By Scott Calhoun
The Legend of Bono Vox
The faithful never grow tired of hearing the legend of Bono Vox. It reminds them that extraordinary things can, and typically do, come from humble beginnings. As a parable, its lesson is that you, too, should dream big and then work hard to realize those dreams.
Reminding, comforting, and challenging are recurring themes in Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog. Editors Raewynne J. Whiteley and Beth Maynard, both Episcopalian ministers, have produced the first book of sermons inspired by what just might be the world's most influential rock 'n' roll band. Gathering 26 contributors from across the landscape of U2 fandom to offer a collection of homilies, meditations, and essays, they offer a welcome portrait of what's possible when you have three chords and the truth.
Is it any wonder this book exists? For more than two decades, U2 has been preaching basic biblical principles to its chosen congregation of America. Three of the four band members once nearly left the band before it really got going when the Christian community of Shalom, in which they were deeply involved, advised them they could not serve both God and the rock guitar. The three disagreed. Now, nearly a dozen albums and more than a thousand live performances later, millions of fans would likely disagree too, many of whom say they owe a debt to U2 for their own spiritual formation.
Whiteley holds a Ph.D. in homiletics and is the vicar of an Episcopalian church in Swedesboro, New Jersey. Maynard is an Episcopalian rector in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. They share an interest in GenXer evangelism and in using pop culture for starting conversations about God. Both use U2 songs in their teaching. They asked for sermons inspired by a U2 song, and Eugene Peterson (who counts himself a fan) agreed to write a foreword to the volume.
You won't find any deep exegesis of either the biblical text or the U2 song in these sermons. Nor will you get much engagement with a particular strain of theology or critical theory. There is a clear emphasis on the biblical imperative to act on what you know, but the contributors leave it up to the reader to find a specific application of the truths these sermons recall. I found this an odd omission, as it is unlike the work of U2, who have always offered an organization, a place, or a face in need of our help.
Most entries end with the admonition to do something very Christlike—love, share, rebuke, be at peace, be honest, and be blessed—but don't explain why or how these actions would look different when done to exemplify Christ as opposed to, say, the poet Allen Ginsberg, who was all for love and peace. That said, this is also a book with exhortations to go ahead and wrestle with the world, the flesh, and the path of success. The struggle will likely yield a deeper appreciation of grace while invigorating you to then extend that grace to others.
Which takes us back to the legend for a moment. A legend can define a community, provide a narrative for them to fix their ideals upon, and then be the vehicle for transmitting those ideals to the next generation. Legends are a good port of entry for trying to understand a culture, especially a subculture. So let's make our entry.
The facts (as best as anyone can tell) go like this: While walking down Dublin's O'Connell Street in the mid-1970s, a teenager named Paul Hewson was given the nickname Bono Vox by his friend Guggi, who saw it on a sign for a hearing-aid store. Soon thereafter, the newly christened Bono responded to an advertisement at school posted by a fellow student wanting to start a band. The classmate was a drummer named Larry Mullen, Jr. Bono Vox and Larry were then joined by David Evans and Adam Clayton. All four were students at Mount Temple Comprehensive School, a progressive school blending Protestants and Catholics.
There's more to the legend, of course, including a charming miracle-story with a touch of St. Francis. When Bono was three years old, it is said, his parents saw him playing in their garden, picking bees out of flowers with his fingers. He would speak to them and then place them back on the flowers, never receiving a single sting. 1
But the facts of the band's extraordinary impact are a matter of public record. By the early '80s they had earned a reputation for stirring audiences with powerful messages at every live performance. It became apparent that the charismatic front man Bono (he dropped the Vox shortly after the band's inception) was a proverbial genie-in-the-bottle waiting to be let free. Many cite the 1985 Live Aid concert for Africa as providing the occasion when he became permanently uncorked, jumping from the stage to dance with a fan in the crowd. It was then and there that the "fourth wall" of live performance was removed for U2.
The connection between Bono and Africa became permanent at that time as well. He has since become the most recognizable advocate for relieving the worst troubles of the continent: extreme poverty and AIDS. In 2002, with Sir Bob Geldolf, Bobby Shriver, and others, Bono formed DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa), asking developed nations to treat Africa not just with charity but with equality and justice too. Bono, never one to dream small, has asked Western nations for a lot. He'd like them, on humanitarian grounds, to forgive the enormous debts owed to them by African nations so those nations can put the money they pay, which is barely servicing the interest on those debts, toward reducing poverty and hunger among their own people; he's lobbied rich nations to engage in fairer trade practices with poor nations; he's asked the most-developed Western nations to give 0.7 percent of their GNP in aid to the most-deprived countries in the world. In 2002, he persuaded President Bush to pledge $5 billion of aid to Africa over five years and then encouraged some U.S. Senators to push the proposed amount even higher (which they did).
Senator Jesse Helms and former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill credit Bono with showing them the connection between debt relief and fighting AIDS. Bono expresses his dismay that a nation such as America, which has historically unprecedented medical and financial resources to treat disease, has seemed unwilling to do something truly significant to combat AIDS in Africa—to take it on as a national challenge, like the rebuilding of Europe after World War II. In a July 25 op-ed in the Boston Globe, Bono challenged both political parties to place AIDS on their short list of convention issues:
We are the first generation that really can do something about the kind of "stupid" poverty that sees children dying of hunger in a world of plenty or mothers dying for lack of a 20-cent drug that we take for granted. We have the science, we have the resources, what we don't seem to have is the will. This is an opportunity to show what America stands for. Antiretroviral drugs are great advertisements for American ingenuity and technology.
Showing his political savvy, he links waging a war on poverty and AIDS in Africa to improving America's global image, and argues for a different sort of "preemptive strike" in the war on terror:
Never before has this great county been so scrutinized, and never has the "idea" of America been under such attack. Brand USA could use some polishing, and I say that as a huge fan. … Eighteen million AIDS orphans by the end of the decade in Africa alone. What will they think of us and from where will order be introduced into their chaotic lives? Whispering extremists attract recruits when hope has broken down. Surely, in nervous, dangerous times, it is smarter for America to make friends now of potential enemies than defend itself against them later.
Over the past decade, Bono's political activism and religious convictions have prompted him to stand in the spotlight with figures as various as Bill Gates, Senator Helms, and Beyoncé Knowles—with anyone who can help him convince others to live out his Gospel-rooted principles. It is often joked that the other three members of U2 have an easier time finding Bono on the television shaking hands with a politician than they do in the studio. But the reality is the band has spent more than two decades working together to move people to action, and they prefer to lead by example.
What encourages those who know a few more facts behind the legend is how unskilled the young band was. They didn't even display much talent at the start. Creativity, yes; ability, no. And of the four, everyone agrees, Bono was the roughest. But what he lacked in skill he made up for with conviction and desire—and all four were willing to work hard to become better.
Besides plain hard work, there are other lessons from U2's story—lessons with a particular import for evangelicals. The band's success suggests that if you are an aspiring evangelical artist, you must be in dialogue with others outside your first community, and you must be willing to evaluate your work against a standard higher than what your subculture calls good.
There are some Christians, of course, who say that the band left behind what was essential to the evangelical life (a squeaky clean lifestyle footnoted with chapter and verse) on their way up. Get Up Off Your Knees clearly refutes such a charge, establishing beyond argument that the band's vision is rooted in Scripture.
Whiteley and Maynard had each contributor indicate at the start of their sermon, in a helpful "Today's Readings" header, which scriptural text they had in mind when preaching on their U2 text. In the 26 sermons, the most frequently referenced passages chosen by the contributors are from Psalms, Isaiah, Matthew and John. The most frequently cited songs are "Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and "Grace," but these appear only three times each. The most intriguing song selection for a sermon text is the English vicar Derek Walmsley's choice of "The Playboy Mansion" from the 1997 Pop album.
Each sermon succeeds in showing that the songs are laced with biblical texts—U2 draws their inspiration most often from the Prophets, the Psalmists, the Gospels, and the Epistles—and themes. The mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart. But Get Up Off Your Knees is more than a book of evidence. It isn't a fawning over the band's considerable musical accomplishments or icon status. Nor is it intended as an introductory survey. (Maynard accommodates that interest, if it should arise, with a brief history of the band in one appendix.)
The editors say "the focus is [U2's] music, and how that music goads and invites preachers into seeing Gospel ideas through a new lens and proclaiming them afresh." The best approach to this book, I think, is to read some of the apparatus first and then drift to whichever sermon catches your eye. Read it as a commonplace book of virtues: a few exhortations at a time should be plenty to work on.
Many of the 26 sermons could easily fit into any of the book's six parts. The challenge for this reader (and I suspect for the editors) was in discerning the predominant message in each piece. Is it proclaiming peace, or passion, or purity? A title of a U2 song cleverly sets the stage for each part. We get these categories to dwell upon: New Year's Day (the hope of one day living in a world without divisions or violence); Until the End of the World (how betraying the ones we love while thinking we are actually helping them, only to have them still love us in return, leaves us feeling miserable); Staring at the Sun (choosing to go blind by staring not at the world but at the brilliant sun, drawing strength from it to help ourselves and others persevere with grace); Desire; Elevation (pursuing heightened states of love, belief, and existence); and Fire (the transformation of an obedient, disciplined person into one who becomes a living sacrifice).
Sarah Dylan Breuer, a theologian and Christian Formation director, introduces each section with a short meditation. Breuer has a fondness for epigraphs, most of which are from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers or medieval mystics. Her reflections can be as elusive and subtle as the thoughts of St. John of the Cross, more likely to give you the experience of having read something rather than knowing what you've read. Too many sentences built on lifted song lyrics give her prose a purplish hue. Only after multiple readings and a period of reflection do Breuer's introductions yield their meaning. It's not a bad way to put a message into the conscience of another human being, but maybe not the best way to introduce the work of others. Her opening for "Part 2: Until the End of the World," quotes George Herbert's poem "The Sacrifice" and then makes you figure out that what follows is her imagining of a journal entry Judas composed, emoting over his actions in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Peterson's foreword, by contrast, is a lucid presentation on the power of metaphor and U2's place in the line of prophets working in this medium for the Kingdom. It is a joy to read. Whiteley's essay on homiletics and intertextuality extols the virtues of preaching from the crossroads of religion and popular culture. She encourages those wishing to make the most of the inescapable influence of pop culture to listen: "saturate yourself in the articulations of our culture, whether in music, art, film or TV. Be attentive to connections and allusion, both explicit and implicit," and then use cultural texts appropriately to aide you in preaching your scriptural text. An appendix offers a six-part curriculum for adults, titled "Pursuing God with U2," prepared by Maynard complete with outlines, a time structure, discussion questions, and song, video, and prayer cues. 2
I'm glad to see Get Up Off Your Knees make it to print. It's a step toward corralling those in the U2 subculture who feel as though they have been steeped in the same waters of fervent Christian conviction that have energized the band. What promises to set this community apart from many fan groups is that they bring some intellectual heft to the table, and they understand that in the Church of U2, no one should stay a spectator. The title of the book, from the song "Please" on the album Pop, underscores the contributors' desire to see more of us heed the band's call to not just pray for the kingdom to come, but to live like we belong to it now.
As for the legend: whether to fervent fans or to casual observers who recognize his name but couldn't care less about his band and their music, Bono exemplifies faith in action. A multimillionaire who enjoys opportunities for immeasurable personal gratification, he is clear that it is better to give than to receive. Unequivocal about his belief in God, his faith in Christ, and his need for grace, he is adamant too that "religion" usually does more harm than good, having said that religion "is almost like when God leaves—and then people devise a set of rules to fill the space." He has made the leap from particular man to pop culture abstraction. He has become an object of admiration, parody, contempt, and now, study.
Much more from Bono and U2 is to come. Their new album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, is due out in late November, to be followed by a world tour. Next year also marks the 25th anniversary of their first album, Boy, and a flurry of books and commemorative items are in production. The band will be inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, and Bono will likely be nominated, again, for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of the world's neediest. And so the legend lives on. Canonization starts to sound less and less improbable.
"Pop culture challenges religious practice, while simultaneously drawing upon the wealth of spiritual traditions," Whiteley notes. There might not be a better example of pop culture in the pulpit than the sermons in Get Up Off Your Knees. There probably isn't a better example of a prophet in pop culture than an Irishman called Bono Vox.
Scott Calhoun is an assistant professor in Cedarville University's Department of Language and Literature and a contributing writer for www.atU2.com.
1. Kevin Byrne, "Biography: Bono," (Feb. 19, 2004). www.atu2.com/band/bono
2. In addition to Whiteley and Maynard's collection, several other books have addressed the spiritual nature of the band in some way. In 2001, Steve Stockman, an Irish minister and radio show host, published Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 (Relevant Books, 2001). Others include Faith, God, and Rock 'n' Roll, by Mark Joseph (Sanctuary, 2003); Spiritual Journeys: How Faith Has Influenced Twelve Music Icons (Relevant Books, 2003); and The U2 Reader: A Quarter Century of Commentary, Criticism, and Reviews, comp. and ed. by Hank Bordowitz (Hal Leonard, 2003). Readers of Christianity Today will surely recall the March 2003 cover story on Bono and the ensuing website postings. Most recently, Bono's faith was the subject of the cover story for the March/April 2004 issue of Relevant.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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