Nick Cave & the Search for Transcendence

I have a confession to make. I have never been a fan of Nick Cave and The Bad Seed’s music. Before reading Faith, Hope and Carnage (Text Publishing, 2022)—which is an edited interview transcript between Cave and O’Hagan—I was only familiar with a couple of his songs. Into My Arms, Where the Wild Roses Grow and Red Right Hand being the full extent of my musical knowledge.

Cave’s music always seemed a bit too melancholy, dark and even depressing. But having now read the man himself, I can see why so many people have found Faith, Hope and Carnage to be one of the most significant books to have been published in 2022.

Cave is an intriguing, fascinating figure to be sure; some might even say that his persona is mesmerising, even cult like. But that would be grossly unkind. If Cave is anything, he is genuine and sincere. Indeed, there is an uncanny parallel between Cave and Jordan Peterson. Not only are both men extremely popular, and gifted in their respective spheres of endeavour, they are also unapologetic regarding their belief in God.

While Cave himself never makes the link explicit, both he and Peterson share a deeply Jungian religious outlook on the world. This is evidenced by their conviction in the power of spiritual signs and symbols, i.e. ‘archetypes’, to shape their lives, conflated with their belief in the Judeo-Christian God as the Supreme Being. Both men though, would themselves baulk at being labelled as being ‘Christian’ in any orthodox sense of the term.

It is refreshing then to have a journalist of the calibre of O’Hagan—a feature writer for the Observer—who is willing (often against his own preference) to explore matters of spiritual belief as the following exchange between the two men illustrates:

Cave:  I’m not really that interested in the more esoteric ideas of spirituality. I’m drawn to what many people would see as traditional Christian ideas. I’m particularly fascinated with  the Bible and in particular the life of Christ. It has been a powerful influence on my  work one way or another from the start.

O’Hagan:   And yet it is little discussed when critics write about your work. Do you think journalists tend to shy away from the subject?

Cave:  For sure. I remember an interview with some music paper from about thirty years ago, where the journalist sat down and said, ‘Before we even begin, I’ve been told by my editor, “Don’t get him started on God”!

The Need for Forgiveness

It’s not until the final chapter of Faith, Hope and Carnage, appropriately entitled ‘Absolution’, where Cave talks about the need for everyone—but especially himself—to find forgiveness. It’s not just a fitting conclusion to the book, but touches on the most important question of all. As Cave himself states:

            …can we be forgiven? I think that question is fundamental to our lives. In fact, it may be the question that our lives pivot around or, indeed, the whole world revolves around. Can we be forgiven? And it is, of course, a religious question, not least because the secular world has failed to find a way of adequately asking it. Now, Sean, it’s not that Susie [Cave’s wife] and I discuss   these matters, or even really acknowledge them, but I think this need is at the very centre of our lives—a need for forgiveness, I would say it is a motivating force.

It is rare for anyone—especially a rock star musician—to not only ask such a question but to also pose it so eloquently. But Cave is an “existentially transparent” poet, courageously exploring the central issues of human existence.

In contrast to traditional Christian theology though, Cave seeks to find salvation not in the person and work of Christ, but through his own artistic and creative endeavours. Whether that might be song writing, performing on stage (the purpose of which he describes as attempting to create a truly transcendent experience) or even the production of ceramic sculptures.  Cave himself explains:

            In my experience, art does have the ability to save us, in so many different ways. It can act as a point of salvation, because it has the potential to put beauty back into the world. And that in itself is a way of making amends, of reconciling us with the world. Art has the power to redress the balance of things, of our wrongs, of our sins.

Then, just a few pages later in the epilogue, Cave provocatively states, “Music can be a form of active atonement”. It’s an intriguing insight into why Cave himself is so driven. More than a few times, Sean O’Hagan—the interviewer—comments on his extraordinary work ethic. This is because Cave’s output is so prodigious, and the strength of his commitment so intense, as to be “quite daunting”.

For Cave, artistic achievement is a means of personal salvation. The apostle Paul would call this“self-righteousness” because it replaces the finished work of Christ. In this sense, music is a form of “active atonement” for Cave since it is the mechanism of ‘justification’ for making one right with God. Just note the following exchange between O’Hagan and Cave:

O’Hagan:   I once asked you if you believed in redemption in the Christian sense, and you  replied that you didn’t feel you had anything to be redeemed for. But you’ve obviously changed your mind.

Cave:   Yes, I have. I said that in a defensive and cavalier way, because back then I thought we were making a more rock ‘n ‘roll book!

O’Hagan:   Really? That was never going to happen.

Cave:   That’s for sure. Anyway, I think anyone who says they don’t have any regrets is simply living an unconsidered life. Not only that, but by doing so they are denying themselves the obvious benefits of self-forgiveness. Though, of course,  the hardest thing of all is to forgive oneself.

It is one thing though, for Cave to acknowledge that he is a ‘sinner’, but it is obviously another thing entirely for him to be willing to confess that his sin is against God. For as fallen human beings, we are guilty of high treason. Of repeatedly rebelling against our Creator and hence, of sinning against Him. As King David, famous writes—significantly, after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband killed to cover up the resultant pregnancy— “Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4).

But even more importantly, true redemption can only be found by trusting in the complete work of Christ – humbly accepting the benefits of His death, resurrection and ascension and resting in the promise that Jesus has done everything needed to save us from our sin. As Jesus Himself says in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life”.

Ultimately, the “active act of atonement” then is nothing we ourselves can perform, no matter how talented we are artistically. What matters is what the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has done on the cross. For as Jesus once again gloriously declared just before He breathed His last, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). This doesn’t mean that He personally was ‘finished’, as in being physically expended, but that He had accomplished the perfect act of redemption (cf. Hebrews 10:11-18).

The Search for the Transcendent

It’s not until you reach the end of Faith, Hope and Carnage—rightly described on the back cover as being a ‘conversation’ rather than a ‘memoir’—that one can rightly understand Cave’s comments about God at the beginning. And in some ways, it would have been good to have had the concluding chapters first. But that would have destroyed the narrative.

What Cave says about his own personal belief in God at the start of Faith, Hope and Carnage, in a chapter entitled ‘The Utility of Belief’, is attention grabbing to say the least. Here is a list of some of the more memorable things Cave has to say:

            Religion is spirituality with rigour, I guess, and, yes, it makes demands on us. For me, it involves  some wrestling with the idea of faith – that seam of doubt that runs through most credible religions. It’s that struggle with the notion of the divine that is at the heart of my creativity (page 19).

                  Even in the most chaotic times, when I was struggling with addiction, I always felt desirous of whose who had a religious dimension to their lives. I had a kind of spiritual envy, a longing for belief in the face of the impossibility of belief that addressed a fundamental emptiness inside me. There was always a yearning (page 22).

                  I think of late I’ve grown increasingly impatient with my own scepticism; it feels obtuse and  counter-productive, something that’s simply standing in the way of a better-lived life. I feel it would be better for me to get beyond it. I think I would be happier if I stopped window-shopping and just stepped through the door (page 23).

                  …for me personally, having a religious dimension in my life is highly beneficial. It makes me happier, it makes my relationships with people more agreeable, and it makes me a better writer – in my opinion (page 28).

                  …an explicit rejection of the divine has to be bad for the business of song writing. Atheism has to be bad for the business of making music. It has to put you at a distinct disadvantage because it’s kind of narrowing of options and a denial of the fundamentally sacred dimension of music. It’s just very limiting, in my experience (page 30).

Cave is n0 born-again Christian; his faith has more in common with panentheism—as distinct from pantheism—than it does with Biblical Christianity. Pantheism being the belief that everything is itself divine, whereas Panentheism that the divine is in everything. Just note the following, quite humorous, exchange between O’Hagan (who is himself something of a jaded ex-Catholic) and Cave:

O’Hagan:   And yet there are many great songs and pieces of music that don’t reach into the divine.  You’ve written some of them.

Cave:  Well, I don’t know what those songs are. A song doesn’t have to be explicitly religious to have transcendent qualities…

O’Hagan:  A song like ‘Breathless’, for instance, seems to me to exalt the luminous beauty of the everyday. Is that not a wondrous subject in and of itself?

Cave:   Yes, and the luminous and shocking beauty of the everyday is something I try to remain alert to, if only as an antidote to the chronic cynicism and disenchantment that seems to surround everything, these days. It tells me that, despite how debased or corrupt we are told humanity is and degraded the world has become, it just keeps on being beautiful. It can’t help it. But ‘Breathless’ is, in fact, an explicitly religious song. A love song to God.

O’Hagan:  No! It was one of the songs we played at our wedding. I never took it for a God song.

Cave:   Well, that’s what known as Jesus smuggling! And it worked. But, to be honest, it’s not  about a God that is separate from nature, or apart from the world, rather, it’s about a  God that is in attendance and animating all things.

What Cave offers the reader here is a key insight into his own religious beliefs. Because while he has enormous respect and admiration for the person of Jesus, this is merged with his own form of spirituality. A faith that is unmoored from biblical revelation and conflated with how Cave himself understands God to be. In short, it offers him an “unmediated relationship with the divine” as the following exchange explains:

O’Hagan:  You also wrote about the particular resonance of the line, ‘the kingdom of God  is inside you and outside you’, which suggests that it is also possible to have a  private and unmediated relationship with the divine.

Cave:  Yes. That line gave me a sense that there was some personal agency around the idea of belief, rather than needing the church to deliver it to you. I liked the idea, because on a  personal level, at that time, organised religion just didn’t do it for me. Even when I was a heroin addict, I was in and out of church, trying to find some relationship with the whole thing. That line helped me form my own relationship with God or belief, something more flexible, and not feel that I had to go somewhere else to find it.

This alarmingly opens up Cave to all kinds of spiritual influences, entities which Cave himself acknowledges could even be not of God. For instance, in explaining the artistic process in which he was “essentially a conduit for the songs”, Cave says:

            I think Warren and I were more inclined to let unconscious forces have their influence over the outcome of the songs. I think it is fair to say that we were swept along by whatever spirits or   demons took command of us at that time. I say that with a certain amount of caution, because  I understand how that sounds (page 57).

Out of the Heart the Mouth Speaks

Faith, Hope and Carnage is itself a remarkable book. It is immensely readable, well put together and provides a tremendous insight into one of Australia’s most famous musicians. Its exploration and examination of the creative process and, in particular, of religious belief is incredibly refreshing. For this is a subject which has been consciously avoided by most of the people who normally interview Cave.

But for all of Cave’s interest in and commitment to ‘religion’—and of Christianity in particular—it is jarring to see how laced with profanity Cave’s speech is. While some might view this as being pedantic, there is a cognitive dissonance here with is significant. Jesus Himself says in Matthew’s gospel that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” and that “the good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matt. 12:34-35).

In other words, the words of our lips are an indication of the spiritual state within our hearts. Have we been transformed from within by God’s Spirit? The fruit of which will be evidenced through the things in which we say (Matt. 7:15-20).

Cave is, without question, one of the greatest musical artists this country has ever produced. The number of records sold, concert tickets purchased and views on Spotify give clear testimony to his influence. But when it comes to matters of the soul, Cave’s approach is misguided to say the least.

It’s admirable to read a serious discussion—especially in today’s secular climate of unbelief—regarding religion. But we still need to exercise discernment. And all the more so when it comes from someone so popular in the world (1 John 4:1-3).

– Mark Powell