Bono is still one of the biggest names in rock music. He is known around the world as the lead singer and lyricist for the rock band U2, but he has also become widely accepted as a credible philanthropist and humanitarian activist. Particularly renowned as a lyric writer, Bono’s songs are filled with social, political and overtly Christian references.
Personal Tragedy and a link with the Beatles
Brought up in a Christian home, Bono’s Church of Ireland mother took him to church with her every week. Tragically, when he was just 14, the singer’s mother died of a brain hemorrhage while attending her own father’s funeral. Interestingly, he shares the same heart-rending early life as two other leading rock/pop songwriters Paul McCartney (who’s mother died when he was 14) and John Lennon (who’s mother was killed in an accident when he was 17). And, in similar fashion to the Beatles songwriting duo, Bono remembers and refers to his mother on a number of his songs.
A man of strong Christian faith and family values, Bono met his wife Alison at school and they were married in 1982, just as the band were becoming popular. The couple have four children. It was also whilst still at school that he met his U2 bandmates and formed the group that would eventually take the world of rock music by storm. Christened Paul Hewson, he was nicknamed Bono by a schoolfriend who initially called him Bonavox, which means ‘good voice’ in Latin. The name stuck, and Paul became Bono long before U2 became popular. Coincidentally Bono’s career in many ways has paralleled that of Sting, who was also given his nickname before he was famous, also became popular in the 1980’s and is also renowned for his outstanding lyrics and powerful vocals.
Advocate for Africa
Bono is widely known as an activist for Africa. He was a key player in Band Aid, the life-saving initiative launched in 1984 by musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to help combat famine in Ethiopia. Bono sang the immortal line, “Well tonight thank God its them instead of you!” He didn’t want to sing the line because it sounded so cruel, but Geldof convinced him that as the one clear Christian believer on the record, only Bono could sing it with real conviction. Bono’s interest in helping Africa grew considerably after this initial involvement. He has worked on a number of humanitarian initiatives co-founding The ONE Campaign and Product Red among others. Granted a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II, he has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and was named Person of the Year by Time magazine in 2005.
The U2 frontman has often been outspoken on political and humanitarian matters, unafraid to speak out even when his own safety was under threat. He was outraged at the Eniskillin bombing in 1987 where loyalist paramilitaries murdered 11 people. The Provisional IRA threatened to kidnap him when he criticised their murderous actions, and in a separate incident a car carrying the band was attacked following his outburst about the Eniskillin incident on the biopic film ‘Rattle and Hum’.
This bold persona is also seen in the band’s live performances. Bono interacts with the crowd constantly and sometimes invites a member of the audience on stage. In the 1985 Live Aid performance he reached down into the crowd and took a girl onto the stage to dance with him during a performance of ‘Bad.’
Bono’s deep rooted Christianity has never been hidden. It permeates his character in so many aspects and from his early days as a developing musician his fellow performers have recognised his faith. Unfortunately some observers have focussed on Bono’s unabashed use of expletives to the exclusion of his obviously compassionate, Christ-like heart. Ironically this is the very point Jesus questioned the Pharisees on. In the New Testament, Christ told his followers that “Man looks on the outside, but God looks on the inside.” Bono is not the kind of guy who would ever fit neatly into a suit-wearing jargon-filled holy-veneered form of Christianity. He is a man of the heart, having more in common with St Peter than with a megachurch pastor.
Bono’s lyrics are full of references to Jesus Christ and Christianity, and it is clear that his faith has always been paramount in his life and career. Here are some examples;
One man come in the name of love
One man come and go
One man come he to justify
One man to overthrow
In the name of love
What more in the name of love
In the name of love
What more in the name of love
One man betrayed with a kiss… (From ‘Pride: In the Name of Love’)
I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colours will bleed into one
Bleed into one.
But yes, I’m still running.
You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Oh my shame, you know I believe it… (from ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’)
Some other particularly overt lyrics include;
Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not/Only the lamb as white as snow” (from ‘White as Snow’)
I believe in the walls of Jericho/I believe they’re coming down (from the track, ‘A Celebration’)
I can stand up for hope, faith, love (from ‘Stand Up Comedy’)
It’s not if I believe in love/But if love believes in me” (from ‘Moment of Surrender’)
All of this can be yours/just give me what I want/and no one gets hurt. (from the 2004 number one hit single ‘Vertigo’ which tells the story of the temptation of Jesus by Satan recorded in Luke chapter 4.)
Quotes from the Bible and references to Christianity started early on in Bono’s career. The album ‘October’ (1981) has biblical references in seven of the songs, starting with ‘Gloria’ which quotes from three Psalms. “In te domine…exultate…miserere” are the first words in Latin of three of the Psalms. ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ refers to the story recorded in Luke 24 where the risen Christ appears as a stranger. A recent study by Angela Pancella revealed that U2 quote either from the Bible or from Christian doctrine on a whopping 77 songs covering 13 albums.
God is love
In 2013 Bono made headlines after excerpts were released from a radio interview where he discussed his passion for helping the poor alongside probably his clearest explanation of an intense faith in Jesus Christ. Bono opened the door on both his personal and professional lives. He made statements about Jesus Christ and ‘the gospel’ (‘good news’) that too many Christian A-list entertainers are cautious about saying;
“Jesus isn’t lettin’ you off the hook. The Scriptures don’t let you off the hook so easily. When people say, you know, ‘Good teacher,’ ‘prophet,’ ‘really nice guy’ … this is not how Jesus thought of Himself. I believe that Jesus was… the Son of God.”
“My understanding of the Scriptures has been made simple by the person of Christ. Christ teaches that God is love. What does that mean? What it means for me: a study of the life of Christ. Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honour. I don’t let my religious world get too complicated. I just kind of go: Well, I think I know what God is. God is love, and as much as I respond in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that’s my religion. Where things get complicated for me, is when I try to live this love. Now that’s not so easy.”
Bono is not ignorant of the high level of expectancy on high profile followers of Jesus. Being a ‘disciple’ is not easy, and there are always more fingers pointing at you when you are a celebrity than when you are Mr Joe Public, but he has nonetheless kept free from scandal and has stayed married to the wife of his youth. Bono says, with more than a hint of irony;
“It’s very annoying following this person of Christ around, because He’s very demanding of your life!”
Story by Ralph Burden
Photo attribution: Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License