Greg Garrett: Author of We Get To Carry Each Other: The Gospel According To U2

Sunday 26th December 2010

John Cheek interviews American theologian and author of a fascinating study of the music of U2, GREG GARRETT

Greg Garrett
Greg Garrett

The book by Greg Garrett We Get To Carry Each Other: The Gospel According To U2 is one of the most absorbing ever penned about the Irish rock superstars. Unfortunately, due to distribution and rights' problems, is only available now in the UK, via mail-order. The man behind We Get To Carry Each Other is a Professor of English at Baylor University in Texas as well as being an author, theologian, lay preacher and musician. I recently fired some questions at him.

John: How crucial do you think it was that when U2 formed, they did so in Dublin in the mid-1970s: away from the main secular music business in Britain and America, but also in a country where there wasn't ANY contemporary Christian music scene?

Greg: As a guitarist, I used to despair of the fact that early U2 not only didn't sound like anyone else, but it didn't seem to make musical sense. But the circumstances of their founding - that, for the most part, they were not a band full of stellar musicians, but that they found ways to play that expressed their emotion and intention - make the genesis of the band in a place like Dublin ideal. Close enough to a media centre that they could get to London if they had reason, far enough away from the established halls of power that they could make their own way. U2 were eventually claimed by musical movements, but what they did at the outset probably couldn't have taken place anywhere people were constantly comparing them to a style or sound and finding them different.

The question about how U2 might have been different had they been part of a scene with CCM (contemporary Christian music, as it is known in the States) is a vital one, although perhaps it is two questions: Would U2 have gravitated toward CCM? And would they still have been U2? During their early years, U2 were as intentional about their faith in community as they have been in their lives and their second album, 'October', was formed in the push and pull of their questions about faith and music. Larry left the Shalom Community, the charismatic Christian community that told him, Bono and The Edge that they could not be Christian and play rock music, earlier than the others; The Edge considered giving up his life in rock music. Bono wavered before deciding also to leave, with The Edge ultimately agreeing.

If U2 had been given the option of being a Christian rock band (in the sense of 'Christian Rock Band') would they have taken it, as some American artists did? I think the three Christian members would have valued the chance to feel their faith and music were integrated, but I doubt that they could have conformed to safe songs about loving Jesus, which suggests to me that U2 could never have been a CCM band. At the very least I think Adam Clayton, the 'non-Christian' one, would have bolted, but I sense that all except possibly The Edge at his most pious would have been uncomfortable reshaping their songs and their message for a purely Christian audience. It would also have been tragic for the non-Christian U2 fans around the world who, over the years, have been exposed to songs about love, grace and forgiveness, to songs populated by Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Martin Luther King. I have little fondness for 'Christian art'; C S Lewis is one of a number of Christian artists who have argued that creating art purely to push a message, rather than to tell the truth about the world, tends to lead to bad art. And while the Christian members of U2 might have avoided a few hard nights if they'd been able to go into CCM, I fear that their output would have been unremarkable. Can anyone name a great evangelical Christian musician? Writer? Painter? I can't. But I can name a hundred great U2 songs; songs written by people exploring their faith and their world faithfully.


John: How much has it influenced their music, the fact that they've chosen to stay in a predominantly Catholic country rather than relocate to the sun?

Greg: Well, to the extent that U2 have remained a distinctively Irish band, I think it matters that they continue to have homes and business interests in Ireland. And while they have vacation homes and see the world on tour and doing philanthropy, they remain Irish. In Dublin last summer [2009], many folks talked with me about their lifelong relationships with members of U2; I think it's important in some ways to have people who remember that time you got drunk and passed out in the street.or remember when you were too poor to be able to afford a proper bus fare. It keeps you honest.

But as to the Catholic nature of things, I think it's important that U2's music makes room for magic and mystery and beauty. Their song 'Magnificent' - and the accompanying video - is one of those U2 songs that I think needs that backdrop of God's mystery and the faith's tradition to take flight and it would be difficult to imagine them creating such music if they were either in a determinedly Post-Christian setting, or a nation like the US where faith tends to be shallower and less mysterious.

I also think, based on some comments Bono has made over the past few years, he is finding himself more and more drawn to liturgical faith traditions, as the years go by. A close friend of the band, speaking on Bono's background, told me that Bono in fact has been involved in a faith community for some time now, although he doesn't speak about it and likes to play the outsider. But it wouldn't surprise me to know it's a Roman or Anglo-Catholic community where he's sneaking in and sitting in the back row.

John: How much do you think U2 were influenced by the fact that Adam Clayton WASN'T a believer, for many years?

Greg Garrett:  Author of We Get To Carry Each Other: The Gospel According To U2

Greg: To return to the idea that art that only speaks to a group of insiders is probably bad art - I think it matters that U2 have had to paint with a broader brush because Adam was outside a faith tradition. Since the members of the band have all had input into the songs, to expect Adam to sign-off evangelical tripe would have been a bit much. I think we all owe Adam a vote of thanks for that! Adam is now, according to the others in the band, the member they look to for help and comfort, so in many ways he has become the most Christian of the group, although it has not come without hardship and difficulty. But what Adam always gave the band, besides a rock-solid bass line, was an outside sensibility, someone who would ask questions when he didn't understand something, someone who would push back against art that didn't do what art is supposed to do: communicate beautifully. I think he also probably let them know that - if done responsibly, something he had difficulty with for some years - being a rock star could be fun. One didn't have to spend all one's time on the road reading Scripture in a 'holy huddle'.

Adam also, interestingly, is at the heart of the band's philanthropic history. When Bono was invited to sing on 1984's "Do They Know It's Christmas?", the Ethiopian famine fund-raising single, Adam went to the studio with him (Bono reportedly felt out of his depth in the presence of so many British pop stars) and 'held his hand' (despite the fact that Adam does not sing, you can see him in the video). The band later went on to tour for Amnesty International, and of course Bono and The Edge have been involved in many high-profile philanthropic endeavours since. But I like to imagine that if Adam hadn't agreed to go with Bono to the Band Aid recording, maybe none of that would have happened.

John: In your book you mentioned Adam's presence at the recording and it does seem to have had a more profound impact on both Bono and U2, in the longer term. In fact, Adam appears in the group photo on the back of the sleeve for "Do They Know It's Christmas?", right in the very corner. Do you think that, in a different way, Paul McGuiness also brought an outside sensibility to the group, albeit on a business level? Do you think he deserves the nickname of the 'fifth member' of U2?

Greg: Absolutely. Paul has said of the band that, while he himself is not as interested in asking spiritual questions, they absolutely should be asked because they matter to so many people, and what makes U2 what they are is that willingness to ask through their art. It was Paul who reminded the band that they had made tour commitments that required them to go out behind 'October' when The Edge was threatening to quit the band, and it was Paul who helped them make the financial deal that allowed them the freedom to pursue music wherever it took them - including, ironically, music with a decidedly Christian flavour. As someone who has been involved in a rock band and in the life of the Church, I know that it's great to have a dynamic and charismatic leader; but you also need someone who keeps things going and who reminds that leader that people are depending on her or him.

John: Talking of influences, I've long since felt that Bono and Ali's month in Ethiopia, just after Live Aid, has had an impact on them, far greater than has been generally acknowledged. But leaving aside Bono's philanthropic concerns, how much do you think it influenced his future lyrics and the band's general musical direction?

Greg: Bono told a story in his speech/sermon in the States at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC a couple of years ago that he often tells, so I think it must be a really formative story for him. He and Ali were in Ethiopia, working in an aid camp, and a man who saw that he was white brought his baby over to Bono and asked him to take the child home. "If he stays here, he will die," the man told him, ".if he goes with you, he will live." Bono says that, of course, they couldn't take the man's child, but I think it brought home to him the stark reality of poverty, the inequity of it. Here was a father who loved his child so much, he was willing to send him away for good. And Bono says that that conversation was the basis for all the philanthropic work that followed.

But you're right to suggest it had a musical effect as well; Bono asks hard questions of America on 'The Joshua Tree', asks hard questions about human existence on 'Achtung Baby' and 'Pop', and you get amazing advocacy songs like 'Miracle Drug' and 'Crumbs From Your Table'. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About John Cheek
John CheekPreviously from Southend-on-Sea, John Cheek graduated in Theology from Chester and now works as an evangelist in the north-west of England.


Reader Comments

Posted by mark in wales @ 20:52 on Jan 6 2011

I`m sorry but i find it incredibly ignorant for mr Garrett to say "can you find a great evangelical musician, writer etc" for a start he quoted c.s. lewis , (i suppose it depends on your interpretation of evangelical but come on) - in answer to his question i`d say where do you want me to start!!!. i used to be a huge U2 fan but to be honest i found better bands to feed my faith. U2 have more universal appeal and i`m not knocking them.

Posted by James in Wolverhampton @ 08:36 on Dec 26 2010

When I was a Christian teenager I also struggled to balance writing about a broken world. I too felt the 'push' to write cuddly evangelical songs and so I stayed away from listening to 1980s UK CCM. Ironically it was U2 who kept an element of Christian-ness in my otherwise secular interests.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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