What Religion, According to Nick Cave, is the “Unhappiest in the World”?
By: Stephen McAlpine
No one does unhappy like Nick Cave. Nick Cave was born to do unhappy.
The Australian musician has built a career exploring the dark and deadly things of life, and has had his fair share of misery, not least of all the tragic death of one of his twin teenage sons a few years ago after a cliff fall in the UK town of Brighton. The tragedy forced Cave, his wife and remaining son to leave the town and relocate to the US because they could not bear to be near the site.
Yet I remember a time when strait-laced types didn’t want him coming back into this country – his country of birth – because of his terrible dark and unhappy musical reputation; his lyrics that smelt of death and sex and religious incense. No place for that here. No place for nuance.
But no one does deep emotion, and deep religious emotion like Nick Cave does. Have a listen to his latest beautiful album Ghosteen, and hear and feel the sound of lament that oozes from it. Its title is a play on the word “ghost” and “teen” and it’s not hard to see where it’s coming from. It’s a stunning and honest piece of art.
So it’s worth listening to Nick Cave when he talks about unhappiness because he knows it deep down in his soul. He recognises it because he’s lived with it, seen it kill things he loves. It’s occupied a place in his house, always somewhere in the next room or down the hall. He can sniff it out.
So when Nick Cave declares what the unhappiest religion in the world is, you might want to take him seriously. He’s the unhappy expert after all. And what is the unhappiest religion in the world according to Nick Cave? Well here he is answering a question on his blog The Red Hand Files:
As far as I can see, cancel culture is mercy’s antithesis. Political correctness has grown to become the unhappiest religion in the world. Its once honourable attempt to reimagine our society in a more equitable way now embodies all the worst aspects that religion has to offer (and none of the beauty) — moral certainty and self-righteousness shorn even of the capacity for redemption. It has become quite literally, bad religion run amuck.
Cave had been asked the question: “What do you think of cancel culture?” and this was part of his response. But it’s instructive that he didn’t begin with the bad, the angry, the vehement. He began with the beauty. He began his answer with describing the presence of something that is markedly absent from the cancel culture:
Listen to the artist and his words:
Mercy is a value that should be at the heart of any functioning and tolerant society. Mercy ultimately acknowledges that we are all imperfect and in doing so allows us the oxygen to breathe — to feel protected within a society, through our mutual fallibility. Without mercy a society loses its soul, and devours itself.
Mercy allows us the ability to engage openly in free-ranging conversation — an expansion of collective discovery toward a common good. If mercy is our guide we have a safety net of mutual consideration, and we can, to quote Oscar Wilde, “play gracefully with ideas.”
Yet mercy is not a given. It is a value we must nurture and aspire to. Tolerance allows the spirit of enquiry the confidence to roam freely, to make mistakes, to self-correct, to be bold, to dare to doubt and in the process to chance upon new and more advanced ideas. Without mercy society grows inflexible, fearful, vindictive and humourless.
Nails it. Totally nails it.
Cave, along with the likes of Douglas Murray in The Madness of Crowds and Tom Holland in Dominion, can see as unbelievers, what many of us cannot see, or at least cannot articulate. That the absence of mercy in the current zealotry in our progressive post-Christian culture is going to lead to great ugliness.
All three of these men can see that mercy is not a given. Not a given. It is not somehow in the ether of the world. It had to be brought to the world from outside the world, and all three, in some way or another, recognise that the Christian framework gave mercy to the merciless world.
We are seeing this ugly lack of mercy being played out in all sorts of ways in cancel culture. There is no redemption, even for those who were once its champions, but have themselves fallen afoul.
They can apologise and apologise and apologise, because in their deep heart they think there will be a point where this thing will bottom out and the chance of restoration will be given them. But cancel culture and its mutilated offspring are having none of it. There is no mercy safety net in a post-Christian culture. Plenty of zeal, but no mercy, and the wise Cave man can see it from afar, as all prophetic poets can.
And it’s the poet in Cave that most laments this:
Cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society. Compassion is the primary experience — the heart event — out of which emerges the genius and generosity of the imagination.
Here’s what we’re going to get with cancel culture: an interminable dullness. A dreary conformity in which the cultural gloryometer will be run over every public piece of art, or declaration or attempt at greatness to see if it conforms to the great grey globule of group-think that was crafted in some neon-lit government office. And then, and only then, will we be allowed to engage with it, if we can even be bothered.
Which should all mean that the happiest religion in the world should be the religion that is most at home around mercy, compassion and forgiveness. The happy people should be those who having received mercy, compassion and forgiveness, should offer mercy, compassion and forgiveness. And do so in the midst of a culture of unhappiness and hatred. It should also mean those people should be the most creative too!
Cave’s article even made it into the pages of The Guardian newspaper, while you can read the rest of the blog article here.
To finish, have a listen to this heart-rending song Sun Forest from the Ghosteen album, and these lyrics in particular. What will we find? An unhappy man? A bitter man? A cancel culture man who knows no mercy and sees no need to offer it?
No, we see and hear a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, who recognises those things in another man also.
And a man called Jesus, he promised he would leave us
With a word that would light up the night, oh the night
But the stars hang from threads and blink off one by one
And it isn’t any fun, no it isn’t any fun
To be standing here alone with nowhere to be
With a man mad with grief and on each side a thief
Everybody hanging from a tree, from a tree
And everybody hanging from a tree
Article supplied with thanks to Stephen McAlpine
About the Author: Stephen has been reading, writing and reflecting ever since he can remember. He is the lead pastor of Providence Church Midland, and in his writing dabbles in a number of fields, notably theology and culture. Stephen and his family live in Perth’s eastern suburbs, where his wife Jill runs a clinical psychology practice.
Feature image: “Nick Cave, Norwegian Wood 2009” by NRK P3 licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0