Interview : Steve Beard, writer of Bono’s chapter in Spiritual Journeys *

November 8, 2003 · Print This Article


by Debbie Kreuser

"Spiritual Journeys" is a new book from Relevant Media, publishers of Walk On by Steve Stockman, chronicling the many ways faith in God has influenced the personal and professional lives of 12 popular musical artists–Johnny Cash, Sean "Puffy" Combs, Lauryn Hill, Moby, Al Green, Wyclef Jean, Scott Stapp, Destiny’s Child, Bob Dylan, Lenny Kravitz, T-Bone Burnett and Bono. Most of the articles are done by different authors, giving their own unique spin on this topic.

Music journalist Steve Beard wrote the chapters on Bono and Johnny Cash. He also wrote the introduction to Walk On, last year’s book by Steve Stockman that examined the Christian message in U2′s music throughout the years. Mr. Beard, who is a contributor to Good News magazine and hosts of www.thunderstruck.org , a Web site that examines expressions of faith in pop culture, answered some questions about the spiritual journeys of Bono and Johnny Cash for Interference.com.

What do you think is unique about Bono’s spirituality?

Bono is rock ‘n’ roll’s most effective and enigmatic spiritual provocateur. He sees every stage as a pulpit and every coliseum as a cathedral. Who else talks to rock journalists about the theological superiority of grace over karma, writes the forward to a specially-packaged book of Psalms, convinces Sen. Jesse Helms to help African AIDS victims, and use his time on national television to pray the Scriptures?

He makes pitches for the Bible, gets nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and then makes news for getting pardoned by the FCC for using the F-word on television, he is a walking contradiction. Remember that anti-apartheid sermonette on Rattle and Hum when Bono asks, "Am I bugging you? I don’t mean to bug you," who was he trying to kid? For more than 20 years Bono has used his global stage to pester and prod us lyrically, politically, and spiritually. That last element of sin, redemption, grace, betrayal, angels, demons, guilt, and forgiveness that is most intriguing, especially coming from a rock star.

How has Bono’s expression of his spirituality changed over the years?

Bono has always been introspective, provocative, and willing to snub the conventional wisdom of how to be a rock star. I think it goes a long way in explaining his longevity in a cannibalistic music industry. He seems to be in the MTV world but not of it.

It would be hard to clarify what aspects of his artistic and creative energy was harnessed in the midst of the band’s early turmoil over whether they could be good Christians and still be in a rock band. He speaks openly of the internal struggle they faced as a band when they were in the Shalom Christian fellowship and reading a lot of the Chinese Christian mystic Watchman Nee who emphasized selflessness, not exactly a cardinal virtue in rock ‘n’ roll.

Some observers would conclude that they liberalized their faith a lot over the years. And there is no doubt that you can hear an earnest zealousness in the first three U2 albums that seem to be muted in albums such as Zooropa or Pop. As he once told Rolling Stone, "We got darker and darker, but the lights were all the brighter at our concerts."

Bono made an interesting admission when talking about the lyrics of "Until The End of the World" on Achtung Baby. There was this line that read: "In the garden I was playing the tart/ I kissed your lips and broke your heart." Bono explained the perspective of the song by saying, "I played Jesus for so long, I decided I needed a break. Judas, from whatever way you look at it, is a fascinating creature, because in one sense, by committing his crime, he introduced us to grace. It’s kind of bizarre."

What are some spiritual similarities you saw between Bono and Johnny Cash?

There is a very good reason that Johnny Cash performed on the Zooropa album. He served symbolically as a limping priest, one who had gone through his own personal hell with fame and fortune and could be empathetic to fellow travelers who were wandering in their own desert. He was viewed as an authority figure that had the weight of a moral anchor in a tumultuous sea.

Bono and Johnny both went through the struggles and debates about whether one could maintain spiritual integrity in the midst of show business. They both had detractors and critics as they tried to work out their faith in the midst of their art. Cash sang gospel song and murder ballads on the same records. Bono dressed up as MacPhisto, the sleazy alter-ego character with the white mime make-up and the devil horns.

They both pushed the envelope and drew outside the lines of Christian convention, but there will never be a doubt that their art was God-haunted.

How do you think Bono’s mixed religious background, having a Protestant mother and a Catholic father, effected his expression of spirituality?

The diversity of his parents’ faith is a key to understanding Bono’s Christian disposition, as well as his antagonism to organized religion. He has spoken of his great love for Jesus and the kingdom of heaven described in the Bible when truth will reign and injustice will be snuffed out like a cigarette in an ashtray. Like so many others, however, he struggles to reconcile that kind of radical vision with the infighting, hypocrisy, and indifference that is found in many forms of organized religion.

His Irish homeland is divided with sectarian barbwire and religio-political quagmires. He says that he grew up seeing "religion as the perversion of faith." Thankfully, he was in the midst of a very powerful revival at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin. It was a progressively non-sectarian island in a sea of Roman Catholicism. His faith became real to him in the midst of the charismatic phenomena and the Scriptures came alive in his heart.

Since the Shalom days, he maintained a pretty spotty attendance record for going to church. He was knocked pretty hard for that last year in a Christianity Today editorial. From a logistical standpoint, however, Bono at church would produce pandemonium. Once he became a member of a congregation, it would be the largest church in Ireland the following Sunday.

He often says he does not feel comfortable in churches, but I think that is more of a throw-away line than heartfelt. As he has become more outspoken on the issue of AIDS in Africa, he has been forced to spend more time with religious activists. He has said that he had to swallow his own prejudice because he tended to tar all traditional Christians with the same brush. Bono discovered that was a mistake. Some of his most enthusiastic audiences are young evangelicals and Catholics who have a heart for the justice and love rock ‘n’ roll.

How did you come to take in interest in this subject and especially in Bono’s spirituality?

I became a believer about the same time I started listening to U2 albums such as Boy, October, and War. Their music was an encouragement to me as I tried to figure out how to integrate faith into the rest of life. They were outspoken, non-apologetic about their beliefs and did it with a grit and bang that was very cool. The music was more sophisticated than some of the simplistic mish-mash of yummy lyrics about skipping with Jesus through fields of daises. They drink, smoke, swear, and wear leather pants. But there is a hefty and poetic theological substance that I think would startle St. Paul and would bring a smile to the Psalmist.

Can you tell us a bit about thunderstruck.org?

Our culture has a voracious appetite for spiritual engagement – even in our entertainment. We are far more mystical than we realize. The music, the movies, the TV shows that we watch reflect that. Thunderstruck is a website devoted to pointing out the way in which faith expresses itself in art and culture-The Matrix, Bruce Almighty, Joan of Arcadia, U2, P.O.D., and Johnny Cash.

I began the site about five years ago and it has just kind of taken off. There is an entire generation out there that blurs the line between the sacred and the profane in a way that previous generations didn’t.

What do you think are some of the lessons that we can learn from Bono?

1. Rock n’ roll can be transcendent. Twenty years ago, a reviewer called U2′s music "transcendently eclectic, refreshingly realistic, naively passionate, and elusive pop music." There is no way to improve on that description. If there has been one word that would characterize U2′s musical journey it would have to be transcendent, unfolding a world beyond the things that can be merely seen and rationally grasped.

2. Don’t be ashamed of mixing faith with art. During the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show in New Orleans, Bono prayed Psalm 51:15: "O Lord, open my lips, so my mouth shows forth thy praise." He did the same thing when they were featured at the halftime show of the 2001 NBA Championships. He was beamed across the airwaves saying, "What can I give back to God for the blessings he poured out on me. I lift high the cup of salvation as a toast to our Father. To follow through on the promise I made to you" (Psalm 116, The Message). Yesteryear, the networks had to worry about Elvis shaking his hips; today, it is Bono on his knees.

3. Let your faith and art be mixed with good works. While most of the world is tired of being berated and tutored about social issues by spoiled and over-paid rock stars, we still give an audience to Bono whose heart bleeds with the best of them. Pope John Paul II wanted to wear his sunglasses when they met. Arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms cried when he heard Bono describe the plight of hungry children in Africa. Bono has done more singlehandedly to relieve Third-world debt than all the Armani-clad finance ministers that could be packed into a United Nations conference room. He has a mysterious charisma, an unpretentious grace that affords him the ability to be the only one wearing sunglasses indoors without coming off as a megalomaniac.

During his week-long AIDS awareness tour through the Midwest, I had the opportunity to ask him how his Christian faith inspired his activism. He said, "Well, you know, I am not a very good advertisement for God. So, I generally don’t wear that badge on my lapel. But it is certainly written on the inside–I am a believer. There are 2,103 verses of Scripture pertaining to the poor; Jesus Christ only speaks of judgment once. It is not all about the things that the church bangs on about. It is not about sexual immorality, and it is not about megalomania, or vanity," he said jokingly as he ran his fingers through his hair.

Bono is a tippy-toe talker, holding on to the side of the lectern, leaning in-engaged. You can see the Irish dander and passion brew even when he tries to be sedate. "It is about the poor; ‘I was naked and you clothed me. I was a stranger and you let me in.’" he said. "This is at the heart of the gospel. Why is it that we have seemed to have forgotten this? Why isn’t the Church leading this movement? The Church ought to be ready to do that." He’s right.

Do you have a favorite U2 song/lyric and why?

After all these years, I remain hooked by "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For." It will be one of their lasting lyrical legacies. Unlike almost any other song, it helps describe the straddling that the group tried to do between the Kingdom of Heaven and this crazy world.

Thank you to Mr. Beard for the interview.

Comments

2 Responses to “Interview : Steve Beard, writer of Bono’s chapter in Spiritual Journeys *”

  1. Blessings Not Just for the Ones Who Kneel – the Promiscuous Love of God « zoecarnate on December 3rd, 2009 5:04 pm

    [...] has wrestled with the world-affirming and world-denying in voices like that of Chinese mystic and church planter Watchman Nee. And like me, he’s had to say that what traditional Christianity has meant by [...]

  2. Blessings Not Just for the Ones Who Kneel – the Promiscuous Love of God | Mike Morrell on July 31st, 2012 10:27 am

    [...] has wrestled with the world-affirming and world-denying in voices like that of Chinese mystic and church planter Watchman Nee. And like me, he’s had to say that what traditional Christianity has meant by [...]

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