Sympathy for MacPhisto: Finding Apocatastasis in U2

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A couple weeks ago, I attended my fifth U2 concert, which inspired me to dust off an old paper that I wrote for a course in seminary. The course was titled “The Spiritual Journey of U2” and it was co-taught by Professors Barry Taylor and Ryan Bolger at the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary back in the Spring of 2006 and I happened to turn in my paper on June 6, 2006 (6-6-6). Although Bono no longer dresses up as MacPhisto on stage, the radically inclusive spirit that MacPhisto represents still speaks loud and clear through their music and live shows… 

For U2’s encore of the Zoo TV tour in Europe, Bono would dress as MacPhisto, a washed-out Elvis-like rock star with devil horns, grinning diabolically at the crowd, saying, “Look what you’ve done to me.” Although following in the footsteps of rock legends Mick Jagger and Angus Young, MacPhisto blazed an entirely new trail for devil-dressed rock stars. Instead of paying allegiance to Anton Levey,[1] MacPhisto represents a theme of radical inclusion that runs throughout U2’s career and ultimately pays allegiance to love.

The process of shattering stigma in order to restore the marginalized into community is a theme that I see running throughout the life and music of U2. By restoring the marginalized and demonized to a proper place in the human community, U2 takes part in an eschatological restoration, or apocatastasis[2], thereby furthering the reign of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

Walking through the U2 catalogue, we will see how apocatastasis emerges and develops as U2 honors marginalized and stigmatized communities throughout the culture and restores them to a significant place in humanity. We will then explore the missiological implications of this approach and perhaps gain courage and inspiration to lay down our own biases against the outcast and demonized. In the process, we might even learn to have sympathy for the most demonized figure of all, the devil.

Sympathy for MacPhisto: Finding Radical Inclusion in U2 Catalog

Boy

On their first album, Boy, U2 creates a space for a marginalized community without even knowing it. Songs like “Twilight” and “Stories for Boys” with potentially homoerotic lyrics (“In the shadow, boy meets man” and “sometimes a hero takes me, sometime I don’t let go”) made many listeners consider U2 to be a gay band. The LGBT community certainly interpreted these images in their own way and opened up U2 to a whole new perspective on their own lyrics.

Although U2 did not intend a homoerotic message, they certainly were not opposed to the gay community interpreting their lyrics in their own way. To many in the gay community, songs from Boy came across as wholly affirming. Regardless of U2’s intent, many in the LGBT community claimed these songs as uniquely their own.

October

October, their second album, wrestles through the band’s faith crisis. At the time, Bono, the Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. were deeply involved in a charismatic group called Shalom Christianity. Members of the Shalom group strongly discouraged U2 from pursuing a career in rock music since rock music was “of the world” and even “of the devil.” They were told they had to decide between God and rock. The repercussions of such a black-and-white, either/or approach often involve the objectification and demonizing of human beings. According to the Shalom Christians, anyone associated with rock music were “of the devil” or at least, certainly not pursuing God’s will for their lives.

Although October certainly proves to be the most “Christian” of their albums, U2 still pursued their rock career on a Non-Christian record label thereby refusing to accept the stigma that some Christians held (and still hold) against rock music and musicians.[3]

War, The Unforgettable Fire, and The Joshua Tree

In War, The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, U2 turns their attention to victims of violence, political oppression, and drug abuse. In their songs, U2 embraces these objectified and marginalized peoples and enfold them into the human community, honoring their pain and struggle.

Achtung Baby

With Achtung Baby, U2 deals with issues of divorce, betrayal, and infidelity. The pain and stigma attached to divorcees, cuckolds and adulterers resounds on a universal level. Here, U2 delves into a deep reservoir of emotional suffering and delivers one of their most moving albums ever. U2 tries to “throw their arms around the world,” especially around the emotionally broken-hearted and the betrayed. Instead of glossing over the pain, they describe the pain of separation with wonder and mystery, without condemnation. They see the divine at work, moving in “mysterious ways” and “lighting the way” through the dark cloud of emotional pain and confusion. And regarding those who do prefer to condemn and stigmatize the suffering, U2 screams, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down!”

Zooropa

The emotionally abused, the ungrateful, the trashy and even the hedonists are lifted up in U2’s creative and ambitious Zooropa. U2 certainly does not treat these people with the same compassion that they had for the politically oppressed or victims of violence. In fact, a great deal of their work here is a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ mockery of a media-numbing society. However, in the midst of all their excess, one can see a poignant glimpse of redemption even among the decadent. In The First Time, U2 retells the story of the Prodigal Son,

“My father is a rich man

He wears a rich man’s cloak

Gave me the keys to his kingdom coming

Gave me a cup of gold

He said I have many mansions

And there are many rooms to see

But I left by the back door

And I threw away the key

And I threw away the key

Ya, I threw away the key

Ya, I threw away the key

For the first time I feel loved”

Bono explains, “Instead of doing an ‘up’ version [of the parable], we just emptied it out, deconstructed the song and ended on this line about throwing away the key, and the prodigal son doesn’t go back. He sees all this stuff there for him and he doesn’t want it and he goes off again.” Bono declares, “It’s about losing your faith.”[4]

The band that was discouraged to embrace rock culture because of Christian stigma, now embraces a prodigal son who does not even want forgiveness, who, in fact, wants nothing to do with forgiveness!

Excursus on U2’s “Devil” Music

U2 penetrates the culture that their Christian friends condemned as “of the devil.” To a more liberal mind, the idea of rock culture being of the devil smacks of paranoid fundamentalism. However, even David Bowie, a radical icon of rock, admits, “Rock has always been the Devil’s music.”[5] With artists like Marilyn Manson, it is clear that a profound interest in the devil exists within realms of the rock culture, thus giving Christian fundamentalists reason to worry. Yet U2 offers a different approach. Instead of jumping on the Christian bandwagon of condemnation, they clothed themselves in the demonized culture and unlocked the redemption inherent within it.

By dressing up as MacPhisto, Bono affirms the devil’s place in rock culture; yet at the same time mocks it. When asked by a Christian fan why he dressed as the devil, Bono referred to C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, which expresses Martin Luther’s idea that the best way to drive away the devil is to mock him. Yet like C.S. Lewis, Bono also knew that some things could be said more effectively under another guise, especially a devil’s guise. Though Bono did plenty of talking and mocking as MacPhisto, it is the songs he chose to sing as the devil that I personally find most moving and redemptive.

In the midst of MacPhisto’s devilish grins, cavalier posture, excessive attire, and decadent aura, I witness a hint of sadness. I find myself feeling for the devil, feeling even sorry for him. During their live performances of “Bad,” Bono used to sing lines from Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” “The First Time” creates a space for a Prodigal Son who does not even want God’s forgiveness. And “Until the End of the World” offers a sympathetic approach to Judas Iscariot, the most demonized human of all. Once again Bono pulls for sympathy for the demonized by portraying the devil as a tired, washed-out rock star, rather sad, unfulfilled and even regretful.

At the end of the Zoo TV shows, MacPhisto would sing “With or Without You”[6] with a pathos so broken and gripping that one had to wonder to whom he would be singing. What could possibly bring out such emotion in the devil!? Certainly not a woman or any human being for that matter. Only a supernatural being could grip the heart of the heartless. Only the most potent love could bring the devil to the brink of tears.

When I consider that perhaps the devil might be singing to the One who is both his ultimate arch-nemesis and his first love, a tremendous sympathy for the devil surges within me. The devil cannot live with or without God. He cannot live without God because God is the source of all existence and nothing exists apart from him. And he cannot live with God because…well, because he is the devil!

MacPhisto seems to be particularly moved by the line “And you give yourself away” and would nearly enter into a trance as he sang, “And you give, and you give, and you give!”[7]

The pride of the devil slowly crumbles with the song as his Enemy continues to give love and compassion despite the fact that the devil proudly personifies all that is evil and anti-God.

After “With or Without You,” MacPhisto would then sing “Love is Blindness,” making his final stand against divine love. With lyrics like, “I don’t want to see. Won’t you wrap the night around me?” The devil essentially argues, “I don’t want your love. I want death, darkness, blindness.” The Edge’s string-snapping, anger-throbbing guitar enhances the struggle to resist the pride-shattering love.

Finally, the devil gives in, his pride falls and he flows down the inevitable river rushing toward the heart of God. The devil cannot help falling in love with the divine. And so he sings the song that he was meant to sing from before time began…

Wise men say ‘only fools rush in,’

but I can’t help falling in love with you

Shall I stay? Would it be a sin?

If I can’t help falling in love with you

Like a river flows to the sea

So it goes, some things were meant to be

Take my hand. Take my whole life too.

‘Cus I can’t help falling in love with you

Then MacPhisto aims the microphone at his audience, encouraging them to sing along. Thus, in the end, the devil becomes the great worship leader…

Pop

Another demonized community and culture that U2 embraces is the culture of pop. At a celebrity charity party, a condescending classical conductor approached Bono, looking down upon him for being involved with such a vulgar thing as a pop band. Obviously offended by this condescension, Bono sought to give the middle finger to such disdain and reclaim the word pop and “turn it into a badge of honor.”[8]

In the appropriately titled album Pop, U2 wrap themselves in all the glitter and glamour of popular culture. Still mocking and critiquing pop culture with their tongue-in-cheek approach, U2 mostly lifts up and honors pop culture, saying, “yeah, we’re a pop group and that’s ok.”

Even in the trashiness of pop, U2 seeks something redeeming, even divine. In Pop, U2 is “looking for Baby Jesus under the trash” and though they do not always find divinity, the fact that they lift up trashy culture as a place where the divine might reside makes a potent statement.

ATYCLB and HTDAAB

It is difficult to listen to U2’s two most recent albums, All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, without thinking of Bono’s philanthropic work in alleviating the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Though songs in these albums throw their arms around suicide victims, deceased fathers, and beloved daughters, here U2 is encouraging listeners to overcome whatever biases prevent them from extending grace to AIDS victims in Africa.

Sympathy for the Demonized: Following Apocatastasis in U2

One of the largest problems that perpetuates the AIDS epidemic in Africa and in the United States for that matter, is the harsh social stigma associated with the disease. The shame of having the disease forces many into a fearful silence about their condition, allowing it to silently spread. For those who decide to come out with their condition find that many of their friends forsake them, leaving them without any healthy support group or social life. “The stigma surrounding the disease,” Oppong and Ghosh explain, “deserves scrutiny, for the role it plays in increasing HIV infection, number of AIDS deaths, and the social and physical misery accruing to those living with AIDS.”[9]

Although the social, economic and political factors contributing to the AIDS epidemic can be overwhelming, one step towards alleviating AIDS suffering involves resistance to our tendency to anathematize the diseased. By creating a safe space for AIDS patients, we can restore them into a community that can encourage them to live “positively with HIV and AIDS.”[10]

As we have seen, U2 seeks to shatter stigmas based on disease, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, and race. In fact, Bono insists that one of the main reasons why Africa has failed to receive legitimate aid is merely because they are Africans. “Look,” Bono explains, “if we really thought that an African life was equal in value to an English, a French or an Irish life, we wouldn’t let two and a half million Africans die every year for the stupidest of reasons: money. We just wouldn’t. And a very prominent head of state said to me: ‘It’s true. If these people weren’t Africans, we just couldn’t let it happen.’ We don’t really deep down believe in their equality.”[11] U2 calls us to reject the prejudices that we hold against the “other,” especially when the “other” is in dire need and it is our very biases that prevent us from offering assistance.

U2’s model recommends an effective way to let go of our biases against the “other”: that is, to become the “other.” U2 became the “rock band of the devil” during the Zoo TV tour and showed that the devil has heart. U2 became the “excessive pop band” during the Pop Mart tour and suggested that Baby Jesus can be found even among the trash. By becoming the “other,” U2 unlocks the redemptive element within the condemned “other.”

Does this mean we ought to try to get AIDS in order to shatter our pretenses? Certainly not; however, “wearing the clothes” of an AIDS victim or “walking a mile in the shoes” of an impoverished African might help.

Or does this mean we ought to become members of the Church of Satan to break down our biases? Of course not, but remembering the brokenness and humanity within even a Devil worshipper might help. By doing so, we can begin to see the beauty in those whom we demonize just as MacPhisto revealed the beauty in the most demonized figure of all.

Sympathy for the Devil: Finding Apocatastasis in Me Too

Origen, a third century scholar from Alexandria, (who was later condemned as a heretic), developed the theological concept of apocatastasis, in which all of creation, even the devil, is restored to God. In his work On First Principles, Origen writes,

The end of the world and the consummation will come when every soul shall be visited with the penalties due for its sins. This time, when everyone shall pay what he owes, is known to God alone. We believe, however, that the goodness of God through Christ will restore [bring about an apocatastasis] his entire creation to one end, even his enemies being conquered and subdued. (I.6.1)

The first time I considered salvation for the devil was during U2’s Zoo TV Live at Sydney performance, where I witnessed MacPhisto falling in love with God.[12] I knew that the sympathy for the devil that I felt would be considered theologically heterodox, but the wondrous awe for divine love that enveloped me at the same time forced me to not let go of the idea of the devil’s salvation. The fact that Origen of Alexandria, the most influential Christian thinker after Paul and before Augustine, also spoke of Satan’s salvation encouraged me to water the dormant seed that MacPhisto planted. (And the fact that Origen was later condemned a heretic certainly does not encourage me to dismiss his ideas.) [13]

The concept of apocatastasis claims universal salvation, which proves to be a liberating idea to me. Instead of forcing Christian believers to share the gospel out of fear that their non-Christian friends will burn eternally in hell, universalism encourages Christian believers to proclaim an inevitable salvation to all people, even those we might consider evil and demonic.

Shattering stigmas that prevent us from seeing others as members of the human community, created in the image of God, has been U2’s task. U2 shows that God’s love can bring out the humanity even in the devil because God’s love can bring out the beauty in anything. “Grace,” U2 sings, “finds beauty in everything.”

“The stuff of the universe (human, social, and cosmic),” Episcopal priest and spiritual director Richard Valantasis writes, “yearns for the final restoration and moves toward it. Nothing ultimately has the capability of exorcising that divine presence or thwarting the divine impulse toward restoration. In the end, God will be all in all, and every element of this universe and every other universe will be gathered into the divinity that has called it into being. In this, we all may find hope.”[14] Believing that all beings of creation hold a magnet that will ultimately and inevitably draw them into the divine heart allows us to look into the darkest holes of hell with confidence and love. In the midst of darkness, we can say with Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well” or, using U2’s language, “It’s alright. It’s alright. It’s alright. The Spirit moves in mysterious ways.” We can participate in that final restoration, in apocatastasis, even today by unlocking the beauty and redemption inherent within all individuals and communities.

Afterword

I am in no way endorsing the traditional belief in the existence of a devil with horns and a pitchfork, eager to poke us all in the butt. I consider the devil to be more of a metaphor for all that is genuinely evil and void of God. Thus, apocatastasis yields more wonder in that it claims that even the most godless places still hold a spark that cry out to God. Even among the godless, God dwells. Even in the dark, there is light.

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

And the light around me become night,”

Even the darkness is not dark to you;

The night is as bright as the day,

For darkness is as light to you.

[1] Founder of the Church of Satan and inspiration for Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”

[2] Apocatastasis, the Greek word for “restoration,” is a theological/eschatological concept developed by Origen, a third century theologian from Alexandria, that describes the final restoration as one in which everyone returns into the loving arms of God, even Satan.

[3] However, this stigma proved to be one of the most difficult to overcome since the band nearly broke up on account of it. October attempted to bridge the gap between Christianity and rock, sometimes succeeding and sometimes falling in the chasm. After the album’s release, Bono, the Edge and Larry told Paul McGuiness that they were not going to tour. Soon after, the Edge told Bono that he quit the band. Bono, knowing that he would quit if the Edge quit, suggested that they sit on it for two weeks. After two weeks, the Edge decided that, “being a Christian in a rock ’n’ roll band involved a contradiction alright—but one he could live with” (Niall Stokes, Into the Heart, 31).

[4] Into the Heart, 120

[5] Rolling Stone, Feb. 12, 1976

[6] Before singing “With or Without You” Bono would often say, “Off with the horns and on with the show.” However, he used this phrase often during the Zooropa tour and it usually had nothing to do with whether or not he was still MacPhisto. He would to continue to act as MacPhisto, using the same mannerisms and expressions; remaining MacPhisto with or without the horns.

[7] In their worship album Offerings II—All I Have to Give, Contemporary Christian rock band Third Day sing the U2 line “And you give yourself away” in a worship medley.

[8] Into the Heart, 124

[9] HIV and AIDS in Africa: Beyond Epidemiology, 325

[10] HIV and AIDS in Africa: Beyond Epidemiology, 272

[11] Bono in Conversation, 81

[12] Although U2 and Bono probably had no intention of communicating apocatastasis, I feel the liberty to interpret their songs and performances in a way that speaks powerfully to my context—just as the gay community interpreted songs from Boy—so as to open up others and even U2 to new perspectives on their lyrics and music.

[13] Especially when I consider that some of my favorite Christian thinkers were deemed heretics (i.e. Meister Eckhart, Jesus of Nazareth)

[14] Valantasis, Richard, Centuries of Holiness: Ancient Spirituality Refracted for a Postmodern Age, 226

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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