On 21 February 1965, Gordon Matthew Sumner was confirmed at Our Lady and St Columba in Wallsend, the parish in which he received his baptism and first communion. Of the more than 130 boys confirmed that day, he was the only to take the name “Thomas” – which he says followed his paternal grandfather, and also because he “always thought the disciple’s initial scepticism was reasonable in the circumstances”. Over 40 years later, while reflecting on the lyrics of his first recorded song, “O My God”, Sting wrote: “I’ve chosen to live my life without the ‘certainties’ of faith, but I do maintain a great reverence for the mystery and wonder of our existence, and my agnosticism is a tolerant cousin to my curiosity.”
The story of Sting’s religious journey is instructive about contemporary Catholicism, and illuminates how a Catholic sensibility sustains artistic creation. In Sting & Religion: The Catholic-Shaped Imagination of a Rock Icon, American scholar Evyatar Marienberg offers a rich reflection on how Catholicism both formed and continues to anchor the star’s storytelling. Marienberg, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writes for an audience potentially unfamiliar with Catholic faith and practice – and the method makes for a convincing argument. Marienberg is meticulous, and makes no assumptions, resulting in a robust portrait of Sting’s Catholic identity.
While Sting’s American contemporary Bruce Springsteen is often discussed as a Catholic artist, Sting’s religious identity is often noted in vaguely spiritual terms – although his Catholic pedigree is significant. Born in 1951, Sting attended the parish school, a place where he said he “began my lifelong fascination with religion and conversely my lifelong problem with it”. Like other school children, he would begin his days with recitations from the catechism, and he still quotes select lines during interviews.
Even more lasting was his childhood devotion to Mary. Sting tells Marienberg that the rosary “became my sort of mantra”, a recitation that accompanied him “when I was walking to school or I was troubled”. The rosary “would comfort me”, he says, for in the devotion to Mary there was “a kindness, there was gentleness”.
Marienberg demonstrates that Sting’s view of his Catholic education is one steeped in both nostalgia and dark humour. Armed with their catechisms, he and his classmates were “like proto-Maoists about to convert the world”. For all of Sting’s joking, it is curious that a songwriter – one for whom narrative structure is suffused with repetition, rhyme and patterns – would be formed by a religious language that was both rote and revelatory.
Echoing Springsteen’s own language about religion, Sting once quipped that he was “actually rather grateful for a Catholic upbringing. I think it’s a great source of symbolism and imagery, of guilt, blood, death, eternal damnation – all of which are great for writing.” Similar to Toni Morrison’s literary focus on the pained physicality of Christ’s body on the cross, Sting has spoken of the “macabre” feeling of doing work in a Catholic school classroom, “under this picture of a tortured man on a cross with blood pouring out of him”.
Perhaps even more importantly for him as an artist, Sting was formed by the paradoxes of Latin Mass. An altar boy at St Columba, he thought his role at first “relieved some of the boredom of the liturgy”, but he also admitted that “the theatricality and the solemn pomp of the ritual must have appealed to the performer in me”. He tells Marienberg: “Performing is a ritualised celebration, an offering to God perhaps. It’s a Mass! Sharing things, singing together, praising God, if you like.”
Christ, blood and body, as the central and visceral focus of Mass, lifted by the ancient Latin cadences: a rich mixture of sensory and sacrament. The synthesis has nurtured the imagination of literary artists, but Sting’s particular imagination is choral by nature. The “Gregorian chant, the Kyrie, the Credo. I can sing it now,” he said, years later. “There are cadences in my music which are clearly from this connection, this familiarity with church music, and a love for it,” Sting affirms, “A real love for it.”
After graduating from the Northern Counties Teacher Training College in Newcastle, he taught for two years at the nearby St Paul’s First School in Cramlington. He married Frances Tomelty, whom Marienberg notes that Sting “met two years earlier in a musical production, Rock Nativity, where she played the Virgin Mary”. They were married in the Catholic faith at Our Lady and St
“The fact remains until we find you, our lives are incomplete,” Sting would later write of God in his song “I Can’t Stop Thinking about You”. The theme of a pained seeker whose melancholy journey of belief and doubt is sometimes lifted by joy and wonder appears often within his lyrics. Marienberg reminds us that from Sting’s very first song, “O My God”. in 1975, the artist has returned to God as origin, contrast and source of equal parts tension and hope. “Everyone I know is lonely, and God’s so far away; and my heart belongs to no one, so now sometimes I pray,” he sings. Later in the song, though, he writes: “The world don’t seem no better since your precious son was born.”
Those passionate lines are not surprising, considering they were written by an artist in his twenties who would naturally rebel against his formative religion. More often, the narrators in his songs are connected to faith, but uncertain about dogmas and institutional methods. In “The Book of My Life”, “There’s a chapter on God, / that I don’t understand. / There’s a promise of Heaven and Hell, / but I’m damned if I see”. His wordplay arises from sound theology – in rejecting mystery, he risks forbidden knowledge.
Marienberg demonstrates that Sting’s religious journey has not been simply that of a believer becoming an agnostic. In the late 1980s, Sting was taking a generally spiritual stance, as evidenced by his ideas of nature and creation in interviews: “If God’s not in the river then we can pollute the river. If God’s not in the sea then we pollute the sea. It’s almost as if we’re trying to find God by destroying the world, and I think that’s crazy, and wrong,” he said in 1991. In 2003, he affirmed his belief in God, but rejected any attempts to describe the divine “in any coherent way. It’s an unembraceable concept”.
For many cradle Catholics, the idea of one raised in the church, who attended and taught in Catholic schools, and who was married in the church making a journey toward a spiritual sense largely devoid of doctrine is not surprising. Religious belief is rarely consistent and never constant. It is important to describe the shape of what Sting is not. “I enjoy the mystery,” he said a decade ago. “I would never say I am an atheist. Let’s say I am agnostic, and agnostic means ‘I don’t know’. And I embrace that ‘not knowing’.”
Atheism is incompatible with Catholic culture, for atheism is dogma at its most staid and absolute: affirmation through negation. When Graham Greene called himself a “Catholic agnostic” later in life, he had recognised that Catholicism is as much a worldview and anchor as it is a religious doctrine. Besides being a clever turn of phrase in the Greene tradition, the statement registers his awareness that the ambiguity of agnosticism offers a route toward paradox. “Human beings are more important to believers than they are to atheists,” Greene once said. “If one tells oneself that man is no more than a superior animal, that each individual has before him a maximum of 80 years of life, then man is indeed of little importance.”
If we understand Sting through this lens – as a cradle Catholic who has evolved into a Catholic agnostic – then his faith journey seems inevitable. In 2017, the Vatican commissioned Sting to compose a piece of music for Giudizio Universale, an extravagant performance that dramatises Michelangelo’s creation of the Sistine Chapel. Sting reimagined the Latin hymn “Dies Irae” as ending with the line “God is Mercy” – a revision that he attributes to his appreciation for Pope Francis. Sting, who met the pontiff in 2018, called him a “true rock star” with “genuine charisma”. Sting notes that his wife Trudie Styler is especially devoted to Francis.
“I was immersed and well-schooled in the music of the church as a child,” Sting tells Marienberg, “and this [Vatican project] was an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the sacred music that had such a powerful influence on my life and work as a musician.”
Much like Springsteen, Sting’s Catholic identity is inextricable from his criticisms of the church. Both cradle Catholics, they are comfortable voicing the church’s failings while also acknowledging that baptismally and culturally, they are unable to fully leave the faith. Sting has said that “the music and the liturgy fed this artistic soul. I’ve benefited from it, but I’ve also suffered from it.” Such tension is a furnace for artistic genius.
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