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by Giles Fraser
Friday, 18
October 2019

Is Nick Cave right about Christianity and Woke Culture?

In a recent letter, Nick Cave criticised not just religion, but also atheism, and also woke culture in general...
by Giles Fraser
Nick Cave performs on stage, June 3 2018

Before cult singer/songwriter Nick Cave became a Bad Seed he was a cathedral choirboy in his native Australia. Like a number of people who have that background, organised religion does not sit comfortably with him. So it was unsurprising that he had a pop at religion in a recent letter.

Living in a state of enquiry, neutrality and uncertainty, beyond dogma and grand conviction, is good for the business of songwriting, and for my life in general. This is the reason I tend to become uncomfortable around all ideologies that brand themselves as ‘the truth’ or ‘the way’.
- Nick Cave

This is familiar enough stuff. What has raised a few eyebrows, however, is that Cave extends this criticism not only to religion, but also to atheism, and also – more broadly – to woke culture in general.

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Regardless of the virtuous intentions of many woke issues, it is its lack of humility and the paternalistic and doctrinal sureness of its claims that repel me.
- Nick Cave

I have no quarrel with this. Indeed – and this is just a hunch – I wonder if there is also a surprising degree of connection between woke culture and a certain sort of protestant Christianity that could even be seen as its intellectual forbear. The combination of absolute moral certainty and evangelistic self-righteousness is often a peculiarly religious sort of pathology. And once God is replaced by the self as the centre of one’s moral life, woke culture may well be a consequence.

As a cure, I would recommend reading St Augustine, the least woke of any of the church’s great theologians. The great thing about Augustine is that he doesn’t think we are saved by being right or even by being good. That is what the whole idea of original sin is really all about – that human beings are broken creatures and quite unable to achieve the kind of moral perfectionism that some believe it is the job of Christianity to lead us to.

There is a terrific interview in the Church Times this week with the theologian James Smith who has just written a new book on Augustine. Seeking to correct the impression of Augustine as an “angry dogmatist”, Smith rightly proposes that the great North African bishop can speak very directly into the woke morality of the present age.

On the one hand, we have this overwhelming narrative of progressive enlightenment; so we keep congratulating ourselves that we are so much smarter than everyone who has come before us,” he says. “On the other hand, there is also something about social-media call-out culture right now that doesn’t give us much room to repent: you have to think the right thing, and you have to have always thought the right thing. It’s quite a notable stance of hubris, I think, and pride.
- James Smith

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