Bono Unplugged

by Kim Lawton

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After Irish rock star Bono’s address to the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday (Feb. 2), I was one of eight journalists invited to sit down with him for a private “on the record” conversation. All cameras and recording devices were prohibited, for reasons that were never made entirely clear. This makes reporting on the conversation particularly challenging for a television reporter.

We sat in a circle while Bono drank coffee and snacked on a makeshift breakfast that he hadn’t had a chance to eat at the prayer breakfast head table. He was wearing his trademark rosy-tinted wraparound sunglasses, a half-buttoned black shirt, and purple socks.

The singer was still bemused about being selected as the keynote speaker for the annual gathering of nearly 4,000 politicians, foreign dignitaries, and religious leaders. After all, the breakfast is organized by an evangelical foundation, and Bono is the man who was chastised by the FCC for uttering the F-word during the nationally televised Golden Globe Awards in 2003.

He joked about the incongruities during his speech, suggesting that he must have been invited because of his “messianic complex” — a digging reference to media headlines about his efforts to “save the world.”

But it was his campaign against global poverty and AIDS that brought him to the event, along with the fact that he has made this effort a deeply personal moral and spiritual crusade.

Bono says he sees faith-based groups as “a vital component” to his work. “The church is a much bigger crowd even than the stadiums we play in as U2,” he told us. And he’s been energized by the religious response, particularly from evangelical churches that he says were initially “slow” to jump on board.

“There’s something going on,” he said with visible enthusiasm, calling it a movement “with heat.” He added, “The church is leading, and it’s amazing.”

Bono’s message to the prayer breakfast was a plea for more aid to fight famine, poverty, and disease, particularly in Africa. He urged support for the One Campaign, whose goal is to see the U.S. allocate an additional one percent of the federal budget to the world’s poor.

Bono called it a “tithe,” and he couched his call in religious terms that he spoke with an obvious passion. In his speech, and in our meeting afterward, he impressively quoted large passages of Scripture off the top of his head. Throughout our conversation, he spoke about God’s concern for the poor and biblical calls for justice. He came across as intelligent and informed, easily reeling off statistics and the details of arcane international trade policy. Earnest, not posturing.

But I was most fascinated by new glimpses of Bono’s own spiritual journey. He admitted to us that this week’s speech was his most explicitly religious public expression. “I try to keep it to my private life,” he said, joking that he would probably reap a “loss of album sales” from his more secular fans.

In his speech, he described growing up in Ireland with a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. Organized religion, he said, too often got “in the way of God.” He referred to himself as a “believer,” and “an Irish half-Catholic.”

In our later meeting, he said in the last 10 years he’s really engaged with Scripture. He told us he reads THE MESSAGE, a translation of the Bible popular with evangelicals that was compiled by an American mainline pastor, Eugene Peterson, whom Bono called “a gifted scholar and poet.” Bono said lately he’s been struck by Isaiah 58, and particularly verse 8, which in several translations says if you help the poor, the Lord will be “your rearguard.” Bono told us, “God will watch your back. I love the street aspect of that.” Then he quietly added, “And it’s really been true in my own life.”

He acknowledged his sometimes rocky relationship with conservative Christians, who have been wary of some of his rock star antics, his liberal use of obscenities, and his tolerance of gays. Although many of his lyrics have been laced with Christian imagery and symbolism, he appears stung by some criticism that it’s not “Christian” enough.

“I’m asked, ‘Why doesn’t your music proclaim Christ?’” he said. His answer: “It does.” He went on, describing how he believes the Bible’s assertions that “creation has its own proclamation” of God. “I’d like to think our music had the same qualities to it,” he said.

Asked about his own past criticism of contemporary gospel music, Bono admitted he was referring to what he saw as “happy clappy” songs that lacked “grit.” He said such music doesn’t mean anything to him “without a truth telling of where you are and where you live in your life.” But he was quick to add that he has recently built new friendships with several evangelical musicians who have joined his advocacy campaign.

And he was also quick to draw a distinction between contemporary gospel music and worship music, something he said he loves very much. He said some of his favorite music includes hymns by Charles Wesley, Handel’s “Messiah,” and Jewish liturgical chanting.

With spontaneous eloquence, he said being a worship leader must be “the highest of all art forms, to worship and call people into the presence of God.”

Clearly aware of the ironies of his new faith-based campaign, Bono admitted, “If me 10 years ago would have heard me say what I said today, I wouldn’t believe me.”

Bono spent nearly 45 minutes with us and loosened up a lot as the conversation went on. He would have kept going, but his handlers cut the session off. He was thoughtful and candid, a performer who didn’t appear to be performing. And he was enormously compelling, especially when he described the people he has met in his travels in Africa who put real “flesh and bones” on the purpose of his campaign.

All the more reason it was so frustrating not to have it all on videotape.

Kim Lawton is the managing editor of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.