Part 1: Seekers

Everyone knows that Bono, lead singer for U2, is an outspoken Christian. But do you know the story behind the band’s faith? Bono, Larry Mullen (drums), and Edge (guitar), were all members of a Christian community in Dublin called Shalom in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While in high school, they had all had deep conversion experiences of the “born again” variety. (Bob Dylan was doing the same thing in LA at the time, by the way.) Their faith deeply informed their early work—songs like “Gloria,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “40” (see an amazing 1983 live performance here with Edge on bass and Adam on guitar! Really cool to see the audience chanting the chorus at the end.)—and has been one of the central themes of all their subsequent records.

I’ve been reading U2 By U2, a massive chunk of a book featuring an amazing collection of interviews and photos of the band—essentially the four rockers telling their story, with occasional interjections from Paul McGuinness, their long-time manager.

What’s interesting is that four distinct stages emerge in Bono’s (and the band’s) spiritual journey. In a series of posts, I’d like to lay out the narrative arc, the path that these guys have traveled. It may be a road you’ve been on too.

The story begins with seeking, with a hole in the heart. Bono grew up feeling confused and lost. He had a great sense of emptiness, a great longing for more. His mother died while he was in high school, and he grew up with his father, a strict man who had difficulty expressing emotion. Bono sought release and acceptance, but he found neither at home.

One story illustrates this powerfully. After Bono’s grandmother died, the family decided to sell her piano against Bono’s protests. The piano had been a place he found peace when he felt like “my head was exploding.” The sale of the piano deeply affected him: “That really bothers me even now. Trying to write on the piano is difficult for me.” Bono reflected further: “So they wouldn’t let me have a piano. … It’s so odd, it’s the thing I can’t figure out. It was almost like my father’s whole attitude was: don’t dream. This was his unspoken and sometimes spoken advice. To dream is to be disappointed, that was the running theme… But… if you were a kid like me, [selling the piano] is like somebody taking away your oxygen tank. You can’t breathe.”

Taking away the piano was a rejection at the heart level, a rejection and a judgment of who Bono was. So the hole in Bono’s soul was born. And listen to how he describes the result: “I think the seed of ambition were sown, paradoxically by this repression of the spirit. If you keep telling somebody not to do something then that might just be what they become driven to do. Megalomania might have started right here. I was going to have my revenge on the world. Everyone was going to have to listen to me! Which, of course, is psychological shorthand for ‘my father would have to listen. When it gets down to it, there’s only ever really one person in the audience… ”

This demonstrates a couple of recurring themes on this blog.

First, judgment and commands (theologically known as the Law) actually produce the opposite of what they demand. Tell a kid he can’t have a piano, and he becomes one of the world’s most famous musicians. Tell a teenager not to touch the liquor cabinet, and she gets drunk the next time you leave her home alone. Tell your husband to take out the trash, and he “forgets” to do it. (The current John and Kate Plus Eight saga is further evidence of judgment and constant criticism driving a man to act out in hurtful ways. I’m not excusing John Gosselin’s behavior, but if you watch the show, it’s certainly not hard to understand from a psychological and theological perspective.)

Second, the deepest longing of the human heart is for acceptance and love from our Father in heaven. Often this need is sublimated into a search for approval from other people, but ultimately it’s about raising your eyes to heaven and crying out, “Does Anyone up there love me?”

So the first stage in Bono’s journey was to be made a seeker, a human who had experienced soul-crushing judgment, creating in him a desperate hunger for acceptance and love.

By the way—even after Bono’s conversion and musical success, the pain was still there. In a concert in Atlanta in 1985, Bono brought his dad, Bob Hewson (see photo on left), to the States for the first time and had him as a guest at the show. Here is how Bono describes what happened after the show:

“…I heard footsteps behind me and I looked around and it was my dad and his eyes were watering and I thought: ‘This is it! This is the moment! Finally he’s going to tell me something!’ This is a moment I’ve waited for all my life. My father was going to tell me he loved me. And he walked up, put his hand out, a little shaky, a little unsteady, he’d had a few drinks, looked me in the eye and he said, ‘Son… you’re very professional.’”

To read part 2, click here.