Monday, August 21, 2006

The Gospel According to Bono

If you're lucky in this life, you get a share of those moments where you get to say to yourself, in a good way, "This isn't happening..."

Suffice it to say, I've been blessed to have a couple of those over the years. But in the top echelon of 'em, one of the best of the best, was on my graduation day from Penn when my handpicked nominee to be speaker came and began the Commencement Address with the words, "My name is Bono and I am a rock star."

As long nights with U2 blaring on the speakers got me through the four years, I could've sobbed at the sight and sound of its frontman present for the victory lap. I still quote that speech routinely, holding onto every bit of it, as it was one of the best and most nourishing sermons I've ever heard.

It's no secret that Papa Wojtyla had his own Bono moment, written about on these pages before the existence of the above photo was made known. And many of you know that, on the night of the Magnificenzo's death, Hewson commemorated it by hanging the rosary JP had given him on his mic stand before the show, a lone spotlight shining on it.

All this is preface to a recent piece on the spirituality of U2 in light of a new book on the same. It's a topic which always makes some among the puritan crowd flip out, but while that crowd seem to like tiny congregations, some of us don't as it means that some others aren't getting the message... and usually with good reason.

To quote my commencement address, "This is a public service announcement -- with guitars."
Take, for example, "Mysterious Ways," a smash hit from the 1991 album Achtung Baby. I used to roll my eyes when friends pointed proudly to the line, "If you want to kiss the sky better learn how to kneel." Aren't Bono's impassioned voice and The Edge's signature guitar riffs enough by themselves? But Scharen points out that the song is about Salome, the step-daughter of King Herod, whose dance so pleased the king that she was able to ask for and get the head of John the Baptist on a platter. And the song is not only about that. It morphs into a description of Wisdom, who danced at creation; whose movements, Jesus tells Nicodemus, can't be anticipated; who teaches her people how to love. "I've always believed that the Spirit is a feminine thing," Bono has said. Suddenly the song takes on layers of theological depth.

As a preacher I've been stumped on more than one Sunday at the lectionary's selection of the Salome story. Bono has given us something profound to say about it that will connect with younger listeners who are U2 fans and point them toward a deeper connection with God....

"Where the Streets Have No Name" has its origin in a realization that Bono once had about Belfast in Northern Ireland. He'd learned that one's address in that city is a surefire clue as to one's religion and socioeconomic status. So when he sings about a place "where the streets have no name," he's praying that such mindless categorization of people will cease. Bono says that the lyrics are "not great" but that the theological concept is thrilling: "It puts the hair up on the back of my neck." In the 1990s Bono would often end that song with a couple of extra lines: "Then will there be no time or sorrow / Then there will be no time, no shame." The musicians recognize in these moments that they are a bunch of "cockeyed idealists," as Scharen calls them, whose work is "painfully, insufferably earnest," as Bono says, but eschatological hope has that sort of effect on people.
While we're at it, I dare anyone to come up with something as beautiful and widely appealing as "The First Time" whilst maintaining some reference to John 14.

Tip to Jimmy Mac at the news desk and Don Jim, who ran this first.