One of the most striking openings to a modern song has to be Nick Cave singing, ‘I don’t believe in an interventionist God’. On his latest album, ‘Dig, Lazarus, Dig’, this God that the singer doesn’t believe in is once again the centre of attention.
It has to be said up front that if you want to get inside the art of Nick Cave, you really must know something about the Bible and Christianity. His song writing has always been an aggressive engagement with the teachings of Jesus and the character of God as the Bible presents him.
His work is ‘Christ-haunted’, to borrow a phrase often used to describe things gothic, and much of what he wants to say about the human condition is controlled by the idea ringing in his ears since childhood that there just might be a wild, undomesticated God up there calling the shots.
The title track, ‘Dig, Lazarus, Dig’ mashes together a number of stories into one bizarre, jaunty narrative. It’s about Lazarus (a man Jesus raised from the tomb according to the Bible). It’s about the great escape artist Harry Houdini (who was obsessed with debunking ghosts and the occult). And it’s about a bloke called Larry who is battling it out on the streets of New York City. He may have been raised from the dead, but did he actually want to end up back here, getting used and abused, destined for the madhouse and then the grave once more?
The song’s refrain is: ‘I don’t know what it is but there’s definitely something going on upstairs’ and that could sum up Nick Cave’s theology.
Cave’s work highlights the hardest question of all for anyone who believes in ‘an interventionist God’: the one called ‘theodicy’. ‘How can a world like ours exist, if there is a God who is good, powerful and wise?’ ‘How could God let things get like this?’ ‘How could he allow suffering if he has the power and the inclination to stop it?’
Another track on the album gets right to the point, shouting, ‘We call upon the author to explain’. Nick Cave paints a picture of a world gone mad, where ‘myxomatoid kids spraddle the streets’. ‘Every thing is messed up round here,’ he growls, ‘everything is banal and jejune’ and we call upon the author to explain. He then rattles off a list of ‘mega-complaints’ – rampant discrimination, mass poverty, third world debt, infectious disease, global inequality an deepening socio-economic divisions. These are actual lyrics!
In other words, the world seems rotten to the core, and how could God, The Author, allow it? With grinding distorted guitars and a kind of insistent pulsing beat, Nick Cave shakes his fist at this apparently distant or uncaring God and wonders if there is a conspiracy against the human race.
The beginnings of a response to these painful questions are exactly where Nick Cave is looking – in the teachings and life of Jesus. Christians agree that this world is a mixture of paradise and hell-hole, full of injustice and senseless pain. We also don’t claim (at least we shouldn’t) that we can easily make sense of it all. But Christians believe that God has begun to let us in on the full plan for restoring the goodness of the world because he really did raise Jesus from the dead.
Death is not the end, and evil is not the end for this world. The resurrection is proof of that. Unlike poor Larry, the Jesus you can read about in the Bible, didn’t return to the grave, but Christians claim his resurrection in fact conquered death, and that it gets the world started in a new era of hope for life beyond this life and a renewal of this world.
Add that message to the disturbing obsessions of ‘Dig, Lazarus, Dig’, and if you are into Nick Cave, enjoy the album.
Dr Greg Clarke is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Macquarie Christian Studies Institute