Enjoying the Higher Literacy

Michael Metzger

Here’s why Bono seems to be enjoying the higher literacy.

Last week I highlighted how American colleges and universities teach what Philip Rieff called “the higher illiteracy.” It’s the result of higher education’s skepticism of sacred truth. Bono avoided that by avoiding college. He’s more apt to enjoy what I call “the higher literacy.”

The term literacy originated with invention of the printing press (1450s) making books more widely available. It comes from the Latin literatus, meaning “educated.” Educated people read books, but not just any books. Good books. Good books uncover sacred truths including human desire, eros. Bad books don’t. “Bad books always lie, they lie most about the human condition.”[1] Over the last 150 years, bad books have especially lied about eros.

This was noted by Pope Benedict XVI who passed away on December 31, 2022. In the first encyclical of his pontificate, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), released on Christmas Day in 2005, Benedict unpacked the significance of divine love in relation to human desire, or what the Greeks call eros. He did this by citing a maxim from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil: “Christianity gave Eros poison to drink; he did not die of it but degenerated—into a vice.” According to Nietzsche, Christianity ruins what is highest in us, erotic desire, by poisoning it with guilt and sin. Eros didn’t die but it sure did degenerate.

Christianity didn’t poison Eros. Adam and Eve did by eating the forbidden fruit. Sin and guilt remind us eros didn’t die but it’s disfigured. It’s not ruined as Nietzsche claimed. Eros can be redeemed as it’s both/and—a virtue since God created it while a vice since we corrupted it.

Churches teaching gospels of sin management have difficulty with both/and. They imagine the gospel story starts in Genesis 3 (the fall). They imagine our sexual desires are completely corrupted. Eros is only a vice, not a virtue, poisoning eros with nothing but guilt and sin.

Older church traditions start the gospel story in Genesis 1:1. God creates the natural world that he calls “good.” On the sixth day he creates human beings the he calls “very good.” Human desires, including eros, are inherently very good. Pope Benedict XVI reminded us of this, as did Pope John Paul II before him in the Theology of the Body. Both took seriously how eros is rooted in creation and actually serves as the apex of human nature.[2]

Which brings us back to U2 lead singer Bono and the higher literacy.

This past November the New York Times Book Review featured an interview with Bono. The paper asked Bono what kinds of books he enjoys reading, beginning with what’s on his night stand. Two books. The first is Anne Enright’s “The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch.” I haven’t read it but I gather it opens with some rather graphic sex. And Bono admits “It’s a lot of what I like and don’t.” Both/and.

Both/and depicts discernment, which comes from the second book Bono says is never off his night stand. The Bible. Bono enjoys reading The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible by the late Eugene Peterson. It too has some rather graphic sex scenes, including illicit sex and even rape. In my experience, I found most Christians try to avoid imagining what’s happening in these passages. They’ve drunk the poison. Eros is bad, a vice. So they steer clear of fiction like Graham Greene’s The End of The Affair which features some steamy eros.

What a loss. In describing the Song of Songs, Pope Gregory the Great (A.D. 540 – 604) wrote, “kisses are mentioned, breasts are mentioned, cheeks are mentioned, loins are mentioned.” These words paint “holy pictures” which “are not for mockery or laughter” but, rather, “to incite us to holy loving.” The gospel is a holy love story told in our body, especially in our sexual desires. Eros is designed to incite us to holy loving.

I sense Bono gets some of this. He reads widely since the heavens and the earth comprise a wide subject field. Bono’s subject field includes poetry, economics, the Bible, history, biography, non-fiction, and fiction (some of which features eros). Good books on these subjects tell the truth about sexuality. Bono is reading some of these books. That’s why it seems to me the Irish rock star is enjoying the higher literacy.


[1] Walker Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land: Essays (Open Road Media, 2011), 251.

[2] These thoughts are taken from Chad Engelland’s column for The Dallas Morning News commemorating Benedict. Engelland is a professor of philosophy at the Rome campus of the University of Dallas.


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