A Feature Review of
Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story
Hardcover: Knopf, 2022
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Reviewed by Jeremy Lawler
“My soul had a desperate need to be stirred.” (135)
That’s how Bono (best known as the lead singer of U2) explains his youthful draw towards hymns. The line could also serve as an explanation of what has sustained his life, career, music for decades – and what drove him to write his memoir, Surrender.
It’s been fitting to stumble into reading Surrender during the Advent season – the time of year when the incarnation, that blending of divine and human in the birth of Jesus, is honored and celebrated; a season in which (at best) hope is stirred, in the most grounded and unexpected of ways. Bono views his own life, career, relationships, music, and activism through this kind of sacred lens, seeking that hopeful blending of divine and human in his own story. He offers a book of stories and reflections that are true to his decades of lyrics – honest, bent towards hope, letting some light in to shine on the real and grounded stuff of human existence. In reading, or listening via audiobook (Bono’s voice truly is meant to be listened to audibly, after all), there is some soul-stirring of my own, something transcendent and yet grounded in the dirt and mud of real life…something of the Advent spirit, alive and well.
To reveal my bias – I am, admittedly, a lifelong U2 and Bono aficionado. The rhythms and lyrics of their music are deeply embedded in the soundtrack of my life. And so, it is difficult (and maybe not desirable?) for me to read this memoir through a lens of critique. Instead, I read it with deep appreciation at Bono’s inspired contribution, holding out reasons to hope, to love, to seek joy, and to cling to peace as a faithful way forward.
In Bono’s storytelling style, the book is organized by the guiding subtitle, 40 Songs, One Story, with the lyrics of his own music steering his reflections. He is admittedly self-indulgent at times; I suppose that may be a quality required for memoir-writing, particularly one spanning 550+ pages. However, Bono comes across as self-aware in the most important ways, taking the edge off that rockstar ego. While there are plenty of stories of encounter and friendship with powerful world leaders, musicians, celebrities in the realm of the wealthy, the influential, the oversized – somehow in the big picture, he connects intimately and even humbly with the human condition, no small feat for a man who has spent his adult life in the throes of fame and on stages, ever the showman. Interwoven with the ‘extraordinary’ of celebrity – are the ‘ordinary’ of companions and friends through his youth and adulthood, appreciation for the people who have tethered him on his journey. And those tales invite my own reflections, on those who have influenced, encouraged, and formed me along my own way.
That is a major part of the draw to Bono’s storytelling style – that the stories he tells are not just his own, or solely about him. They are about us too. He places himself alongside all of us in probing universal elements of honest humanity – echoes of faith and doubt, intimacy and distance, self-aggrandizement and self-loathing, being lost and found, and finding ourselves ever on the way and seldom at the destination.
He is not shy in reflecting on his own spiritual journey, his “pilgrimage,” as he calls it. Akin to Bono’s lyrics, Surrender has a scriptural and spiritual imagination that permeates his words. He wanders through the territory of the Psalms, the birth and life of Jesus, the words of the Apostle Paul, and various other biblical scenes and stories, and places them alongside his own journey in and around Christian faith, and especially his ongoing attachment to the person of Jesus. He wrestles with that blending of the sacred and secular, working faith into action and lifestyle. As he says, “We need less to be told how to live our lives and more to see people living inspirational lives. I’m also deeply conscious that I can’t live up to the badge I’ve pinned to my lapel. I’m a follower of Christ who can’t keep up. I can’t keep up with the ideas that have me on the pilgrimage in the first place” (137).
A gift of a great artist or communicator is to stir the souls and imaginations of others. Surrender puts that gift on display, in the same way his music has for generations of those in his audience. His musings reveal redemptive and refreshing views on marriage, in his ongoing commitment to and honoring love of his wife Ali; on friendship, which he calls a sacrament, in the bond that has held the 4 members of U2 together during 40-plus years; on faith, which he finds indispensable and the anchor through his journey, with the metaphors and stories of Scripture as lifelines. His meditation on the incarnation of Jesus offers one such picture, an example of his ascendant view on life and faith,
“The poetry and politics of the Christmas story hit me as if I were hearing it for the first time: the idea that some force of love and logic inside this mysterious universe might choose self-disclosure in the jeopardy of one impoverished child, born on the edge of nowhere, to teach us how we might live in service to one another is overwhelming. Its eloquence is overwhelming. Unfathomable power expressed in powerlessness. I nearly laugh out loud. Genius. Inexpressible presence choosing to be present not in palace but in poverty” (512).
The book ends with a flourish, the final chapters containing vulnerable takes on his journey of marriage, family, band, and faith – and how he sees himself as still unfinished, still working out the songs that are to be sung by his band, and his life. As he says (in reference to his song ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’), “This, our most gospel-like song, is about the quest, not the arrival. And that’s how I find faith…the story of every pilgrim is the running toward and the running away from enlightenment. From the Holy Spirit. From Jehovah.” (508)
In explanation for the title of his memoir, Bono speaks of “surrender” being the most powerful word in the world. It’s the loss of control and the powerlessness that pushes us towards trust in something higher; the need to be still, listen, and humbly look for the God that made us in his image, and resist making him into our own. I get the impression that Bono himself is still, relatably, working out what surrender means in his own life. At least in part, he seems to be in pursuit of coming to peace with himself, with his God, with the world around him, and his meaningful place in it all…a picture of what we may all do, if we are brave and healthy enough to do so. And there is the inspiration we can draw from, and the companionship we can find with, Bono – as fellow pilgrims who are not yet at the Promised Land – but on the way, trying to make progress.
Jeremy Lawler is a campus minister at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia. Previously, Jeremy served with Christian Missionary Fellowship in Spain with Globalscope campus ministry, and is an MDiv graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee.