Grace, Karma and Bono

Greg Clarke explains why he admires U2's Bono

As a Christian I’m not to worship idols, and that means rock stars, too. But it doesn’t mean I can’t listen to them, enjoy them, and sometimes even admire them – especially when they deserve it. U2’s Bono is that rare celebrity who seems to have become more, rather than less, admirable over time. Sure, there are probably hushed up incidents, a few sins and indiscretions, some words rashly spoken. But Bono’s faith in and love for Jesus has survived, and intensified, where most Christian people who are sucked into the stardom vortex end up ruined by the experience.

Reading the interview-based biography, Bono on Bono: conversations with Michka Assayas is a task only the Fans will undertake. Its full of (to us, at least) great Bono sound bites, snapshots of his incredible global life (things like forgetting to tell his wife that Gorbachev was dropping in for dinner) and background information on U2’s songs. But, even if you’re not a fan, I recommend dipping into the book to get a feel for what drives this Irish musical preacher/social reformer.

When U2 toured Australia in late 2006, media coverage focused not only on the music but on Bono’s incarnation as an advocate of global strategies to ease the worst forms of poverty. Whenever and wherever he tours Bono is given access to the corridors of power and he doesn’t waste opportunities to lobby on behalf of the voiceless millions in Africa. This was no different in Australia where, despite not gaining access to the then Prime Minister, he focused on our Government’s waning commitment to foreign aid.

U2 Fan or not, Bono is worth listening to for his focus on injustice, on the thoughtless indulgences of the West, on political freedom, and his ideas for a fairer free market. He has set himself the task of economic education, schooled by UN adviser Jeffrey Sachs, and he makes a lot of sense—even Bill Gates is paying attention.

But, interestingly for me, Bono is an evangelist at heart, whether it is for a social cause, an album, or for Jesus himself. Throughout Bono on Bono, he gradually and quite brilliantly works his irreligious interviewer around to considering the importance of Christ. In a long conversation, he models the kind of ‘god talk’ worth engaging in, explaining how the world runs on ‘karma’ (an eye for an eye), whereas we all need grace:

  Assayas: I think I am beginning to understand religion because I have started acting and thinking like a father. What do you make of that?
Bono: Yes, I think that's normal. It's a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma…I really believe we've moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace.
Assayas: Well, that doesn't make it clearer for me.
Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It's clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I'm absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I've done a lot of stupid stuff.
Assayas: I'd be interested to hear that.
Bono: That's between me and God. But I'd be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I'd be in deep s—. It doesn't excuse my mistakes, but I'm holding out for Grace. I'm holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don't have to depend on my own religiosity.
Assayas: The Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. I wish I could believe in that.
Bono: But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there's a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let's face it, you're not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That's the point. It should keep us humbled… . It's not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven.
Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas (Riverhead, 2005)

But my favourite Bono evangelistic moment is his encounter with Noel Gallagher from Oasis—one of rock’s ‘bad boys’, and proud of it. Here it is in Noel’s words:

  Before going to see U2 in Manchester recently, me and my girlfriend were saying, 'I wonder what it is with Bono and God?' Anyway, we're sat around a table after the gig and I go, 'Explain it to me 'cause I was brought up Catholic and it means f— all to me.' We had a good three hour conversation about his religious philosophy, which is basically, 'Go to God, tell Him what all your flaws are and say, Can you work with me?' Which is completely different to the 'Don't drink, don't screw, don't take drugs and always go to church' bollocks you get taught in school. I didn't think a whole lot more about it until two days later when there's a knock on the door and the recorded delivery guy hands me two books that have been sent by Bono. There's also a little note, which reads, 'I don't know if you were serious the other night, but here's something that might give you a bit more of an understanding.' What a f—ing top geezer! His Dad's on his death bed, yet he still takes the time to go out, buy two books and send 'em to me! . . . I tell you, I'm going to read 'em from cover to cover.”  Q/HM magazine, Mar/Apr 2002.  

I pray for Bono and my prayers go in two directions. The first is to beg God to give strength to his arm as he speaks the word of Christ in places where very few other people can do it—in boardrooms and party rooms, backstage at Oasis concerts, down the phone to journalists. May grace go forth from him in these places. My second set of prayers is aimed more at his personal growth, that he will be able to resist the temptations around him every day, that he will live a godly life worthy of the gospel he preaches, so people will see his good works and see the sense of giving glory to God. Let’s face it; it can’t be easy maintaining a life of integrity in the world of a global rock star of such immense fame and wealth.

Rock stars will answer to God for the lives they live and the words they speak, just like the rest of us. Just now, there’s a lot to admire about how Bono is living and speaking. He has a special gift of using words to paint pictures of grace – grace that escapes the karma whereby the world is run.

  ‘because grace makes beauty out of ugly things’  

Dr Greg Clarke is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Macquarie Christian Studies Institute

Other resources

Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog (Eds. R.J. Whitely & B. Maynard), Cowley publications, 2003. A divergent collection of sermons and addresses based on U2 songs.

Walk on: the spiritual journey of U2 (Steve Stockman), Relevant Media, 2003. A fan’s take on the band’s faith.

Religious nuts, political fanatics: U2 in theological perspective (Robert Vagacs), Casade Books, 2005. An essay comparing U2’s lyrics with the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann-style.

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