By John Cody
Steve Stockman: Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2, Relevant Books, 2001.
Mark Chatterton: U2: The Complete Encyclopedia, Fire Fly/SAF, 2001.
Niall Stokes: U2: Into the Heart, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001.
Laura Jackson: Bono: The Biography, Piatkus Books, 2001.
AFTER almost a quarter century, U2 continue to capture the public’s imagination. Rather than milk a proven formula, the group has taken enormous risks, reaping rewards as well as bringing about frequent misunderstandings.
With a propensity for breaking rules, Bono once explained, “You’re in a rock band — what can’t you talk about? God? Okay, here we go. You’re supposed to write songs about sex and drugs. Well, no I won’t.”
Three of the four members — vocalist Bono, guitarist The Edge and drummer Larry Mullen — are professing Christians. Growing up in Dublin, the group began with a strong spiritual foundation as part of the charismatic Shalom fellowship. There was little in the way of a Christian subculture in Dublin, and subsequently no Christian audience to court, or — just as important — to alienate. Influenced by The Clash and The Ramones rather than Larry Norman or Cliff Richard, the band were oblivious to the rule-bound world of CCM and unconcerned about playing secular venues, recording for mainstream labels or toeing dogmatic party lines.
While the foundation was solid, eventually problems arose within the fellowship. Prior to recording their second album, October, a church member claimed to have received a prophecy that God wanted the band to stop performing. A split developed over whether this was indeed the word of God, and how to proceed. After much agonizing — at one point The Edge actually left U2 — the band reluctantly distanced itself from the church.
Stockton points out how much the world would have missed, had they given up at this point; “Imagine the biblical imagery and spiritual provocation that would have been absent from the world’s record stores, pop charts, MTV programming and music press.”
Bono has long maintained that while he despises organized religion, he loves God. It was a rude awakening coming to America, where too often Christianity is equated with right wing politics and crooked TV preachers. When they identified themselves as Christians, they were branded as fundamentalists.
Early experiences cemented a resolve to avoid the world of CCM, where they were often misquoted and/or misunderstood. Songs like ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ were seen as evidence that the members had backslid. Stockman demonstrates, however, that with its themes of redemption and the atoning death of Christ, “there would be no more succinct a theology of the cross in all the songs that were coming from the Christian bands U2’s Christian critics would hold as models of sound theological content.”
Recent performances — which opened with Bono on his knees in prayer, and ended with shouts of “Praise! Unto the Almighty!” — indicate they still take the gospel seriously. During last month’s Super Bowl Bono quoted Psalm 51:15 (“O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise”) to introduce ‘Where the Streets Have No Name.’
Stockman, a Presbyterian minister in Ireland, argues that the Christian community places undue emphasis on behavioural codes and clichéd statements of faith, whereas abstract thinking and irony are seldom understood, let alone appreciated. This was apparent during the Zoo TV tour, which exposed the absurdity of modern culture by lampooning the bigger-is-better mentality. Part of the show included Bono onstage in the guise of a devilish character named Macphisto, replete with red horns.
Bono recalls a concerned Christian audience member inquiring as to whether he was still a believer: “I said ‘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.’ She said ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘So you know what I am doing.’ Then she relaxed and said, ‘I want to bless you.'”
The band have long championed the rights of the oppressed. Bono recently addressed the World Economic Forum in New York City as spokesman for the Jubilee 2000 campaign, an international movement campaigning to abolish unpayable debt from developing countries. This idea is based on the biblical mandate of Jubilee debt forgiveness every 50 years. Thanks in large part to Bono’s efforts, the U.S. Congress passed legislation authorizing $435 million in debt relief, and last year the G8 nations began debate on issuing grants rather than loans to developing nations.
Stockman has done an admirable job detailing the band’s spiritual journey, revealing a desire to know God that is apparent through every phase. Walk On is a thoughtful, well-researched tome.
Mark Chatterton’s book, subtitled ‘the ultimate reference guide to the biggest band in the world,’ includes every song, collaborator, tour, solo appearances and much more. As publisher of the U2 fanzine Silver and Gold he explains that part of the motivation for writing the book was to clear up some of the “myths and even downright mistruths” that surround the band. He largely succeeds, but create a few myths of his own: Marvin Gaye never had a hit with ‘Abraham, Martin and John.’ That was Dion. Jimmy Destri was the keyboard player for Blondie, not their producer.
C.S. Lewis and Screwtape are missing, but the Bible, Greenbelt festival, the Shalom Group, charismatic Christians and Flannery O’Connor all receive write-ups. Larry Norman’s ‘God Part III’ is listed, but the completist might miss Daniel Amos’ Spittle & Phlegm video.
Into the Heart, subtitled ‘the stories behind every U2 song,’ is similar to Chatterton’s book, but by definition limited to a far smaller field. First published in 1997, this update includes last years’ All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Most tracks get at least a page, sometimes more. Copiously illustrated, with quotes from the band and acquaintances, it works best as a companion to the other titles reviewed here rather than as a stand-alone volume.
Bono: The Biography works well enough as an basic introduction, but at times it appears little more than a rehash of previously printed articles. Laura Jackson, a celebrity biographer with books on Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury, offers little in the way of insight, and manages to repeat a few mistakes, which are corrected in Chatterton’s book.
© John Cody 2002