- Aarik Danielsen
All Saints: Bono
I typically dismiss the Christian instinct to superimpose specifics onto a vision of the new heavens and new earth.
I believe our redeemed bodies will move through eternity, taking up the tools of creation and re-creation with perfect posture and purpose. Beyond that, I hesitate to guess whether your pictures and pastimes—or mine—will play prominently for all time.
That said, when I lose myself in daydream, two flawless feet carry me to eternity’s corner pub, light and sound spilling onto the golden streets. Wading through the crowd to the end of the bar, I see Bono clutching a glass of wine—the same vintage Jesus decanted during the wedding at Cana. With a wide, dizzy grin, he mumbles to no one and everyone, “I told ‘em. I told ‘em so. I told ‘em so.”
Since losing my preteen self in U2’s Achtung Baby some 29 years ago, Bono—the band’s frontman and a rock-and-roll priest occupying both sides of the confessional booth—became my patron saint of true believers. “True believer,” as I use it, refers to a type, not the quality or authenticity of another’s faith. True believers are the idealists among us, the fervent whose feelings live in the great wide open.
Of all the contemporary saints I’ll consider in this series, Bono might be the only one to crave the title, even if he’d swear it off in sotto voce. He once compared the late, great Johnny Cash to John the Baptist, a prophet preparing the way of the Lord with locust crumbs and dried wild honey in his beard. In the same manner, the Irishman resembles St. Peter in wraparound shades.
Since losing my preteen self in U2’s Achtung Baby some 29 years ago, Bono—the band’s frontman and a rock-and-roll priest occupying both sides of the confessional booth—became my patron saint of true believers.
In concert, he appears eager to leap off the stage and charge across open water into the arms of Christ. Exploring a song’s softer side, he clings to fireside mercy and vows to feed the sheep, declaring “Lord, you know I love you.” Within some songs, he swears through clenched teeth, betraying his beloved before dawn breaks him open; in others, he basks in the baptism of the Spirit, crying out for an extra dose of Pentecost power.
Such competing impulses prove Bono’s sainthood. The true believer lives with, not without, doubts; rather than harden their hearts in moments of misgiving, their bodies pump more blood to lagging limbs.
True believers grieve the silence of God, but acutely ache in the presence of hypocrisy. Peering into the gap between how the world is and should be, they limp along, spouting candid proverbs and ecstatic prayers as bystanders shake their heads. I know what it means to veer between rapture and disappointment. With one hand, I count up miracles; the other clenches, absorbing the sting of being let down.
Bono’s lyrics betray the charm of mortal bodies, but revel in a greater seduction. Moments beset with sin and spiritual dullness lead him to croon “All I want is you.” The admission “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” still rises heavenward like an offering—its singer foresees a day when, overcome by grace, the scales fall from his eyes.
His songs dare to believe in heaven and in the promised land of America, the latter requiring a greater leap of faith. The overlooked beauty of U2’s music arrives whenever he bets it all; his band of brothers, led by guitarist The Edge, reach out to uphold him. Guitar, bass and drums resound to say, “And I will show you still a more excellent way.”
One of Bono’s most sublime vocal performances comes in “Until the End of the World,” where he casts himself as Judas. Rebuking the ultimate true believer, he sings “I took the money / I spiked your drink / You miss too much these days if you stop to think.”
And yet the longing remains. The song represents the darkest possible invocation of “I believe; help my unbelief.” As the U2 canon proves, Judas and Peter only differ by degrees. The former succumbs to his fears of an impassable gap; the other dwells within the confession “Lord, to whom will we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
So often I believe with all Bono’s devotion, and none of his confidence.
Binging on grace and table wine, Bono often overreaches, overpromises, overestimates himself. Such is the lot of the true believer. They lead with hearts and mouths, not hands and feet.
But when heart and head, word and deed catch up, the result resembles pure magic. Bono spurs me to hope beyond evidence, to care whether or not I am cared for, to risk what I have on the revolutionary act of loving my neighbor as myself.
Patron saints intercede, completing our prayers. So often I believe with all Bono’s devotion, and none of his confidence. I most resemble the way he showed up on stage at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. Against a dark, droning sound, he approaches the microphone, hooded sweatshirt framing his face in unassuming fashion.
Dragging the lower part of his register, he delivers each verse of the underrated “Please” with a weary boxer’s sway. One right cross from being knocked out, he sings of confusion masked as religion: “Your Catholic blues, your convent shoes / Your stick-on tattoos / Now they’re making the news / Your holy war / Your northern star / Your sermon on the mount / From the booth of your car.”
Invoking a love greater than any human translation of the divine, he wrests the microphone from its stand, his voice becoming a falsetto flame: “Please, please, please / Get up off your knees.”
I mouth these words to the world as, together, we fall short of the glory of God. I mouth them to the mirror when sin threatens to mortify me. Like Peter, I own my cowardice. But I can’t stay away from grace, so I sing into the gap.
Sinners in the hands of a merciful God hum the hymns of true believers. All our disappointments cast their shadows. But we pause long enough to sense them slowly dissolving, then we find faith enough for another beautiful day. Held fast, we harmonize with Bono:
I’ve found grace inside a sound
I found grace, it’s all that I found
And I can breathe, breathe now
Whenever I join all the saints to breathe deep, I expect to see a look of holy contentment forever etched across Bono’s face. He told us—and kept telling himself—we would live like this.
Where to begin with Bono:
“Bad” from The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
For my money, the most U2-ish of U2 songs throws open the door to the singer’s furnace in its final minutes. Bono sings of the many forces which must be faced and surrendered. With anyone else at the microphone, the rhyme scheme would sound overdone. Bono’s passion sells it: “This desperation, dislocation / Separation, condemnation / Revelation, in temptation / Isolation, desolation.”
“Running to Stand Still” from The Joshua Tree (1987)
Perhaps no pop song has better distilled the ruin of our transgressions: “Sweet the sin / Bitter the taste in my mouth / I see seven towers / But I only see one way out.”
“Bullet the Blue Sky” from Rattle and Hum (1988)
The booming live version of this Joshua Tree classic draws out Bono’s inner agitator. Against air-raid guitars and stadium-size drums, he tosses this phrase from his lips like Old Testament prophecy: “Well, the God I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister.”
“One” from Achtung Baby (1991)
The gospel of earthly entanglements, according to U2, is simply this: “You say love is a temple / Love the higher law / ... You ask me to enter / But then you make me crawl / And I can’t be holding on to what you got / When all you got is hurt.”
“Landlady” from Songs of Experience (2017)
Like any great band 45 years in, U2 probably has lost a step. But you can’t deny their continued relevance when you hear Bono make a banquet table of these lines: “Every wave that broke me / Every song that wrote me / Every dawn that woke me / Was to get me home to you, see.”