship that centers on table, font, and pulpit, and the shape of Christian living that flows from these centers. It is a commitment to that which grounds and guides our lives in the world.”
In Lemley’s assessment, a band like U2, led by a believing Christian named Bono, and their spirit-infused concerts, are a pop version of the ordo of Christian worship. “In some of their signature songs,” he writes, “the theological language used by the band is effective at casting broad visions of hope and human connection.” Songs like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Beautiful Day,” and “Mysterious Ways.” Lemley contends: “U2 offers an affective alliance in an affective site where a better world is possible and in which the listener is valued unconditionally.”
The audience, both secular and not, partakes in this pop ordo: “This is a system in which consumers are caught up in more than a simple financial transaction. American worshippers take roles in a society that communicates norms of believing, belonging and behaving through aesthetic choices, like popular music—music that is a ‘language’ beyond lyrics . . . Buying and selling material goods establishes people and institutions in a network of cultural values, ethical commitments, daily practices, and social identities.”
So the audience forms its own type of faith community, goaded on no doubt by Bono’s cajoling to stop AIDS, forgive debt, stop war, and welcome refugees.
Does this lead to lasting Christian conversion? Lemley is doubtful, arguing that music like that or, at least U2 itself, avoids the hard work of love of neighbor, converting the skeptic, and doing daily, sweaty chores like raising a family and fostering real community not for a concert t-shirt, but for the love of God. Outside of this sphere, pop music “functions as a means of breaking away from daily domesticity, transcending by encountering a reality that is entirely out of reach and and experience that does not require achievement to be effective.”
In conclusion, Lemley argues:
Pop stars are notoriously effective at advocating for humanity as a whole while publicly serving as a cautionary tale of domestic tragedy” and that “pop music does not enact what it signifies. It does not make disciples. That is not the trajectory of its liturgy . . . if you want to come into ethical alignment with pop music, you don’t have to love, you have to dance.
I disagree with Lemley. Bono may not have made me a priest, but his music kept me connected to the faith, even if tenuously. Everyone else may have been full of crap and out for themselves, but U2 wasn’t. (As one recent piece about Bono noted, in over four decades of rock stardom, you have yet to read a scandalous story about one of them abusing a roadie or cheating on his wife.) Then there were those lyrics
If I wanna live
I gotta die to myself someday
There seemed to me to be a deep truth there—something deeper than my petty adolescent rages. It was that truth I brought up with my brother in a bar in Georgetown in 1983, not long after “War” was released. I had planned to tell my brother that I was leaving the Catholic Church. Instead, I heard myself preaching about this brilliant Irish band. My brother’s expression changed, going from lighthearted (we were in a bar on a Saturday night) to serious, then something like impressed. He was an actor and not a super religious person, but we both knew that U2 was delivering something truthful. I suddenly found myself on the verge of tears. Bono might not be Jesus, but he re-introduced me to Him.
The words also became meaningful for me years later, when I gave up drinking. I had to surrender. Suddenly, the ethic of serving others, of dying to yourself to live, made sense
So yes, I will always love Bono, and love U2. As an addendum, it’s worth noting that Bono may have politically seen the light himself. In a recent interview he praised capitalism. “I ended up as an activist in a very different place from where I started,” he said. “I thought that if we just redistributed resources, then we could solve every problem. I now know that’s not true. There’s a funny moment when you realize that as an activist: The off-ramp out of extreme poverty is, ugh, commerce, it’s entrepreneurial capitalism.”
Then this: “I didn’t grow up to like the idea that we’ve made heroes out of businesspeople, but if you’re bringing jobs to a community and treating people well, then you are a hero.”
You might say that our two hearts now beat as one.