Interview on the Spiritual Side of U2 with Greg Garrett, author of ‘U2 Gospel’

 Bono of U2

The title of Greg Garrett’s new book about the spiritual side of Bono and U2 proclaims his central argument from the front cover. The book is called “We Get to Carry Each Other: The Gospel According to U2.” Do you know those famous words?

Rolling Stone ranks, “One” (the song in which this line appears), as No. 36 among the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was released way back in the early 1990s, when the band was at a crossroads and nearly broke up. Depending on your age, you might recall the more recent Mary J. Blige version of the song, which also was a hit.
The words that end the song—which prompt men and women around the world to “sing along”—are:

 Greg Garrett Gospel According to U2 coverOne love, one blood, one life.
    You got to do what you should.
    One life with each other: sisters, brothers.
    One life, but we’re not the same.
    We get to carry each other.
    Carry each other.
    One, one.

And, in singing along, we’re essentially joining in a global hymn, Greg argues. He writes, “The meaning of life, U2 ultimately reminds us, is not in how much gold you pile up, how many mansions you build, how many people you can order around, or even how loudly and devoutly you pray and proclaim your salvation. It is in what we get to do for each other.
“This is U2’s faithful message to the world.”
Did you catch that key phrase, “get to,” in the lyrics and in Greg’s book? That phrase means that it’s one of life’s great privileges that we get to help each other. Wow! That’s a sermon that’ll snap your head around, if you stop to listen to the lyrics!

Our spiritual mission doesn’t lie in graciously deciding that we’ll donate a little bit of money or expend a little effort on behalf of the needy—when it’s convenient for us. No. The orientation here is waking up in the morning and feeling thankful that we get to help out wherever we can.

From that sermon, we could jump off in a dozen directions: Get involved in “Lift (Your City) in Prayer.” Or, check out this week’s series about helping overwhelmed parents. Or, click on the Amazon link to grab a copy of Greg’s book—and plan a small-group series in your congregation to fire up some real enthusiasm for strengthening your community. (If you missed it, jump back to Part 1 of this series for some additional U2 gems you can use in small groups.)

But, before you rush off—here’s Greg Garrett himself (that’s Greg in the next photo at right) to explain his own decades-long fascination with “the world’s most popular band.”


 Greg Garrett Gospel According to U2 DAVID: We’ve told readers about your work before, Greg—especially your earlier book on the spiritual lessons of comic book super heroes. You’re always drawing creative connections between spirituality and popular culture. Tell us what you do for a living—beyond writing books.
GREG: I am professor of English at Baylor University and I’m writer in residence at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin and I’m a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal church. Mostly, I’m known as a writer and a teacher.
DAVID: We should explain to readers that, in addition to attending U2 concerts and following the band’s work over the years—you once had an opportunity to sit down with these guys and interview them.
GREG: I did. It was back in the days when I was a rock journalist. I interviewed them after they had recorded their second album.
DAVID: These guys are not card-carrying members of any particular religious group, are they? They’re not regularly practicing Catholics, for example.
GREG: No, they absolutely are not. The interesting thing for many of your readers is that they have been people of faith—but outside of almost any organized religious tradition for more than 30 years.
They grew up in Ireland and saw the people of Ireland blowing each other up over divisions of faith. They’ve felt they could live out their lives of faith more authentically outside of any organized tradition. Three of the four members would think of themselves as Christian but they have not been part of a formal Christian organization for more than 30 years. They seem to be very much in tune with various faith and wisdom traditions, though. They have worked with the Dalai Lama and with Jewish leaders and many others—so it’s a very ecumenical understanding they have about how we are called to be the face of change for the world.

 Bono of U2 portrait     DAVID: In a way, they’re a voice for the “Nones”—the growing ranks of Americans who answer with the word, “None,” when pollsters ask them for their “religious affiliation.”
GREG: Yes, Brian McLaren talks about them in this way. In a very real sense, they model new ways of being a faith community. The have a very clear sense of mission—we are called together to help people. And, as they work out this mission, they seem to be modeling a new way to be people of faith.
DAVID: Why are they so enduring in their popularity?
GREG: Not only are they a band with incredible longevity, so they have lots of sales and awards and fans who follow them, but they’re also a band that continually reinvents itself and keeps itself relevant. The new album, “No Line on the Horizon,” has new sounds and ideas.
I don’t want to criticize other bands by name, but people know which bands only go back to work when they need more money. U2 was freed from that necessity very early in their career because of some smart business decisions they made. They’re free from having to worry about making more money.
So, in an album like “No Line on the Horizon,” there are elements of their past albums—but you also hear some new Eastern stuff that comes from recording in Morocco. It’s recognizable as U2, but they’re still exploring new music. They’re not resting on their laurels.
DAVID: They started out with some concerns very close to home, but they’ve become world citizens. That’s a pretty surprising transition for four guys from Dublin.
GREG: The four did grow up in Dublin. Ireland was what they knew. But they soon had some powerful experiences of the world.
Particularly, Bono traveled to Central America and Africa. In Ethiopia, he had a father hand him a starving child and tell him: “Take him home with you, please. If he stays here, he will die.” That’s powerful stuff.
Their consciousness expanded so greatly that they came to see the whole world needs help—not just the people in Ireland.
DAVID: Is this spiritual mission we’re talking an effort by the entire U2 band? Or is this really Bono we’re talking about in terms of these spiritual commitments?
GREG: That’s a cool question and difficult to answer. From years of following U2 and from my research for this new book, I would say: Bono is the point person, but he is representing the band in concerns they share.
When we look at the benefit concerts they do—or the benefit tour they did for Amnesty International—you can see this is a thrust they’re making together. It’s like they’re part of a family and they make these efforts together.
Here in America recently, the guitar player The Edge partnered with Gibson guitars to help get instruments back into the hands of musicians along the Gulf Coast who lost their instruments in the big hurricane. So, the whole band obviously cares about these issues.
DAVID: With so much music released over the years, what albums would you suggest that newcomers pick up to familiarize themselves with U2?
GREG: The obvious and perhaps the easiest answer is to get one of the “Best Of” albums. If you listen to some of the music from early to mid career, a lot of people will say: “Ohhh, that song is by U2?”
Another good first choice is “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” This is the album that came out in October of 2001.
DAVID: Rolling Stone called it the band’s “third masterpiece.” “Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby” were the first two in Rolling Stone’s list.
GREG: This is the album associated with many of the things we were dealing with after 9/11. Then, early the following year, they performed at the Super Bowl. So that album is a good choice.
But I also recommend the new album, “No Line on the Horizon,” because it’s as intentionally spiritual as anything they’ve ever written.
DAVID: In Part 1 of this U2 story, we shared some of the words from a song on that new album, “Cedars of Lebanon.” The song warns people to “choose your enemies carefully, ‘cause they will define you.”
GREG: Yes, they’re warning that we can be defined by our hatred. The album has allusions to the Middle East adventures of Great Britain and America.
U2 has been standing up against practices like torture and rendition that are just now coming to light more fully. In a very real sense, they’re saying that your enemies will define you. You’ve got to be cautious about how you combat evil—because it can make you evil yourself.
DAVID: They seem to be stepping into the classic tradition of the ancient Hebrew prophets—these courageous figures who stood up to powerful figures and called for justice and a return to basic religious values.
GREG: One of the sections of my book deals with the tradition of prophetic voices and I take a look at the idea of “prophetic” as not referring to “predicting the future,” which is a definition a lot of people know from popular culture, but “prophetic voice” as a phrase really describing someone who speaks truth to power.
For Bono and U2, this isn’t about religious propositions or orthodoxy—it’s about deep spiritual truths like standing in solidarity with the poor. Bono describes what he is doing now as serving as a lobbyist for the poor.
DAVID: You’ve traveled widely, Greg. You’ve heard many of the world’s great preachers—yet your book explains that you’ve been profoundly moved, over many years, by the spiritual messages preached by this rock band.
GREG: I wrote this book because I do have a profound personal connection with the band. And it’s not just that I sat down with them for an interview 27 years ago. It’s because their music and their lives have shown up in my life over and over again.
All the work I have done in writing and teaching about religion and culture has grown out of this kind of experience.
U2 is one way that many people feel God moving in their lives. For so many people, they don’t feel it in organized religion but in experiences like turning on the radio and hearing a song they desperately needed to hear at that moment.
I have a passion for this particular book and this group—because these musicians have set out on an authentic spiritual quest and have told the world about it honestly.
They are reaching out to millions through their music—letting us know we are not alone in our journeys.


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