20-year-old beef (book review)

Is anyone going to be surprised if I write the following:

Well, I have finished the 300+ pages of conversation between Michka Assayas and Bono, and it turns out that Bono is a human being with flaws, and fears, and trouble in his past he hasn’t overcome, and he loves others, and he has great compassion for the poor of Africa. It also turns out that he’s in this band called “U2” which he started in High School that has had the same group members for more than 20 years.

Anyone surprised? I didn’t think so. He’s likable – you can’t help but like him. He’s self-deprecating and has a sense of humor about himself; he doesn’t appear to hold a grudge against anybody. Frankly, he has the Irish gift of tongues, which is to say his conversation is always interesting.

Look: you cannot read this book and come away thinking, “man, this guy is really a bad person at the core – you have to wonder if he thinks anyone is going to believe this stuff.” You can’t if you’re an honest reader. Bono is an amiable person. There are dozens of examples of why you ought to like Bono when you read this book.

So here’s the first real window-breaker of my response to Rooster’s review of U2’s last CD. I said this in my original post:
I think Bono’s clever and nuanced uses of the Bible and the names and work of God are not just pop marketing: I think they are intended to deceive.
And when I said that, I was wrong. After reading the interview book, and bookmarking almost 100 critical points in the conversation and reviewing them, there is no way I was right about Bono or U2 setting out to deceive anybody.

In that, I owe Bono and his friends an apology for saying such a thing. I was wrong to say that they have set out to intentionally deceive anybody about what they believe, and whether they have read it or not, I apologize.

However, I have to say this: I do actually think that since the “clever and nuanced uses of the Bible and the names and work of God” are present in the lyrics, they must mean something. So what can they possibly mean?

There are two paths to follow: what is evident in the text of those lyrics, and what is evident in Bono’s own description of his life in his own words as guided by Michka Assayas. Since this post is allegedly a review of that book, I’ll start with the last one first, and then come back to the lyrics the next time we handle this topic.

The interesting thing about this book, really, is that it isn’t very much about what Bono thinks is important even though he spends a lot of time talking about his work on behalf of the Africa poverty problem, his family, and his career. This book is about what Michka Assayas thinks is important about Bono. The really clever readers of this blog might come back with, “duh, Cent: it’s an interview. That’s how that genre works: someone asks (leading) questions and the answers come as they will. The interviewer guides the discussion.”

I think that speaking strictly from the view that genre exists in any piece of writing, that must be true. But anyone who has personally been interviewed for anything more than a job at Wendy’s knows something important: the person being interviewed has the option to take control. That is to say, the questions start to matter less than the answers if the person giving the answers has a piece of turf he’s trying to stake out.

Here’s the perfect example: the Matt Lauer/Tom Cruise interview. Technically, Matt Lauer was interviewing Cruise – and baiting him. Who would say that Lauer wasn’t baiting Cruise to say something outrageous or controversial? But Cruise turns out to be a pretty wiley fellow and turned the interview completely on its head. By the end of the interview, the only person more in control of that interview than Cruise was the person producing the segment from the control room. If the genre of interview was strictly about the softballs tossed out by the interviewer, then frankly I think no one would bother to be interviewed ever – why choose to be a pig in a poke?

If anything must be true of Bono, he’s not a pig in a poke. If he had the smallest whim to make the conversation about something specific, I am certain he could find a way to do it. He’s eloquent, he’s smart, and he’s got a lot of energy for a fellow past 40.

But this book is just not at all about what Bono might want to talk about. In fact, I would say that Bono takes great pain to make sure he’s not leading Assayas anywhere in particular. We might attribute that to a couple of things. First, these two have been friends since Bono was nobody and Assayas was, in his own words, “a ‘new wave’ preppy” working for the French magazine Le Monde de la Musique. Bono and Assayas have a history, and Bono frankly trusts his friends – so he could just trust Assayas to ask questions that he didn’t have to be afraid to answer. We also might say that Bono has no vested interest in being anything more or less than what is available for sale already – that is, he’s on the record, literally. Why muck that up by turning out to be something more (or less) than what the fans already expect?

So there are no earth-shakers in this book. Bono’s mother died when he was a teen – we knew that already. Bono’s dad took that pretty hard and he was never close to his son – well, we knew that somewhat already, I think. Bono has an older brother – I didn’t know that, but it’s not an atom bomb of revelation. What we get, for the most part, is Assayas’ filter of Bono’s life: a strict respect for the things he knows Bono holds close to the chest, a causal dialog that any two friends might have together, and a lot of talk about the question of what Bono is doing about Africa.

Technically, Chapter 4 is all about that aid to Africa stuff – it’s all about Bono acting as lead ambassador for the organization DATA (Democracy, Accountability and Trade for Africa – or Debt-AIDS-Trade-Africa, depending on who you ask) to round up G8 support (and particularly US support) for their cause. But the rest of the book is simply littered with more questions or anecdotes about this work.

Hey: it’s goal is good in the geopolitical sense. It would be good to have Africa not starving to death anymore, not to be living on dust anymore. My family supports a family in Africa monthly – we have been doing it for 7 years, since before my son was born -- and if every American family did that we could cut the rate of starvation in Africa significantly.

But to get back to my point here, Bono’s not the one who keeps bringing it up: Assayas is. He is apparently fascinated by this work – because he’s apparently seen the carnage up-front. Gosh: good for him. Thank God he’s got a conscience! But even if this is the most important thing Bono has ever done (and it might be, honestly), I’m really more interested in why he has this passion for good work rather than what a great job of rallying political allies he’s done to gain some debt relief for the African continent.

It comes back, full circle, to the matter of “Bono’s clever and nuanced uses of the Bible and the names and work of God”. The only reference Bono makes to God in all the talk about Africa is that God will judge us by how we react to this situation – and that seems rather amazing to me for someone who, elsewhere, seems to “get” the astonishing act of the incarnation – that man should be humbled and have his pride broken by the fact that God the Creator of all things condescended to be made flesh and be born in a manger.

I would offer up this bit from chapter 11 (Assayas is in italics; Bono is in plain face):
Terrorists are focused on big ideas. You’re quite aware that there are no greater idealists than terrorists. Most of them revere the notions of God (emph added) and holy justice. I guess for a person like you, who is deeply religious and idealistic, it must be very disturbing.

I’m a lot of other things as well. But you see, Michka, people who are open spiritually are open to being manipulated more easily, are very vulnerable. The religious instinct is a very pure one in my opinion. But unless its met with a lot of rigor, it’s very hard to control.

Correct. But you’ve also never seen a skeptic or an atheist smash himself to pieces in order to kill as many people as possible. I mean, atheists would organize concentration camps or would plan collective starvation, but this kind of terror we are dealing with now is of a spiritual nature. You can’t hide from that.

It’s true. Yeah, smashing other people to pieces doesn’t need the same conviction. Most terrorists want to change the material world. Well, add eternity to that, and people can go a lot further to pursue their ends. ... but of course, this is always a corruption of some holy thesis, whether it’s the Koran or the Bible.
Now Bono is about to say something here that’s frankly beautiful – but it is in contrast to calling both the Bible and the Koran “some holy thesis”. Let’s think about what he says here: an act of terror and the underscoring conviction is a corruption of “some holy thesis”, whether that thesis is from the Bible or the Koran.

We can go into it in a future blog entry, but there is no way to say that both the Koran and the Bible are “some holy thesis” in the way he means here. They make exclusive claims. I hate to get all propositional and theological here, but either the Bible is “some holy thesis” or the Koran is “some holy thesis”.

There is also the problem of “people who are open spiritually”. Some people may think that way, but any person who thinks 5 minutes about God’s intention to set apart a chosen people in Christ can’t read that and not wonder which parts the of Bible Bono has neglected.

That’s one piece of evidence we should consider when we look at “Bono’s clever and nuanced uses of the Bible and the names and work of God”. But another comes up hard and fast:
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 honor. 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 [sigh] 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.
How do you reconcile those two statements standing right next to each other, both coming out of the same mouth at the same time from the same man?

My answer is: you cannot. I have no doubt that Bono believes both of these things as equal truths. In the very next response to Assayas, he says:
There’s nothing hippie about my picture of Christ. The Gospels paint a picture of a very demanding, sometimes divisive love, but love it is.
And a page or so later says:
It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the Universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so will you sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic.
In the very best case one can imagine, Bono is being quite the Emergent evangelist here, talking to his unbelieving friend in terms that he might “get” and using the whole vocabulary of world religions to try to make his point. Rather than talk about the Law – he actually calls the Old Testament an “action movie” of violence, special effects and adultery – he says “Karma”, as if they were the same thing.

It is in the confusion evident in that kind of verbal alchemy that I realized something: whether Bono knows the Gospel or not, he doesn’t think there’s a difference between Allah and Yahweh. And inherent in this conversation he’s having with Assayas, I think there is something more important: I’m not sure he cares for those who do.

Before I clarify that and finish this review – which gives me the basis to finish my comments on the U2 review that kicked all of this off two weeks ago – let me say, as I have before, that I am not qualified to say whether Bono’s saved or unsaved. I tried baptizing my glasses to see if it would help, but it didn’t. He says the right words sometimes, but frankly in the best case he says “the older I get, the more comfort I find [in the ‘Holy Roman Church’]”.

But in all that, we have to go back to the first citation I gave from the book, above, when Assayas calls him a man of deep faith, and Bono responds, “I’m a lot of other things as well.” Bono is ambivalent about faith even when he asserts that it is the basis for his understanding of God and love. It comes our clearest when he speaks of an incident early in his life in chapter 8:
I was very influenced by a man called Chris Rowe and his beautiful wife, Lilian. I think he spent a lot of time in China, the child of a mission there before the Communists threw his family out. He was an older man. He relied on the Lord to provide them with everything they needed. They were living hand-to-mouth, this community. I guess he would have been what you would call the pastor of the church, but he’d be much too radical to wear a collar or anything like that. This was the real deal: a radical group. And I said, “look, you shouldn’t have to worry about money. We’re going to earn plenty of money. I’m in a band, and I know we’ll be able to help. We’re going to make it.” He just looked at me and laughed. I remember what he said to me: “I wouldn’t want money earned that way.” And I said: “What do you mean by that?” He revealed to me that, even though he had known we were serious about being musicians, and being a rock group, that he was only really tolerating it. He didn’t really believe that out music was an integral part of who were as religious people unless we used the music to evangelize. I knew then that he didn’t really get it, such a fundamentalist, he didn’t want a part of the rock ‘n’ roll thing. Maybe it’s a compliment to him: we could have been a cash cow.
He continues on the next page:
Then we came to a realization: ”Hold on a second. Where are these gifts coming from? This is how we worship God, even though we don’t write religious songs, because we didn’t feel God needs the advertising.”
So this book – authored by an unbeliever, who I admit controlled the conversation with Bono, though he did not manipulate him – says specifically that Bono has a very uneven view of the Christian faith, and his own faith in particular.

In that, we will proceed to the Rooster’s review next week some time. Have a nice weekend, and enjoy your time in the house of the Lord.

Other entries in this series: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 |