Nick Cave and theology: reflections while listening to Lovely Creatures

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This week saw the release of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ latest album Lovely Creatures. I have been eagerly anticipating this for a few years now. Not because it has any new tracks for me to devour (it’s a compilation of 30 years of Bad Seeds songs), but rather because my friend, the hugely talented literary critic Lyn McCredden, had contributed an article to the accompanying book. Her article is titled Fleshed sacred : The carnal theologies of Nick Cave. 

Now many of you probably don’t immediately associate Nick Cave with theology. When Irene and I walked onto the floor at Yianni’s Tavern to share our first dance as a married couple, it was to Cave’s Into My Arms (LP side D track 1) . There were no doubt a few raised eyebrows in our largely Christian entourage as his metronomic baritone churned out those famous opening lines…

I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did, I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you

Despite this heretical suggestion (and his penchant for topics like sex and death) I would consider Cave, perhaps alongside Michael Leunig, as Australia’s greatest public theologian. But Cave’s theology isn’t one bound by doctrinal limits. As McCredden suggests, Cave’s is a carnal theology, forged in the fires of precocious creativity, drug addiction, and familial loss.  The son of a literature teacher and a librarian, he understood from childhood the literary grandeur of the bible, its rich imagery, and its lingering presence within the social imaginary. This can be seen in the words of The Mercy Seat (LP side D track 4), a story of a man on death row. A song greatly admired, and later covered, by one of Cave’s heroes Johnny Cash:

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of proof.
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.

I hear stories from the chamber
How Christ was born into a manger
And like some ragged stranger
Died upon the cross
And might I say, it seems so fitting in its way
He was a carpenter by trade
Or at least that’s what I’m told

Cave’s life and spiritual journey can be traced through his music. Early songs like Red Right Hand (LP side D track 3), inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, describe his disillusionment with Christianity:

He’ll wrap you in his arms,
tell you that you’ve been a good boy
He’ll rekindle all the dreams
it took you a lifetime to destroy
He’ll reach deep into the hole,
heal your shrinking soul,
but there won’t be a single thing
that you can do
He’s a god, he’s a man,
he’s a ghost, he’s a guru
They’re whispering his name
through this disappearing land
But hidden in his coat
is a red right hand

Cave regularly questions and even challenges God in his music. He explores the violence and seeming malevolence of the God of the Old Testament. In his youth Cave came to see these stories as “a pitiful humanity suffering beneath a despotic God”. Later in life however, he began to come to terms with his Christian faith. Older, and perhaps a little wiser, he began to explore his spirituality beyond the literary allusions of the Old Testament. Let’s return to Into My Arms for a moment:

And I don’t believe in the existence of angels
But looking at you I wonder if that’s true
But if I did I would summon them together
And ask them to watch over you

Echoing the opening verse, Cave refuses to acknowledge the supernatural elements of Christianity. But as he continues, he delves a little deeper:

Both to each burn a candle for you
To make bright and clear your path
And to walk, like Christ, in grace and love
And guide you into my arms

To me, this highlights the mysticism found within his work. Rather than an intellectual ascent to Christian doctrine, Cave’s theology is a deeply existential one. Much like Rabbi Elie Wiesel putting God and trial and then immediately retreating to pray, one might easily imagine Cave lamenting God’s non-intervention in one breath, then lighting a candle and muttering a prayer with the next.

It seems that Cave lives constantly within this tension. As his spirituality shifts, he remains critical of the Christian church, most particularly its colonial past. This can be seen in his stark portrayal of early Australia in his screenplay for The Proposition, or in one of the more memorable lines from the recent Higgs Boson Blues (LP side C track 1):

Look here comes the missionary
With his smallpox and flu
He’s saving them savages
With his Higgs Boson Blues

This is why I consider Cave to be Australia’s greatest public theologian. Unlike many of us, he refuses to hide behind ideology, doctrine, and certainty. His faith is a lived faith. It has faced tragedy – the death of his father and more recently his son. It has weathered addiction – at the centre of the heroin crisis in Melbourne. Rather than destroy his faith his experiences and deep questioning have, in a way, strengthened it. While his may not reflect the Christianity that many of us know, it is at the very least, real. Perhaps more than this, it is hopeful. Nick Cave is rightly considered as primarily a melancholic and recalcitrant poet. Like the psalmists of old, he laments our systems of injustice. But these lamentations are always juxtaposed with signs of hope. I’ll leave you with the words of Cave’s ode to our collective future, the achingly beautiful O Children (LP side E track 1):

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We’re happy, Ma, we’re having fun
And the train ain’t even left the station

Hey, little train! Wait for me!
I once was blind but now I see
Have you left a seat for me?
Is that such a stretch of the imagination?

Hey little train! Wait for me!
I was held in chains but now I’m free
I’m hanging in there, don’t you see
In this process of elimination

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We’re happy, Ma, we’re having fun
It’s beyond my wildest expectation

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We’re happy, Ma, we’re having fun
And the train ain’t even left the station

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