The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

March 5, 2012

U2 expressed religion without getting typecast

By Terry Mattingly
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — 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 entertainer 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.”

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 Ñ or both.

All of that changed Ñ 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 É 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 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 Ñ artists, in particular Ñ 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?”



Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Contact him at tmattingly@cccu.org or www.tmatt.net.