One of my interesting and unusually wide-ranging colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC is Evyatar Marienberg, trained in orthodox circles in Haifa, PhD from Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, in Paris, expert in Rabbinic Judaism, author of a textbook on Roman Catholicism, and, most recently, a study of Sting and Religion. That’s right, the English rock singer and song writer: Sting and Religion: The Catholic-Shaped Imagination of a Rock Icon, Cascade Books / Wipf & Stock, Oregon 2021.
I’ve asked Evyatar to write some posts for us. Here’s the first of two on Sting and the New Testament.
Professor Bart Ehrman, a colleague, a friend, and the person who was running the search committee that hired me for a position at his (and since 2009, also my) department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was asking me for some time now if I would like to write for this blog. Well, I, unfortunately, recently, said yes. Following his suggestions of topics, I might then occasionally appear here with blogs about the type of things that interest me, and, hopefully, might interest some of the readers of this hallowed blog. Some topics will be related to Jesus, the New Testament, or ancient Judaism, and some, well, less. But all will be related to trying the understand religious issues in two of the religions that consider the Bible to be a fundamental source for their faith: Judaism and Christianity. Bart thought I should start with Sex (and Judaism). I decide to start instead with Sting (and Christianity).
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Many artists use religious references, whether sayings, images, sounds, stories, or cultural motifs, in their work. In many cases, encounters with religious cultures are easily discernible in their biographies. Sting, or Gordon Matthew Sumner according to his baptism certificate, is arguably one of the most successful and respected rock writers-composers-performers active today. Rumors that Universal Music has just paid $300 million for the rights for his work might hint that I am not the only person who thinks that.
He was born in 1951 and grew up in Wallsend, a small town near Newcastle upon Tyne, in North East England. In generational terms, he is a “baby-boomer”: one of those born during the great increase in the birthrate that followed the end of the Second World War. He studied in Catholic schools, had his first communion and confession when he was seven, and received the sacrament of confirmation at the age of fourteen. His first marriage, at the age of twenty-five, was also celebrated in a Catholic church.
Sting no longer considers himself a Catholic. Is he a “lapsed Catholic”? An “ex-Catholic”? A “cultural Catholic”? It is hard to say, and I preferred when speaking to him to refrain from asking whether he believes any of these (or other) terms is appropriate for him. Yet, as should be apparent to any person who pays attention to his lyrics, the importance of religion in general—and of the Bible and Catholicism in particular—is evident in his songs. We all know that: You can (relatively) easily take someone out of their cultural background, but it is much harder to take that culture out of them. In this piece I chose to analyze only two of the many songs of his that deal with the New Testament and/or Christianity, but not random ones. I chose these two mostly because of their date. The first one is from the very first album Sting participated in, released in 1975 with a group called Last Exit (The Police’s fans: that group you like? It did not exist yet). The second one is from his most recent album, The Bridge, released at the end of 2021.
In “Carrion Prince” of the early 1970s (referred to in some places as “Carrion Prince [O Ye of Little Faith]” or “… of Little Hope”), the song addresses one of the most (in)famous figures of the New Testament, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (about whom Bart Ehrman wrote a blog very recently), who sentenced Jesus to death. Shortly after Jesus allegedly declares that the spirit of his disciples is willing but that their flesh is weak, he is brought to Pilate. Pilate asks him if he is “the king of the Jews,” and Jesus gives his famous and somewhat cryptic answer: “It is you who say it” (Matthew 27:11. See also Mark 15:2 and Luke 23:3). We are told that the crowd wanted Jesus crucified, but Pilate was not able to find a crime justifying such a verdict. Jesus kept silent. Finally, “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere” in his discussion with those Jews who wanted Jesus’s execution, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” (Matthew 27:24), a verse that is stained with the blood of countless Jews killed in the following centuries by Christians.
Like Jesus, Pilate was unquestionably a historical figure. What each of them actually did, or did not do, say, or did not say, we do not know with any certainty. In the Christian tradition, Pilate became a complex figure. Some saw him as responsible for the death of the Son of God; some saw him as a weak person forced by others to do evil. Others yet considered him a hypocrite: a powerful person who sent someone to his death even though he could have avoided it, yet pretending that this was done against his will. There were also those who saw him as a sinner who repented and became (together with his wife, often named “Claudia” or “Procula”) a good Christian: this is the case in some noncanonical Christian writings; this tradition is particularly known in some Orthodox churches.
In reality, it is likely that the story of Pilate’s handwashing is a rather clumsy attempt—invented several decades later and included in the Gospel according to Matthew—to partially absolve the Roman authorities (whom, by that time, early Christians needed on their side) from the guilt of the act, and to blame it on Jews (who, by that time, were probably mostly opposing the new group). Sting addresses Pilate directly in “Carrion Prince,” possibly in the person of Jesus himself:
Oh Pilate, you speak to me so clear;
Your voice of hell has filled my soul with fear;
O ye of little blood, your cloak lies in the mud;
Your hands are always washing them.
If these words are indeed supposed to be Jesus’s, Sting provides a different understanding of the events compared to the traditional one. Hence, if Jesus’s silence is traditionally seen as a sign of his superiority, self-assurance, and acceptance of his fate, Sting sees this behavior as a product of terror. The title of the song possibly refers to Pilate as a “prince” in charge of a dead body (of Jesus), and is perhaps inspired by the poem “King of Carrion” published by Ted Hughes in his book Crow a few years earlier. If this is indeed the case, the entire song (and not just a handful of its lyrics) might be in reference to the story of Jesus’s crucifixion. The parts that are not addressed to Pilate might be an imaginary view of Pilate’s thoughts.
Why Sting chose to devote a song to Pontius Pilate in general, and in that stage of his own life in particular, is hard to tell, but the choice of subject is clearly related to his experience with and knowledge of the New Testament. As a child, he would have heard this story from the Gospel according to Matthew as part of a very long reading during Mass on Palm Sunday, a week before the major holiday of Easter. He may also have read about it in some religious books. In 1957, John Heenan, the then Archbishop of Liverpool, published a booklet for British children called My Lord and My God: A Book for First Communion Year. The words in its title, “My Lord and My God,” are attributed to Thomas in the New Testament (John 20:28) and were murmured at the time by Catholics during Mass when a bell signaled the consecration of the bread and wine. Gordon was six years old when the book was published, and was to have his first communion two years later, in 1959. He was thus among those for whom the book was intended. Heenan describes the scene in a way that would probably be justly rejected today for containing anti-Jewish/anti-Semitic elements:
The next day, [after a trial in a Jewish court,] Jesus was taken before Pontius Pilate the Roman Ruler. Pontius Pilate had heard a great deal about Jesus and he was glad to see Him. As soon as he talked to Jesus he knew that He could not be a wicked man as the Jews said. The Jews could not kill Our Lord themselves and that is why they had brought Him to the Roman ruler. Pontius Pilate had the power to put people to death. Pontius Pilate did not want to put Jesus to death but he did not know how to save Him. Suddenly he thought of a plan. In prison there was a man named Barabbas, a thief and a murderer. Pilate thought that nobody would want to set Barabbas free for he might kill other people. So Pilate said to them: “Here are two prisoners, Jesus and Barabbas. I wish to set one free. Which one shall it be?” He thought that they would all say “Jesus.” But they all cried out: “Barabbas! Barabbas!” Pilate was very shocked. “What,” he asked them, “shall I do with Jesus Who is called the Christ?” “Crucify Him!,” they shouted, “Crucify Him!” Pontius Pilate was grieved. He asked for a bowl of water and washed his hands saying: “I am innocent of the blood of this just Man.” And all the people called out: “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” To please the Jews, Pilate had Jesus scourged… Then Jesus was led away to Mount Calvary to be crucified. (Heenan, My Lord and My God, pp. 109-110)
Sting believes that, already as a young person, he did not subscribe to some elements in the story. As he told me in 2017, “I always thought [Pilate] was a fascinating character. I didn’t believe the Jews killed [Jesus]. It was the Romans who killed him. It’s obvious to me this was a political strategy… to sanitize Rome.”
Although it is not possible today to know exactly when Gordon/Sting noticed the flaws in this New Testament story, it is possible to imagine that an intelligent young man growing up in an area where Roman presence and history were an object of local pride, above, literally, Hadrian’s Wall, would ponder whether a Roman prefect was forced by the conquered locals to execute a person he believed to be innocent.
© Evyatar Marienberg, 2022. Copyrights of Sting’s lyrics are his (and possibly, by now, of Universal Music). Some parts of this piece are taken from a relatively recent book I published on the topic, Sting and Religion: The Catholic-Shaped Imagination of a Rock Icon.