Reading Bono

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The weird thing is, I’ve never liked U2. From the few short clips I’d seen, Bono seemed arrogant and intentionally obtuse. Pictures of U2 concerts felt too big and too flashy to be sincere. I didn’t like how urban U2’s music felt—all that concrete, all those dirty streets, and so much black leather. His world was a foreign planet to a Wendell Berry country girl. Furthermore, the aesthetic of Bono’s music sounded angry, lost, and scratchy. I had trouble finding melodies and coherence.

Lately, however, Bono’s thinking and writing has been used by God to teach me some things about faith that I needed to hear. This began when Mark Meynell challenged me to slow down and actually listen to Bono’s music. I endured a few links at first to be polite—building bridges and all that. But even as I fast forwarded through Bono’s tunes, barbs started to stick.

As a former literature teacher, I felt that first twinge when I landed on the word, “Mephisto.” Here I hit pause, wrote Mark and said, “Wait. This has to be Mephistopheles. Did Bono know Dr. Faustus?” Surely he didn’t understand medieval literary figures. Surely he didn’t read books.

Mark laughed and told me I had a lot more surprises ahead. Spot on. Again and again, similar realizations came to light. I began to see intentionality, artistry, and moreover, courage to express intense spiritual honesty with the Lord.

“He’s a psalmist!” I wrote. “I didn’t realize Bono was a psalmist!”

Mark sent a YouTube interview between Eugene Peterson and Bono, and I was stunned as I watched these two great men discuss components of an honest life of faith. This odd, urban creature I had mocked for years was what I call, “One of us.” I don’t find these people very often.

The whole record—the doubt, the testing, the questions—is encased in a grace that cannot be broken.

Rebecca Reynolds

Several years ago, I was fairly irked when U2 released Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. In the immediate months before this news broke, I had been teaching William Blake, daydreaming about releasing my own creation with those titles. When Bono beat me to it, I assumed a vacant pop star had stumbled into a cute angle on old poetry and had wrecked the whole concept. But in the past few weeks, as I have listened to some of U2’s live concerts online, I have realized that Bono not only understood Blake’s tension perfectly—but that he had also hit on the core of why talking about this tension was vital to a postmodern world.

So, I have gone back to the very beginning. I’m reading Bono’s records. Not listening—reading. Some of you will say that’s the wrong way to do U2, but I’m trained to be a literary critic, and this music holds up to that sort of scrutiny.

Oddly, the Lord has used this exercise to help me learn to pray more deeply. As a firstborn doer, I easily slip into a faith driven by head knowledge and willpower—reading restlessly—trying to avoid pain, loneliness, and doubt. Bono’s lyrics are showing me that my hands weren’t made to carry all that alone. I need to make room and time to be with God honestly and emotionally as well—not just believe in him at arm’s length.

Eugene Peterson wrote:

“…prayer is personal language or it is nothing. God is personal, empathetic ally personal: three-personed personal. When we use impersonal language in this most personal of all relations, the language doesn’t work.”

That’s what Bono is helping me attempt.

Below are some of my impressions from U2’s first record, Boy. Before you read them, please know these are not interpretive arguments—just initial, reactive work. I haven’t studied Bono’s life enough to know him well yet, so if you are a hardcore U2 groupie, be gentle. (And literature nerds, this is more of a Reader-Response piece than a New Historical or Formalist response.) That said, I hope showing you how his writing impacts someone else will encourage you to get real with God as well.

“I Will Follow”

Here is the security of a mother-type love that chases after us relentlessly, even as we try things, and fail, and learn about our humanity. (This is a perfect theological image to begin a record that delves into devastatingly hard questions.)

“If you walk away, walk away, I will follow.”

What a promise.

“Twilight”

The transition from boy to man. Here is that liminal space of not being sure how to be. There seems to be a subtle Hamlet reference in one line and an influence throughout. (The late night play is everything. “The play is the thing.”—remember how the play was used to “out” Claudius?) Singer is afraid of being outed as a guilty imposter while trying to grow into this world where even the old aren’t sure how it works. (But the fascinating thing is—Hamlet is actually the rightful heir. I feel that undercurrent in this song, through he never writes it in.)

“An Cat Dubh”

Clearly, this is about a seductress. But it’s more than that. It’s about being hunted by people who want to use us without healing us. I think in Celtic culture, the blackbird is a symbol of impending war. (Which is why, I’m assuming, he used the Gaelic here.)

It’s so interesting that he says, “She waits to break my will.” How does a seductress do this? By pretty, vulnerable, flattering allure. By promise of physical pleasure. A game of cat and mouse.

“Into the Heart”

Then, here is a post-bad-love affair struggle—a longing for innocence regained. Can we go back into childlikeness after being in such darkness? (This theme comes again later in his records, we know. But I see it starting here.)

“Out of Control”

Wrestling with the very first existentialist questions we hit. We had nothing to do with landing here alive, and we can’t determine when we are going to die. It’s this weird span of existence that seems irrational and undirectable.

Meanwhile, looking back through human history, there’s blood at Eden’s gate—the gate that was supposed to keep us from paradise has been opened by blood if we will be childlike. (I wonder if “I fought fate, there’s blood at the garden gate” is sung by Christ.) It seems like this ties back to “Into The Heart.” The feeling that childlikeness is some sort of key, but we are often afraid to really go there.

“Stories for Boys”

Seems to be about escapism. But this song reads two different ways, depending on how you look at it. I think it relates back to “Into The Heart”-–but I can’t tell if it’s describing a healthy, redemptive, imaginative experience or if it’s showing how imaginative distraction can prevent us from achieving real childlikeness. Because of where it sits in the album, I lean toward the latter. Especially because of what’s in “The Ocean.”

“The Ocean”

Another landmark song in the record like “Into The Heart.” The drug-like imaginative distractions of “Stories For Boys” have been stripped away. The writer stands vulnerable and honest before the sea. It’s confessional, as he identifies with Dorian Gray, seeing himself in reality, with all of his inner workings. Weirdly, beautifully—this raw knowledge of his own fallenness seems to be the context for a potential future ministry (in our weakness, we are strong). Note that odd transition from identity as Dorian Gray to feeling like a star. And then, there’s almost a baptism.

“A Day Without Me”

After a strong realization that he could be significant as a healer on the planet, he goes into what reminds me of one of Hamlet’s suicidal soliloquies. The landslide into doubt—do I even actually matter? What would happen if I weren’t here? So fascinating that he put “The Ocean” and “A Day Without Me” together. It’s so much how this always works in a real soul.

“Another Time, Another Place”

I know this is set up like a song about a woman, but I just don’t buy it entirely. I think it’s about sehnsucht. It also works as the antithesis of “An Cat Dubh,” which fits if the album works a bit like a chiasmus.

“The Electric Co.”

So, electric shock therapy. A legalistic, materialistic, graceless jolt after catching a glimpse of Sehnseucht. And this is the worst possible thing that could happen to the kid in “Twilight” (chiasmus again). Brilliant placement here. Because we always just barely catch a glimpse of grace and then somehow land in the midst of a damning, condemning, unhelpful external modification plan.

“Shadows and Tall Trees”

This is the title of a chapter in Lord of the Flies. Why is this significant? Because on Golding’s island, all of the boys are without mothers—it’s a pocket of humanity that seems to have nobody chasing it. This chapter is one of the most haunting of all, the one most despair-laden. If this song had been on the record without “I Will Follow”-–if this album didn’t work like a chiasmus—it would end in hopelessness. But we already know that there’s a mother chasing no matter what.

After several verses/choruses of existentialist doubt, there’s this brilliant bridge, “Do you feel in me anything redeeming, any worthwhile feeling? Is love like a tightrope hanging on my ceiling?”

But he’s already given us the answer to this question in the very first song. “If you walk away, walk away, I walk away, walk away. I will follow.” It can’t be a tightrope because love is utterly secure. The whole record—the doubt, the testing, the questions—is encased in a grace that cannot be broken. Such security.

Rebecca Reynolds teaches Classical Rhetoric and Philosophy of Faith in eastern Tennessee, and is a contributor to the Story Warren website. She’s the author and illustrator of the pediatric series From the Medical Files of Dr. Phineas C. Bones and collaborated with Ron Block as the lyricist for his critcally-acclaimed album, Walking Song. She lives in Kingsport, Tennessee, with her husband and three children.


13 Comments

  1. Gerald Barrett

    Thanks for this. It’s an affirmation there are other heady intellectually detached people of faith out there (which I knew). I never liked U2 either, but I have listened to Bono and Eugene converse.
    “Something vital has happened inside me while processing this music. I am learning to pray again. Really pray. As a firstborn doer, my default is to be a Christian by head knowledge and willpower—reading restlessly—trying to avoid the magnitude of my pain, loneliness, and doubt. Bono shows me that my hands weren’t made to carry all that alone. I have to make room and time to go be with God in such seasons—not just believe in him at arm’s length.” Arm’s length…I get that! So today, I will listen to Bono…and God and connect, by the grace, to be at hearts length.

  2. Ron Brown

    Just wait till you listen with the same intent to the Joshua Tree! Like irresistible grace, you will not be able to resist becoming a fan!

  3. Peter Hamm

    imho, if you are “reading” Bono, skip ahead to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb… “Freedom has a scent, like the top of a newborn baby’s head…”

  4. Kyle Feild

    I’ve loved U2 since my dad bought me my very first vinyl album, :The Joshua Tree’, as a boy. I’m also an English teacher, and your beautiful essay gave me a completely new perspective and appreciation for this irresistibly dynamic and beautiful band of ragtag Irish music men. Thank you for your insight – you’ve got a new follower!

  5. Mary Alice

    Loved reading this! I’m an English teacher so I just couldn’t wait to see what you thought of Shadows and Tall Trees – one of my favorite topics every year. You do a beautiful job of discovering this album but you must now listen to the music! I’ve been a lifelong fan – still recall my first experience listening as a 7th grader and here I am at 43 and I’m so very glad I’m a fan all these years. I love their connection and bolstering of my faith. They just always get it (with the exception of a political statement they made last year). I’m reading “We Get To Carry Each Other: The Gospel According to U2” by Greg Garret right now. It’s a real treat. Maybe take a read after you’re done with the rest of the album. Keep “reading” and keep us posted!

  6. scott

    you have just scratched the surface… keep going! to better understand the band (and Bono) you’ll need to understanding the connections that exists between the four members, the connections around family / friends and lastly around the passions that drives bono / edge / adam and larry. I know you’ve focused on the religious aspects of Boy, but keep going…not just with Bono but with the band!

  7. Bryan Bibb

    I love the spirit of this post—the freedom and curiosity to encounter new and different ideas, to reconsider old ideas once discarded. Thank you! I once preached a whole sermon based on U2s lyrics, as part of a “U2charist” sponsored by my university’s episcopal student association.
    I know this is reader response, but one thing that may add to the appreciation of what you’ve written: the “mother love” you describe so well is rooted in the death of Bono’s mother as boy. So, there is here a deep sadness and longing, and hope born from longing, generated by painful human experience. In other words, the foundations of theology.
    Here he is talking about it briefly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRk3P1sfPvQ

  8. Bryan Bibb

    I love the spirit of this post—the freedom and curiosity to encounter new and different ideas, to reconsider old ideas once discarded. Thank you! I once preached a whole sermon based on U2s lyrics, as part of a “U2charist” sponsored by my university’s episcopal student association.
    I know this is reader response, but one thing that may add to the appreciation of what you’ve written: the “mother love” you describe so well is rooted in the death of Bono’s mother as boy. So, there is here a deep sadness and longing, and hope born from longing, generated by painful human experience. In other words, the foundations of theology.

  9. Rockne

    @rockne

    I was a U2 from 1999 to 2015 – probably to an unhealthy level. I studied the music, analyzed the lyrics, found the touchstones of those lyrics in Scripture, memorized The Edge’s gear settings (down to how many milleseconds of delay for most of their songs – Streets? 354. Bad? About 437 for the main delay – there’s a second in series . . . and on and on . . .). I loved going to their shows, and I attended them all over the U.S: Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, Nashville, Had tickets to Hawaii before Edge’s daughter got sick and they cancelled). I bought the books on Bono’s faith . . . I collected pastors’ sermon notes that incorporated U2’s lyrics. I did it all, even though I didn’t always agree with the more pronounced of U2’s political views.

    Then, in 2015, while at one of their Chicago shows at the United Center. That all came to a a screeching halt.

    Instead of U2 bending toward using their music to echo the Gospel (if not directly preach it), they took a huge negative turn and decided to trade truth for “love” (or, rather, what they perceived “love” to be). Right there, in the middle of the concert during “Pride” (a song that depicts Christ’s persecution and resurrection through the lyrics “One Man caught on a barbed wire fence / One Man he resist/ one man washed up on an empty beach/ one man betrayed with a kiss”) , Bono took a rainbow flag from someone in the crowd, wrapped himself in it, and declared to the audience “Gay Pride In the Name of Love”. Then, at the end of ‘Beautiful Day’, he pontificated that “[Ireland] did something very important . . . more people turned out to vote for marriage (sic) equality than turned out for anything before . . . This song goes out to . . . two beautiful girls who made their vows here in Chicago . . . this is for you.” He then went on to declare that if love wasn’t equal for all kinds of relationships, it wasn’t actually love.

    It broke my heart. Corruptio Optima Pessima.

  10. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    @Rockne,

    Thanks for the comment. That’s a fair protest. But we can also disagree with Bono (and anyone else) on any number of things and still appreciate and laud them when they tell the truth well. Bono loves Christ and we agree on much more than we may disagree. That’s what we’re choosing to focus on here.

  11. Penelope

    Hi, Rebecca,
    Welcome to the U2 family. I’m a U2 groupie and I will be gentle, because I’ve encountered a lot of U2 haters who were not at all gentle to me and I will never inflict that kind of cruel pain on anyone else.
    I have to admit I’m not super familiar with the Boy album, except for “I Will Follow”. It’s one of the few I never acquired when I first got into U2 10 years ago and started collecting their music. I heard all of Boy for the first time less than 2 years ago, and I need to listen to it more. Your comments from a literature teacher’s perspective are insightful and helpful to me here. Enjoy your U2 journey.

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