Surrender and a new beginning

Review of "Surrender" by Bono.

Surrender: 40 songs, one story

Doubleday, 2022.

“I am in awe of the poetic power of the scriptures, how you can’t approach the subject of God without metaphor.” So writes Bono late in his wide-ranging and engaging memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story. The artist cannot tell his story, or the remarkable story of U2, apart from Christian faith, or apart from scripture. Still embodying the enthusiasm of a convert, though chastened and tempered, Bono testifies: “Why am I always talking about the scriptures? Because they sustained me in the most difficult years in the band and they remain a plumb line to gauge how crooked the wall of my ego has become. To getting the measure of myself. This is where I find the inspiration to carry on.”

This is also a story deeply entwined with Jesus:

“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. . . 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.”

There is such an eloquence in the idea of “unfathomable power expressed in powerlessness. . . Inexpressible presence choosing to be present not in palace but in poverty.” Not surprisingly, Bono describes himself as “a follower of Christ who can’t keep up. . . with the ideas that have me on this pilgrimage in the first place.”

And what a pilgrimage it has been.

On Boy, U2’s debut album, Bono sang, “I can’t change the world/but I can change the world in me.” Thirty-three years later, on the Songs of Innocence album, Bono reverses that sentiment by singing, “I can change the world / but I can’t change the world in me.” “That’s my whole life, right there. In those two opposing views,” Bono writes. Through a life of activism, walking into the offices of the most powerful people in the world, campaigning for debt relief during Jubilee 2000, launching ONE (and RED) to combat extreme poverty and advocate for a just distribution of HIV/AIDS medication in Africa, Bono has, in fact, discovered that he can change the world. His achievements, in solidarity with activists around the world, are clearly remarkable, and recounted in this book. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Angela Merkel all make appearances. Even Mikhail Gorbachev knocks on Bono’s Dublin door unannounced!

Through it all, Bono has discovered that “history doesn’t have to shape us. The world is more malleable than we imagine, and things do not have to be the way they are. History is clay and can be pummelled or punched, corralled or even caressed, into a whole new shape.” Even caressed.

Sometimes the activist must woo and entice those with power to seek justice. Now admittedly, history may seem more malleable when you are fronting the largest rock band in the world. That is quite the stage from which to launch campaigns for real historical change. Bono and his bandmates are in the 1% and doors open for them that remain locked to the rest of us.


More difficult, less malleable, more resistant to real change, Bono testifies, is himself. Indeed, one could almost imagine how such success in both the arts and politics might make certain dimensions of Bono’s personality all the more intransigent. “I can’t change the world in me.” If Surrender was simply the story of Bono’s activism and the amazing career of U2, then it would fall into the trap of self-indulgence that is the temptation of the memoir genre. But this book is titled Surrender. Ever since he gave his life to Jesus as a Dublin teenager the motif of surrender has echoed throughout Bono’s life.

“It’s an extraordinary thing, the moment of surrender. … To kneel down, to implore, to throw yourself out into space, to quietly whisper or roar your insignificance. To fall prostrate and ask to be carried.” The moment of surrender, “is the moment you choose to lose control of your life, the split second of powerlessness where you trust that some kind of ‘higher power’ better be in charge, because you certainly aren’t.”

The moment of surrender happens in song, when the singer has the experience of not carrying the song, but being carried by it. And Sinatra, Bono insists, together with Patti Smith, are amongst the greatest singers precisely for this reason. They surrender to the song. And surrender has to be at the heart of a great band as well. At certain points you either ride the wave of your own success and keep reproducing yourself to satisfy the buying public, or you surrender what brought that success in service of the art, and a higher calling beyond the art. Bono observes: “In the cycle of this band, like all creative cycles, there is birth, death and rebirth. Making a band, breaking a band, remaking a band. Generate, degenerate, regenerate.” Given the role of scripture in shaping this artist’s creative imagination, it isn’t surprising that Bono has just described the biblical narrative of creation, fall and redemption.

Or we could characterize the biblical story as one of home, homelessness and homecoming. From a creational home, surrendered through arrogance, self-centredness and unfaithfulness, on the path, the pilgrimage, home. And wouldn’t you know it, these are also themes that run throughout both this memoir and the U2 catalogue.

Bono is “above all the pilgrim. Leaving home to find home. How far am I from home?” And the answer in this world is no further away than the other side of his bed. There lies his wife Ali, the steady presence, the muse, the source of wisdom, the covenanted love of Bono’s life.

the search for home is now over
it is you
I am home
no longer in exile
even here
and I need to learn
to be home
to be still
and surrender
in the end a new beginning …


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