By Rev Sally Douglas
He lurched across the stage. He strutted and spat. He spoke about Christ, death, love, loneliness, and suffering. He laughed and shared lament. He talked about the hand of God, and he whispered about hope. He even dared to suggest that “peace will come” and repeatedly referred to the “kingdom in the sky”.
The setting wasn’t an evangelical rally or Christian rock concert. I was at the Australian one-time punk rock singer Nick Cave’s gig, with musicians including Warren Ellis on violin, and Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood playing bass.
The setting for this outdoor gig was Hanging Rock, made famous by the book and film of the same name, Picnic at Hanging Rock. This is sacred ground for Dja Dja Warrung people. During the support act there was a deluge of rain. The whole crowd was saturated. Including me. Then, in the intermission the rain stopped and a stunning red sunset unfolded before us.
Very wet and very cold, still regaining strength after a second bout of COVID, it proved to be an astounding concert. In reviews, and on social media, people have continued to refer to these recent gigs as “religious experiences”. It was.
I imagine some in the crowd didn’t know who or what Nick was referring to when he spoke about Christ and the kingdom. I suspect for those who did, many assumed that Nick was taking the micky out of Christianity. It is a fashionable habit.
However, from all that I have read and heard in recent years of Nick Cave, from his tender letters written in reply to people from all around the world in the wake of the tragic death of his son (followed in 2022, by the heart-rending death of another son), his striking album of Psalms composed in lockdown, and in his reflections in interview, it is clear that Nick Cave is not taking easy shots at Christianity.
Instead, like the most authentic practices of faith, it seems to me that Cave is seeking to be honest and brave about being alive — the hope, the longing, the despair, the wrestling with sacred text, the mysterious presence of divine other, and the possibility that there is more to life and death than what we can easily see or categorise.
I adore live music. During COVID lockdowns it felt at times like this collective experience might be lost forever. Now live gigs have a seam of preciousness running through them. Yet weeks and weeks later, I am still moved and unsettled by seeing Nick Cave.
I am not unsettled by the religious nature of this gig. I am unsettled by how vastly different worship in the church often is. I am disturbed by how often Sunday worship in many churches is not a religious experience. I say this as a minister who loves our beautiful, broken church.
To write about religious experience is to risk being misunderstood. I am not referring to worship that is reliant upon the manipulation of emotions. I am not talking about worship that insists upon people being constantly #happy or feeling #blessed. Nor am I talking about worship-as-performance. This is important to underscore. The thought of worship leaders strutting around in front of congregations like rock stars is diabolical.
When I talk about religious experience, I am speaking about carving out space for worship that has dignity, is searingly honest, and that is open to encounter with the divine in the real time of gathering together.
For Christians, this means being open to the One who dwells with us in the brown-skinned person of Jesus and who reaches out to us in Great Spirit. This means being open to the one who enters our very hells, and who is not defeated by our violence.
In worship, this means being open to the divine who is attending, burning, brooding, and ready to turn over the tables within and among us. Is there enough silence and solemnity in worship to even begin to be open to what is going on within us and to be open to this One?
Across mainstream churches we have had a tendency to shy away from the seriousness of what we are doing in recent decades. We have often reduced worship to trying to be “entertaining”, or “relevant”.
In many places, worship leaders and parishioners appear to simply be going through the motions of prayer, filling worship with benign petitions, amusing stories, boring music, or earnest challenges.
Indeed, the question of religious experience is commonly left to one side, a suspect remnant of the past. Perhaps people thought this approach would draw people to church. Clearly this has not happened.
The commitment to social justice and service across many mainstream churches, including our own, is to be celebrated. However, I continue to wonder whether those in our churches have a sense, like Cave, that there is a divine “other” who is present and moving, and that peace will come.
For those of us who claim faith and who hunger and strive for justice, surely this question matters. Where does our help come from, amidst the seemingly intractable struggles against systems of greed and corruption?
In churches who work tirelessly for the common good there is another critically important question. Is there space in worship for lament? Is it permissible to express the questions on our hearts, like “where are you God?”, “how do I go on after the death of my beloved child, or dreams?”, “how do we respond to the problem of evil?” and “what does salvation even mean?”.
Do we dare to voice these questions, as the Psalm writers and Cave do, and do we trust that she — the Holy One — is attending and longing to respond?
I know this kind of serious worship happens in some Uniting Churches. This is what I, and others, seek to offer week by week. However, this kind of gravitas is only possible when worship leaders, lay and ordained, take worship leadership seriously.
That is, when leaders actually pray while they are leading prayers, and when they are brave enough to allow their own excruciatingly vulnerable questions to emerge first in their prayerful worship preparation and wrestling with the biblical text.
This is a risky enterprise. As Anne Dillard, the American writer, once observed: “On the whole I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should be wearing crash helmets”.
Worship is serious because the divine seeks to confront, heal, and haul us into the work of her homecoming for all things. Us included.
We humans crave holy times, big enough communal spaces, to name our deepest fears, questions, and hopes. We ache for transcendence, we crave symbols, song, rituals, sacraments, and stories that are wide enough to cradle the mysteries of life beyond the quantifiable.
In western culture there are few places like this left. At least, there are few that have not been commodified. I continue to wonder what worship would be like across mainstream churches if we stopped obsessing over our own decline and focused our energy on cultivating such spaces.
Rev Dr Sally Douglas is the Minister at Richmond Uniting Church
You can glimpse the Nick Cave gig that Sally attended on ABC iview