Friday, November 04, 2005

God is the Funky One: Going to Church With Bono

(the Rev. Cecil Williams, of Glide Memorial Church)

Bono’s spirituality is no secret among his fans and many of us connect to his songs at the soul level—in our guts, at the root, in the ether, with eyes wet and arms waving.

In late 2004, it was not admiration of pure musicianship or political activism that brought me back into the safe belly of serious U2 fandom after some years of casual listening. In fact, the soulful-emotional pull of Atomic Bomb sucked me back in. Within weeks of the latest album’s release, I was updating my CD collection, learning about the vast U2 bootleg trading community, reading websites, articles, books. This gravity can be felt most especially in new songs like “Miracle Drug,” “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” “Original of the Species,” “Crumbs from Your Table,” and “Yahweh.”

For some U2 fans, one of the band’s concerts is church enough. Fandom itself could be likened to a secular religion. Bono himself has been confused with Priest and Deity. Bono is proud to call himself a “believer”—not in an abstraction but in the God of the Bible. To say it bluntly, Bono’s a bit of Jesus freak.

Much media has been made of his preaching to Jesse Helms and Helms’ alleged repentance on the issue of AIDS. (That is, Helms’ condemned the victim before Bono and learned a little compassion after Bono. I don’t think good ol’ Jesse has exactly embraced his inner queer or anything.)

Myself, I’ve feared that Bono’s taken the “love your enemies” stuff so seriously that he might become my enemy. I do not have to hide my righteous rage at the actions of his friends George Bush and Condy Rice. But as my day-job requires me to work with arch-conservative students on a daily basis, I’m trying to take a page from Bono’s playbook and exercise the values of tolerance and compassion I would accuse the far Right of lacking.

Now, if Bono were a collection-plate carrying member of any church, it’s not likely to be one where Helms (or even his pal Bill Clinton) worships. When it comes to an actual church worth attending, Bono is still on the freaky fringes of faith—and apparently proud of it.

Last night, I watched a wildly interesting documentary on the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. It’s a serious look at the “revolutionary” mood of the 70s and the specifically hyped actions of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

Without going into a full review, one fascinating part of the film was the formation of a coalition of activists that tried to act as a liaison between the Hearts and the SLA. During the SLA-mandated distribution of food to urban poor with Hearst money, a preacher began to speak in a rhetoric we know well from the Dr. Kings and Jesse Jacksons of the world. With a full Afro and a multi-colored dashiki, Cecil Williams praised the distribution of food. “Wow, this guy is pretty radical,” I mused. Some could wrongly interpret him in this section as an SLA sympathizer.

Cecil Williams? Glide Memorial Church? Where do I know these names? Hey, that’s Bono’s preacher!! As recently as this past April 10, Bono, Ali, and the kids attended church at Glide. One Bay Area blogger describes sitting in church with the Hewsons and watching Bono join the choir for a song.

In an interview, Bono has said, “But there's one church that if I was living close by I'd definitely be in the congregation. It's in San Francisco—Glide Memorial. Rev. Cecil Williams there looks after the homeless, gays, straights; he marched with Martin Luther King, he's funny as hell—pardon the pun—and you can get an HIV test during the service. Now that's my kind of church.”

With Williams, Glide has deep connections in the left coast counterculture. One brief online biography explains, “He opened the church to jazz music, gays, hippies, addicts, the poor, poets, and anyone else who wanted to come. He hosted political rallies and services, including a Hooker Convention, speeches by Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers.” Williams' own words show that he takes the gospel message of embracing the outcast quite seriously: “The true church stays on the edge of life, where the real moans and groans are. Most church folks settle in, get comfortable and build doctrinal walls.”

And big names in pews notwithstanding, this is not a superstar church like you might find in Los Angeles or Nashville. In “SPIRIT WILLING: Glide Memorial Church,” Don Shewey explains, “But it's worth remembering that the rich and the famous don't just show up at Glide to get VIP treatment and their names in boldface. They come like everyone else, to be ministered to. On the occasion of Cecil's 30th anniversary at Glide, Bono faxed a letter from London saying, ‘I know I only get there a few times a year, but Glide still feels like home to me. It's the one venue I don't mind queueing to get into.’ Acknowledging that the song ‘Love Rescue Me,’ from U2's Rattle and Hum movie soundtrack, was inspired by the Glide Ensemble, Bono wrote, ‘The land of street angels that we call your choir are proof God is the funky one.’”

So Bono’s getting sanctified San Francisco style—in San Jose, he put on lipstick during the “Send in the Clowns” segement of “Electric Co,” the same day he had attended services at Glide. One side effect of this, of course, is severe backlash from the right wing. While “googling” around to uncover more about the connection between Bono and Cecil Williams, I found some hate-filled websites bashing Bono for condoning perversity.

David Cloud—of a group called Fundamental Baptist Information Service—penned an almost 5000 word diatribe against U2. Of course, according to hate-mongers like this, one of Bono’s sins is his support of gay and lesbian people. My parents, devout and active Christians, have made tolerance and inclusion one of their primary witnesses in their own church. Clearly, as this piece shows, honoring our queer sisters and brothers as sisters and brothers is a cause they share with Bono and the boys.

Frankly, I must confess I enjoyed this piece immensely for its detailed documentation of U2’s celebration of the bacchanalian aspect of all authentic spirituality, especially against the backdrop of prudish piety still parading itself as pure. It’s amazing how this writer blasts Bono for being “of the world” when the writer defends the rigid line that the current religious society promotes in the realm of mainstream politics.

Another website encourages Christians to withhold money from groups like DATA, as a sort of protest against Bono’s tolerance, or as they put it, “The reality is Bono accepts, condones, and welcomes immorality including homosexuality—one of the core issues of the problem he claims to be aiding; therefore, he adds to the problem of AIDS, and his fundraiser is in vain.”

I don’t attend church as a matter of principle but do seasonal rituals with my collective; my church is the one tree hill at back meadow on our communal land and the valley that leads to it, the cathedral of creation, a canyon of peace. But the next time I’m in the Bay Area, I sure want to attend Glide, where God gets the funk on, and the Dionysian Christ dances arm-in-arm with the old testament War God. That could describe a U2 concert.

As much of this blog is about my love/hate affair with Bono, his activism, spirituality, and politics, he seems to return to humor and humility in perfect counterpoint to his vigorous vanity. Or as the screen flashed during ZooTV: “Contradiction is balance.” So, like Whitman, Bono contains a multitude.

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