God as the Imagination
Jesus said, “Wherever two or more are gathered together, I am in their midst.” Jesus said this because wherever two or more are gathered together, there is communion, there is language, there is imagination, there is God. God is a product of a creative imagination, and God is that imagination taken flight.
As a child I believed that to use the imagination was wicked. I saw my imagination as a dark room with a large bolted door that housed all manner of shameful fantasies. I could almost hear my secret thoughts bumping and scratching behind the door, begging in whispers to be let out, to be told. Back then, I had no idea that those dark mutterings were coming from God.
At eight years old, I joined the choir at our local Anglican church, and I attended services twice a week for the next four years. But the God I heard preached about there seemed remote, and alien, and uncertain. So I sat in the stalls, in my crimson cassock, while rogue thoughts oozed beneath the bolted door of my imagination.
As I grew older and entered my teens, my (now deceased) father decided it was time to pass on to his son certain information. Here I was, thirteen years old, and he would usher me into his study, lock the door, and begin reciting great bloody slabs from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, or the murder scene from Crime and Punishment, or whole chapters from Nabokov’s Lolita. My father would wave his arms about, then point at me and say, “This, my boy, is literature.” And I could tell by the way it empowered him that he felt he was passing on forbidden knowledge. I would sit and listen to all these mad words pouring from his mouth, happy to be invited into his strange, anomalous world.
I would watch my father lose himself in the outpourings of his own creative energy. And although he would have laughed at this notion, what my father was finding in his beloved literature was God. Literature elevated him, tore him from normality, and lifted him out of the mediocre, and brought him closer to the divine essence of things. I had no notion of that then, but I did see somewhere that Art had the power to insulate me from the mundanity of the world, to protect me.
So I set about writing some really bad poems. At around fifteen years of age, my friends and I formed a rock band, and gave up writing really bad poems and started writing really bad songs instead, and these songs were very much influenced by whatever the book was that I was reading at the time.
After I matriculated, I went to art school, and it was there I began to be interested in religious art, largely, I think, because it irritated my instructors, who thought I should be more concerned with contemporary art forms. I had pictures by Grünewald, Fra Angelico, El Greco, Tinteretto, and so on, plastered around the walls of my work space.
And I found, almost to my surprise, that I recognized the Biblical scenes depicted in these pictures, knew the key players and their stories. So I went out and bought myself a pocket Bible, the King James Version, opened it up at the first page, and began to read it.
I found the stories of the Bible calling to me from somewhere in my subconscious, planted there in the choirboy days in my childhood.
I was still writing songs for the band I was in, and I soon found in the tough prose of the Old Testament a perfect language, at once mysterious and familiar, that not only reflected the state of mind I was in at the time, but actively informed my artistic endeavors. I found there the voice of God, and it was brutal and jealous and merciless. For every bilious notion I harbored about myself and the world – and there were a lot of those – there in the Old Testament was its equivalent leaping off the pages with its teeth bared.
The God of the Old Testament seemed a cruel and rancorous God, and I loved the way he would wipe out entire nations at a whim.
I loved to read the Book of Job and marvel over the vain, distrustful God who turned the life of his perfect and upright servant into a living hell. Job’s friend Eliphaz observed: “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward.” And those words seemed to my horrid little mind about right. And why wouldn’t man be born into trouble, living under the tyranny of such a God? So it was the feeling I got from the Old Testament, of a pitiful humanity suffering beneath a despotic God, that began to leap into my lyric writing.
As a consequence, my words blossomed with a nasty, new energy. My band, which was called the Birthday Party, was all heavy, bludgeoning rhythms and revved up, whacked out guitars, and all I had to do was walk onstage and open my mouth and let the curse of God roar through me. Floods, fire, and frogs leapt out of my throat. To loosely paraphrase William Blake: I myself did nothing; I just pointed a damning finger and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. Though I had no notion of that then, God was talking not just to me but through me, and his breath stank. I was a conduit for a God that spoke in a language written in bile and puke. And for a while, that suited me fine.
After a few years, the Birthday Party fell apart, and by this time I had grown weary and my writing too, and it was an incredible struggle to squeeze out much at all. I was sick and I was disgusted, and my God was in a similar condition. It was hard work loathing everything all the time; all that sustained hatred is a painful and tiring business. I would climb onto stage and look down at the twisted faces that roared and shook their fists at me in the gloom, and all I felt was sick and sad.
I decided it was high time I started reading a different book, so I closed the Old Testament, and I opened up the New.
Opening the New
There in those four wonderful prose-poems – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – I slowly reacquainted myself with the Jesus of my childhood, that eerie figure that moves through the Gospels, the man of sorrows, and it was through him that I was given a chance to redefine my relationship with the world. The voice that spoke through me now was softer, sadder, more introspective.
The more I read the Gospels, the more Christ called to my imagination, for his journey was, it seemed to me, just that: a flight of the imagination. Christ, who call himself both the Son of Man and the Son of God as the occasion warranted, was exactly that: a man of flesh and blood, so in touch with the creative forces inside himself, so open to his brilliant flame-like imagination, that he became the physical embodiment of that force: God. In Christ, the spiritual blueprint was set so that we ourselves could become Godlike.
There is that wonderful story in the Gospel of John, where the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman taken in adultery, and attempting to trap him, asked if the woman should now be stoned under the law of Moses. Christ did not answer straightaway, but rather stooped down and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he didn’t hear them.
The Pharisees persisted, and after a time, Christ lifted himself up and answered, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” and again he stooped down. For me, this seemingly distracted gesture, the stooping down and the writing on the ground, is Christ accessing the God in himself. Christ then delivers the line that disempowers his opponents – and what an extraordinary remark it is – and then stoops again to re-commune with God.
What Christ shows us here is that the creative imagination has the power to combat all enemies, that we are protected by the flow of our own inspiration. Clearly what Jesus most despised, what he really railed against time and time again, were the forces that represented the established order of things, symbolized by the scribes and Pharisees, those dull, small-minded scholars of religious law who dogged his every move. Christ saw them as enemies of the imagination, who actively blocked the spiritual flight of the people, and kept them bogged down with theological nitpicking, intellectualism, and law.
What was Christ’s great bugbear, and what has sat like dung in the doorway of the Christian church ever since, was the Pharisees’ preoccupation with the law in preference to the logos. Said St. Paul to the Corinthians: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” So how can one be elevated spiritually, if they are loaded up with the chains of religious jurisprudence? How can the imagination be told how to behave? How can inspiration, or for that matter God, be moral?
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” berates Christ in Matthew. “For ye shut up the Kingdom of Heaven against men!” And further on he says, “Ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones.” This was the language of the Lord, and it was lines like these, that were at once compassionate and venomous, that I found reverberating through my own words. Christ was forgiving, merciful, and loving, but he was after all the Son of the Old Testament God and his father’s blood still boiled in his veins.
In creating his Son, God the Father had evolved, he had moved on. No longer was God’s mercy reserved for elect nations and their kings, no longer were the divine rewards handed down to lords temporal and spiritual. Christ, the Son, came as an individual, the Word made flesh to set right the misguided notion of his Father, or as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.”
Christ came to right the wrongs of his father. Christ, the man, who abhorred the concept of a spiritual elite, spoke to every man. He came with a gift of language, of love, of imagination. Said Jesus in the Gospel of John: “The words I speak unto you, they are the Spirit, and they are the life.” And it is these words, his language, the logos, that speaks so eloquently and mysteriously from the Gospels. Christ is the imagination, at times terrible, irrational, incendiary, and beautiful; in short, Godlike.
And so, like Jesus, there is the blood of my father in me, and it was from him that I inherited, among other things, a love of literature, of words. And just as Christ was to his father, I am a generation further on, and – if you’ll forgive me, Dad – in evolutionary terms, an advanced version. What my father always wanted to do was to write a book. And in that room where he used to take me and commune with me through the language of others, him giving and I receiving, was a desk which contained the beginnings of several aborted novels, all neatly, sadly filed and titled.
When I was about twelve, my father asked me, weirdly, what I had done to assist humanity. I had no idea what he was talking about, but turned the question around and asked what he had done. He said he had written a couple of short stories that had been published in magazines, and I shared in his pride as he showed them to me. But I noticed that the magazines were of an earlier decade, and it was clear that these two short stories were tiny seeds planted in a garden that did not grow.
In 1985, I went to live in Berlin, where I got it into my head to write a novel, and for the next three years I locked away myself in a room in Croitesburg and wrote it. I called it And the Ass Saw the Angel. It was about a mad, hermetic mute boy called Euchrid Eucrow, who, having been denied the faculty of speech, eventually explodes in a catharsis of rage and brings to its knees the religious community in which he lives.
The story, set in the American South and told through the voice (or non-voice) of Euchrid Eucrow, was written in a kind of hyper-poetic thought-speak not meant to be spoken, a mongrel language that was part Biblical, part Deep South dialect, part gutter slang, at times obscenely reverent and at others reverently obscene. Throughout the story, God fills the mute boy with information, loads him up with bad ideas, “hate inspiration straight from God,” as he puts it. But with no one to talk to, and now way to talk, Euchrid, like a blocked pipe, bursts. For me, Euchrid is Jesus struck dumb, he is the blocked artist, he is internalized imagination become madness.
God is not found in Christ, but through him. In the Gospel of Thomas, Christ states that the Kingdom is inside of you and it is outside of you. This statement must have terrified early Christian ministry, as it rendered them obsolete: why do we need the Church to bring us close to God when he already lives within us? And hence, the Nicene Council’s decision not to allow it into the New Testament canon. Apart from the sheer subversiveness of this statement, what is really so remarkable about it is the emphasis it places upon our individual selves. Rather than praising a personal and supernatural God as an all-mighty, all-knowing, all-seeing force existing somewhere in the great beyond, the emphasis is placed clearly on man, that without him as a channel, God has nowhere to go. “Wherever two or more are gathered together, I am in your midst,” Jesus said.
Just as we are divine creations, so must we in turn create. Divinity must be given its freedom to flow through us, through language, through communication, through imagination. I believe this is our spiritual duty, made clear to us through the example of Christ. Through us, God finds his voice, for just as we need God, he in turn needs us. God found life through my father as he raved and flailed about his study reciting his favorite literature, but died in a desk drawer that contained those pages, the first painful contractions of his stillborn dreams.
My father asked me what I had done to assist humanity, and at twelve years old, I could not answer. I now know.
Like Christ, I too come in the name of my father, to keep God alive.
Written by Nick Cave, originally for a radio broadcast by BBC Radio 3 Religious Services in 1996. Nick Cave is an Australian musician, songwriter, author, screenwriter, composer and film actor. He is best known as the frontman of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, a group known for its diverse output and ever-evolving line-up. Prior to this, he fronted the Birthday Party, one of the most extreme and confrontational post-punk bands of the early 1980s. As he notes in this essay, a key influence on him was William Blake.