They want their money back if you’re alive at 33

December 4, 2012 |  by  |  No Particular Song

I’ve been meaning to write this post since I turned 33, which was 364 days and 8 hours ago. There is really no greater motivator than the last minute.

Theologians estimate that Jesus was 33 years old when he was crucified. Add that to an extensive list of things I know because of U2, which includes the meaning of apartheid (though, for a long time I would pronounce it “apartitesss”), the translation of several German phrases, who B.B. King, Aung San Suu Kyi, Desmond Tutu and The Ramones are, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was (and was not) shot, what a Trabant is, and where to find Morocco on a map.

So, Jesus lived to 33. Bono was about 33 when he wrote “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” (the home of my title lyric). And I’m now 33, for a few more hours anyway. When you find yourself as old as Jesus, you start to do some thinking. The Christian/religious/spiritual presence in U2 is undoubted and well documented—dozens of books have been written on the topic and hundreds of articles explore U2’s spiritual identity. You would be hard-pressed to find a song that doesn’t include a quote from or an allusion to scripture. So how does a non-Christian, non-Jew, non-Muslim, non-Buddhist, non-Pastafarian, non-anything find herself so at home with a band that loves to sing about God?

I feel as equipped to talk about religion as I do molecular biology. I didn’t grow up going to church (something my mother regrets) and I never pursued a religious education on my own (something I regret). My best childhood friend was Mormon, my college boyfriend was a Jew, my grandmother was a Turkish immigrant who converted from a Muslim to a Southern Baptist when she moved to America. I fall somewhere between religiously perplexed and spiritually ambiguous. I’m not sure what I believe, because I’m not well educated in my options. I’m not an agnostic, an atheist, an infidel or a skeptic. I think I’m mostly just a non-committal procrastinator.

But, in my very rudimentary investigations, I think religions boil down to some common purposes: 1) Religion provides us with a sense of community. 2) Religion provides us with a set of ethical and moral guidelines that ground us, allowing us to operate within that community and to grow into better people. 3) Religion provides us with a way to ease the distress of what’s unfamiliar, uncertain and unknown. U2, it seems, has become a sort of worship for me—a substitute religion. Or maybe just a religion, period. The band provides me with all three things: a community, a moral and ethical grounding, and comfort in the face of the unknown. And if Christianity revolves around Jesus, U2-ism—for me—revolves around Bono.

Since Facebook first poked its nose into my religious views many years ago, I’ve facetiously kept “What Would Bono Do?” as my answer. A little sacrilegious, yes, but maybe not all in jest. Bono is a good man. He does good things. He helps the world’s poor and hungry and sick. He sings songs for his mother and his father. He protects and celebrates his children. He’s been in love with and committed to the same woman since he was a teenager. If there have been transgressions, they’ve been kept appropriately private. He’s remained devoted to his band of brothers for more than 30 years. He is reverential of women in his songs, never misogynistic. He is on a lifelong voyage of discovery, always learning, exploring, creating new things. In terms of a moral compass, I don’t know much about Jesus, but I have a keen understanding of what Bono would do. There are certainly less worthy idols.

I’m doing my best not to equate Bono with Jesus (though it has been done, by critics and by fans), but he and U2 have certainly helped me fill that God-shaped hole. I’ve made great pilgrimages to be in the presence of U2—going to concerts all over the country or to sites relevant to the band’s history. Much of the excitement and fulfillment comes from getting to commune with likeminded followers at shows—happily talking to my neighbors, complete strangers, on the rail about their own U2 stories. I raise my hands and rejoice, unconcerned with how I appear to anyone else, as we all speak in tongues along with Bono’s various “oh oh oh ohs.” When Bono splashes or, even better, spits his holy water out onto us at concerts, it’s a sort of baptism. As he stands in place at his pulpit, I hear his message, I sing his songs, I pray. It may be for Bono to pull me up on stage. But I pray. The spirit is in the air and I am a witness, along with my sisters and brothers. I am in my purest form, my most authentic self. There is nothing that moves my heart and soul like listening to U2.

But these same religious actions make me awkward and uncomfortable in other venues—specifically the ones created for them. The few times I have gone to church, I’ve felt like a sore thumb. I don’t know when to kneel and when to stand and when to sing and when to say “Amen.” When the preacher asks us to stand up, shake hands and pass the peace, I never know what to say to these people, these complete strangers. When it’s time to sing the gospel, I keep my head bowed in the Psalm book and mouth the words to these songs I don’t know and I don’t feel. I even tried the U2 version of church: I went to a U2Charist last spring. Unlike the Psalms from before, I knew every word to these songs as “Pride,” “Beautiful Day,” “One,” “When Love Comes to Town” and “I Will Follow” played over the PA system, but I still found myself just mouthing along. I felt out of place at the Eucharist that was using U2 to worship God. I’m used to using U2 to worship … U2? Or maybe to worship life and happiness and joy. I was in church, but I wasn’t in my church.

While I’m disappointingly unfamiliar with the Bible, I quote U2 lyrics as others quote scripture, as they relate to or inspire my daily goings-on. There is not a moment in my life U2 can’t guide me through. Heartache? “Walk On.” Hating the world? “Acrobat.” Loving the world? “Beautiful Day.” Overwhelmed? “Zooropa.” Underfit? “Big Girls Are Best. Sexy ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma.” Lonely? “Promenade.” Hopeless? “40.” Hopeful? “40.” Invincible? “Streets.” Whatever the feeling, U2 helps me feel it. In any moment, I’m mentally flipping through the pages of my Psalm books—my U2 album liner notes—helping me find the right expression, make the right decision, say the right thing.

Religion helps us cope with what we don’t know, what we can’t predict and what we can’t understand. It provides comfort in the face of uncertainty. The biggest uncertainty, of course, being death. I find “One Step Closer,” off How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb to be U2’s most emotionally wrenching song. In U2: The Stories Behind Every Song, Niall Stokes writes that “Bono had been talking to Noel Gallagher of Oasis about the fact that his father, dying at the time, seemed to have lost his faith—that he no longer believed he knew where he was going in the after-life, if indeed there was one. ‘Well, he’s one step closer to knowing,’ Gallagher had drawled.” Bono’s lyrics paint a picture of surreal paralysis as he slips into unconsciousness one final time. The song is so big, yet so quiet and understated. It’s both sadness and solace. It’s a song that reminds me of my own mortality and, even worse, Bono’s. But it’s also a song that reminds me we all share a common fate—and hearing Bono cope with it soothes my own angst. If anyone’s keeping track, I’d like it played at my funeral.

I believe the three purposes of religion I mentioned before all tie into something even bigger—the acknowledgement of something greater than ourselves. Maybe it’s Heaven, maybe it’s nirvana, maybe it’s karma or kismet, or the Harmony of the Spheres. Or maybe it’s simply an awe of nature and the universe and the scientific systems at work. Bono constantly encourages us to get “outside of ourselves in order to discover ourselves,” an idea he espoused before performances of “Elevation” early in the 360 tour. My favorite U2 iteration of this notion, though, is on Pop. In fact, they are the first words we hear on what is one of U2’s most spiritually invested albums. “You can reach, but you can’t grab it”—these lyrics start off Discothèque, a playful song about the pursuit of love. But, Bono regularly and reliably uses the idea of love and God as synonyms. I think these opening lyrics are an allusion to the poet Robert Browning’s quote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” To achieve what’s worthwhile—love, success, salvation—we must attempt what may turn out to be impossible. Like any religion, U2 pushes us to strive beyond certainty.

When it comes to U2, I am an admitted fanatic—a word whose etymology includes a range of meanings from “insane person” to “mad, enthusiastic, inspired by a god” to “pertaining to a temple.” It’s no stretch to liken music fanhood to religious worship. My denomination happens to be U2. Some people get it, some people mock it, some people begrudgingly indulge it. At times I’m a little embarrassed at my own fervor for this band. Other times I’m grateful I’ve found something that makes my life more meaningful. And then I realize that most everyone has some sort of religion, everyone’s looking for to fill that God-shaped hole—whether it’s with actual religion, their children, their job, their spouse, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, food, travel … In the absence of an actual religion, I’ve still managed to foster a great sense of spirituality and faith with the help of U2. Maybe I’ll get it more figured out, or maybe this is as figured out as I’ll ever get it. In the meantime, I’m grateful Bono has bestowed upon us blessings not just for the ones who kneel … luckily.


  1. Beth, I could have written this. Never so eloquently, but this is EXACTLY how I feel. Fabulous!

  2. I feel the same Beth, never have felt right in a church, never felt on time with hymns, when I prayed it was more of a dream or a wish..

    Going back to the days of Zoo TV, I recall the screens going wild with the words overlapping, which blew me completely away, but there was one quote that stuck out and as quick as it flashed up and then disappeared it still stuck with me to this day.

    “Religion is a club”

  3. Great piece, Beth — painted in very evocative strokes!

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