National Review Online, February 27, 2002
As the names of those lost on Sept. 11 scrolled up a towering screen, the singer kept reciting a verse from Psalm 51, in which King David pleaded for God’s mercy.
“Oh Lord, open my lips,” he said, “that my mouth shall show forth thy praise.” Then the music rose in a crescendo, soaring into U2’s vision of a new heaven and earth, of a city “where there’s no sorrow and no shame, where the streets have no name.”
This didn’t happen in a safe Christian sanctuary. This happened at halftime of Super Bowl XXXVI, in front of 131 million or so viewers around the world. But anyone who felt blindsided by this display of prayer hasn’t listened carefully to this band’s music, said the Rev. Steve Stockman, author of Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 and Presbyterian chaplain of Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
“I think they have been clear — for nearly 25 years now — about the role Christian faith plays in their music. They’re not hiding anything,” he said. “At the same time, they have always left big spiritual questions hanging out there — unanswered. That is an interesting way to talk about art and that’s an interesting way to live out your faith, especially when you’re trying to do it in front of millions of people.”
Stockman has never met the band. Still, there is no shortage of quotable material since Bono, in particular, has never been able to keep his mouth shut when it comes to sin, grace, temptation, damnation, salvation and revelation. Two others — drummer Larry Mullen Jr., and guitarist Dave “the Edge” Evans — have long identified themselves as Christians. Bassist Adam Clayton remains a spiritual free agent.
The key, said Stockman, is that U2 emerged in Dublin, Ireland, in a culturally Catholic land in which it was impossible to be sucked into an evangelical subculture of “Christian radio” and “Christian music.” The tiny number of Protestants prevented the creation of a “Christian” marketplace. Thus, U2 plunged into real rock ‘n’ roll because that was the only game in town. The band didn’t collide with “Contemporary Christian Music” until its first American tours.
While secular scribes rarely ridicule the band’s faith, the “Christian press and Christians in general have been the doubters,” keen to “denounce the band’s Christian members as lost,” noted Stockman. Many have heaped “condemnation on their lifestyles, which include smoking cigars, drinking Jack Daniels and using language that is not common currency at Southern Baptist conventions.”
It also helps to know that Bono has always had a love-hate relationship with rock stardom. In the early days, other Christians said the band should break up or flee into “Christian rock,” arguing that fame always corrupts. The members of U2 decided otherwise, and, early on, Bono began speaking out about his faith and his doubts, his joys, and his failures.
“I don’t believe in preaching at people,” he told me, during a 1982 interview. A constant theme in his music, he added, is the soul-spinning confusion that results when spirituality, sensuality, ego and sin form a potion that is both intoxicating and toxic. “The truth is that we are all sinners. I always include myself in the ‘we.’…I’m not telling everybody that I have the answers. I’m trying to get across the difficulty that I have being what I am.”
Bono took this inner conflict on stage during the media-drenched Zoo TV shows of the mid-1990s. The key moment was when the singer morphed into a devilish alter ego named Mister MacPhisto, who wore a glittering gold Las Vegas lounge suit and cheesy red horns.
Night after night, Bono would pull some girl out of the audience to join in his “Elvis-devil dance.” Stockman’s book includes a fascinating account of what happened one night in Wales, when one of these dance partners had an agenda of her own.
“Are you still a believer?” she asked. “If so, what are you doing dressed up as the devil?”
Their voices hidden by the music, Bono gave her a serious answer. “Have you read The Screwtape Letters, a book by C.S. Lewis that a lot of intense Christians are plugged into? They are letters from the devil. That’s where I got the whole philosophy of mock-the-devil-and-he-will-flee-from-you,” said Bono.
Yes, the girl said, she had read The Screwtape Letters. She understood that Lewis had turned sin inside out in order to make a case for faith.
“Then you know what I am doing,” said Bono.
But no matter what happens on stage, plenty of believers remain convinced that Bono’s devil suit was highly appropriate. While the singer and his band mates have made some mistakes, Stockman said he is convinced that the controversies that continually swirl around U2 are actually evidence of deeper divisions among believers.
U2 is attacking, in word and deed, the modern church’s retreat from art and popular culture.
The church “has put a spiritual hierarchy on jobs,” said Stockman. “Ministers and missionaries are on top, then perhaps doctors and nurses come next and so on to the bottom, where artists appear. Artists of whatever kind have to compromise everything to entertain. Art is fluffy froth that is no good in the Kingdom of God. What nonsense.”