New book examines Sting’s enduring Catholic imagination

(RNS) – In 2000, sociologist Andrew Greeley wrote a book called “The Catholic Imagination”, in which he examined the enduring power of Catholic stories, images and sensibilities in shaping the experiences of artists through the ages – from 16th century Italian sculptor Bernini to director Martin Scorsese.

Now there is a new addition to this corpus: British rock star Sting.

Evyatar Marienberg, historian of religion at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, wrote a book about Sting’s Catholic imagination and how it fueled his creativity.

Before bursting onto the international rock scene as a songwriter and lead police singer, Sting (born Gordon Sumner in 1951) grew up in the northeastern town of Wallsend in Catholic schools. He was confirmed at 14 and married his first wife in the Catholic Church at 25.

Although Sting considers himself an agnostic, he still believes in an ultimate reality beyond the physical world. And he’s a fan of Pope Francis.

Although Sting no longer identifies as a Catholic, much of his career as a solo singer / songwriter is steeped in Catholic images, symbols, stories and hymns that he absorbed growing up in his Catholic parish. of the working class. Marienberg’s book, “Sting and Religion: The Catholic-Shaped Imagination of a Rock Icon,” takes a close look at the artist’s religious journey and its themes of loneliness, love and distance from God. Marienberg traveled to Wallsend, interviewed Sting’s peers and many priests, and eventually met Sting himself, once in New York and once in Germany.

Along the way, Marienberg explains how Catholicism changed in the 1950s and 1960s, during the years that Sting was growing up. As a teenager, the Second Vatican Council opened the door of the Church to the world and instituted a series of reforms. The church has also seen a sharp drop in attendance.

Marienberg, who grew up in Israel in an Orthodox Jewish home, began listening to Sting with his 1987 solo album, “Nothing Like the Sun”. It was still a vinyl record and its back cover had a photo of Sting standing next to a statue of the Virgin Mary. Marienberg chose the photo for the cover of his book.

Although Sting considers himself an agnostic, he still believes in an ultimate reality beyond the physical world. And he’s a fan of Pope Francis. In 2018, Sting was invited to compose a musical piece for an audiovisual performance on the Sistine Chapel. He chose a Latin hymn, “Dies Irae” or “Day of Wrath,” for the choral piece.

He believes there is something there. He refuses to accept a dogmatic definition of what it is.

“I have chosen to live my life without the ‘certainties’ of faith, but I still have great respect for the mystery and wonder of our existence, and my agnosticism is a tolerant cousin of my curiosity,” wrote Sting. in 1983.

Like Sting, Marienberg left his religious education. He now teaches courses in contemporary Catholicism and the social history of Jews and Christians in medieval Europe. His students, he says, have never heard of Sting.

Religion News Service spoke to Marienberg about his interest in Sting and how a religion like Catholicism can leave such a long mark on people’s lives. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get interested in Sting?

I read a review of his album and bought it and liked it. It was in the mid 80’s. I was impressed and curious about the lyrics. I have always been interested in religion. I grew up Orthodox and religion was very central. In “Nothing Like the Sun” there is a photo of him standing near a statue of the Virgin Mary and a song about Noah and the Flood (” Solid as a rock “). I have been to several concerts of him. Then one day I said, when I retire, I will write an article on Sting and religion. Someone said to me,” Write it now Don’t wait until you retire.

Millions of people are brought up in an all-encompassing religious context. These images, these philosophical concepts, these stories are there. They shape us even when we try to avoid them.

Describe when Sting grew up and how Catholicism changed.

There is a difference between the 50s and the 60s. I spoke to his peers and they told me on Sunday that there was nothing to do. So you went to church. In the 60s, cinemas opened and people bought cars and took trips. There were other ways to pass the time. With Vatican II, the church opened a Pandora’s box. The church has become more open, and when you become more open, you lose people. There was more integration. People have become less isolated. They may have had non-Catholic friends. When the horizons opened, you could see beyond.

Sting left the church, but he never developed any hostility towards her. He did not become an atheist. Describe his attitude towards the church.

Yes, he didn’t slam the door. It was gradual. He says in several places that corporal punishment drove him out. I spoke with several of his friends and they told me he was hit a lot, not because he was a bad student. He was actually a very good student. But he came in the wrong costume, or he arrived late. The corporal punishment inflicted on the boys was quite severe. It created a real loathing for the church in him. He attended a little less, but in his early twenties, during his first marriage, he is still in church. He was still connected in some ways. He still said the Rosary from time to time. Later he thought about his beliefs. But the idea of ​​the transcendent never left him. He believes there is something there. He refuses to accept a dogmatic definition of what it is. But there is something there. And it never left him. He believes in another reality.

You interviewed Sting. How did you find him?

At first, I didn’t think I would contact him. But when I started to write about the micro-history of his parish and his school, I wanted to know what had happened at his place. Did they say blessings before meals? For this, I must join him or his brothers and sisters. Through a series of contacts with a colleague of mine who knew a theology professor in New York who had gone to school with Sting, I was able to contact him. We have met twice. We were supposed to meet a third time but we didn’t because of COVID. I will meet him in November when he performs in Greensboro, NC. I am in contact by email with him. He is very responsive.

Why is it important to delve into Sting’s Catholicism?

Millions of people are brought up in an all-encompassing religious context. These images, these philosophical concepts, these stories are there. They shape us even when we try to avoid them. Many people would hesitate to say that they are culturally Catholic or culturally Muslim. But these things shape you for decades. A priest told me that when he went to retirement homes and wanted to find Catholics, he would start quoting catechism and he would see people in their faces if they knew what he was talking about. Some people who cannot speak at all will respond. It shows how deep these things are in our brains and why it is difficult to avoid them. For some artists, this is reflected in their art, like at Sting’s.

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