We Get to Carry Each OtherThe Gospel According to U2Greg GarrettWestminster John Knox Press, $16.95, 176 pp.
Stereotypical rock stars use their fame to get sex, or as an excuse to trash hotel rooms and smash their guitars. U2’s lead singer Bono uses his rock-star status to gain an audience with billionaires like Bill Gates. “It was late, we’d had a few drinks, and Bono was all fired up over a scheme to get companies to help tackle global poverty and disease,” Bill Gates reported. “He kept dialing the private numbers of top executives and thrusting his cell phone at me to hear their sleepy yet enthusiastic replies.”
“I do have responsibilities,” Bono explains on another occasion, “and actions speak louder than words.” That deep sense of responsibility, founded on Christian convictions-his mother was Protestant and his father Catholic-compels Bono not only to write songs that call for peace and justice, but to lobby tirelessly for organizations such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
Hailed by popes and presidents alike, U2 has earned the respect it receives as a philanthropic juggernaut. It would have been easy for the group to rest on its musical laurels, particularly after their 1987 album The Joshua Tree-an instant classic. But instead of coasting, the band has remained restlessly inventive and hardworking. Its story, like its musical corpus, continues to grow.
Greg Garrett’s new book surveys the sweep of this important band’s life and output so far. Apart from an introduction and a conclusion, three chapters make up We Get to Carry Each Other. “Belief” recounts how Christian faith has marked the lives of three of the band’s four members (bass player Adam Clayton, though not dismissive of his bandmates’ commitments, is not a professing Christian). This initial chapter follows the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Cross through a steady parade of U2’s songs. “Communion” surveys the theme of community across the band’s works, and details how the members of the band have stuck together over the decades. The third chapter, “Social Justice,” shows how the renewal of creation in the Kingdom of God serves as the thematic scaffolding for the many U2 songs decrying violence, bigotry, and the inequitable distribution of wealth.
Garrett’s conversational, friendly style will help even the mildly curious to more deeply appreciate U2’s work. He avoids hagiography and is never heavy-handed in his theological exploration of the group’s songs. Without fanfare or distracting scholarly flourish, the book vividly demonstrates how U2’s music works on several levels of romantic love, friendship, familial love (as with “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” Bono’s paean to his father), and spirituality.
Still, the book does suffer from a few missteps. While Garrett draws several helpful analogies between theological truths and U2’s life and music, what those analogies mean is not always clear. For example, he describes U2 itself as a “holy mystery”-they have four members and yet are one, more or less as the Trinity is three in one and one in three. At another junction, he proposes “that U2 might be thought of as a sort of ecclesia, a gathering of believers who support one another, who do good works as Jesus taught, and who, whenever they go out on tour, actually create an experience that-for many who join them-feels a great deal like worship.” That’s putting the pop-culture cart before the theological horse.
It might be illuminating to say that in some ways a close-knit, decades-old rock band reflects aspects of the Trinity. But it invites confusion to suggest that the Trinity is like U2, rather than that U2 is (in some ways) like the Trinity-although even that might be pushing it. Similarly, while it is surely the case that U2 offers much to challenge the church to be better and more faithful, it is uniquely the church that is called by God to be Christ’s body on earth. As such, the church is something more than a surrogate for those not privileged to belong to a famous rock band.
Of course, these criticisms may seem pedantic, especially because Greg Garrett, an English professor at Baylor University, seems well aware of the proper role of theological analogy. But perhaps U2 deserves more. As Garrett notes, U2’s members have not been active participants in parish life for a long time. He deals astutely with the complaint that U2 in this regard shows a “weak ecclesiology.” But what if the real problem is not U2’s ecclesiological shortcomings so much as the church’s? What if we ask first what kind of congregation it would take to welcome and sustain the members of U2 as its own?
It would have to be a church that took its own Christ-centeredness seriously enough to keep its priorities straight. That might mean not being overawed by the musicians’ celebrity, by “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (Matt 4:8). Only a church like that could put away the cameras and autograph books and simply allow Bono and company to worship in its midst.
In short, a church that might faithfully and effectively welcome U2 to the Eucharist would have to take its own life and language at least as seriously as U2 takes its humanitarian work. Then, truly, we might get to carry each other.