O Sting, Where is Thy Death?
Sting needs to get his act together before the final curtain falls.
In a somewhat bizarre recent interview with the National Catholic Register, the aging rock star, Sting, who eons ago had been lead singer of the rock band The Police, waxed in a bemused and confused way about his relationship with the Catholic faith, in which he was raised but which he has abandoned. He gave the interview in Rome on July 28, explaining to his Catholic interlocutor that he continued to admire the music of the Latin liturgy, confessing that “there’s something in the cadences and in the rhythm of the music in Latin that is very special,” and that the Church’s “music and the liturgy fed this artistic soul”: “I was an altar boy and I learned the Latin Mass but I loved plainsong, I loved Gregorian chant, the Sung Mass. I still think I carry some of those cadences in my composition when I compose. So I’m grateful for that.”
Putting this love of his Catholic roots into practice, Sting recently composed a Dies Irae, the ancient hymn describing the Last Judgment which is sung customarily at the traditional Requiem Mass. His composition was commissioned for Giudizio Universale — Michelangelo and the Secrets of the Sistine Chapel, a one-hour, multimedia spectacle that Sting describes as a “wonderful educational tool”. The show was produced in consultation with the Vatican Museums and is currently showing at the Auditorium Conciliazione in Rome.
Born in 1951, Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, to give him his pre-celebrity name, is only a few weeks away from his sixty-seventh birthday, and therefore only a few short years from the proverbial three-score-years-and-ten allotted to the life of a man. One would have thought, or at least hoped, that working on the Dies Irae at his time of life might have served Sting as a timely memento mori, a reminder of death and the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Not so. He boasts that his version of the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) has altered the text and the meaning of the ancient hymn, removing any trace of judgment from the Last Judgment:
[The Dies Irae] is normally done in a very minor key, a very doom-laden key, and I lifted it to a major key so it would be hopeful. I excised a lot of the very dark verses about Muslims being burnt in hell, and I thought it should be much more ecumenical. And then I love what Pope Francis said about God: he said “God is mercy,” and I thought that was a profound and simple statement that people had kind of forgotten over the years. So with the Last Judgment, if God is mercy, then there’s no judgment at all, just forgiveness. I don’t know if that’s heresy or not, but it works for me. So at the end of it, I put Deus Misericordiae [God’s mercy]. It’s not in the original text, I just added it and took liberties. I was surprised that the authorities seemed to like it and let it go.
From Sting’s perspective, which is one of unabashed pride, to ascribe to him the correct theological term for the sin he is committing, he and we can do no wrong because we are all gods, creating reality, including religion, in our own image. This is made apparent in his own words:
I think for me religion is an act of imagination. I think it’s one of our greatest creations. We actually create God in our likeness, it’s not the other way around. The Catechism says God created us in His likeness, I say we create God in our likeness. So if you’re kind and generous and forgiving, that’s the God you’ll create. If you’re the opposite, it’s the God you create, too. So I think we have a huge responsibility to create a God that is compassionate because it’s very troublesome when we don’t. History and the present day would tell us that’s true.
And yet there’s hope, even for this prideful soul. “You just have to look at the sky at night to feel a sense of wonder,” he says, indicating that he has the modicum of humility necessary to feel the sense of gratitude that opens the eyes to the gift of wonder. And his favourite music is sacred music. “I listen to a lot of Bach,” he says, “I love his Mass.” He also admires the music of the contemporary Russian Orthodox composer, Arvo Pärt? “I love the minimalism, there’s a mystery to it that I work to which is fascinating.”
And in spite of his claim that we create God in our image, he does not rule out a return to the practice of the Faith. “I’m not going to say no [to the possibility],” he states, adding with a laugh that he was making Pascal’s wager. “I’d probably seek out the sacraments at the end of my life,” he says, indicating that he continues to be Christ-haunted, even if he refuses the promptings of the Holy Ghost. “I’m grateful for my Catholicism but also – I don’t know, I’m not ready yet, like St. Augustine [laughs].”
What are we to make of this elderly man’s conflicting and self-contradictory musings? On the one hand, he believes that death has no sting because God’s mercy means that there will be no judgment of souls. God does not judge and therefore everyone will go to heaven. Hitler will be there presumably, which will make for interesting conversation at the celestial banquet. He will not have to admit that he was wrong of course because, after all, who are we to judge?
And then, having declared that everyone will be saved, he declares that presumably nobody will be saved because God doesn’t exist. He is only a figment of our imagination. We create him in our own divine image. Note the complete lack of logic. It’s not that either we are all saved or that nobody is saved, which is a question worth considering, but that we are all saved and none of us is saved, which is a logical fallacy, and therefore complete nonsense. In falling to such a ludicrous level of illogicality, Sting is guilty of what George Orwell called “doublethink”, the farcical and tragic ability to hold mutually incompatible beliefs simultaneously.
And what of Pascal’s wager, which Sting throws into the conversation with casual jocularity? It is, in fact, no laughing matter at all but, on the contrary, is a matter of life and death, and not merely mortal life and death but eternal life and death. If God exists and we live our lives in defiance of Him, doing what we want and not what He commands, we risk being condemned to Hell. We risk, in fact, the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath. If we choose this option, which Pascal insists is the wrong and ridiculous choice, we can make ourselves feel better by saying that God doesn’t care about what we do (He is merciful and even Hitler has nothing to worry about) or we can try to convince ourselves that He doesn’t exist and that He is a human invention, in which case we’d better hope that we’re right!
And finally, what of Sting’s comparing of himself with Augustine? His reference is of course to Augustine’s famous quip, in the days before his conversion, that God should make him holy but not yet. "Give me chastity and continency,” he writes in Book VIII of the Confessions, “only not yet." The fact is that Augustine had his wild youth. He sowed his wild oats. He did his own thing. He lived the life of a fourth century rock star. And then, having got such wretchedness out of his system, by the grace of God, he converted to Christianity at the ripe old age of thirty-one, less than half the age of the procrastinating Sting. Regardless of what license should be given to the follies, fallacies and fantasies of youth, at some point we are meant to grow up. And growing up is meant to be connected to growing in wisdom; and growing in wisdom is synonymous with sanity; and sanity is synonymous with sanctity. Augustine understood this at the age of thirty-one and spent the remainder of his life trying to be a better grown-up, succeeding to such a degree that he eventually became a saint.
As for Sting, he really needs to get his act together before the final curtain falls. He needs to face the reality of death, choosing the death which dies for others by taking up the Cross of Christ, or choosing that other darker death which refuses the Cross in order to make gods in its own image. It’s a choice between the death that leads to resurrection or the death that leads to the Dies Irae. O Sting, where is thy death?
This article was first published in the Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission.