Almost ten years ago, Canongate Books published a series of single books from the Bible with prefaces from some unlikely people. Bono did the Psalms, Doris Lessing took Ecclesiastes, and Australian post-punk/goth singer-songwriter Nick Cave introduced Mark. I hadn’t gotten around to reading Cave’s piece until recently. For those with only a passing familiarity with Cave, a musician known primarily for the dark and violent content of his lyrics, the choice seemed odd. But anyone who had been listening closely knew that Cave’s music had long been soaked in Biblical language and ideas (his recent, critically acclaimed record Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! was a concept album about – you guessed it – Lazarus, the best line of which comes in “Hold On To Yourself” where Cave asks, “Does Jesus only love a man who loses?”). While definitely unrelenting in its intensity and not for the remotely faint of heart, I recommend his music, esp from The Boatman’s Call record onward, where his obsession with Christ and all things theological comes more clearly into focus. A few excerpts from the aforementioned introduction:
One day, I met an Anglican vicar and he suggested that I give the Old Testament a rest and read Mark instead. I hadn’t read the New Testament at that stage because the New Testament was about Jesus Christ and the Christ I remembered from my choirboy days was that wet, all-loving, etiolated individual that the church proselytised. I spent my pre-teen years singing in the Wangaratta Cathedral Choir and even at that age I recall thinking what a wishy-washy affair the whole thing was. The Anglican Church: it was the decaf of worship and Jesus was their Lord.
“Why Mark?”, I asked. “Because it’s short”, he replied. I was willing to give anything a go, so I took the vicar’s advice and read it and the Gospel of Mark just swept me up.
Here, I am reminded of that picture of Christ, painted by Holman Hunt, where He appears, robed and handsome, a lantern in His hand, knocking on a door: the door to our hearts, presumably. The light is dim and buttery in the engulfing darkness. Christ came to me in this way, lumen Christi, with a dim light, a sad light, but light enough. Out of all the New Testament writings – from the Gospels, through the Acts and the complex, driven letters of Paul to the chilling, sickening Revelation – it is Mark’s Gospel that has truly held me.
Even His disciples, who we would hope would absorb some of Christ’s brilliance, seem to be in a perpetual fog of misunderstanding, following Christ from scene to scene with little or no comprehension of what is going on. So much of the frustration and anger that seems at times almost to consume Christ is directed at His disciples and it is against their persistent ignorance that Christ’s isolation seems at its most complete. It is Christ’s divine inspiration, versus the dull rationalism of those around Him, that gives Mark’s narrative its tension, its drive. The gulf of misunderstanding is so vast that His friends ‘lay hold of Him’ thinking,’He is beside himself’ (3:21). The Scribes and Pharisees, with their monotonous insistence on the Law, provide the perfect springboard for Christ’s luminous words. Even those Christ heals betray Him as they run to the town to report the doings of the miraculous healer, after Christ has insisted that they tell noone. Christ disowns His own mother for her lack of understanding. Throughout Mark, Christ is in deep conflict with the world. He is trying to save, and the sense of aloneness that surrounds Him is at times unbearably intense. Christ’s last howl from the cross is to a God He believes has forsaken Him: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani”
The rite of baptism – the dying of one’s old self to be born anew – like so many of the events in Christ’s life is already flavoured metaphorically by Christ’s death and it is His death on the cross that is such a powerful and haunting force, especially in Mark. His preoccupation with it is all the more obvious, if only because of the brevity with which Mark deals with the events of His life. It seems that virtually everything that Christ does in Mark’s narrative is in some way a preparation for His death – His frustration with His disciples and His fear that they have not comprehended the full significance of His actions; the constant taunting of the church officials; the stirring up of the crowds; His miracle-making so that witnesses will remember the extent of His divine power. Clearly, Mark is concerned primarily with the death of Christ to such an extent that Christ appears consumed by His imminent demise, thoroughly shaped by His death.
The Christ that emerges from Mark, tramping through the haphazard events of His life, had a ringing intensity about him that I could not resist. Christ spoke to me through His isolation, through the burden of His death, through His rage at the mundane, through His sorrow. Christ, it seemed to me was the victim of humanity’s lack of imagination, was hammered to the cross with the nails of creative vapidity.
To read more about Cave’s unique take on Christianity, check out his 2003 interview on Salon.com, “The Resurrection of Nick Cave”. And for few sample videos, look no further: