Bono, the Bellwether of Cultural Theology

American talk show commentator and journalist Charlie Rose recently interviewed Bono (on Public Broadcasting Service, May 2013), lead composer and singer for the band U2 (22 Grammy Awards).  The lengthy interview and conversation touched on many topics and issues, with one segment focused on the religious impetus for Bono’s life and music.  In this context Rose brought up the issue of Catholic bi-focal concern with both doctrine and benevolent works.  In the ensuing conversation there was a stated contrast between church doctrine and Christ wanting to aid the poor of the world.  In that setting Bono said, “Christ never speaks of judgment except once, it is how we deal with the poor, it’s that thing in as much as you treated the least of these you treated me, in Matthew.”

Please, send this man a Bible. 

Even if Bono meant (and I don’t think he did) that Jesus spoke only once about those who would be punished for indifference toward the poor, his count is off.  The story of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” (Lk. 16:19-31), for example, would certainly belong in the same list as the Matt. 25 text to which Bono referred (Matt. 25:31-46).  I think that Bono was intending to say that Jesus spoke of the final judgment of humanity only once.

For certain, the judgment that Bono referred to in Matt. 25 is not some generic judgment, but rather the final judgment which Jesus himself associated with hell; “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matt. 25:41).  So, let’s see if Jesus spoke only “once” about hell, as Bono stated.  A look at concordances of the NIV (2011), ESV (2001), NASB (1995), NRSV (1989), NIV (1984), NKJV (1982), and ASV (1901) reveals about a dozen references to hell in the Gospels (some are Synoptic parallels) and each of them comes from Jesus himself (=red letters).

Bono is obviously creative, influential, wealthy, compassionate, gifted, and a bellwether of much popular Christian sentiment about Jesus.  He has also brought tremendous blessings to Africa.  Bono, nevertheless, has missed it significantly on this important issue of Jesus’ teachings about God’s judgment, including hell.

This popular sentiment about Jesus and God’s judgment advocated by Bono and others resonates with an increasingly large group of younger Christians whose views about the teachings of Scripture are sometimes the result of listening to Impressionistic preaching and teaching rather than contextual Bible study.  This Impressionistic approach can obviously leave one with the impression that Christ spoke only once about God’s judgment.  It is important on this issue that all of us pursue and follow a Christ based upon the canonical Gospels rather than a culturally appealing “social activist, guru Jesus” derived from cherry-picking the Gospels.

In addition to the approximately twelve occurrences of the term hell found on the lips of Christ, he also employed a host of other terms to convey similar ideas.  These other terms include “cast into outer darkness,”  “weeping and gnashing of the teeth,”  “cast into the fire,”  “the Son of Man will come to repay everyone,” “eternal fire,”  “eternal punishment,” and others.  Those who are audacious enough to follow the Christ of Scripture, whether our surrounding culture endorses it or not, could embrace a new strategy in approaching this controversial issue.  Might not a modern disciple of Jesus receive more spiritual benefit from trying to discern and appreciate how and why Jesus relied upon this uncomfortable teaching in his own ministry rather than attempting to marginalize or deny it?  It doesn’t seem to be asking too much of followers of Christ to have his spiritual perspectives and Kingdom values instilled into their hearts.

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16 thoughts on “Bono, the Bellwether of Cultural Theology

  1. Thanks Dr Oster. I do not have cable tv so have not seen the Charlie Rose interview. I wonder if it will be online soon. The story of U2 and Bono is fascinating. They are without a doubt one of the most influential bands in history. And for good I suspect. If you are curious to see how some have used their music to speak to the world about spiritual matters look at “Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog” edited by Raewynne Whiteley and Beth Maynard. There are some movers and shakers with in (Eugene Peterson, Brian Walsh, Clinton McCann). I’m sure Don has a copy in the library. I first saw U2 in concert back in high school in Birmingham Alabama for the “Joshua Tree” tour. That was back in 1985 or 86. It was great. I appreciate your post. Thank you.

  2. Bobby, I likewise do not have cable, but the Charlie Rose Show, at least here in the Bible Belt of Memphis ;-), is on PBS. If you go to Charlierose.com you will be able to search the database of guests and find the video file of the May 2013 interview.

    I hoped I made it clear enough in the post that I believe that Bono has done much good in the world. Fortunately for all of us, God’s use of individuals, both among the elect and the non-elect, does not require all of one’s theology to be proper and in order.

    Thanks for your visit and comments!

  3. It stings when the guys you like kind of blow it when it comes to the Word. That’s ok, I’m sure Bono upon hearing me sing my tunes would say, “somebody get that guy a bucket.”

    The bigger issue is that we who preach can do so in a way that could carry the same message. It’s not hard to do, just never preach about the coming judgment of God. (Thankful I’m preaching through Revelation right now. It kind of lends itself to that topic on occasion.) Loved your closing line, “Might not a modern disciple of Jesus receive more spiritual benefit from trying to discern and appreciate how and why Jesus relied upon this uncomfortable teaching in his own ministry rather than attempting to marginalize or deny it?” We have a long way to go to understand the justice which God wants. “Lord, please forgive us for not asking some of the more obvious questions.”

  4. You did Dr. Oster. And I appreciated that very much. I was sort of just adding an anecdote. I think the post was very balanced and the correction is one that we as preachers need to hear. We often simply not only do not have a contextual understanding of the text but we simply don’t even know the text per se. I was having a discussion with a minister that had been “in the ministry” for a large number of years. Some how, not by my choice I am sure, got on to Sodom. He had no clue that Ezekiel 16 was even in the Bible and it says some pretty specific stuff about why Yahweh brought judgment upon them. At any rate love your blog. When you have opportunity dont forget my questions because I need your insight. Blessings.

  5. This is excellent. I too have come to appreciate Bono both for his art and his spiritual vocation. However, there is no replacement for learning the Word and giving it serious study. I found myself preaching a very simple sermon this past week on how the Bible is to be our guide for life. It is not just young people but older people who need to understand the need for study. Far too many folks who claim to be Christians spend more time listening to Contemporary Christian music and reading popular Christian literature than they do reading the Bible. There is still no substitute. Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. I am a little puzzled by this post (fits the genre here on a blog that normally talks about Revelation). Bono made a statement about the connection between judgment and the treatment of the marginalized in society and I am really not sure how fairly this post deals with what he actually said. It seems like this post used that quote as a launching point to make some really good points that may or may not fit with what Bono actually believes. We can make assumptions based on what he didn’t say but is it fair to bash him for what he didn’t say? The post gives the impression that Bono has a very small theology of judgment that is for the most part at odds with or ignorant of a broader New Testament theology of hell and judgment. The problem with that approach is, as far as I can tell, this wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive answer by Bono regarding his theology on hell and judgment. He was just making the connection between the treatment of the poor and judgment…a connection Jesus made that Bono is citing (maybe I am missing the context here as well?). I am just not certain how that quote led to this post. Everyone else in the comments is on board so maybe I am off on this one.

    You concluded with,

    “Those who are audacious enough to follow the Christ of Scripture, whether our surrounding culture endorses it or not, could embrace a new strategy in approaching this controversial issue. Might not a modern disciple of Jesus receive more spiritual benefit from trying to discern and appreciate how and why Jesus relied upon this uncomfortable teaching in his own ministry rather than attempting to marginalize or deny it? It doesn’t seem to be asking too much of followers of Christ to have his spiritual perspectives and Kingdom values instilled into their hearts.”

    I fail to see how Bono is just falling in line with the surrounding culture based on this one statement. What is more, the broader culture doesn’t even believe hell or judgment are real. So Bono is already counter-cultural on this one. I also don’t understand how we would read the conclusion that Bono is marginalizing or denying anything based on this one statement.

  7. “Cherry-picking the Gospels.” That was great. I didn’t hear the interview, but your take on it reminded me of Rev 5, Lamb and Lion. Yeah, He came as a Lamb the first time around–the gentle shepherd and all that (came not to judge..I think that’s what He said). But He’s coming back as the Lion–and it’s not going to be pretty for a great many people. First time rides a donkey; next time rides a horse. And yeah, He’s coming to judge.

  8. Here is the full interview – http://www.atu2.com/news/video-bonos-interview-with-charlie-rose.html
    Start at 45:00 to hear what he said.

    “2003 verses of scripture that pertain to the world’s poor, none of them about judgement. Christ never speaks of judgment, in the OT there is judgment, but Christ never speaks about judgment except once, its how we deal with the poor…as much as you have treated the least of these, so you treated me in Matthew.”

    Watch the video and see the context of that statement. It was in a conversation with Jesse Helms about judgment. It sounds like Bono was informing Helms from Matt 25 over something that God does and will bring judgment over (possibly in a corrective to all the things Helms and others claim God is judging people for). Context is important. Bono could be better informed of the broader NT context on judgment (including Revelation) but we also have to hear what he said in context in order to give him a fair hearing.

  9. Matt, I was a bit surprised by your take on my thoughts, since you were the only reader so far that took my comments the way you did. However, I certainly believe it is important to hear and think about various perspectives, so I am glad you shared your views.

    I want to make clear how much I appreciate the many, many good activities and causes that Bono has participated in and continues to do. None of his good deeds and Christian testimony, however, excludes him from criticism. It seems to me that every high visibility, public figure knows that their words and actions are open to scrutiny by the public, especially when one talks about politics or religion.

    One of the reasons so many folk do not like the book of Revelation is that they think that it stands alone in the NT in its teachings about God’s judgment, especially when they are led to think that Jesus himself has little interest in the issue of God’s judgment and/or hell.

    As a Christian concerned about how God and his message are represented in the public, I took umbrage at Bono’s highly selective use/misuse of Scripture. I listened to the tape of his comments more than once and I still do not believe that I misrepresented him. In my judgment Bono cherry picks verses, or perhaps is reading and reflecting others who have. I will give you another example from the interview that occurred right before the section about Matt. 25. Bono stated to Charlie Rose, “There are 2003 verses of Scripture that pertains to the world’s poor.” This does not seem to be the case, since the vast majority of the OT verses about the poor speak about the poor in Israel, not “the world’s poor.” Once again, a real misrepresentation of Scripture.

    However, even if I grant him the 2003 verses for the sake of his argument, there is no way to get that high a number without relying primarily upon the OT teachings; as far as I can tell there are less that 8,000 verses in the entire NT, and clearly in the NT there are relatively few verses about the world’s poor. So, Bono uses the OT when he wants a high number of verses about the poor, but does not want the OT, in the same paragraph, when he wants to talk about God’s judgment. It just seems to me that if we want the OT as part of our theological foundation for the poor, then in the same breath we should not be contrasting Jesus and the OT and their respective views about the judgment of God. I think the rhetorical point of Bono’s quote, “In the Old Testament there is judgment, but Christ never speaks of judgment” is to say, I prefer Jesus’ view to the Old Testament’s view of God’s judgment. It is one thing to prefer Jesus to the OT, but then don’t in the same breath rest you case about the world’s poor on the OT.

    Given the 22 Grammy Awards, the 7,000,000 tickets to the 360° tour, his $1,000,000,000 investment in Facebook, etc [facts from Wikipedia article] I certainly do not regard bono as a counter-culture force in the world. The final parts of my blog post were directed more toward the blog reader than Bono.

    Matt, thanks again for visiting the blog and your comments. I believe we both agree about Bono’s great importance.

  10. You said in the post that you don’t actually think he meant what you are railing against in the post.

    “Even if Bono meant (and I don’t think he did) that Jesus spoke only once about those who would be punished for indifference toward the poor, his count is off.”

    So if he didn’t mean it why go to such great lengths to correct what you don’t think he meant in the first place? Also, Bono didn’t mention hell. He mentioned judgment. These are some of the reasons I feel like this post launched off into other areas that Bono wasn’t even talking about. You know me well enough to know this isn’t any sort of attack, just my two cents. By the way I just got a copy of 7 Congregations and am relieved it is not 1000 pages! I have been looking forward to reading it for months and will start into it next week.

    1. Matt, Thanks for getting a copy of my commentary; I hope you find it helpful. I am pretty sure that I am not capable of writing a commentary of 1000 pages. Even with the extra pages due to the dozens of photos, it didn’t even make it to 300.

      The reason I associated Bono’s comments in the interview with hell is because of the part of Jesus’ teaching he chose to mention. As I wrote in the first post, Bono refers to Jesus’ teaching in Matt. 25:31-46 which points to the final eschatological judgment as reflected in these verses, “Matt. 25:31   “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him.” More significantly for the association of this teaching with hell is Jesus’ comments to the wicked in Matt. 25:41, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire.”
      I think most interpreters connect this reference to “eternal fire” with hell, and it seems to me to be a correct association.

      Thanks again for your comments.

  11. Matt isn’t the only one who found this post odd. And mainly for the reason he expressed in his 2nd comment: “why go to such great lengths to correct what you don’t think he meant in the first place?”

    Bono was incorrect, yes. But I understood what he was trying to say (as you expressed– referring to Matt. 25). And it seems you did, too. Seemed an odd choice to demagogue him, such as you did with phrases like the emboldened “Please send this man a Bible.” Perhaps a gentler approach would’ve been more appropriate.

    1. As I understood Bono, he was trying to say that judgment was not an important issue to Jesus, he only talked about it only once Bono said; this is significantly incorrect.
      It is my guess (only) that if I said, hypocrisy wasn’t important to Jesus, he only talked about it once, I would hear from several people who would correct my misstatement and suggest I read the Bible/Gospels.

      Thank your for your visit and comments.

      1. Dr. Oster,

        There are two statements from you that I don’t know how to reconcile,

        From your last comment to Philip – “As I understood Bono, he was trying to say that judgment was not an important issue to Jesus, he only talked about it only once Bono said; this is significantly incorrect.”

        and…

        From the original post – “Even if Bono meant (and I don’t think he did) that Jesus spoke only once about those who would be punished for indifference toward the poor, his count is off.”

        So I am uncertain which you mean…that Bono did mean that or didn’t. That is the hangup. It seems in the original post you start with a disclaimer that Bono didn’t really mean it but then you go on to talk about him as if he did, saying someone needs to get him a Bible. If he didn’t really mean what you are railing against, why rail in the first place? If you didn’t mean the disclaimer, why give it?

        1. Matt,

          I will begin by explaining why I decided to challenge Bono, whether he really believed his statement about Jesus or not. There is a HUGH crisis right now in “evangelical” Christianity about many topics, and one of them is the issue of a post-modern “let’s not judge anyone or any behavior” and whether in the mind of many contemporary followers of Christ this aligns well with the teachings of Jesus. D.A. Carson pointed out several years ago that when he was young the favorite Bible verse for evangelicals was John 3:16, but now it has become Matt. 7:1a. The prevalence of this issue is seen in the popularity of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, the inroads of the LGBT perspective into more traditionally conservative congregations and denominations, views about the “imperialism” of Christian evangelism, etc. SO, when a spokesperson of Christianity who is very popular for many followers of Christ so misrepresents what Jesus taught, regardless of whether he really believed it, it needed to be addressed since some in his audience would not recognize how unlike Jesus’ teachings on this issue Bono’s comments were, in my opinion.

          Had he misrepresented the presentation of Jesus’ life and teachings in the Gospels on some minor point, then that would have been a different issue. But in my judgment this is not a minor issue.

          Now to the issue of my parenthetical statement, “Even if Bono meant (and I don’t think he did);” you caught my effort to be conciliatory. When I hear someone make such a major blunder, whether it is Bono, or a politician, or a theologian, or my local preacher, etc, several options come to mind. I, of course, can choose to ignore it. Many times I do choose to ignore it, and other times I do not. Because of what I expressed in the first paragraph I did not believe that I should simply ignore Bono’s ideas. Bono could have misspoken, like all of us do from time to time, about Jesus’ teachings on this issue, but that seemed unlikely in this instance since this statement was an important part of his interaction with Senator Jesse Helms. Clearly only God knows the hearts and minds of any of us, so I am in no place to judge Bono’s motives or his knowledge of Scripture. Trying to figure out how to respond to Bono’s statement was similar to the feelings I have had sometimes when reading books like Love Wins by Rob Bell. Rob Bell is a man who was seminary trained and was the preaching minister for over a decade at a major megachurch; how could some of his views of Jesus, the content of the Gospels, and other parts of the Bible be so off base at times. Many of the explanations that come to mind are really positive sounding.

          In terms of Bono, I certainly attempted to mention many good things that he has said and done and continues to do. I was attempting to be conciliatory by suggesting that he surely, surely, did not believe what he said. Because if he did, well, I don’t think he would make it very far in a Bible Bowl contest. You have lived long enough and been in church work long enough to know that a conciliatory response is sometimes the best, but apparently mine was neither effective nor sufficient for everyone.

          Thank you for your comments and thoughts.

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