Nick Cave’s God: Reflections on 20,000 Days on Earth

‘I don’t believe in an interventionist god,’ begins Nick Cave’s most overplayed song.  A couple of years later, Q magazine asked him in an interview, ‘Why don’t you believe in an interventionist god?’. He gave a two word answer: ‘I do.’ I’ve always taken him seriously on that, and perhaps he was serious at that time. Anyone steeped in his music – and I have been, at times, obsessive about his music – would find God everywhere, saturating his world.

In the new quasi-documentary about him, 20,000 Days on Earth, nothing should be taken as the final word from Cave; everything is scripted and edging into the mythic or the surreal. But he surprised me, by telling a counsellor in an early scene that while God exists in the world Cave himself creates, God does not exist in the real world. The Cave of 20,000 Days is no theist, nor even a deist, but an atheist. His project as an artist is to create a world, and in that world, someone is watching, taking count, and that’s God. But maybe it’s really Cave. No-one’s ever accused him of humility.

He tells the story of how his deep interest in religion was a part of his drug habit, that he’d wake up desperate for a hit, and would go to church first, sit through it, before heading over to the dealers to buy drugs. That way he’d done one good thing before he did his bad thing. But his interest in religion has remained, even in this long period of him being clean. Perhaps he just likes the theatre or the symbolism of God and preachers and devils and hell. But it feels to me it goes deeper than that.

In one of my favourite songs of his, “Oh My Lord”, he walks the streets plagued by angst and the paparazzi, crying out:

Oh Lord Oh my Lord
Oh Lord
How have I offended thee?
Wrap your tender arms round me
Oh Lord Oh Lord
Oh My Lord

Does it matter to me whether Nick Cave believes in God or not? Well, yes – more than it should. If I’m honest, when so many of my literary and artistic heroes are atheists, I take comfort from those who aren’t. I know the existence of God is not decided by popular vote, or even by the vote of those I like. But I can’t help the ongoing torn-ness of living in a world which some experience as full of God, and others as absent of God.

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3 thoughts on “Nick Cave’s God: Reflections on 20,000 Days on Earth

  1. The problem as I see it is that so many in the arts that are atheists are often much more interesting than their Christian counterparts – or so it seems to me.

    There is simply so much bad Christian art out there that trades on sentimentality and sanctimony – where are the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Doris Betts, Will Campbell, David Duncan etc of this generation? Yet when I browse Christian shops, I see Frank Peretti!

  2. Well, there’s Marilynne Robinson. And perhaps Tim Winton. But I wish there were more.
    Evangelical fiction is an unabashed attempt to emulate secular popular fiction – it’s trying to be Matthew Reilly or Dean Koontz. Popular fiction can drown out literary fiction in Dymocks as well. But your point has validity!

  3. There’s David Eugene Edwards and his band, Wovenhand. There’s also the fantastic author Russell Rathbun (who’s writing has been called a combination of Saint Paul and Hunter S. Thompson). There’s Debbie Blue and her insightful book, Consider The Birds. There’s Sufjan Stevens, and Iris Dement. There is no shortage of cutting edge religious artists and thinkers today. There’s also Geez Magazine, with their tagline, “Contemplative Cultural Resistance.” There’s the filmmaker, Wim Wenders. There’s the philosopher Slavoj Zizek and the cultural theorist Alain Badiou. The list goes on and on and on. Just dig a little deeper.

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