Debating the U2 canon: How long must we sing this song?

In the first song on U2's new album -- "Songs of Innocence" -- the singer once known as Bono Vox sings the praises of the punk prophet who led his teen-aged self out of confusion into stage-stomping confidence.

"The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)" proclaims: "I was young, not dumb. Just wishing to be blinded, by you, brand new, and we were pilgrims on our way. I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred. Heard a song that made some sense out of the world. Everything I ever lost, now has been returned. The most beautiful sound I'd ever heard."

Actually, this could be a metaphor, noted Greg Clarke, leader of the Bible Society of Australia. What if Bono is actually describing another earthquake that rocked his life in those years -- his Christian conversion? What if God is the "you" in this song?

Glimpse of Bono as a young believer

One thing was clear, back in the winter of 1982. No one at the famous Record Service store near the University of Illinois campus could figure out the hot new Irish band that was about to hit town.

The guy behind the front desk cranked up the group's new single so that everyone could ponder the lyrics.

"I try to sing this song," sang the young singer called Bono Vox. "I, I try to stand up, but I can't find my feet. I, I try to speak up, but only in you I'm complete. Gloria, in te domine. Gloria, exultate. ... Oh Lord, loosen my lips."

That was Latin, but what did it mean? A Newman Center priest told me that the first phrase, perhaps a Mass fragment or drawn from chant, meant, "Glory in you, Lord." The next meant, "Exalt Him." Then again, it was hard to hear the second Latin phrase.

The priest apologized and said he wasn't used to parsing rock lyrics.

Yes, the band 30 years ago was U2 and its mysterious second album was called "October." Both were surrounded by clouds of rumors, which I explored in a News-Gazette column on Feb. 19, 1982. What I needed to do was meet the band before its Feb. 23 concert in Champaign-Urbana.

Luckily, the 20-year-old Bono was willing to discuss "Gloria" and "October." Describing that interview, the reference book "U2: A Diary" notes: "Although the band have gone out of their way to avoid talking about their faith up to this point, they speak candidly now."

That column ran on March 5 and it apparently was the first mainstream news piece in which Bono and company discussed their faith. I immediately pitched the story to Rolling Stone, where editors decided that U2 wasn't all that important or that it was bizarre for a guy like Bono to talk about God -- or both.

All of that changed, quickly.

Thirty years down the road, what is striking about that interview is the fact that the issues that drove Bono then still dominate his life today. For example, he stressed that U2 had no interest in being stereotyped as a "Christian band" or in allowing "Christian" to become a sad marketing term for its work.

"The band is anxious not to be categorized," he said. "You know, if, for instance, people are talking about U2 in a spiritual sense ... that becomes a pigeonhole for people to put us in. That worries us.

"Also, from the point of view of coming from where we come from, Ireland is a place that's been cut in two by religion. I have no real time for religion and, therefore, avoid those kinds of stereotypes. I would hate for people to think of me as religious, though I want people to realize that I am a Christian."

Decades later, tensions remain between believers who work in the so-called "contemporary Christian music" and believers who work in the mainstream music industry. The latter often cite U2's work as a prime example of how religious imagery and themes can be woven into successful popular music.

The goal, Bono stressed, is to avoid making preachy music that settles for easy answers while hiding the struggles that real people experience in real life. When writing a song about sin, such as "I Fall Down," he stressed, "I always include myself in the 'we.' You know, 'we' have fallen. I include myself. ... I'm not telling everybody that I have the answers. I'm trying to get across the difficulty I have being what I am."

At the same time, he expressed disappointment that so many people -- artists in particular -- attempt to avoid the ultimate questions that haunt life. The doubts, fears, joys and grace of religious faith are a part of life that "we like to sweep under the carpet," he concluded.

"Deep down, everyone is aware. You know, when somebody dies, when somebody in their family dies. ... Things that happen around us, they shock people into a realization of what is going down," he told me.

"I mean, when you look at the starvation, when you think that a third of the population of this earth is starving, is crying out in hunger, I don't think that you can sort of smile and say, 'Well, I know. We're the jolly human race, you know. We're all very nice, REALLY.' I mean, we're not, are we?"

Bono sings an old song, again

It was a room full of religious believers -- Republicans and Democrats -- who were used to praying together and even hearing guest speakers quote the scriptures.

Bono looked around, studying the faces through his blue rock-star sunglasses. Reaching out to the sick and the suffering in Third World nations is not a matter of charity, he said. It is a matter of justice.

U2's charismatic lead singer kept returning to this theme. Forgiving Third World debt is a matter of justice, not charity. Leaping legal hurdles to provide drugs to parents and children with AIDS is a matter of justice, not charity. The issue is whether people of faith will do what God wants them to do.

"I am a believer," said Bono. "Forget about the judgment of history. For those of you who are religious people, you have to think about the judgment of God."

The man that many call "St. Bono" -- some with a smile and some with a sneer -- was not speaking into a microphone during this gathering back in 2001 and there were no television cameras present. In fact, the doors were closed and this conference room in the U.S. Capitol contained a small circle of staff members from key offices in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

For years, the rock star has talked about his faith in media interviews. Then, a few years ago, his work with DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa) pulled him into small prayer meetings in Washington, D.C., on college campuses and in other settings across America. When asked what he was up to, Bono gave a simple answer: The path into the heart of America runs through religious sanctuaries.

Eventually, this path led to the 54th National Prayer Breakfast, where the big rock star with the equally big messianic complex talked openly about his faith and what he believes is his divine calling to use his celebrity clout to help the poor. But this high-profile Feb. 2 sermon merely represented a change in venue for Bono, not a change in his message.

Bono has been singing this song for more than a decade and there is no sign that he will quit any time soon.

Speaking at the same breakfast, President George W. Bush said the key is that the singer has been willing to move beyond inspiring words into practical actions.

This reminded the president of an old story about a Texas preacher whose sermons kept inspiring a man in the pews to leap up and shout "Use me, Lord, use me." Finally, the preacher confronted him and said, "If you're serious, I'd like for you to paint the pews." The next Sunday, the man leaped up during the sermon. But this time, said the president, he shouted, "Use me, Lord, use me, but only in an advisory capacity."

What is different about Bono, said Bush, is that "he's a doer. The thing about this good citizen of the world is he's used his position to get things done."

On this day, the singer's message ranged from the book of Leviticus, with its year of Jubilee in which the debts of the poor are forgiven, to the Gospel of Luke and the moment when Jesus begins his ministry with the cry, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor."

The bottom line, said Bono, is that humanity can pass its own laws, but these laws can clash with the higher, eternal laws of God. When government budgets and medical patents clash with the life-and-death needs of the poor, believers have to ask themselves what their faith requires of them.

"While the law is what we say it is, God is not silent on the subject," said Bono, with the president seated a few feet away. "That?s why I say there is the law of the land and then there?s a higher standard. And we can hire experts to write them so they benefit us -- these laws. ... But God will not accept that. Mine won?t. Will yours? ...

"Let?s get involved in what God is doing. God, as I said, is always with the poor. That?s what God?s doing. That?s what he?s calling us to do."

U2 bedevils the modern church

It happened at the moment in U2's Zoo TV show where Bono did his "Elvis-devil dance," decked out in a glittering gold Las Vegas lounge suit and tacky red horns.

As usual, the charismatic singer pulled some girl out of the crowd to cavort with Mister MacPhisto, this devilish alter ego. On this night in Wales, his dance partner had her own agenda, Bono told the Irish Times.

"Are you still a believer?", she asked. "If so, what are you doing dressed up as the devil?"

Bono gave her a serious answer, as the music roared on. "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," replied Bono, referring to U2's ironic, video-drenched tours in the 1990s.

Yes, the girl said, she had read "The Screwtape Letters." She understood that Lewis had turned sin inside out in order to make a case for faith.

"Then you know what I am doing," said Bono.

It's highly unlikely Mister MacPhisto will make an appearance when U2 rocks the Super Bowl XXXVI halftime show. During their recent "Elevation" tour, U2 performed on a stage shaped like a heart and Bono opened the shows by kneeling in prayer. He began the anthem "Where the Streets Have No Name" by quoting from Psalm 116 and shows ended with shouts of "Praise! Unto the Almighty!"

But whatever happens Sunday in New Orleans, U2's presence almost guarantees that people will dissect it in church coffee hours as well as at watercoolers. Plenty of believers remain convinced Bono's devil suit was more than symbolic.

"I think they have been clear -- for nearly 25 years now -- about the role that Christian faith plays in their music. They're not hiding anything,"said the Rev. Steve Stockman, the Presbyterian chaplain at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is the author of "Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2" and hosts BBC's "Rhythm and Soul" radio program.

"At the same time, they have always left big spiritual questions hanging out there -- unanswered. That is an interesting way to talk about art and that's an interesting way to live out your faith, especially when you're trying to do it in front of millions of people."

Stockman has never met the band. Still, there is no shortage of source material since Bono, in particular, has never been able to keep his mouth shut when it comes to sin, grace, temptation, damnation, salvation, revelation or the general state of the universe. Two others -- drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., and guitarist Dave "The Edge" Evans -- have long identified themselves as Christians. Bassist Adam Clayton remains a spiritual free agent.

The key, said Stockman, is that U2 emerged in Dublin, Ireland, in a culturally Catholic land in which it was impossible to be sucked into an evangelical subculture of "Christian news," "Christian radio" and "Christian music." The tiny number of Protestants prevented the creation of a "Christian" marketplace.

Thus, U2 plunged into real rock 'n' roll because that was the only game in town. U2 didn't collide with the world of "Contemporary Christian Music" until its first American tours. Then all hell broke loose.

While the secular press rarely ridicules the band's faith, noted Stockman, the "Christian press and Christians in general have been the doubters" who were keen to "denounce the band's Christian members as lost." Many have heaped "condemnation on their lifestyles, which include smoking cigars, drinking Jack Daniels and using language that is not common currency at Southern Baptist conventions."

It's crucial that most U2 controversies center on lifestyle issues. But Stockman is convinced that deeper divisions center on what Bono and company are saying -- in word and deed -- about the church's retreat from art, media and popular culture.

The contemporary church "has put a spiritual hierarchy on jobs," said Stockman. "Ministers and missionaries are on top, then perhaps doctors and nurses come next and so on to the bottom, where artists appear. Artists of whatever kind have to compromise everything to entertain. Art is fluffy froth that is no good in the Kingdom of God. What nonsense."