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The God Factor
I'm not a very good advertisement for God.
A.K.A. Paul David Hewson
BIRTH DATE: May 10, 1960
RAISED: Christian, Church of Ireland (Anglican)
NOW: "A believer" of the Christian persuasion
ATTENDS: Nowhere regularly
WORDS TO LIVE BY: "The idea that the same love and logic would choose to describe itself as a baby born in shit and straw and poverty is genius. And it brings me to my knees, literally."
If God is a gracious God--and I believe God is--Bono has no recollection of the first time we met.
It was September 2002, and well after midnight in the VIP section of a nightclub in Dublin called Lillie's Bordello. It was my birthday, and I had been, ever so slightly, er, overserved. And while I certainly cannot speak for the legendary Irish rock star, activist, and lead singer of U2, if I had to guess, I'd say he was a bit stiff himself. While my memory of the events is unquestionably hazy, and I'm not sure what, exactly, we talked about, I do remember my parting words, as my inner sycophant got the better of me:
"Everything you do is art."
Mirthfully peering at me over the rims of his tinted glasses before ducking into the chauffeur-driven car waiting to spirit him through the dark streets of Dublin toward home, Bono chuckled and said, "Cheers!"
Jesus help us. How embarrassing. I die a little every time I think of it.
The second time we met was about two months later at a church in Lincoln, Nebraska. Hopefully that's the encounter he remembers.
We both were attending the morning service at St. Paul United Methodist Church, which was serving as the launch for the Heart of America tour, a weeklong bus trip through the Midwest to raise awareness about the AIDS emergency in sub-Saharan Africa. The tour was arranged by the not-for-profit organization Debt AIDS Trade Africa, better known as DATA, of which Bono is cofounder. I would be tagging along and filing daily stories for the Chicago Sun-Times as the rock star and his band of humanitarians made stops at churches, colleges, and theaters in six states from Nebraska to Tennessee.
Before the DATA tour, I'd written occasionally about the need for the American church writ large to come to the aid of the more than 25 million Africans infected with HIV, so I had a personal interest in the issue. And because I knew Bono is a Christian, I also thought it might make an interesting religion story if he would talk a bit about how faith motivates his humanitarian efforts. I wasn't sure if he would open up. He hadn't exactly been wearing his Christianity on his sleeve since the mid-1980s, when he was burned by less-than-kind media coverage accusing "Saint Bono" of being holier than thou. And when the media weren't attacking him for his faith, fellow Christians were criticizing him for not being, in their view, appropriately pious, and questioning the authenticity of his spiritual devotion. It seemed that, either way, he couldn't win. So he more or less avoided discussing his faith publicly, except, of course, in music, where he continued to bare his soul.
As The Rock Star (as Bono refers to himself sarcastically) made his way toward the stage at St. Paul's, in front of an Easter morning-sized crowd, he looked a little unnerved. His first order of business was to make fun of himself.
"Rock star in the pulpit shot--nope," he quipped, moving away from the imposing wooden lectern to the other end of the raised platform at the front of the sanctuary. Bono felt out of place and told the congregation as much. "I'm not often comfortable in church," he said. "It feels pious and so unlike the Christ that I read about in the Scriptures."
When the tiny microphone on his lapel failed, The Rock Star reluctantly moved back to the pulpit, where he slung his arm over the side and managed to look thoroughly at ease. "I've always wanted to get into one of these," he said wryly, before launching into an impassioned speech about the African AIDS pandemic, citing health statistics and Bible verses with equal aplomb.
Each and every day, 6,300 men, women, and children die of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa because they cannot afford the dollar a day it would cost to buy lifesaving antiretroviral drugs readily available everywhere in the developed world, he told the congregation. Only 500,000 of the 4.7 million HIV-positive Africans in immediate need of the antiretrovirals that work so well their results are called the Lazarus effect have access to them. "Jesus only speaks of judgment once," in the Bible, Bono said, before quoting, from memory, a passage in the Gospel of St. Matthew where Jesus instructs his followers to care for the sick, the hungry, and the poor because when "you do it to the least of these, you do it to me."
The next day, when we had a chance to speak privately for the first time as his tour bus motored east toward Iowa, I still didn't know how forthcoming Bono would be about his spiritual life, so I was pleasantly surprised when our conversation quickly moved from Africa to faith.
"The idea that there's a force of love and logic behind the universe is overwhelming to start with, if you believe it," he told me in his raspy brogue, sipping black coffee out of a Styrofoam cup. "But the idea that the same love and logic would choose to describe itself as a baby born in shit and straw and poverty is genius. And it brings me to my knees, literally. To me, as a poet, I'm just in awe of that. It makes some sort of poetic sense. It's the thing that makes me a believer, although it didn't dawn on me for many years. I don't set myself up to be any kind of Christian. I can't live up to that. It's something I aspire to, but I don't feel comfortable with that badge. It's a badge I want to wear. But I'm not a very good advertisement for God."
In the days that followed on the Heart of America tour, and on a number of occasions in the years since, Bono and I would have the chance to talk more about his faith and mine, our responsibility to help the least of those among us, and the challenges of living up to our spiritual convictions. Bono is keenly aware of his shortcomings--religious and otherwise--and is hell-bent on trying to be a responsible steward of the blessings he's been given in what he refers to as his "extraordinary life." Celebrity is currency, he says, and he feels an urgent moral obligation to spend his wisely. "This is a defining moment for us. For the church. For our values. For the culture we live in."
Through our conversations over the years, I have come to know Bono as an irreverent, complicated man of faith who is not afraid to challengenotions of what is sacred and what is profane as he struggles to be the person he believes God wants him to be.
"I think you can relate to this," he says one day by phone from his vacation home in the south of France, where he is enjoying a rare couple of weeks off with his family--his wife, Ali, whom he wed in 1982, their teenage daughters, Jordan and Eve, and their two young sons, Elijah and John. U2 has just completed the European leg of a tour in support of their latest album, 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
"In my religious life, I feel like I am a boy in a hall of mirrors, where each turn I take I see a more grotesque picture. It's supposed to be you in those mirrors, but it's not. They're bent and out of shape. You walk into the next hall of amusements and it's a haunted house. It's just a game. There are just a lot of noisy voices--big, bellicose voices sounding off. And all the while you're looking for a voice of reason, something that reminds you of your father in heaven, or, indeed, what you hope your father on earth would be," he says. "My religious life is like an obstacle course where I'm trying to dodge what you might think are weird and wonderful people, but who are sometimes dangerous. Dangerous in the sense that spiritual abuse is rather like any kind of physical or sexual abuse. It brings you to a place where you can't face the subject ever again. It's rare for the sexually abused to ever enjoy sex. So, too, people who are spiritually abused can rarely approach the subject of religion with fresh faith. They wince and they twitch. My religious life has been trying to get through the minefield without coming out of it at the other end in a wheelchair. And I have. Well, okay, I walk with a limp," he says, laughing. "But that's kind of rock 'n' roll, know what I mean? The wobbly knees thing works well in leather pants."
I get it. We've talked about how dreadfully judgmental and unkind Christians can be toward one another, as if they're trying to keep the more unsavory elements out of their private club.
In 2003, I wrote a cover story for Christianity Today magazine about Bono and his crusade to persuade American evangelicals to respond to the AIDS emergency in Africa, a tragic phenomenon he calls "the defining moral issue of our time." In it he takes fellow Christians to task for their initial reticence to get involved, pleading with the church to lead the crusade to alleviate the suffering of impoverished Africans. People of faith represent perhapsthe greatest hope to turn the tide of apparent apathy toward a continent reeling from the one-two punch of a pandemic and extreme poverty, he says, if they can get past their prejudices.
"Somewhere in the back of the religious mind was this idea--they reaped what they sowed--missing the entire New Testament, the new covenant, and the idea of grace," Bono says. "I think our whole idea of who we are is at stake. I think Judeo-Christian culture is at stake. If the church doesn't respond to this, the church will be made irrelevant. In 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. It's absolutely clear what's on God's mind. You just have to read Scripture. Two thousand, one hundred and three verses of Scripture about the poor. I mean, really. People have been perverting the Gospels and the Holy Scripture since they were first written. Mostly the church. And it's clear. You don't have to guess. This AIDS emergency actually is just such a valuable example of everything that's wrong and perverted about Christianity today.
"There should be civil disobedience on this," he tells me, indignant, as we drive down Fifth Avenue in New York City not long before Christmas 2002. "You read about the apostles being persecuted because they were out there taking on the powers that be. Jesus said, 'I came to bring the sword.' Today it's a load of sissies running around with their 'bless me' clubs. And there's a war going on between good and evil. 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. I want 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 lives and start throwing drugs," he says. "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 supertanker of indifference on the subject of AIDS."
Sadly, in an editorial that accompanied the Christianity Today article, the magazine's editors upbraided Bono--stopping just short of calling his faith into question--for deigning to criticize the church when he's not a regular churchgoer himself. It was painful to read.
Undaunted, Bono, who along with his wife initially became involved with humanitarian work in Africa in the mid-eighties, around the time of theEthiopian famine, continued his efforts as well as his critique of the church universal, of which he considers himself a member. A year after the Heart of America tour, he tells me he is pleased with the way the American church heeded his call to action. "I really am surprised and even a little disappointed that I can't continue to beat up the church, because they really have responded," Bono says. "I'm actually amazed. The sleeping giant kind of woke up and is playing a huge role in getting the job done. I'm amazed and moved by it." But he wasn't done trying to nudge the church to go further. "What if now the churches really become sanctuaries? How 'bout they open their doors and start becoming centers for HIV testing? And how 'bout if they start using their pulpits to deal with the issue of stigma in Africa, where people are afraid to admit they've had sex and they may be HIV-positive? There's an opportunity for the church to really, truly become a sanctuary, to be the place people go to feel safe and a place where people go to be honest with themselves and with God."
Religion can be rough going for someone like Bono. He doesn't fit the mold. Never has. And that makes people nervous.
He doesn't attend any particular church regularly, preferring, instead, to go "wherever the Spirit leads," whether it's the back of a Catholic cathedral or the front row of a Baptist revival. He prays frequently, likes to say grace before meals, and tries to have what he calls a "Sabbath hour" as often as he can. He has a favorite translation of the Bible--Eugene Peterson's contemporary English paraphrase, The Message--and a few years back wrote an autobiographical introduction for a special edition of the Psalms, saying his favorites were the ones where King David expressed his sense of abandonment by God. Bono regularly hangs out with supermodels, rock stars, and Hollywood's A-listers, but it's not unheard of to find him breaking bread with the megachurch pastor Bill Hybels, the Christian author Philip Yancey, or the singer Michael W. Smith--roughly his star-power equivalent in the "Christian" music world.
Bono, whose given name is Paul David Hewson, was reared in a mixedmarriage household on Dublin's working-class north side. His father, Bob, a postal clerk who died in 2001 after a long battle with cancer, was Roman Catholic. His mother, Iris, who died of a brain aneurysm at the funeral of her own father when Bono was fourteen, was Protestant. In 1970s Ireland, with the sectarian Troubles raging just over the border in Northern Ireland, theHewsons were something of an anomaly. (A few years ago, a relative of Bono's who was doing some family research discovered that his mother's family, whose surname was Rankin, may actually have been Jewish. Ireland has a tiny Jewish population--about seventeen hundred in the north and south combined. Iris Rankin grew up around the corner from Dublin's Clanbrassil Street, at one time the cultural and commercial center of the city's small Jewish community. "It's interesting," Bono says of this recent development in his unique spiritual history. "My mother was dark haired and had the nose. Rankin. It's a Scottish Jewish name.")
When his mother was alive, Bono, whose peculiar nickname (given to him by boyhood friends) was taken from the name of a hearing aid brand, and his older brother, Norman, attended Sunday services with her at a Church of Ireland (the equivalent to the Episcopal Church in the United States) parish, while their father headed off to Mass at a Catholic church down the hill.
"They couldn't be nicer people," Bono says of the Church of Ireland. "It's a religion of niceness. Manners are everything, and more and more important to me. I think Church of Ireland people have gotten by the sectarianism of Ireland by keeping their heads low, by working very hard, and, it would appear, by never throwing anything out. They're very active participants in jumble sales, which I love. The Church of Ireland is kind of a car boot religion, garden fetes. But watch out--death by cupcake," he says.
"The best story I could tell you of growing up 'C of I,' as they are known, was when a friend of my mother lost his wife. He was distraught, as you would be, and went to the local clergyman for comfort. During his tearful breakdown he asked the pastor, 'Do you really believe in an afterlife?' To which the pastor replied with really kind eyes that he really wasn't sure. Therein lies one of the most attractive qualities of Protestantism in the south of Ireland. And also the most bewildering. They're so beholden to the Enlightenment, to the mores of modernity, and so in genuflection to academia, that the Church is suspicious of faith in any experiential sense, and has become more of a theater of morality. No absolutism, which was sort of attractive, because there's no bullshit there, and more intellectual than emotional, I suppose. A little dry.
"My mother's clergyman was a fellow by the name of the Reverend Sidney Laing, who really was very cool. Groovy, even. He had two beautiful daughters and a wife who were well loved by everyone in the parish. He was a greatman in his service to the community and his openness on matters of faith. Not a dogmatist. I felt in that church in Finglas, Dublin, the love of God, but I wasn't sure what it was," he says.
Bono continued his spiritual education by paying close attention to the neighborhood eccentric. "I had a friend who lived up the road whose father was straight out of a Flannery O'Connor novel. It was like the prophet Jeremiah lived on our street. Rather interestingly, he suspected the end of the world was coming very soon, so he used to collect things. Friday evenings, he'd read the small-ads column in the local newspaper and purchase the most extraordinary items at bargain price. He bought a herd of sheep once. Piled up around their house would be about twenty-five motorcycles, a half-dozen cars, and a couple of vans. He then collected on another piece of property large containers of tires, batteries, bric-a-brac--anything you might need at the end of the world, I suppose. Everyone, of course, found this eccentric behavior very amusing. I certainly did. And yet, he really impressed me," he says. "I always remember the color of the language he used when preached at us, and the conviction of the words he used. I think it prepared me for the shock of televangelism in the United States. At a young age I could get through the rhetoric and the madness of these salespeople for God and actually look at their wares a little more dispassionately than most people around me, who just thought, Let's get out of here quick. I can't underestimate the impact he had on me."
A couple of years before his mother's death, Bono was introduced to Protestantism's more evangelical branch at a Bible camp. "A friend took me and didn't tell me it was a Bible camp. I'd never been anywhere for a holiday other than a converted train carriage in the middle of the dunes of north County Dublin with my grandfather. So when I arrived I couldn't believe it. They had football teams with names like the Ephesians and the Colossians!" he says, laughing so hard he momentarily loses the ability to speak.
Which team was he on? "I thought they were both Martians," he says, still laughing. "And yet I learnt valuable stuff. I was given a Good News Bible, which is a paraphrased version with illustrations that looked like Keith Haring paintings. Oddly enough, when I went to see a Keith Haring exhibit in Toronto years later, I saw amongst his treasured things a Good News Bible. So from an early age I developed an interest in the Holy Scriptures. For a kid who grew up in a house where the one thing you didn't talk about was religion, unlessit was how Ian Paisley and the Provisional IRA should both be stopped by St. Peter at the pearly gates for their peddling of hatred, this was unusual behavior.
"Over the years I met some preachers who did connect with me, for sure, and whose words return to me. I remember hearing about this fellow called Billy Graham. Church people would push him on you like your friends at school would push Elvis Presley records. Actually, they looked kind of similar--both stars from the South who spoke with a twang and had giant crowds come to see them."
Graham is a hero to Bono. A few years ago, The Rock Star had a chance to meet privately with the man known as "America's pastor," at the ailing preacher's mountaintop home in North Carolina. "I got a call from someone in his office who said Billy wanted to give me a blessing," Bono recalls fondly. "In fact, he was prepared to give the whole band a blessing. I told them, I said, 'This is a big deal. This is BILLY GRAHAM!' And they all said, 'That's great, but we're in the middle of a tour.' So I rented a plane and flew there right away in case he might forget. I was picked up by his son Franklin and driven a couple of hours up to their house. I met himself and his wife, Ruth. I think I've mentioned to you before that the blessings of an older man mean a great deal to me. Particularly this man. I gave him a book of Seamus Heaney poetry, and I wrote a poem for him in it." Bono can't recall much of the poem he penned for Graham, but he remembers the final line: "The journey from father to friend is all paternal love's end."
While he spent most of his formative years in the Church of Ireland, Bono is quick to acknowledge the equally significant impact his father's Catholicism--and growing up in an overwhelmingly Catholic country--had in shaping his faith. "I read Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Merton. In fact, all of the Thomases played an important role in my life--Doubting Thomas included," he teases. One of Bono's prized possessions is a set of black rosary beads Pope John Paul II gave him in 1999 during a visit to Castel Gandolfo, the pope's summer retreat outside Rome. At the time Bono was deeply involved in the Drop the Debt campaign, urging the world's leading nations to forgive the crippling debts owed them by some of the poorest countries in the world, an effort the late pontiff also championed. Bono often wears the rosary around his neck or carries it in his pocket.
"The Catholicism of the friends I grew up with on the street was much more mysterious" than the Church of Ireland's brand of spirituality, he says. "Catholicism had all the glam rock aspects--the smoke, much better clothes, much better stage gear. And mystery--the not knowing. I remember when the priests faced the other way on the altar. I remember the priests facing towards us. And I remember it not making a blind bit of difference because you couldn't understand them anyway. People had these heated debates over which was better. But I had a lot of respect for the meditative quality of Catholicism. When I was younger I thought the more baroque, unknowable God of Catholicism was slightly more frightening. The mumble and the chanting. As a young boy, I would look a little nervously over my shoulder. I grew up equally comfortable and uncomfortable in both" Protestant and Catholic churches, he says.
As a teenager, Bono attended Mount Temple, Ireland's first nondenominational coeducational high school where Catholic and Protestant students learned side by side. It was at Mount Temple that he met Alison Stewart, the girl who would eventually become his wife, as well as David Evans (a.k.a. The Edge), Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton, with whom, at the ripe old age of sixteen, he would form the band U2. It was around the same time, in the late 1970s, that Bono, Edge, and Mullen became involved with a nondenominational evangelical Christian group in Dublin called Shalom. The group's members met frequently for Bible study, prayer, and charismatic worship, and pooled their financial resources in an attempt to model themselves after first-century Christians, who lived collectively.
Over time, the Shalom group evolved into something more structured, more akin to the institutional religion Bono often finds so discomforting. Some of Shalom's members began questioning whether being in a rock 'n' roll band was compatible with an authentic Christian life. Eventually, Mullen, Bono, and Edge left Shalom behind, choosing to exercise their faith in a radically different way.
For many fans of a certain generation and spiritual predilection, combing through the lyrics of U2 songs (nearly all of them penned by Bono) in search of biblical images or references to Jesus Christ and his teachings is almost a sport--a cross between exegesis and capture the flag. There is plenty of material to work with. U2's fourteen albums are full of unquestionably spiritualcontent--whether songs about praising God or songs questioning God's existence. For nearly twenty-five years, Bono's fans have been attempting to gauge his spiritual well-being by what he sings, what he says in interviews, on talk shows, and at awards programs, and what he does or doesn't do in public. He knows his personal faith is of great interest to others, but he's certain their fascination is misplaced.
He's a rock star, he says. No more. No less. Bono has tried to avoid becoming some kind of idealized poster child for Jesus. Still, "I don't want you to think I've shunned the life of discipline, because I have not," he tells me. "It's just that I'm a really crap disciple. I am the runt of the litter. That's why I have a hard time talking about it. Maybe if I were better at it, though, I'd be more like one of those monsters I described earlier--the Ayatollah Bono." He laughs.
I suggest that one of the reasons people are so drawn to him and U2's music is grace. He's written many songs about grace, some mentioning it by name, others not. It's a subject we've talked about before, and a condition we agree we cannot live without.
The best explanation of grace I've ever heard goes something like this: Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. And grace is getting what you absolutely don't deserve.
"I think I understood grace instinctively before I did intellectually," Bono says. "You first glimpse it in your mother. A mother's unconditional love--agape [the Greek word for unconditional love]--I think that leads to grace. Now, you can imagine that a person like myself would put a stretch on agape," he jokes. "But grace, I see it more in women than I see it in men. I didn't realize it was the oxygen of religious life on earth. Because without it, religion will surely suffocate you. It creates an impossible standard."
This reminds him of a story about Jesus in the Gospel of St. Matthew, which he paraphrases with typical irreverent panache. "Jesus has all these religious people around him--the Pharisees, the Sadducees; you know, the Jedi--and he says, 'You've heard it said that any man who commits murder shall be guilty before the court.' And they all nod and say, 'Yes, of course.' And he says, 'I say unto you, anyone who says unto his brother, Raca,' which means 'idiot,' 'shall also be guilty.' Now this is a very high standard. You can imagine this raises the game somewhat, even in the comfort of these paratroopers here. But these are the kinds of folks who get up very early and havea cold shower and beat themselves with a big stick, so they say, 'Okay, okay, we can hack this.' And then Jesus says, noticing them getting used to his raising the standard, 'You've heard it said that any man who commits adultery shall be guilty before the court.' And they all go, 'Yep, that's right. We know that one. Ha ha. Nothing new here.' And then he says, 'But I say unto you, any man who looks at another woman with lust in his eyes shall be guilty before the court.' Now, I'm imagining that no one in the room at this point can breathe. I'm imagining a shortness of blood supply. And Cathleen, that's where I learnt about grace," Bono says.
"That's it! Christ's attempt to bring you out of your religiosity to an impossible standard you cannot reach without grace," he says. "Grace is the reason I discovered my gift. It's the reason I have children. It's the reason I found my voice in different areas.
"Grace is the reason I'm here."
DECEMBER 2002, MARCH 2003, DECEMBER 2003, AUGUST 2005
Copyright © 2006 by Cathleen Falsani