On February 27 John Piper preached a sermon entitled “No One Ever Spoke Like This Man!” His text was John 7:40-52 and the sermon title is a direct quote of Jerusalem temple guards in reference to the controversy surrounding Jesus’ teaching. Piper then proceeded to enumerate eight “spectacular claims” of Jesus that clearly marked Jesus as God’s son.
In concluding his sermon, and in an effort to drive home his thesis that Christ is different than any other teacher who has walked the Earth, Piper used two supporting voices—one conventional and one atypical. While it might have sounded odd to Piper’s congregation, for those of us who are familiar with the work of U2 it is no surprise that someone would link a traditional Christian author like C.S. Lewis with the contemporary rocker Bono.
For decades Bono has been playing with themes found in the writings of Lewis, specifically focusing on The Screwtape Letters. In this classic work, Lewis creates a fictional narrative in which a head demon, Screwtape, instructs and mentors a younger demon, his nephew, Wormwood. Screwtape’s task is to teach Wormwood how to distract and tempt the human that has been assigned to him. The senior demon consistently counsels the younger to twist the truth in slight, almost imperceptible ways. This, he says, will lead to the greatest chance of success against the enemy (in this case, God).
There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it's any use to us. -Screwtape
Bono has played with this idea and has in the past become the Devil’s advocate in at least two significant ways. First, in U2's song "The Fly," Bono actually personifies the character he calls The Fly. Bono said that this early 90s hit was like a phone call from hell in which he, the senior demon, was letting loose the secrets of his trade. The Fly sings, "They say a secret is something you tell one other person, so I'm telling you, child." And later in the song,
It's no secret that the stars are falling from the sky
The universe exploded 'cause of one man's lie
Look, I gotta go, yeah I'm running outta change
There's a lot of things, if I could I'd rearrange.
But even more than the lyrics of the song, it's the live presentation that crystallizes the message of The Fly. In 1994 on the Zoo TV tour the band flashed brazen graphics across state-of-the-art larger-than-life video screens. With messages like “Everything you know is wrong,” “Reject your weakness,” and “Watch more TV,” The Fly spewed half-truths and half-lies. Interspersed amongst the cacophony of aphorisms were messages that required the viewer’s judgment as to how true or how false the statements were. In one case the message that read “It’s your world you can change it” morphed into one a bit more cynical of a consumerist culture: “It’s your world you can charge it.”
“The Fly” found new life on the Vertigo tour in 2005 as the diabolical messenger shifted the theme away from media, technology and materialism toward selfishness and individualism. Cast onto a screen several stories high, the word “YOU” was repeatedly flashed at The Fly’s hearers (see video I took here at the final concert on the Vertigo tour in Hawaii). “You are the difference,” “The secret is your self!” “Sell your soul,” and “Reclaim your space, it belongs to you” were some of the messages, all partially true and partially false. The listener must decide where the dividing line is and how the truth has been twisted. The film U23D took the barrage of messages one step further by cascading letters, words and sentences in front of the band and nearly on top of the theater audience. The presentation was wholly engaging. The Fly, as the deceiver, was at the top of his game. (For a thorough treatment of “The Fly” see Beth Maynard’s outstanding three-part commentary here: #1, #2, #3.)
A second way that Bono has personified the devil’s advocate of Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is through the MacPhisto character, also from the 90s-era Zoo TV tour. This persona was a greasy-haired, red-horned, decrepit has-been rock star who clearly voiced an ironic and evil agenda. MacPhisto assured his clamoring devotees that “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car” and then showered the delighted audience with fake paper money. He followed that with a discourse to his adoring followers and offered them everything they ever wanted. Example: “People of the former Soviet Union, I've given you capitalism, so now you can all dream of being as wealthy and glamorous as me.” Of course, the underlying message in all of this was: be careful what you wish for, it may be your undoing.
The washed-up and washed-out demon, obviously reeling from many regrets, closed the concert a few minutes later by singing a haunting lament/love song, “Love Is Blindness.”
Love is drowning / In a deep well
All the secrets / And no one to tell
Take the money / Honey / It's blindness
Love is blindness / I don't want to see
Won't you wrap the night / Around me
Take my heart / Blindness
It’s no surprise to see the ongoing ways that Bono brings the world of C.S. Lewis to the live performances of U2’s songs. On a more recent tour Bono continued to demonstrate the influence of Lewis with another persona often identified as evil. As Edge’s guitar wails in siren like fashion, Bono confesses, “Jesus, this is Judas” and then launches into the apocalyptic song “Until the End of the Word,” an imaginative conversation in which Judas comes to Christ seeking love, reconciliation and forgiveness. The unfaithful disciple sings, "Waves of regret and waves of joy. I reached out to the one I tried to destroy. You, you said you'd wait 'til the end of the world." The song is dramatized as Bono takes on the character of Judas and Edge loosely plays the role of Christ. It is a brilliant piece of music, theater and art, the story of betrayal and redemption acted out on a concert stage. Lewis, I think, would be pleased.
So, though he was somewhat ambivalent about his new-found discovery, Piper was correct to associate U2’s Bono with C.S. Lewis. The influence of the latter upon the former is probably far deeper than Piper could imagine. In fact, Piper’s treatment of Bono is fairly cursory and even a bit suspect. The preacher pinches a passage from the book Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas to support a classic notion of Lewis that Jesus must be either “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” (from Mere Christianity). Piper quotes Bono:
Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: he was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn't allow you that. He doesn't let you off that hook. Christ says:
No. I'm not saying I'm a teacher, don't call me teacher. I'm not saying I'm a prophet. I'm saying: "I'm the Messiah." I'm saying: "I am God incarnate." And people say: No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet, we can take. You're a bit eccentric. We've had John the Baptist eating locusts and wild honey, we can handle that. But don't mention the "M" word! Because, you know, we're gonna have to crucify you.
And he goes: No, no. I know you're expecting me to come back with an army, and set you free from these creeps, but actually I am the Messiah. At this point, everyone starts staring at their shoes, and says: Oh, my God, he's gonna keep saying this. So what you're left with is: either Christ was who He said He was, the Messiah or a complete nutcase. I mean, we're talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson. . . . I'm not joking here. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that's farfetched. (p. 227).
Piper also asks in his sermon, “Is Bono born again?” and then answers himself, “I don’t know.” That’s almost a bit surprising since Piper has been getting pretty good at identifying who’s “in” and who’s “out” lately. But nonetheless, it’s obvious that he is not really familiar with Bono or U2 (nor has he read the full Assayas book) and finds the quote a convenient contemporary anecdote for his homily. (I’m guessing he simply read this Wikipedia article in which Bono is referenced.)
Do C.S. Lewis and Bono belong in the same sermon together? Yes, it’s easy to imagine. Lewis’s influence on U2 is easily detected and chronicled far above and beyond the examples I discuss in this post. But while John Piper makes a good linkage between the two, his use of Bono is lacking. It’s a utilitarian move at best. The themes and nuances of the Oxford author as they appear in the work of U2 are plentiful, sometimes subtle, other times not so much. It’s a joy to really investigate these and to hear the voice of Lewis rise up with depth and focus in U2. Simply using a quote from Bono to make the linkage leaves a lot to yet be desired and discovered.